Some Christian songs are emotionally stirring, but have little theological content; the heart is engaged, but not the mind. Over-reacting to this, some have composed songs that are full of theological facts, but don’t engage the worshipper’s feelings. They are more like sung sermons. The Psalms strike an inspired balance of doxological theology and theological doxology
Despite hundreds of new Christian songs, of every possible genre, being composed every year, the ancient Psalms are experiencing somewhat of a revival in various places. Why?
I believe the main reason is their therapeutic value; in a day of so many disordered emotions, worshippers are discovering how the Psalms minister so powerfully to their emotional lives.
The Psalms Balance Divine Revelation and Human Emotion
Some Christian songs are emotionally stirring, but have little theological content; the heart is engaged, but not the mind. Over-reacting to this, some have composed songs that are full of theological facts, but don’t engage the worshipper’s feelings. They are more like sung sermons.
The Psalms strike an inspired balance of doxological theology and theological doxology; they combine the objective with the subjective in perfect proportions. Time and again we read, “Praise the Lord for…” followed by reasons and motivations for this praise. God is declared and described, but always to stir up our hearts and interact with Him through His self-revelation.
The Psalms Express the Full Range Of Human Emotions
The Psalms contain an incomparably rich mixture of extreme and varied emotions: grief and joy, doubt and confidence, loneliness and fellowship, despair and hope, fear and courage, defeat and victory, complaint and praise, etc.
Is it any wonder that Calvin called the Psalms “an Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul”? As he explained: “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
The Psalms Paint a Realistic Portrayal Of Christian Emotions
The Psalms do not portray the Christian life as victory upon victory. Derek Thomas has pointed out that because a lot of contemporary worship is upbeat and positive, and therefore at odds with what Christians experience in the rest of their week, it sometimes produces a disconnect that eventually leads to cynicism and a loss of assurance.
But when we turn to the Psalms, we find bold and bald honesty. Although the strong expressions of stark reality can initially jar our refined ears, we are soon relieved to find kindred spirits who helpfully express what we often think, feel, and experience in our messy daily lives.
The Psalms Open a Welcome Outlet For Our Painful Emotions
Have you ever sung about assurance while being full of doubt? Have you ever sung about joy when feeling depressed? Me too. And it’s horrible, isn’t it? Why can’t I sing what I really feel? With the Psalms you can! Some allow us to express doubt and even despair (e.g. Ps. 88); others help us describe our struggles with providence (e.g. Ps. 73); still others guide us in explaining our battles with depression (e.g. Ps. 42).
The Psalms open the pressure valve of our hearts and direct us in how to articulate our most painful emotions. We don’t need to bottle them up or deny them. Instead God has inspired songs to admit them and let them out. As someone said: “What a relief! I can sing what’s really on my mind and heart, and God provides me with words to rightly express these emotions. The Psalms reach in to find these emotions and then reach upwards to God with them.”
The Psalms Call For the Transformation of Our Emotions
The Psalms not only permit us to “vent” our emotions, but also call for their transformation. We are not left to wallow in our feelings, but are shown how to move from fear to courage, from sorrow to joy, from anger to peace, and from despair to hope. The painful starting point is legitimate; but it’s only a starting point. The end-point of emotional healing must be kept in view, and moved towards with the help of Psalmist’s guiding hand.
The Psalms Summon Us to Sympathetic Emotion
As a rebellious teenager, I often sat in my Psalm-singing church wondering why I was singing words that had no relevance to me whatsoever. Why sing about sorrow, when I was perfectly happy? Or, some Sundays, why sing about joy when I feel so depressed about my life?
Well of course, such is the mindset of a self-centered teenager. But when God saves us, we begin to look a little beyond ourselves and to realize that while I may not feel these things, others certainly do. The Psalms call me to weep with those who weep, and to rejoice with those who rejoice, no matter if I feel exactly the opposite. They remind me of the emotional diversity of the body of Christ and invite me to share in the sufferings and successes of others. They turn me inside out.
The Psalms Supply an Emotional Stimulus to Righteous Living
I’ve been trying to emphasize the emotional engagement and stimulus of the Psalms. However, ultimately, the Psalms use the emotional energy they generate to stimulate practical obedience. Notice how many “wisdom” Psalms are interspersed throughout the Psalter, setting forth the path of obedience for the stirred up and energized worshipper. Emotional transformation must result in life transformation.
David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.