The psalms have shaped a lot of our regular worship, and these are good examples.
They seem united by a strand of praise to God, working out in different ways in different circumstances. We use Psalm 90 at funerals, with its combination of trust and awareness of mortality. Psalm 91 is a favourite for Compline, its assurance of protection fitting well with the final prayers of the day as we prepare to sleep.
Psalm 95 is part of our regular morning prayer each Friday, with an interesting optional element – it’s set out in two sections, with the note after verse 7 that ‘The canticle may end here’, after the call to worship and before the warning not to harden our hearts. Personally, I always carry on to the end of the psalm. I’m not sure why the compilers decided to make the warning part optional. After all, the whole rhythm of morning and evening prayer lends itself to the back-and-forth of praise and hearing scripture, speaking and hearing, so to balance praise and challenge in one prayer feels appropriate.
It makes me wonder how we should treat psalms like this, where the mood changes in the middle, especially after yesterday’s thoughts about psalm 89. There may be times when part of the psalm expresses everything we need – when emotions aren’t complex, and our situation is straightforward. But I can’t help feeling that we shouldn’t do that too often. As I read the psalms through, it strikes me how often there’s a development or shift in the course of a psalm which may be uncomfortable but which is part of the poetry and depth of the text.
If we choose the bits we like and leave out the rest, we may find in the long run that we’re cutting ourselves off from much of the resource for life and prayer which the psalms give us.
I’ll keep saying the whole of Psalm 95 on Fridays.