Oct5WedOctober 5, 2016
The Psalms have been ministering to God’s people for over three thousand years. This collection of poetry, five books in all, cover such an expanse of emotions and topics that it can both be beautiful and confusing at the same time. Over the next few Sunday mornings, we’ll be diving into familiar and unfamiliar psalms in order to strengthen our corporate and individual prayer lives.
As we begin, I want to address the complexity of the Psalms in order to keep us from feeling intimidated or overwhelmed by them. For this, I’d like to introduce you to a man named Athanasius. Athanasius was a teenager living in Egypt when the persecution of the Christians finally ended with the Edict of Milan in 313AD. Most of his life was spent in pastoral leadership wherein he constantly battled against the teachings of Arius – a smooth talking, attractive teacher who insisted that Jesus was a created being. (The First Council of Nicaea gathered together to deal with such a heresy.) But before Athanasius was involved in defending the incarnation of Jesus, he wrote a letter to a Christian named Marcellinus on the significance of the book of Psalms.
In this short letter, he described the Psalms as garden, a mirror and a symphony.
In regards to the analogy of the garden, he wrote, “Each of [the books of Scripture], you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, beside its special fruit, grows also some of those of all the rest.” The Psalms contain multiple rows of ‘theological produce’, sometimes within a single chapter. This is what makes the Psalms confusing at times. The Psalmist may be describing a narrative account from Israel and then jump suddenly into a lament or prophetic word. When those moments occur, it’s important to remember that the Psalms are like a garden. If you don’t understand which row of produce you’re in, just keep reading. It will change to a fruit you do recognize.
In regards to the analogy of a mirror, he wrote, “you see yourself portrayed and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given…learn the way to remedy your ill.” It reveals our flaws, the remedy and gives us an incredible view into how God sees His people.
In regards to the analogy of a symphony…well, let me be clear, Athanasius didn’t actually use that word. I am superimposing our understanding of a symphony to capture his final analogy. He wrote, “Within [Psalms] are represented the portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul..all its changes, it ups and downs, its failure and recoveries. Many of us resonate with the Psalms because although the words were written by a different ‘composer,’ as we study and memorize them, they become our own melodic song in which we express life’s joys and life’s sorrows – the movements of the human soul - to the Lord.
As we begin this series, I will be encouraging you to study and memorize parts of the Psalms – beginning with Psalm 1:1-3. And when you encounter a strange psalm, keep these analogies in mind. Athanasius’ words may help you navigate this ancient prayer book of the saints with a little more confidence.