Whenever I hear the psalms invoked it’s almost always in a pleasant context: praise or prayer, worship, joy. And a lot of the psalms are meant and used precisely in such a way. But I do think that our emphasis on those cheerful psalms, or on the warm and fuzzy aspects of them, neglects the soul-scraping depths of despair present in the others. And in missing that, we miss the fullness of them.
Take, for example, Psalm 89: a maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite. The beginning of the psalm is oft-quoted and very well known:
I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever;
with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known
through all generations.
I will declare that your love stands firm forever,
that you have established your faithfulness in heaven itself.
Ah, yes. That’s the good stuff. Pure praise. Wonderful God. What a great psalm, to so extol the Lord’s – wait, wait, wait. Mosey on down to the end of the psalm, where – after affirming God’s power and the promises that God made to David and to Israel – the psalmist concludes as follows:
But you have rejected, you have spurned,
you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust.
Remember how fleeting is my life.
For what futility you have created all humanity!
Who can live and not see death,
or who can escape the power of the grave?
Lord, where is your former great love,
which in your faithfulness you swore to David?
Kind of throws that worshipful beginning into jarring perspective. The psalm is a desperate demand for God to make good on His promises, a plea for Him to answer all the questions, to clear up the mystery of His presence and His protection, to explain the current wretchedness of Israel’s lot. God’s goodness and His grandeur is invoked, but largely as though to remind Him that He is the only one who can follow through on the promises He made.
The beginning of the psalm gives us this truth: God is present, God loves, and God has made promises to His people. That is all true. But if we ignore the rest of the psalm, we ignore the haunting companion question: If it is true that You are present, that You love, and that You made these promises, then where are You and why is everything a mess?
This has at one point or another been the cry of every Christian on the planet, whether in large matters or small. We look at the fallen world that grows more fallen every day, then up at God: okay, but when are You getting to the good part You promised? We look at a career, or a wayward child, or a broken marriage, or a sudden death or a tragedy, and then up at God: okay, but when are You getting to the good part You promised? We suffer through a personal disappointment or setback, struggle with an illness, try to see where life went off the rails: okay, but when are You getting to the good part You promised?
I have no way of judging the psalmist’s state of mind as he wrote this beyond the words he left behind. But I can’t help but note that his focus (and ours, in similar situations) is largely on God’s promises, and not God. His invocation of God’s goodness is meant to remind God of who God is…so that God will follow through on His promise. Everything in the Psalm, everything that is meant to focus on God’s nature and His being, is meant to draw God’s attention back to His promises. The result is a psalm that ostensibly claims to focus on God’s love (“your love stands firm forever”) but ceaselessly interrogates that love about what it is doing, and points repeatedly back to the absence of promises kept as the absence of love.
The reason I love the entirety of this psalm is because it really portrays the complex nature of faith. If we only read the first chunk, we’re presented with ever-loving, awesome, promise-making, faithful God. It’s a feel-good verse in the sense that it is meant to make us feel good about God. Because who wouldn’t want to worship a God like that? But if we read the entirety of it, we’re confronted with what many of us struggle with from time to time: an ever-loving, awesome, promise-making, faithful God, who doesn’t always fulfill His promises in the way or in the time we wish He’d would. And, as a result, this psalm becomes a mirror to remind us of an uncomfortable truth: we’re often way more invested in God’s promises and their outcome than we are in God Himself.
“Praise be to the Lord forever!” the psalmist writes at the end of the chapter. “Amen and amen.” It’s an abrupt ending. The scream of where are you?! closes on a note of praise that, if you’re not reading carefully, can feel arbitrary or even sardonic. But it isn’t. It’s a callback to the beginning of the verse.
God is present, God loves, and God has made promises to His people, the Psalm begins.
And then, toward the end: If it is true that You are present, that You love, and that You made these promises, then where are You and why is everything a mess?
That final affirmation of praise to God, and the finality of the “amen” (an agreement of an affirmation of what has been spoken) convey the fullness of faith: the acknowledgement that, yes, the promises are unfulfilled and that everything remains a mess, but that God is still God, still ever-loving and faithful and loyal, that He still listens, and that the promises still stand. That God and who God is remains more important than whatever we feel about His timelines.
In its entirety, the psalm is a microcosm of the faith walk every believer experiences: we walk toward a horizon where we know God’s promises will be realized and fulfilled in their entirety, and we acknowledge and affirm it, but we sometimes struggle as we wait for that to happen. And we long for that to happen. The result is a holy waiting. Doubt and despair that nonetheless end in strong affirmation. Bewilderment that comes to certainty. And the acknowledgement that the journey is just as important as the destination; that the presence of God and the nature of God matters as much, if not more, than anything He might do for us.
And this is what we miss when we cherry-pick verses from Psalms! It’s so easy to do: they’re full of good bite-sized nuggets that are cheerful and soul-inspiring. And sometimes we need that. But every now and then a long read through a complex psalm will take you to some wonderful places that show the depth and the reality of the spiritual walk: a place where confusion and despair somehow still results in praise. And what a blessing that can be.
3 thoughts on “The Complexity of the Psalms”
Sometimes even the Bible sings the blues.
Not in utter defeat, though Psalm 88 might suggest it, but it seems relating fully with God means risking that, at the least.
Absolutely! And it’s such a blessing to hear the honesty of those passages, always. Fully relating with God is a rich experience indeed!