Most of the time, people read the Psalms as independent poems that have been gathered together (rather haphazardly) through history to make up a collection, or anthology of poems, prayers and praise hymns. People tend to read it almost like a mainstream Protestant hymnal. There certainly is a benefit to reading Psalms this way, but the psalms are also intended to be read as a book. The book of Psalms has been read this way for millennia in the Jewish tradition (including Jesus,).
The Psalms don’t normally strike us as a cohesive book to be read like other books from cover-to-cover because it’s in the form of poetry and themes can shift rather quickly and dramatically from poem to poem (consider the thematic differences between Psalms 1 and 2, for example). Books that we’re used to have a clearly identifiable plot, narrative, setting, characters, conflict, and resolution. But does the book of Psalms not have these as well? I think it does, but these elements of the book of Psalms are not quite as easy to see as in normative “books”.
So, as a book, what is Psalms all about? We know that books are usually written with an ultimate lesson in mind (with lots of little, interconnected sub-lessons woven through the larger, “meta-meaning” tapestry of the book). So, we ask again, what is the grand narrativeof Psalms?
I think that the book of Psalms is to be read as an instructional prayer book for God’s people against the broader narrative of waiting for God’s long-promised vindication for his people. This vindication in the Christian narrative is Christ’s return and the putting right of all wrongs thereby restoring the creation to its ultimate purpose of glorifying the Creator.
So how is this reflected in the book itself? While there isn’t nearly the time in this setting to explore the details, we can say that there is a noticeable movement in the book of Psalms from individual lament in (roughly) the first half of the book to wonderous collective praise in the second half of the book. This reflects the all-too-real reality that for Christians, the Kingdom of God is both now, but also not yet. While we experience the corruption and painful insanity of today’s sufferings (individual lament), we do so knowing that a better future is ahead of us, and that the better future occasionally pops up its head in the corruption of today to remind us that God is working things out for our good (collective praise).
This reminds us that there is an awkward and mysterious tension in our lives. Life is mixed with pain, sorrow, and suffering, but we hope for a better future and have moments of that future that touch our lives today through deeply meaningful and beautiful experiences.
The key question, then, is how do we progress from mourning to joy? David, the main author of the psalms, teaches us that we progress towards the better future by courageously embracing suffering. Life is hard because of humanity. Accept it. Embrace it. Don’t just embrace it but embrace the fact that you are the problem. The seed of evil that manifests in every evil human act that has ever existed dwells in all of us. David exemplifies what it means to look out into the world and its problems and to have the courage and honesty to say, “it’s my fault. God help me.” Even Jesus, whose fault it was NOT, models this by taking the blame on himself (1 Peter 2:24).
If you disagree that in you lays the problems of the world, then you’re either horribly naïve, completely lacking self-awareness, or a blind narcissist. Don’t be that way. That which drove Jewish concentration camp officers to do the horrible things they did exists in every one of us, and the best thing we can do is face it with courage and cut it out.
The Psalms teach us to face our suffering, our pain, our corruption with courage with the historically-grounded hope of a better future in the resurrected Lord.
This is what prayer, in my opinion, is all about.