Saturday, January 22, 2022

David, the Psalmist of Israel

The church’s first hymnbook—a collection of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs—is located in the center of our Bibles. It is largely through David that this rich treasure of spiritual nourishment has come to us. Not only is he the author of nearly half the psalms (73 are ascribed to him in their Hebrew titles), but his establishment of the great levitical choirs and musicians’ guilds to accompany the worship of God probably did much to foster the compositions of others (cf. 1 Chron. 6:31ff.).

Calvin was accustomed to call the book of Psalms, “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.” Of this inspired collection of songs, Calvin wrote: “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the mind of men are wont to be agitated.”

Calvin finds in the book of Psalms features that distinguish it from the rest of the Bible: “The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined His servants to announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking with God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particular, in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed. It is certainly a rare and singular advantage, when all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light, purged from that most baneful infection, hypocrisy.”

It is David, then, who perhaps above all others teaches us to worship God in honest expression of our inmost thoughts and feelings; to set before God our struggles and temptations in all their intensity; to speak, and thereby to face, what is really in our hearts and minds. Where in modern hymnbooks would anyone find language for crying out in despair to God? Where would we find the courage to speak to God in lament? Could we ever have imagined that we could raise our questions of “How long?” and “Why?” in the presence of the Holy One?

Too much of our popular theology and hymnody seems ignorant of the deep struggles of the soul in its earthly pilgrimage. Judging from much of today’s worship and Christian literature we need only to claim promises or follow certain disciplines in order to dispel all problems and remove all struggles. Such thinking proves to be contrary to fact, and it leaves us woefully unprepared to deal with the harsh realities of life and discipleship. Thus, while Calvin rejoices to find in the Psalms “all the precepts which serve to frame our life to every part of holiness, piety, and righteousness,” he sees their chief benefit in teaching and training us to bear a cross.

This is why the Psalms are a rich deposit of life-sustaining power. There is no skating over difficulties, no avoiding of God’s delays and silence. The picture of a saint dumbfounded by the intensity and persistence of affliction and suffering while addressing in faith a God of infinite power and steadfast love, the psalmist sets before us as a fact, not a contradiction (cf. Psalm 13). We are sobered to discover that such things do happen.

It helps us to understand that sometimes things are hard not because we are doing something wrong or failing to do something that could make everything better. They’re just hard. Those who must struggle daily with unyielding problems, those who find themselves “at the end of the earth” (Psalm 61:2), need a channel for approaching God. They need a language for speaking with God when confusion overwhelms them. In the Psalms they find all that they need, for the Holy Spirit has there prepared and preserved for us the God-breathed prayers of other pilgrims who have gone down this road before us.

David’s time of exile in the wilderness under Saul’s persecution has left to us pages from his diary in which he wrestles before God with his afflictions (cf. Psalms 52, 54, 56, 57, 59, 63, 142). Sometimes we find him in full embrace of the promises of God while fighting against anxiety, as in Psalm 57. At other times, “faith is at full stretch” (a beautiful phrase of Derek Kidner’s) as David finds peace and comfort more difficult to obtain, as in Psalm 142.

From examples like these we learn something of the ebb and flow of our spiritual lives. We learn to pray when faith is weak as well as strong.

Likewise, when the sons of Korah write for us a lament of unrelieved despair, as in Psalm 88, we are forced to recognize that our earthly pilgrimage may well include times of silence from God and uncertainty with respect to our future in this life. Yet this psalm trains us to pray and to keep on praying even when in such despair.

Spurgeon called our book of Psalms “The Treasury of David.” O what a treasure it is! It is truly “an anatomy of all parts of the soul”—even the parts we find frightful to face, hard to bear, and difficult to express. It is, next to the Holy Spirit, the chief help in our weakness, when we do not know how to pray as we ought, or even as we may.