Five Cs to unlock the Psalms

I’ve often found the Psalms hard work. They can feel quite abstract, repetitive, and given their cultural context kinda hard to relate to. I know that is not everyone’s experience. For many, they are a favourite part of Scripture; a fuel for worship, and an aid to express emotions in prayer. And of course, they can be that to me too! On a good day, they are beautiful, inspiring and I can just pray them back to God with joy. But not every day is a good day, and I often find that I have to work harder with them than I might expect.

Oh, plus, I’m hopeless at remembering chapter and verse at the best of times, so trying to recall which psalm is which has always been a struggle for me!

Over the past year I’ve been trying to appreciate them more. I’ve been helped by videos on how to read them and books on the art of biblical poetry. Understanding how the Psalter was compiled, how to analyse the structures, spot the repeated words, identify the use of rhetorical devices and track the biblical allusions have been hugely helpful. And I’ve benefited from learning to slow down whilst reading them, with felt tips in hand. You know, like the original readers would have done!

Someone once said that analysing poetry can be like dissecting a butterfly. You understand more about the butterfly, but you also kill it in the process. There’s certainly a danger of that. But I’ve also found that there can be precious moments of noticing things I haven’t before, and spotting things I probably wouldn’t have, if my felt-tip-cradling hand hadn’t been nudged along by the Spirit of God.

So approximately once a week I try and sit down with a Psalm printed out on a bit of paper, ready to be scribbled on. And I try to prayerfully work through it for an hour. Sometimes I’m done quicker. Sometimes I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I find that the Psalm lingers with me over a few days. One of the reasons why I’m 3.5 years into my Bible in One Year!

There are five things that are helping me appreciate the Psalms better. Well, there are probably more, but these five conveniently begin with the letter C, so they will do as a starting point.

Coffee

If I’m going to slow down and take my time with the Psalms, I do so best when I have a good black coffee to sip! Perhaps the most trivial of the Cs, but it genuinely does help me to relax and enjoy the experience. (Medium-to-dark roast, often Colombian, V60, if you were wondering.)

Crayolas

When my daughter’s not looking, I steal her felt tips. The brand is unimportant, though they genuinely are Crayolas, which helps my alliteration. I use them to scribble all over the printed psalm, drawing out key words, trying to identify the structure, making connections between themes that are repeated at particular points. Sometimes my colouring makes the Psalm end up looking like a serial killer’s bedroom wall. An indecipherable mess. But sometimes it quickly unlocks the Psalm and makes its meaning leap off the page with a new vibrancy. If the same theme begins and ends the poem, that tells you the main point of it. If the theme is repeated but altered, that tells you something of the journey the Psalmist has gone on. If there are clear stanzas within the Psalm, it’s worth considering whether they build upon one another, or contrast with one another. And so on…

As I’m underlining words, I’m not only looking for the repetition of identical words, but also groups of words. For example, priestly items such as Temple, robe, sacrifice; body parts such as eyes, hands, feet; agricultural ideas of planting, tending, watering, reaping, or groups of words that denote some kind of movement from sitting to standing, or ascending or descending.

I can get some way on this by simply reading the text myself, but I’m also helped by a

Concordance

A concordance is simply an index of words used through the Bible, with key definitions and a list of all the places those words are used. My favourite simple, free resource is STEP Bible. You can quickly and easily see the most frequently repeated words within a passage, view a range of meanings for each word, and find out where else in Scripture it features. This can help me to spot allusions to other passages of Scripture, and sometimes considering how a word or group of words has been used elsewhere can give me insight into how the author thought about that word, and what he may have wanted to draw my mind to.

What I find especially useful about something like STEP Bible is that it helps me identify related and repeated words that are obscured by our English translations. Often English Bibles will translate the same Hebrew word multiple different ways within the space of a single Psalm. There may be good reasons for that, and it can certainly be useful if it draws out different nuances of the word, and it can make the poem less repetitive and more pleasing to read, but it can also cause us to miss what is going on in the Hebrew. I also find it helpful to mix up the translation I use. I like the ESV for a lot of my study, but I don’t find it the most poetic translation, and the sentence structures often feel needlessly complex. I usually start my study there, but then draw in other translations, for example Robert Alter’s translation is currently helping me read the Psalms with fresh eyes.

Using a concordance to look through the range of meanings of a word can be really interesting, as some of the more metaphorical meanings can spark our imaginations in different ways. Although if you, like me, are not proficient in Hebrew, then you have to be careful to make sure you don’t just choose the definition that excites you most, and import unhelpful ideas into the Psalm. See the fifth C.

Curiosity

All the while as I’m colouring, scribbling, and looking up words, I’m allowing my mind to run down rabbit trails, chasing all manner of questions.

Why this word? And is the English translation actually the most helpful, or is there a less literal meaning that may chime with other metaphors in the Psalm? Why this groups of words and collection of themes? Why this sequence of thoughts or actions? Why mention this particular place? Does understanding its geographical location or religious history help me to appreciate its meaning better? Why is this Psalm placed next to the previous one? Does it reinforce ideas the Psalmist has previously explored, or correct them, or take them in a different direction? Why are some of the terms plural and others singular? Do I think God agrees with the Psalmist? Does the Psalmist even agree with himself by the time he’s finished the Psalm? Did Jesus ever say anything about this Psalm, and what did he make of it? What would this metaphor look like if I took time to visualise it? Does this metaphor even make sense? Is it meant to? And so on…

As I’m asking these questions, I’m resisting the urge to shut them down too quickly. No question is a silly question at this point; although I readily admit that some of the ‘answers’ I consider may well turn out to have been silly! Cultivating curiosity has been one of the key things that has helped to get beneath the surface of the Psalms. That takes time. If you do a Bible in One Year plan that assigns an Old Testament passage, a New Testament passage and a Psalm every day then chances are you’re going to have to stifle your curiosity to get through each day’s readings. If I’m reading a Psalm and something piques my interest but I don’t have time to do it justice, I mark it as one to come back to. Then I set aside an hour one morning when that Psalm is the only thing I read and think about.

So I scribble and write down my thoughts as I go. I log questions that occur to me, and I don’t force myself to land on answers prematurely. Sometimes I think the Psalmist wants to leave us with open-ended questions. Stones in our shoe, that niggle away at us as we walk through our day. At times I catch myself trying to force shut a question that is meant to be left open, and I have to stop and remind myself that mystery is a core component of both art and faith. Maybe I’ll get to a deeper layer the next time I read it. After all, I think the Psalms are deliberately constructed to only give up their meaning through repeated readings.

At the end of this, I will have a piece of paper covered in a rainbow of colours and connections. I will have entertained a whole load of thoughts, jumped back and forth through the pages of my Bible, and often been deeply moved to think pray and worship through the process. But I’ll also have a lot of questions. So my fifth step is to consult

Commentaries

I purposefully leave this to the end, because if I read a commentary on a Psalm too early, I find that I can’t un-read it, and I struggle to see anything in the Psalm other than what the commentator has told me. But this is a necessary final step for me because it does three things. Firstly, it helps to clarify some of my outstanding questions. Secondly, it points out extra things I would never have seen by myself, no matter how much coffee and curiosity I had got through. And thirdly, it helps me sift my own inaccurate musings from more helpful ones.

When I’m chasing down the rabbit holes of curiosity, not every observation I make will be correct. I don’t know Hebrew, and so I hold particularly lightly any observations that rest on language and grammar. And there are plenty of times where I come away thinking I’ve discovered something exciting, only to look at a commentary and have an expert quickly disabuse me of the notion! It’s humbling. But the process of seeking out answers by wrestling with a text is rewarding. And at the end of the day, if I’ve dug for a bit, and then someone with a PhD tells me where the treasure is hidden, what have I lost? I still get the treasure in the end, and I got to enjoy some worshipful colouring in the process!

I still have plenty to learn about the Psalms. Maybe I’ll post a few of my musings here from time to time. But what about you?

  • How do you find the Psalms? Does reading them come easily to you?
  • What makes it most difficult for you to engage with the Psalms?
  • What are your favourite psalms and why? Are there any you really struggle with?  
  • What practices have helped you understand them better? What resources have been most useful to you?

Photo by Alabaster Co on Unsplash

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