June 22, 2020 by Bob Whitaker
Music enters the soul in a way that nothing else can. As the melody rises, the lyrics emerge from our memory almost effortlessly. We sing the words over and over again, letting them become part of our thinking, emotions, and even our daily lives. Of course, in their earliest form, the Psalms were a lot like contemporary music. Imagine a young man tending sheep on a Judean hillside: he plays his harp, hums a tune, composes words, and a song is born. The song that emerges from that lonely hillside becomes a favorite–a hit, if you will–that catches on among the people who hear it for the first time. It floats effortlessly through the air and embeds itself in the hearts and minds of the listeners. The name is David; the name of his song is “The Lord is My Shepherd.” Yes, this story is historical fiction because the details of its composition and its popular reception are unknown, but it might have happened like that. The music has been lost but the psalm remains. Music and poetry are special ways of communicating truth to the heart. They are much different than logical discourse. When you enter the world of music or poetry, it’s like visiting a new landscape.
So, what is your favorite landscape? I’m not referring to a not real geographical topography, but the landscape of the Bible. Do you feel most comfortable with the Epistle of James, its pithy quotes and direct words of advice? Maybe you prefer the logical nature of the Apostle Paul, because unpacking his propositional theology challenges your heart and mind, providing tight-knit comfort to your theological convictions. Or is it the teachings of the Gospels that stir your heart to follow Jesus Christ? These Gospel narratives are so accessible with instructions on practical discipleship. How about the Psalms? Everybody loves the Psalms! But what is the best way to read them?
Here is one suggestion. When we interpret poetry, it is important to place literalism aside in order to fully understand the text. When the Psalmist says that the law of the Lord is sweeter than honey, he is not suggesting that we tear out the pages on which the Ten Commandments are written, taste them on our tongues and then ingest them. When he suggests that we hide God’s words in our hearts, he’s not advising a heart surgery for the purpose of literally implanting the words of Scripture. When using phrases like these, the Psalmist is obviously speaking poetically. This does not mean that the words of the Psalmist are not literally true—but it does mean that we should not take all the words literally. As Madeline L’Engle wisely commented, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally.” I encourage you to read the Psalms as they were written, as musical poetry, and then let the Spirit of God lift your hearts in praise to the redeemer of your soul.