Once again a wonderful piece of music comes to mind as I read these psalms. This time it’s Mendelssohn, ‘Oh for the wings of a dove,’ taking the phrase from palm 55:6-7. In a proud Dad moment, of course I hear it in my mind being sung by my daughter when she sang as a soloist with an amateur choral society, but it’s a beautiful piece of music even without that!
A bit like ‘Be still and know,’ though, it reads differently in context from how we normally hear it. I remember at a series of concerts reflecting on how the music made me feel. Beethoven made me want to be a better person. Mendelssohn made me feel that life was probably better than I’d thought. But these psalms are a bit more complex. They’re all set in David’s story, in times of danger and, especially in the Psalm Mendelssohn quotes, of betrayal.
It’s in those times of extreme stress and danger that the psalmist writes such words of longing and of trust, not when things are going well.
That in turn brings me to something that’s growing as a conviction as I read the Psalms day by day. We sometimes call them the ‘hymnbook of Israel.’ But if we compare them to our own hymnbooks there’s quite a contrast. We don’t often sing of betrayal, or pray in song for deliverance from our enemies. Is it just that our lives are so much more comfortable and secure than that of the ancient Israelites? Or are we perhaps only singing of a much narrower slice of our lives than were David and his people, not giving code to the nasty bits. I may well come back to this next time we have psalms crying out of judgement.
Increasingly, I’m seeing the value of the ancient tradition of reciting the whole psalter in sequence – whether weekly as in some monastic communities, monthly as Cranmer intended for the Church of England or over a few months as we (more or less) do in the modern daily office. I know that sometimes the Psalms can be hard to pray from the heart and that there are times when I know that I’m just reading the words. But I think there’s a value in knowing them so that they are to hand when we do need a prayer that responds to betrayal or danger.
I also know that sometimes the reason I’ve found the Psalms hard to pray when they come up in the calendar is precisely that they are appropriate to what I’m going through, and being made to pray the words has forced me to confront my feelings and bring them to God. Those times have probably made up for all the times that I’ve just thought ‘not that Psalm again…’