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The Psalms: Songs of Our Hearts

Psalm 1, Ephesians 5:18-20

Pastor Phil Hughes

January 3, 2021

Perhaps no part of the Bible has spoken more personally to God’s people over the centuries than the Psalms. Perhaps no book of the Bible has been treasured and valued more than the Psalms.

Psalms is the largest book in the Bible. There are 150 psalms. “Psalm” means “song” and so this is a collection of songs. The Psalms were the prayer book and hymn book of ancient Israel. They were sung in the worship of Israel and prayed by those who worshipped the living God. They continued to be sung by Christians. Paul writes to the Ephesians to sing psalms as a way to be filled with the Spirit.

I would say that the Psalms have been the most popular part of Scripture throughout history, for Jews and Christians. They continue to be sung and prayed and owned by pilgrims of faith.

Why their enduring popularity? Because the Psalms are so intensely personal. They connect us to the God we worship and believe, question and wrestle with, in a way no other part of the Bible does.

One of the reasons I like the Psalms so much is that the Psalms know me. They seem to know what is going on in my heart and soul. They are songs for our hearts. I want to preach from the Psalms because I think we have a lot of emotions jumping around in our hearts, and I want us to have the Psalms as a tool of faith to help us express all that is within us to the Lord.

John Calvin, the father of the Presbyterian traditions of the church, called the Psalms “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.”

Athanasius, one of the early fathers of the Christian Church who was crucial in the formation of early Christianity said the unique thing about the psalms is that, “Most of Scripture speaks to us. The Psalms speak for us.”

The Psalms are radically honest. In fact, their honesty can be scary. You will find some dark moods in the Psalms. I think sometimes we think we have to be all prettied-up and proper to interact with God. The Psalms destroy that notion right away. They contain just as much anger, hatred, disappointment and pain as they do praise, thanksgiving, joy and hope. The Psalms help us to express all of these things before God.

Christian writer Philip Yancey sees the Psalms as “a sampling of spiritual journals. They are personal letters to God…they are personal prayer in the form of poetry, written by a variety of people in wildly fluctuating moods.”

I meditate on the Psalms daily. I live off the Psalms. They express what I often cannot express to God on my own. They give words to what I don’t have words for.

The Psalms help us pray, and that is why people who seek God keep them before their eyes. Many, many prayers are found in the Psalms.

For example, you can begin your day in pray with this from Psalm 5, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.”

Psalm 51 helps us ask for God’s forgiveness (I pray this a lot!!): “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”

When I need direction (and who doesn’t?), I can turn to Psalm 25:4,5: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior.”

Every feel afraid? Here is the prayer in Psalm 56: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (vv. 3,4)

For those who are depressed, Psalm 88 sings, “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.” (vv. 14,15)

The Psalms are filled with prayers against those who come against us, like Psalm 71: “O my God, make haste to help me! May my accusers be put to shame and consumed; with scorn and disgrace may they be covered who seek my hurt.” In other words, “Get’em Lord, and take them down.”

Ever filled with thankfulness for all God has done for you? Psalm 106 begins, “Praise the LORD! O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD, or declare all his praise?” (vv, 1,2)

Jesus knew the Psalms and quoted them on several occasions, not the least of which are the two times he quotes from the Psalms while on the cross.

As I preach through just a few of the 150 psalms, I hope that they become personal for us so that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will become more personal to us.

There are 150 psalms, but no one knows why they are in the order and arranged as they are. No one knows why Psalm 23 is number 23. No one knows why Psalm 119 is where it is.

They are arranged into five different books. When you read the Psalms you will see headings that divide them in this way.

Psalms 120-134 are all part of a group of psalms called the “songs of ascent”. But other than that, the arrangement of the Psalms is a mystery.

In this sermon series we will not go in any particular order. Rather, we will get a sampling of the different types of psalms there are.

While the Psalms are usually associated with King David, many of the Psalms may have come from others. Several Psalms are attributed to the Sons of Korah (who might have been a popular worship group in ancient Israel). Two are attributed to Solomon. One is attributed to Moses. Many Psalms are not attributed to anyone.

But trusting that those who put these in this order had a purpose and figuring that the beginning is always a good place to start, this morning I want to introduce us to the Psalms with Psalm 1. During Advent I used Psalm 1 to speak of stability so it might sound familiar to you.

The first word of Psalm 1 and the entire book of Psalms is “blessed.” Psalm 1 says that those who are blessed are the righteous who go the way of God. They are contrasted with the wicked who do not follow the ways of God.

Psalm 1 says that a person is blessed when they walk not in the ways of the wicked, but they delight in the law of the Lord. The word for “law” in Hebrews is “torah.” Torah means “teaching.” The first five books of the Bible are called the Torah by Jewish readers because they contain the essential law of God. Jesus read and studied Torah. Jesus taught Torah. Jesus came to fulfill Torah.

The word for “Torah” comes from a word in Hebrew which means to throw something so that it hits its mark. Like someone throwing a stone with a slingshot to hit an object, like someone throws a javelin or spear so that it hits the target, the teaching that comes from the Lord always hits its mark.

Furthermore, the blessed person delights in the teaching of the Lord and meditates on it day and night. Not just “read” but meditate. Slowly and reflectively going over the words, letting them sink in and become a part of us. It is the same idea that Paul writes to the Colossians when he tells them to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…” Not coincidentally, he goes on to tell them to sing psalms as part of their life of faith. (3:17)

Psalm 1 introduces us to the Psalms by telling us that if we are going to worship God genuinely we must embrace his law, his Torah, his instruction. It provides us the counsel we need for our lives.

Who do you go to for guidance and counsel? Where do we get advice on how to live?

We can get advice on all the issues of life on social media, the internet, or television. We have more self-help books than ever. Yet, people seem to be living more poorly than ever. People seem to be more confused and anxious. Could it be that we are getting our counsel from the wrong places?

The picture that Psalm 1 uses to describe a person who makes the Lord’s instruction the core of their life is a tree planted by streams of water. Trees planted by water tend to grow very well. Water brings nourishment. Water is essential to growth. When roots go down deep there is stability. A tree deeply planted cannot easily be moved. Ever try to dig out a tree with deep, strong, planted roots? When we are planted, the trials, and storms, and burdens of life that weigh upon us cannot uproot us.

The psalmist says that a person who is planted in the word of the Lord yields its fruit in season. His leaves do not wither. She prospers in everything she does.

It is true: Anyone I have ever known who makes God’s Word an essential part of their life is fruitful. Even in the hard and painful times, they are able to flourish. They are full of life, and it shows.

The Psalms come from a community of pilgrims who have been through the risks, the dangers, the costs of living for God. And they place this psalm first as if to say, given all they’ve been through life cannot be lived without Torah – the teaching and word of the Lord.

This is how you remain stable. This is how you begin to pray. This is vital to worship. This is the key. So I hope we get to know and appreciate this rich and personal book.

Here is a story of the value of the Psalms: Anatoly Shcharansky was arrested in 1977 by the Russian government for his attempts to leave Russia and go to Israel. He was falsely accused of having secret information vital to Russian security. Shcharansky was a brilliant mathematician and chess player. He spent nine years inside the Soviet Gulag, the cruel and cold Soviet prison system, where he worked in the labor camps.

He was stripped of all his personal belongings. His only possession was a miniature copy of the Psalms. While in the Gulag Shcharansky read and studied all 150 psalms in the original Hebrew. In a letter he said, “What does this give me? Gradually my feeling of great loss and sorrow changes to one of bright hopes.”

Once during his imprisonment, his refusal to give up this little book of Psalms cost him 130 days in solitary confinement.

During his nine years of confinement, Shcharansky’s wife traveled the world trying to gain his release. Once, while accepting an honorary doctorate on his behalf, she said at the university, “In a lonely cell in prison, locked alone with the Psalms of David, Anatoly found expression for his innermost feelings in the outpourings of the King of Israel thousand of years ago.”

In February 1986, after those nine years, as the world watched, Shcharansky was allowed to walk away from the Russian prison toward freedom. People were awaiting who would take him to Jerusalem. As he left one of the guards tried to confiscate his book of Psalms. Shcharansky threw himself face down in the snow and refused to walk on to freedom until they gave it back.

Those words had kept him alive during his imprisonment. They had given light to his soul in the darkest of places and times.[1]

I guess what I am saying is that if there was only one book we could take to prison with us, I think it would be the Psalms.

It is a treasure of faith, hope and strength for our lives. They speak for us as we live, workout, and nurture this relationship we have with the living Lord. They are the songs of our hearts.

PRAYER: O Lord our God, over these next few weeks teach us the beauty and value of the Psalms. Our hearts are full of so many thoughts and emotions. Thank you for these songs that allow us to bring all that we are and all that is in us to you. We pray this through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who himself knew the psalms. Amen.

[1] From Discipleship Journal, Issue #43 (1988), p. 24, and The Bible Jesus Read, Philip Yancey, p. 120

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