Wisdom Psalms – 1, 37, 49, 73, 91, 112, 119, 127, 128, 133, 139
Liturgical – 15, 24, 134
Prophetic Exhortations – 14, 52, 53, 75, 81, 95
Historical – 78, 105
Have you ever had the experience of listening to God’s word proclaimed in church, thinking you understood how it applied to you, only to have God correct you?
This happened to me this Sunday. I listened to the reading about the barren fig tree that had one year to bear fruit or be destroyed. Feeling discouraged, I thought that was me. I wasn’t seeing much result for my labor and figured I’d give it one more year. Then I heard, “What are you talking about? You are bearing much fruit. Keep up the good work!”
Such is the difficulty of trying to understand God’s will for us. It can be so easy to make mistakes. Even St. Francis got it wrong, so what chance to the rest of us have? When God told him to build his church, Francis set about creating a building, when what God wanted was for Francis to minister to his people.
Out of all of creation, we are the only ones with the ability to choose ways that are not God’s ways. We have free will. And so, we need to choose carefully, trying to align our lives with God’s will for us.
In order to help us in making these choices, we have the wisdom, liturgical, prophetic exhortations and historical psalms. They focus on God’s law, Torah, and the need to keep those laws.
Torah is loosely referred to as the law and contained in the first five books of the Bible, however it is so much more than that. Torah is not just an enumeration of codes of conduct and lists of laws. It is a way of life. It is living in accordance to God’s law, a law written in our hearts (see Ezekiel 11:19-20), a law founded on God’s covenant love for his people. To “do” Torah is a life-long quest to know God and God’s ways. It is the beginning of Wisdom. This is the Torah referred to in the Wisdom Psalms and literature.
The Wisdom Psalms are a collection of wise sayings, similar to the book of Proverbs. Sometimes they are loosely held together through a poetic structure, other times they follow an organizing theme. We hear in the first psalm, “Happy are those who do not follow the way of sinners . . . rather the law of the Lord is their joy.” They offer us reassurance that those who follow God’s ways will be blessed.
As mentioned in the previous section, Psalm 1 along with Psalm 2, sets the space for prayer. In Psalm 1 we are invited into quiet reflection, meditation on God’s word. The word meditate, hagah, implies a bodily action.
It isn’t enough to think about God’s Torah: “it involves murmuring and mumbling words, taking a kind of physical pleasure in making the sounds of the word, getting the feel of the meaning as the syllables are shaped by larynx and tongue and lips. Isaiah used this word ‘meditate’ for the sounds that a lion makes over its prey (Isa. 31:4) A lion over its catch and a person over the torah act similarly. They purr and growl in pleasurable anticipation of taking in what will make them more themselves, strong, lithe, swift . . . Meditation is mastication, ” (p.26) Eugene Peterson tells us in his book, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. We are to chew on God’s word, digest it, make it truly our own.
Our instruction in prayer through the Psalms begins in Psalm 1 with a tree, reflecting on a tree, planted by a stream. The Psalms are full of earthly images; we begin in prayer by reflecting on what we do see to discover that which is unseen. As a tree by a stream receives a constant flow of nourishment and grows strong, so shall we be if we reflect on God’s word in Torah.
Included among these psalms is Psalm 119, an acrostic masterpiece. As mentioned in the previous section, an acrostic is a form of Hebrew poetry where each line, couplet or stanza begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It was used in instruction as a means to help students remember verses by linking them to the alphabet. In Psalm 37 each couplet begins with a letter of the alphabet. Psalm 119 is composed of twenty-two stanzas of eight lines. Within each stanza, each of the eight lines begins with the letter of the alphabet associated with that stanza. While some criticize this format as being artificial and awkward, just the thought of the care taken in creating these poems inspires me.
Psalm 119 “praises God for giving such splendid laws and instruction for people to live by . . . glorifies and thanks God for the Torah, prays for protection from sinners enraged by others’ fidelity to the law, laments the cost of obedience, delights in the law’s consolations, begs for wisdom to understand the precepts, and asks for the rewards of keeping them.” (footnote on Psalm 119 from New American Bible, p. 617) It does it all, summing up much of the teachings on the law.
The Liturgical Psalms offer instruction to God’s people within the context of worship. They answer the question, “Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountains?” (15:1, 24:3) “Whoever walks without blame, doing what is right, speaking truth from the heart . . .” (15:2ff) The Psalms were written for use in communal prayer, however these three are set aside as being specifically for a liturgical purpose. While the Psalms may be prayed individually in the quiet of your room, they are truly communal prayers meant for use in liturgical services where they achieve their greatest richness.
The prophetic exhortations remind the reader how God saved the Hebrew nation from slavery and gave them the commandments – “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (81:11a) We are reminded how “fools say in their hearts, there is no God.” (Psalm 14:1 & 53:1) We are exhorted to heed the Word of God – “Oh, that today you would hear his voice” (95:7c), and warned about consequences of not following the ways of the Lord – “Now God will strike you down, leave you crushed forever.” (52:7a)
Finally the historical psalms remind the people of their history and how God has watched over and guided God’s people. “He brought his people out with joy . . . he gave them the lands of the nations, the wealth of the peoples to own, that they might keep his laws and observe his teachings.” (105:43-45)
Discerning God’s will for our lives is truly a life-long process, one we need to take seriously. As mentioned already, it can be tricky, this striving to discern God’s will. We need to work at it every day. We need to “chew” on God’s word, make it a part of our lives so that it becomes second nature to choose God’s ways rather than the ways of the world.
If all of the world were following God’s will, what a difference it would make. We need to do our part by not only praying for God’s will, but doing God’s will in our life. Then God’s will may be present on this earth as it is in heaven.
How is “chewing” on God’s word different from simply reflecting, meditating?Read through some of the psalms listed above and “chew” on them.
The Hebrews used acrostic poetry as a mnemonic device to help them memorize. Try memorizing Psalm 1 as a means to make the Psalms a part of your life. Add other psalms as you are able so that they are readily available to you at any time of day or night.
The Hebrews reflected on their history and God’s saving role in their history, how has God been present in your life?