I have over 2,000 songs in my iTunes library. I also have a much smaller “Playlist” of all my favorites: songs that make me smile and move me to dancing, songs that evoke significant memories, songs I’ve shared with special friends, songs that comfort me and songs that move me to tears. Skimming through another person’s music collection can often give you a small window into that person’s soul.
By God’s grace the ancient “Favorites Playlist” of Israel has been preserved for us in the 150 song collection we call the Psalms. We have in the middle of our Bibles essentially the iPod of the ancient Israelite people. This collection of 150 songs includes hymns for holy days, community laments, individual laments, songs of pious persons, thank-offering songs, royal songs and more. They were written by the community and for the community of Israel. Many are attributed to individuals such as David and Asaph. They are the raw, unfiltered poetic scribbles and lyrical expressions of man’s search for God amidst all the struggles common to man.
In the words of C. Hassell Bullock, the Psalms
stand as a monumental witness to the timeless and universal nature of man. His heart is turned so easily to sin. Hatred, greed, and disobedience are part of his infamous baggage. Without God, his Creator, he is orphaned in the world. But despite who man is, God sees him as His special creation ( Psalm 8 ) and seeks to redeem him. The essential nature of man is counterbalanced, indeed countermanded, by the essential nature of God… It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in the arena of faith the book of Psalms has been a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night for Israel and the church” (An Introduction to OT Poetic Books, p. 111).
The Psalms are 150 attempts to sing our way back into the Dance of the Trinity and in tune with The Father’s Song. They capture the full library of human experience and emotion. Perhaps the closest contemporary style of music closest to the raw, gutsy, authenticity of the Psalmist are today’s Hip-Hop rap artists. Hip-Hop music is often characterized as a poetic expression of social protest and lyrical accounts of one people’s individual and corporate societal struggles. In other words, Rap music has been categorized as, “A cultural evolution of the Black oral tradition and contemporary resistance rhetoric.”
In the same way, the Psalms provide a rich tapestry of individual and corporate religious protests, cries for justice, deliverance, safety and rescue. Israel recounts her own history of oppression and its struggle for liberation. The lyrics are uncensored and filled with explicit, violent images one moment, and sacred, reverent praise choruses the next. One should not examine and study the Psalms primarily with their mind, as much as they should let them wash over their soul like a beautiful sunset, an electrifying concert or breathtaking painting. Good music does not explain and define, it expresses and emotes.
How does this ancient 150-song playlist relate to the one, unified, gradually unfolding Father’s Song we’ve been tracing throughout the entire story of the Bible? I suggest that these 150 songs provide us with a library of imperfect, individual attempts to echo the foundational groove and harmonious rhythms of The Father’s Song. In the Psalms we glimpse snippets of the beauty and majesty of God, are faced with the naked realities of the brokenness and injustice of the world, witness the universal longing for meaning, the depravity of human nature and come face to face with the Holy and trustworthy character of the Living God. The psalmist invites us to make these songs our own, and bring us into the courts of the the Living God so we might hear more clearly the beautiful melody of the Song above all songs of which all our songs are only faint echoes.
This is a priceless collection, a prized treasure of the people of God — both past and present. Again, in the words of Bullock, “To read and pray the Psalms is to join the voices of numberless people who too have read and prayed them, have felt their joy, anguish, and indignation.” So, let us not only read and pray the psalms; but let our very lives be swept up into their God-centered melodies and bring us more in step with The Father’s Song.