The Psalms for Today
John Telgren

"We give thanks to you, O God, we give thanks, for your Name is near" (Ps 75:1a).

What do you do with a scripture like this? It is not like an epistle that gives instructions and exhortations. It is not like a narrative that tells a story with a moral. It is not like a prophetic text that warns and instructs.

I have often heard sermons that say something like, "This text says we give thanks to you, O God." Therefore, we had better give thanks…" While I agree with the sentiment, I am not sure that this is how Psalms are intended to be read.

The Psalter was originally a collection of songs for worshippers to sing. The purpose of the Psalter was to put the worshipper in touch with God using music, poetry, images, metaphors, recitation of history, and things of this nature. The headings seem to indicate that professional worship leaders and musicians associated with the priestly court compiled them. Even though there is evidence of older collections in the Psalter, our current arrangement apparently came together just before or during the New Testament period. By this time, the meaning of many of the musical notations were lost. The Greek translations of the musical notations demonstrate that the translators simply did not know what many of them meant.

It was during this period that an apparent shift in the use of the Psalter came about. The Rabbis used them as an aid to personal devotion and piety. Unlike those texts that were written to God's people, the words of the Psalms are generally words directed to God. But these are not like the songs we have in our modern songbooks. Both Jews and Christians regarded the Psalter as scripture. As scripture, both Jews and Christians read them as an aid to personal piety. In fact, the majority of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament are from the Psalms. It was something believers readily identified with.

Because the Psalms are both scripture and words directed to God, they serve some unique purposes, which include the following:

1) A guide to worship - Since these are words directed to God, the Psalms serve as a model for how a worshipper is to worship God.

2) To show how to relate to God - How does one communicate with God? The Psalms are often prayers to God with all honesty and openness. There is a full range of emotions shared with God found in the Psalms.

3) A demonstration of the importance of meditation and reflection - Many of the Psalms are reflective, meditative, and introspective. The word, "meditate" appears frequently. As such, the Psalms provide a model for reflective meditation and contemplation, a practice sorely needed by many believers today.

Since the Psalms are designed to be performative and experiential, that is how we should read them. A regular reading, reflection, and praying with the Psalms ought to be a regular part of devotion, both individually and corporately.