It’s been said that the Bible is a record of God speaking to Man, but the Psalms are a record of Man speaking to God. This, I think, is one of the reasons why they have a universal appeal. Psalm 23 is the Amazing Grace of the Bible; it’s the one that everyone knows. The power of the Psalms is that they put into words the inner music of the human soul. Whatever is going on in you, there’s a Psalm that you can read and say, “Me too!”
For this reason, I’m always wary when people build theological castles on Psalmic foundations. The usual rules of hermeneutics apply, of course. The Psalms are poetry, therefore they are full of vibrant metaphors and hyperbole. They weren’t written to justify doctrine, and therefore we need to be careful if we rely on the Psalms to proof-text our theology. But that’s not the only reason to handle them with care.
The Psalms are the overflow of the heart. Anguish, joy, love, fear, depression – it’s all there. We miss the point if we think that the Psalms are just sitting there waiting to be dissected with surgical precision by our literary tools. If I write a love letter to my wife I don’t expect her to respond by finding fault with my grammar and punctuation. In the same way, if we approach the Psalms with logic as our guide, we do them violence. Raw cries of the heart will always unsettle those who prefer a rigid blueprint to genuine trust.
In Sermons in Solitary Confinement, Richard Wurmbrand writes about a conversation that he had with the Russian pastor of an underground church. The pastor was uneducated, and had never even seen a complete New Testament. Wurmbrand took it upon himself to teach this man. He explained all that he could, talking about the Trinity, sin, the sacraments, the Church, and salvation. The Russian pastor listened intently, and when Wurmbrand had finished, he spoke.
“Have those,” he said, “who thought out and wrote down these theological systems ever carried a cross?”
Wurmbrand was caught off guard by this question. The pastor went on.
“A man cannot think systematically even when he has something as mild as toothache. How can a man who is carrying a cross think systematically?”
When you read the Psalms, you are being invited into both the darkest and lightest places. Indeed, the Bible is full of such rich theological and systematic truths, but when you read the Psalms, God gives you a knowing wink and says, “This is my gift to you. Take off your shoes. You’re on holy ground.”