The Narrative Lectionary runs each year from September to Pentecost which means that the summer break can be spent preaching on other things. One option this year is to spend 6 weeks in the Book of Psalms. We don’t often preach the psalms, usually preferring to sing them instead. In my tradition, we sing many of the psalms as they were published in the Scottish Psalter in 1650. Even when I was a child, the worship service on a Sunday would always begin with the singing of a psalm. The psalms have a unique way of connecting us to the faith of those who have gone before us, whether our grandparents, the people of the Reformation, the early church, or the writers and compilers of the Hebrew Scriptures.
According to the Old Testament scholar Walter Breuggeman in “The Message of the Psalms,” each psalm falls into at least one of three categories, as follows:
1. Psalms of orientation which “articulate joy, delight, goodness, coherence and reliability of God, God’s creation, God’s governing law”. These psalms are for when we are thankful that life is good.
2. Psalms of disorientation which express the “anguished seasons” of life. They evoke “rage, resentment, self pity and hatred.”
3. Psalms of new orientation speak of the times in life when “joy breaks through the despair.” These are “songs of surprising new life.”
🎶 PSALM 1 A psalm of orientation.
I struggle with this first psalm because it gives a very definite account of how life works – those who immerse themselves in the Law will succeed in everything they do; those who do what is evil will be doomed. This is similar to the blessings and curses promised for those who obeyed and disobeyed the Law of Moses, found in Deuteronomy chapter 28. In turn, the writer of the book of Job challenged this worldview with a study on the suffering of the innocent. While I might question the over simplification and lack of nuance of this psalm, it is also true that we need first to know what we believe (orientation) before we can have that belief unpicked (disorientation) and put back together (new orientation). The problem is that many people in our pews have never matured beyond this simplistic faith, so that when life becomes tough they give up on the God they think they know. Still, I believe with the psalmist, that my faith is like the tree which is rooted by the stream. It sustains me and I am blessed.
🎶 PSALM 113 A psalm of orientation and new orientation.
This psalm begins as a psalm of praise. It puts God first and calls on all people to do the same. This is how we begin our service of worship each week. God is praised first of all: everything else can only follow after God has been given God’s rightful place. However, even as this psalm orientates us toward God, we can see that the world is not perfect. The poor and needy are contrasted with the rich and powerful princes. The work of God is to raise up those in need and even to level out the playing field a little. Similar words can be found in Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:8). In this psalm, God honours the woman (like Hannah) who has no children and makes her happy. Beware that for some in our congregations this could be a painful psalm to hear. Where are the promised children? Are there other ways in which women and men can be blessed with children to whom they haven’t given birth?
🎶 PSALM 69:1-16 A psalm of disorientation.
The beginning of this psalm is so poignant. How many in our pews and in our communities could echo these words? People who look like everything is fine, but in reality they are drowning in a sea of depression, loneliness or despair. The psalmist helps us to articulate these very real emotions. There are echoes of these opening verses in the story of Peter walking on water toward Jesus, who begins to sink and cries out to Jesus to save him (Matthew 14:28-31). Sometimes this is all we can do. By the end of this passage in Psalm 69, we can already find hope in the person of God who is good and compassionate, whose love is constant. Two resources which express similar thoughts to this psalm are a poem called “Not waving but drowning” by Stevie Smith and a song called “Faith and Doubt” by Aaron Espe.
🎶 PSALM 27 A psalm of disorientation and of new orientation.
This psalm expresses the very real danger which the psalmist is facing. It’s not a spiritual danger but a physical one. The surrounding enemies are real people with real weapons. Life on this earth can often be hazardous. The threats of illness, death, unemployment, poverty, climate change, physical violence are real for the people in our pews, and for some they are happening right now. In these days of street lamps, most of us have little concept of true darkness, or of how disorientating the dark can be. Shining in the midst of the utter darkness is God who is light. God who is our refuge in times of trouble. This is God in whom we can put our trust. “Have faith! Do not despair!” The days of disorientation, and preaching on it, are nearly over!
🎶 PSALM 40:1-10 A psalm of new orientation.
Psalm 40 is the testimony of someone who was once sinking in the mud where they could not find solid ground (see Psalm 69:2). Now they can testify that God not only heard their cry for help but caught hold of them, helped them up and placed their feet on solid rock. Their cry for help was replaced with a new song of praise because of all that God has done for them. A song which they cannot keep to themselves but which they share with all the people who gather to worship God. Have you ever felt compelled to tell the story of how God has come to your rescue? This psalm means a lot to me personally. As a young teenager it helped me to express my need for God to step into my situation and save my family from homelessness. God answered that prayer, and showed me, for the first time, that God really does communicate with us as we prayerfully read the Scriptures.
🎶 PSALM 146 A psalm of new orientation.
Like Psalm 113, this psalm begins with the praise of God. This God is not like our human leaders, thank goodness! I am so grateful that the God who rules over the universe is a good and just God. In this I place my hope for the future. The psalm reminds us that despots and regimes rise and will eventually fall. The times we are living through will pass. It also tells us that even the good leaders are not fully worth our trust. We sometimes see this when the heroes of our past are exposed for who they really were. Instead, the psalmist encourages us to put our trust in God who is on the side of the weak, the poor and the marginalised. These words in verses 7-9 are similar to the words of Isaiah (chapter 61) as read aloud by Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4). We can understand that God helps us, gives us sight, binds up our hearts, and then sends us to do the same for others. This is the challenge. What if God could use us to change someone else’s life, to re-orientate their faith and allow them to praise God who is faithful?
Rev Dr Jean Kirkwood is a parish minister in the east of Scotland.
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