Making Sense of the Psalms

This past Sunday we sang/read through Psalm 89. As I mentioned during our service, this is a Psalm that begins cheerful enough but, as each section progresses, gets darker and darker. It is a Psalm that expresses anger and frustration to God, wondering why God appears to have made promises that he isn’t following through on.

What do we do with Psalms like this?

On Sunday I mentioned a few ‘pastoral’ thoughts: 1) that, in the Psalms, God presents us with the full range of experience we have in our relationship with him and his people; 2) that by using these Psalms in personal and corporate worship, God has given us ‘safe’, scriptural ways to express ourselves, pray to him, and worship him no matter what we happen to be experiencing at that moment; 3) that even if we aren’t personally experiencing what a certain Psalm is expressing, we can use it as a prayer on behalf of those who are.

But, more than that, I thought I might be able to share with you something that I’ve found very helpful when praying, reading, and singing through the Psalms.

Great book, terrible cover!

Great book, terrible cover!

Recently I have been reading Walter Brueggemann’s superb book, The Message of the Psalms. Brueggemann is one of the past century’s premier Old Testament scholars and in this book he is in top form. He proposes that, when we look at the Psalms, we can see them through the lens of a simple rubric: orientation, disorientation, and new-orientation.

Psalms of “Orientation” are songs which describe a world where everything makes sense. They are songs which praise God as the Creator, the Law-Giver, and for giving us meaning, identity, and coherence in our lives. These Psalms describe the world and our lives during those times when all is well, life is stable, and all is ‘as it should be.’

Psalms of “Disorientation” describe a world which has been turned upside-down. All sense of meaning, identity, and coherence are up for grabs. Our lives, which we thought were properly oriented have been shaken to the core. Everything we thought we knew about God is now in question. These Psalms describe the world during those times in our lives when our souls are dry, when anger or hatred get the better of us, when tragedy strikes, and when evil seems to have the upper hand.

Psalms of “New-Orientation” are songs which proclaim the transformative power of God. These are songs which bring us through the darkness and into the light. They describe those moments when the power of God breaks into our lives in unexpected ways, bringing new life, hope, and salvation.

Most Psalms don’t fit neatly into just one of these categories but usually consist of movement from one to the other (or sometimes even movement through all three). I have adapted this little chart from Brueggemann’s book (pg. 21):

Orientation             →   Disorientation     →   New-Orientation
Songs of well-being   →   Songs of disarray      Songs of new life
i.e. God’s intent           →   God’s absence         →   God’s works of transformation
e.g. Ps. 8, 119, etc.       →   Ps. 89, 137, etc.          Ps. 30, 126, etc.

So, the Psalm from last Sunday, Psalm 89, can be described as a Psalm of disorientation. It begins by describing a properly oriented world (vs. 1-37, although vs. 30-32 hint that all is not well) and then moves into a state of severe disorientation (vs. 38-51).

Not only do I find this pattern helpful in understanding the Psalms in general, but understanding this pattern also helps me discern where they ought to be placed within our worship. After all, this rubric of orientation, disorientation, and new-orientation parallels the broad strokes of the Gospel story, following the Biblical narrative of Creation – Fall – Redemption. And, on top of that, it can even be seen as paralleling the life of Jesus: Incarnation – Crucifixion – Resurrection.

The main point in understanding these parallels is that we can immediately see that Psalms of orientation would be more appropriate during the “Gathering” portion of our service, possibly as a Call to Worship. Psalms of disorientation would likely fit best at the beginning of the “Service of the Word” portion, perhaps functioning as a time of confession/lament. Psalms of new-orientation could fit toward the end of the “Word” (functioning as a song of assurance/redemption) or as a part of the “Response” to the sermon as they proclaim God’s transformative power.

So, as we continue to sing the Psalms, I hope this can help you understand and engage in these scriptures in a more meaningful way.  Each week you might even want to ask, is this a Psalm which proclaims God’s intent for the world (orientation)? Is it a Psalm which expresses the pain and frustration of living in a fallen world (disorientation)? Or is it a Psalm which thanks and praises God for his works of transformation, healing, and deliverance (new-orientation)?