Excerpts for Case for the Psalms : Why They Are Essential


The Case for the Psalms


By N. Wright

HarperCollins Publishers

Copyright © 2013 N. Wright
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-06-223050-8


Chapter 1
Introduction
THIS BOOK IS A PERSONAL PLEA. THE PSALMS,
which make up the great hymnbook at the heart of
the Bible, have been the daily lifeblood of Christians,
and of course the Jewish people, from the earliest
times. Yet in many Christian circles today, the Psalms
are simply not used. And in many places where they
are still used, whether said or sung, they are often re-
duced to a few verses to be recited as "filler" between
other parts of the liturgy or worship services. In the
latter case, people often don't seem to realize what
they're singing. In the former case, they don't seem to
realize what they're missing. This book is an attempt
to reverse those trends. I see this as an urgent task.
Suppose the Psalms had been lost and had never
been printed in any Bibles or prayer books. Suppose

2 | THE CASE FOR THE PSALMS
they then turned up in a faded but still legible scroll,
discovered by archaeologists in the sands of Jordan or
Egypt. What would happen? When deciphered and
translated, they would be on the front page of every
newspaper in the world. Many scholars from many
disciplines would marvel at the beauty and content
of these ancient worship songs and poems.
The Psalms are among the oldest poems in the
world, and they still rank with any poetry in any
culture, ancient or modern, from anywhere in the
world. They are full of power and passion, horren-
dous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sen-
sitivity and powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart
is open to new dimensions of human experience,
anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a
window into the bright lights and dark corners of the
human soul--anyone open to the beautiful expres-
sion of a larger vision of reality should react to these
poems like someone who hasn't had a good meal for
a week or two. It's all here.
And astonishingly, it doesn't get lost in transla-
tion. Most poetry suffers when translated into other
languages because it relies for its effect on the sound
and rhythm of the original words. It's true that the
Hebrew of these poems is beautiful in itself for those

Introduction | 3
who can experience it. But the Psalms rely for their
effect on the way they set out the main themes. They
say something from one angle and then repeat it from
a slightly different one:
By the word of YHWH the heavens were
made,
and all their host by the breath of his
mouth. (33.6)
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old.
(78.2)
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
(139.3)
Even when this doesn't happen line by line, it often
happens between different sections of a psalm or
in the balance of the collection, or a part of it, as a
whole.
The important point here is that some of the most
important things we want to say remain just a little
beyond even our best words. The first sentence is a sign-

4 | THE CASE FOR THE PSALMS
post to the deep reality; the second, a signpost from a
slightly different place. The reader is invited to follow
both and to see the larger, unspoken truth looming
up behind. This means that not only can the effect be
maintained in translation, but the effect is itself one
of the deepest things the Psalms are doing, making it
clear that the best human words point beyond them-
selves to realities that transcend even high poetic de-
scription. (Something similar is achieved elsewhere
in the Bible--for instance, in the provision in Genesis
of two creation stories, offering two picture-language
images for a reality that lies beyond either.)
All this, as I said, should capture the attention
and generate the excitement of anyone sensitive to
powerful writing on the great themes of human
life. But for those who, in whatever way, stand in
the spiritual traditions of Judaism and Christianity,
there is all that and much, much more. That makes it
all the more frustrating that the Psalms are so often
neglected today or used at best in a perfunctory and
shallow way.
In some parts of contemporary Christianity, the
Psalms are no longer used in daily and weekly wor-
ship. This is so especially at points where there has
been remarkable growth in numbers and energy, not

Introduction | 5
least through the charismatic movements in various
denominations. The enormously popular "worship
songs," some of which use phrases from the Psalms
here and there but most of which do not, have largely
displaced, for thousands of regular and enthusias-
tic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul-
searching of the Psalms themselves. This, I believe,
is a great impoverishment.
By all means write new songs. Each generation
must do that. But to neglect the church's original
hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many
ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are
styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their
enduring charm. I hope that one of the effects of this
little book will be to stimulate and encourage those
who lead worship in many different settings to think
and pray about how to reintegrate the church's an-
cient prayer book into the regular and ordinary life
of their fellowships. The Psalms represent the Bible's
own spiritual root system for the great tree we call
Christianity. You don't have to be a horticultural
genius to know what will happen to the fruit on the
tree if the roots are not in good condition.
But I'm not writing simply to say, "These are
important songs that we should use and try to un-

6 | THE CASE FOR THE PSALMS
derstand." That is true, but it puts the emphasis
the wrong way around--as though the Psalms are
the problem,

(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Case for the Psalms by N. Wright. Copyright © 2013 N. Wright. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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