The Psalms, the sacred, and the secular (or: to worship is human)

The Psalms, the sacred, and the secular (or: to worship is human)

What’s the most widely read book of the bible?

It’s probably a tie between the very first book of the Bible, Genesis, and the largest book in the Bible, the one in the middle, the Psalms.

Why the Psalms?  (Btw, we recently discussed the other book, Genesis, here.)

The Psalms are where the faithful can flee to find their fears, their failures, their frustrations robustly expressed by their religious predecessors, all in a divinely authorized way.  Here the faithful can go to find that their God has given them a voice by which to draw near to him in the midst of the fog and friction of life.

Fog and friction?  Yes.  Easily a third of the psalms can be categorized as psalms of lament.  Indeed, there are more psalms of lament than psalms of confidence, thanksgiving, adoration, etc.  In the Psalms the faithful find the words of the slandered, the rejected, the hunted, the humiliated, the heartbroken, the forsaken, those deeply defiled and defeated by the evil within them around them, those who cannot see the way forward.

“…troubles without number surround me;
my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails within me.” (40.12)

The psalms are profoundly human, articulating harsh realities experienced not only by the faithful but, in varying degrees, by everybody, including secular, irreligious persons.  Consider:

“My tears have been my food day and night.” (42.3)

“…the darkness is my closest friend.” (88.18)

“I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone…
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.” (22.6, 14)

So…over a third of the psalms are psalms of lament, expressing our fears, failures, and frustrations.

But all of these psalms–no less these so-called psalms of lament–are songs of praise.  That is, they are all words of worship.

(Indeed, they are words of corporate worship.  As 56 of the psalms explicitly state in the superscription, the psalms are “for the director of worship” or “for choirmaster.”  Though often, not inappropriately, co-opted for private/personal worship and meditation, the psalms are for the corporate worship of the people of God:  the faithful lament, adore, confess, give thanks together.  Why?  Because they live life together.)

Consider the superscript to Psalm 102:

“A prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the LORD.”

So the universal human experiences of fear, failure, fog and friction, etc., are couched in what is–increasingly in our Western world–a private, enigmatic affair–i.e., worship.  And worship, we all know, is something only religious people do.

But even to the faithful, the idea of worship can be quite foreign.  Like the word “sin”, the word “worship” is, to many professing followers of Jesus, familiar yet surprisingly (and tellingly?) inexplicable.  Even when the more historically and “theologically” learned among the faithful are able to respond to the first question of the 17th-century Westminster Shorter Catechism (“What is the chief end of man?”) with the appropriate answer (“To glorify God and enjoy him forever”), their reply will probably betray such unfamiliarity.  If one pried for more, asking, “Yes, but what does that mean–in your own words?”, the answer would be strained.

And here is where the Psalms, thick with universal human experiences, bring the meaning of worship alive, perhaps both to the saint and to the secularist.  How so?

Well, the words that the psalmists use to “do” their worshipping are remarkably common, common not only in the sense that they are frequently used but in the sense that they are shared by all.  That is, these words are words that everyone uses, from the most devoutly religious to the devoutly secular.

For example, the Hebrew verb batach means “to have confidence in, to rely upon.”  Used to express worship of God, it is found 45 times in the Psalms, usually translated as “to trust.”  But doesn’t everyone everywhere have confidence in–or rely upon–something or someone?  Such a human action is, undoubtedly, universal.

Or, as a second example take the Hebrew verb yare’, which means “to fear, be in awe of….”  Coincidentally, it also is used 45 times in the Psalms.  Again, this is a universal human behavior.  There is nothing uniquely religious about it.

Such “common”–or, to use the outdated word, “vulgar”–words suggest something quite subversive to our 21st-century Western sensibilities:  just as failure and frustration are universal human experiences, could it be that worship–at least as the Psalms express it–is a universal human activity?

But wait a minute.  Simply because someone relies on (or fears) something or someone, that doesn’t mean they worship it.  (I rely on my spouse, and I fear snakes–well, sort of.  But I’m fairly certain I don’t worship either.  Okay, sometimes I worship my spouse.)

Correct.  But here again is where the Psalms help us.  Indeed, they offer deep insight not merely into the condition of the private (or shared) spiritual experience of particular religious persons but into the condition of all humans.  They do so by comparing and contrasting the things (and people) whom we are relying on and fearing.  Take a few verses from Psalm 146 as an example:

“Do not put your trust in [batach] princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.”

But instead:

“Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them–
he remains faithful forever.”

This comparing and contrasting reveals differing intensities of trusting, fearing, etc., creating a hierarchy.

So I may rely on my spouse, and may well not be worshipping her (phew).  However, of all the things/people I rely on, if I rely on my spouse the most, that is what the Psalms call worship (hmmm).  Whatever (or whomever) I rely upon, fear, desire, listen to, seek refuge in, etc. the most (regardless of my professed ideology or lifestyle, religious or secular), that thing or person is an object of worship, plain and simple.

And it is this ongoing comparing and contrasting (often explicit, at times implicit) that make the Psalms so powerful:  the persons doing the comparing are not professors of some obscure antiquarian subject pontificating in their ivory tower; they are in the trenches, overwhelmed by the fog and friction of life, fearful, failing, etc.

And, when they compare Israel’s God to other options of worship–that is, when they must choose whom they should rely on, trust, fear, desire, take refuge in, etc. the most, they choose Israel’s God, the one whom Jesus called his Father.

In short, in the Psalms we find persons wrestling with some of the most common (probably universal)–and cruel–human experiences, using some of the most common (again, probably universal) human language to voice their worship, and, in their comparing and contrasting, conclude again and again that Israel’s God is the one they will rely upon, fear, desire, etc., the most–i.e., He is the One they will worship.

Given the universal experiences and such universal language found in the Psalms, should we be surprised that these same Psalms are so bold as to call for the exclusive (and universal) worship of Israel’s God?

Not unlike Jesus, who was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted:  when enticed by the promise of worldwide influence and “importance,” he replied:

“It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'”

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