Introduction to the Psalms: The Anatomy of the Soul

(Note: this is my somewhat rewritten manuscript for the Sunday school class – or “equipping hour”, as we call it at my church – I taught. It’s the first class in a ten-week series on the Psalms.)

by John Ellis

“Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.” Samuel Beckett

Outside of the Psalms, or the Bible’s other poetry or hymns, did you read a collection of poems this past year?

If you’re like most people, you probably didn’t. A recent survey revealed that only 11.7% of adults in America read poetry. The poet Billy Collins tells a story of a high school student who showed him an article she wrote for her school paper explaining why she doesn’t like reading poetry. She describes reading poetry as if, “my brother has his foot on the back of my neck while swimming.”[1]

I suspect that her explanation is an accurate reflection of many peoples’ response to reading poetry. Which is unfortunate because poetry used to be an integral, important part of culture, and rightfully so. Not anymore, though. For the most part, poetry – real poetry – only exists on the fringe of our society.

A couple of weeks ago, an Op-ed in the NYT argued that poetry died 100 years ago – T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was published in Dec. 1922. The author of the Op-ed, Matthew Walther, said a lot I agree with and a bunch I don’t. One thing he wrote stood out to me in relation to this class, though. More poignantly than he probably realizes, he wrote, “We stopped writing good poetry because we are now incapable of doing so. The culprit is not bad pedagogy or formal experimentation but rather the very conditions of modern life, which have demystified and alienated us from the natural world.”[2]

I would reword that slightly. I would say “alienated us from transcendence”, because I believe at the core of Walther’s sentiment lies an important truth. We live in a secular age. And the very worldview air of this secular age steers us into imminent (as opposed to transcendent), individualistic experiences, giving us a poor anthropology – a poor understanding of what it means to be a human, to be made in the image of God. Our society’s individualism is not how God created us. And, by definition, the opposite side of the coin is at play, too, in that this secular worldview steers us away from transcendent, communal experiences – God’s intention for us when He created His image bearers.

Do you understand what I mean by transcendence? It has some specific dictionary definitions, but I’m using it in a more general, colloquial way. Something exists that’s bigger than us; that’s outside of our specific experience – that calls us to look outwards instead of just inwards.

Theologically, transcendence refers to God’s otherness. His Being is not our being. In this specific theological definition, transcendence speaks to the Creator/creation distinction. Imminence, then, is the opposite – the antonym. Theologically, God’s direct involvement in the affairs of His creation is His imminence. The most dramatic expression of God’s imminence is the Incarnation – God took on flesh.

God is both transcendent and imminent. And that’s a beautiful paradox.

So, while those theological definitions will come into play, in a sense, as we look at the Psalms, in the main throughout, and definitely right now, I’m using the terms in a colloquial sense that applies to us, as humans.

Our existence and experiences are more than just atoms (or more than just quarks and leptons). And we – as image bearers, as humans – can’t be reduced to chemistry or math; we can’t be reduced to the purely material. Transcendence refutes philosophical materialism, which is pure imminence void of any transcendence.

We exist, unfortunately, in a culture, a pop culture – you understand that almost all culture is pop culture now, right? – we exist in a culture that doesn’t just promise individual affirmation but that tells us that’s our ultimate telos – our ultimate end – hyper-individualistic affirmation. Everything – our existence and experiences – are shrunk down to a one-size-fits-just-you. As imminent as you can get.

All that’s in the very worldview air we breathe.

And there’s no cognitive dissonance required to move between philosophical materialism and the pseudo-spirituality in much of pop culture. Because both things terminate in “me” – that’s called solipsism. I’m the end game. I’m god. Transcendence says, “no, you’re not.”

Poetry is (should be) transcendent and communal by its very nature. Good poetry helps build a robust, holistic anthropology – a more fleshed out picture and understanding of what it means to be human, to be made in the image of God. It pushes back on the pure imminence of expressive individualism. We’re created to be in relationship and, importantly, to be defined by that relationship or relationships and to be changed by relationship. Poetry isn’t just steeped in that. It is that.

Poetry connects us to other places, times, experiences, and people. Good poetry doesn’t allow us to retreat into a posture of individualistic privacy (all good literature does this, but it’s inescapable – should be – in poetry). And one of the main ways poetry does this is through our emotions, our feelings.

The Psalms are poems. We all know this. And as poems, the Psalms are transcendent and communal. If that seems like a “well, duh” statement, it’s because it is. And as poems, the Psalms also create (should create) an emotional response in us.

And the form of the Psalms – poetry – isn’t accidental. The form is also the message.

Lord willing, over the next eight weeks, this class will be looking at the Psalms in the categories of Messianic, lament, praise, confession, petition, wisdom, thanksgiving, and imprecatory, starting with Messianic Psalms next week. This introductory class will hopefully frontload us with the understanding that the form and the function are inseparable.

We can’t allow ourselves to forget that the Psalms are poems and would do well to heed C.S. Lewis’ encouragement, “Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry. They must be read as poems if they are to be to understood.”[3]

Today, we’re going to look at the Psalms as poetry, and what that means in terms of emotional content and effect as well as how its poetic transcendence changes us.

The Psalms Are for the Heart, Not Just the Head

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” Psalm 42:11

No doubt, you’ve heard something like, “emotions can’t be trusted” or “facts over feelings”. Most often, especially in reformed evangelical circles, this sentiment explicitly promotes reason (our mind) over and against our emotions.

In the initial schedule Robert sent the teachers, his suggested area of focus for today’s class was, “Psalms as an anatomy of the soul.” I didn’t ask him but I’m almost certain he was alluding to John Calvin with that because Calvin famously called the Psalms, “[The] anatomy of all the parts of the soul” explaining that, “there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as a mirror.”

 I’m afraid we miss that, though. For a variety of reasons, which I would love to unpack but don’t have the time, I’m afraid that we read the Psalms with our head first and not our heart, and even at times to the exclusion of our heart. Think about how Bible studies – group or individual – are usually constructed.

By and large, they’re intellectual exercises. And, for the record, because I don’t want you to hear what I’m not saying, if you think I’m opposed to feeding and growing the intellect (the mind), you haven’t been to my house nor read many other of my articles.

But poetry connects us to our emotions. And as John Piper teaches, “Poetry and singing exist because God made us with emotions, not just thoughts. So our emotions are massively important.”[4]

At the top of this article, I included a quote from Samuel Beckett – “Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.” That’s from his play Waiting for Godot – it’s actually a combination of two lines from the play for any Beckett purists who might be reading. I included it because it’s likely counterintuitive to how we believe life in general should be approached, much less how we believe God’s Word should be approached.  

In his book Doctrine that Dances, homiletics professor Robert Smith, Jr. points out, “The strange thing about Scripture is that it does not aim to make us understand doctrine in a systematic way. God wants to prevent humans from merely getting hold of doctrines; God wants the truth of the doctrines to get hold of humans.”[5] And this often happens – this doctrine “getting hold of humans” – on an emotional level prior to an intellectual level.  

Not long after I became a Christian in my late twenties, my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer. It was also during that period that my wife and I began attending a reformed church and I first read Calvin’s Institutes. I had been raised in a dispensationalist, Arminian home. My pastor father gave me a Scofield Study Bible when I graduated from high school. I still have it. Calvinism was and remains anathema for my dad.

Anyway, so while my mom was dying of cancer, I was being confronted for the first time, really, with God’s sovereignty. And I couldn’t handle it. Regardless of what theological differences I may have with my mom, I don’t know of anybody who was more concerned about making sure that every child she met knew about Jesus. So, I didn’t get it. It made me angry.

Why, God? Why her? Out of all the people, why someone who loves you and is constantly telling others about you? If you’re sovereign, this is on you.

I was so mad.

I wrote our church elders telling them that if this is who God is, I want out. I didn’t sign up for this. I don’t want to worship this God.

One thing that didn’t make sense to me was that even in her tears and pain, she remained committed to Jesus. She never stopped talking about how much she loved Jesus and how thankful she was.

Thankful? For what? I didn’t get it.

Just a couple of weeks before my mom died, her sister, her only sibling visited her one last time. Their dad had died over a decade earlier and their mom was in a care facility with dementia. On her last day there, I drove my aunt to the airport. But before she got in my car, tears streaming down both their faces, she hugged my mom and said, “Tell dad I said, ‘hi.’”

Between that moment and my mom’s death shortly after, God’s sovereignty became beautiful for me.

Look, if you ever do come over to my house, I can show you an entire shelf on one of my bookcases that is almost nothing but books about God’s sovereignty. I can break it down and defend it theologically and philosophically. But that’s not why I believe and rejoice in God’s sovereignty. I believe it and rejoice in it primarily in my heart and only secondarily in my head.

My mom’s faithfulness and thanksgiving to her Savior as she faced death was a living poem that the Holy Spirit used to open my heart and reveal the beauty of God’s sovereignty.

I have no doubt that many readers could share similar stories. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you could tell about points of doctrine that you can now answer correctly on a test but a doctrine you believed before you knew the “correct” answer.

Again, please don’t hear what I’m not saying. I agree with Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer that, “Faith comes by hearing not just anything but something specific.”[6] I also agree with Anselm of Canterbury that there can be no faith without some conception. What I’m saying is that our emotions have the God-given ability to provide that conception, even if we can’t articulate what it is we believe.

I think most will agree when I say that just because you can’t explain something doesn’t mean you don’t believe it, and just because you can explain something that doesn’t mean you do believe it. I mean, Satan would win all the Bible trivia quizzes. I won Bible trivia quizzes as a little heathen who didn’t believe any of it.

And with that, let’s look at Psalm 42:11 – “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

The Psalmist isn’t denying his emotions. He’s not apologizing for them. Looking over the whole Psalm reveals this. Verse 3, “my tears have been my food day and night.” Verse 5, same expression as verse 11. Verse 6, “my soul is cast down before me.” Verse 9, “why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”

This Psalm is filled with pain and confusion. And that pain is given vent, to the point of verse 9 that asks God, “Why have you forgotten me?”

A long time ago, when I was in youth group, and at my Christian college – and I’m about to stomp hard on some y’alls’ toes – there was a song that everyone loved to sing that was taken from this Psalm. However, even though it’s titled “As the Deer Panteth”, it’s not an accurate representation of Psalm 42.

Think about it, why does the Psalmists’ soul thirst for God? Because he’s hurting. Does the song express that? No, it doesn’t. It’s bad poetry because it’s only half of a poem – Lord willing, what I mean by that will be made clear by the end this article.

It’s good and right to express our hurt and our pain, most especially expressing them in our worship of God. Because in those moments, the Holy Spirit will draw us to the Father like he drew the Psalmist. Our emotions inform and shape our worship and we shouldn’t run from that out of neo-pagan stoicism. You know who wasn’t stoic? Jesus.

Look, to be clear, I’m not saying it’s wrong to sing “As the Deer Panteth”, but I do want us to consider this question: Do we tend to gravitate towards songs in corporate worship that are mostly stripped of raw emotional content? Of emotional content that exposes us and reveals our weakness and our hurt? If so, why do we tend to only want to sing songs in corporate worship that affirm us and make us feel good or happy?

It’s because we don’t want to admit how much we need God. How desperately we need God. The psalmist desperately needed God and expressed that in poetry. And this Psalm was sung in corporate worship. The Psalms are the divinely inspired model for singing in corporate worship. If we never sing songs that feel and sound like Psalm 42, can we truly say we’re following the Holy Spirit’s direction for corporate worship?

Something else to think about, we’re commanded to bear one another’s burdens, and not just in a private email exchange. Bearing one another’s burdens should be part of our corporate worship. Songs/hymns of lament are one way (not the only way) we can obey the command to bear one another’s burdens. The Psalms of lament, which were sung corporately by the Israelites (and by the Church through much of Church history) models this.

Look, it’s not facts over feelings, and it’s not feelings over facts. They’re not at war with each other. Facts are never not connected to feelings, and feelings are never void of content (of facts). As God’s people, we need to stop buying into the deceitful division of our humanity that pits who we are against who we are. In his book Created & Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture, William Edgar rightly points out, “There is a psychosomatic unity to the human being. That is, there is no dualism of body and soul, and certainly no superiority of the soul or mind.”[7]

If in our corporate worship, we were only to ever sing happy songs, would we be following the model provided us by the Holy Spirit in the Psalms? If in corporate worship, we denied ourselves emotional responses – even sadness and pain – would be following the model provided us by the Holy Spirit in the Psalms?

No, we wouldn’t.

And an important point: our emotional responses aren’t simply for private catharsis. We don’t feel to just feel or to simply release our feelings. The great literature professor and poet Ivor Armstrong Richards believed, “Poetry is failing us, or we it, if after our reading we do not find ourselves changed.”[8]

The Psalms Compel Change, Not Just Action

“Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who writes its laws.” Andrew Fletcher

No doubt, you’re familiar with Psalm 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

I have a funny story (funny now) about how this verse can be horribly proof-texted. I don’t have time to tell it, though. Needless to say, I tried to claim the promise by mere actions. I thought, delighting in the Lord looks like this, so if I do X, Y, and Z, I’ll get what I want, which at the time was a girl. I only wanted half of the poem.

Theologian William VanGemeren provides an important point – vital point – for us to grasp about the Psalms, “In the 150 psalms the Holy Spirit has given us more than a book of Israel’s prayer and praise. The Book of Psalms is a cross section of God’s revelation to Israel and of Israel’s response in faith to the Lord.”[9]

When I read and interacted with Psalm 37:4 those many, many years ago, I was doing so as if the Bible is a type of owner’s manual, purely an instructional book. I had a cognitive approach to it. I didn’t want God; I wanted what God could do for me, could give me. I wasn’t listening to “Israel’s response in faith to the Lord.” I was reading and interpreting it in the individualistic, imminent way I talked about in the introduction.

In personal devotions, this approach is often worked out by the encouragement to make a beeline to the personal application that can help us get through our day. Except finding nuggets of information in the Bible is similar to drinking our coffee in the morning. There’s no real change that occurs; it’s just an imminent fix for the moment – 5 biblical truths to help you get through the work week. 5 cups of coffee to help you last until lunch.

Year later, after I had become a Christian, and not long after my mom died, I wanted to take my faith seriously; I wanted to grow. But I struggled with reading the Bible. And so, I talked to my pastor about it, and he gave me some of the most helpful advice I’ve ever received. He said, “The Bible isn’t about you, John. It’s about God. Read it to learn who He is.”

I’ve plagiarized that advice many times over the years when talking to people who struggle reading the Bible. Learning about who God is changes us. One way or the other. For Believers, it prompts a response of faith. And the Holy Spirit uses it to change us – to continue to conform us into the image of the Son.

Earlier, I quoted from the book Doctrine that Dances. Robert Smith, Jr. wrote, “God wants the truth of doctrine to get hold of humans.” There’s an important distinction between us getting hold of doctrine and doctrine getting hold of us. The mastery is in a different direction. Our default is to assume that we master knowledge. That we grab hold of it. That we work it out.

Remember I claimed earlier that Satan would win all the Bible trivia quizzes. And he’d do great in seminary. In church, though? I’m afraid he’d struggle to flourish in church, assuming the church is operating according to and through the Holy Spirit in obedience to God’s Word.

You can have all the head knowledge in the world, you can get hold of all the right doctrines, but as I Corinthians 13:1 reveals, if you don’t have love, you’re a what? A noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Or nothing, according to verse 2, and gain nothing according to verse 3.

Head knowledge, in and of itself, doesn’t change us. Our hearts need to be changed. We have to be given God’s love. In Deuteronomy, Moses told the people, “y’all have and know the law but you’re still going to violate the covenant because your hearts need to be circumcised.”

When I think back over my life, some of the godliest people I’ve known would fail miserably if asked to write a paper on sanctification and they’re more sanctified than many people I know who’d get an A on that paper. Understand, though, it’s not an either/or. I’ve known very godly people who’ve written books on sanctification. But when doctrine gets hold of us, that’s different than when we get hold of doctrine.

And bringing this back to the Psalms, a value of poetry is that it calls us to internalize things that are transcendent. It places us in relationship with things outside of ourselves. And that changes us. It makes us aware of our finitude and prompts the internal desire to grow and change. When the poetry is divinely inspired and the Holy Spirit has promised to work through it, well, it doesn’t just prompt us to change, it does change us.

And the Psalms aren’t just poetry; they also tell a story – the Story.

Our emotional responses should be communal/corporate because they reflect our place in the transcendent – in that Story. They are used by the Holy Spirit to connect us to our Covenant King. And that transcendence doesn’t just call us to external actions; the Psalms’ great poetry calls us into a story that changes us.

If you read Psalms 146-150, you’ll notice something. The book ends with 5 beautiful poetries of praise.

Did you know there are more poetries of lament in the Psalms than any other category? 42, to be exact. I wonder, then, why there’s a grouping of Psalms of praise to end the book?

Hold onto that question, I’ll answer it below. Before that, though, we’re going to look at Psalms 1 and 2.

Stories have a through-line-of-action. Some of y’all may not know this about me, but I ain’t a theologian. I haven’t been formally trained as a theologian. I’ve been formally trained as a storyteller. I’ve been taught how to interpret literature, and then to communicate that interpretation. This is one of the reasons why Robert asked me to teach this introductory class. Because poetry is a form of storytelling (all art is storytelling), poetry has a through-line-of-action. The Psalms are no exception.

But I want to make sure we’re all on the same page about what through-line-of-action means. To do that, we need to define story.

I’ve taught my kids this simple definition: A story is somebody (the protagonist) wants something (called the super-objective). Somebody or something is standing in the way of the protagonist achieving the super-objective (this is the antagonist). If the protagonist accomplishes the super-objective, the story, in the classical sense, is a comedy. If not, if the protagonist fails, the story is a tragedy.

The through-line-of-action is the moving forward, or backwards, in the pursuit of the protagonist’s super-objective.

Who is the Bible’s protagonist? God, of course.

What does God want? It’s His desire to save His people for His glory. “I will be your God, and you will be my people,” is a refrain heard throughout the Bible.

What or whom, is the Bible’s antagonist? Sin, death, Serpent-Satan – Satan.

Now, in the classical sense, is the Bible a comedy or a tragedy? Obviously, it’s a comedy. Thankfully, God does save His people back to Himself.

So, in the Bible, which is filled with fascinating parallelism, there are two prominent cities – Jerusalem and Babylon. One’s God’s city, the other, not so much, to put it lightly. The Bible ends with a wedding feast in the New Jerusalem – a city built around a garden (the Bible ends where it begins). Now, what was something that Babylon was famous for? Hanging gardens.

In his attempts to thwart the God’s super-objective, Satan, the antagonist, the master of deceit, holds out a perverted image of God’s blessings. Think of how he tempted Jesus in the wilderness.

Then, of course, and brilliantly wonderful, what does God do to overcome Satan and save His people? Tolkien called it the eucatrasophe. The greatest plot twist in any story ever. God took on the form of flesh, came to earth, suffered like us, and then died. Of course, Jesus didn’t stay dead. And through faith in Jesus, we receive his righteousness, and the eternal debt of our sin is paid by him.

For those of us who are God’s people, have we come into our full and final salvation? No. When will that happen? On that Final Day when King Jesus returns.

With all that in mind, and I realize that was quick, let’s look at Psalms 1 and 2, and see if you can see the Bible’s Story in it.

Psalm 1: The Way of the Righteous and the Wicked

Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Psalm 2: The Reign of the Lord’s Anointed

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
12 Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Can you see it? Can you see the Bible’s Story in these two psalms? Even just parts of it. I get this may be a new concept for you – seeing the entire Story of the Bible in smaller parts of it.

Psalm 1: two people groups, the righteous and the wicked. And both groups are defined by their relationship with the LORD. Psalm 2: peoples and kings in rebellion against the KING. That KING responds. For His sake and the sake of His people. It’s a story about a King and his people. A King and what happens if you follow his word, his law, and what happens if you don’t.

And the two Psalms end how? “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” – in the KING.

There is a rebellion against the King, and salvation from the King’s wrath can only be found in the Son. In case you think I’m reading Psalms 1 and 2 anachronistically, read what Paul says in Acts 13:32-33, “32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, ‘You are my Son,  today I have begotten you.’”

God has always been on His throne. He’s never not ruled over everything. This is in his response to Job when he says in Job 41:11, “Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.” That same poetic bite is in Psalm 2:4, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.”

The question to God’s sovereign kingship is, are we responding as God’s people or as God’s enemies? All the Psalms are about this because that’s the Story of the Bible – God’s Story. But don’t just take my word for it, listen to O. Palmer Robertson who contends that, “Taken together, these two psalms define the substance of essentially all that will follow throughout the remainder of the Psalms.”[10]  

And as theologian David Howard explains, “The Psalter’s overarching theme celebrates God’s sovereign rule as the great King over all things.”[11]

The Psalms are divided into five books. Many theologians believe that structure parallels the five books of the Pentateuch. They also mostly agree that there is a redemptive-historical narrative arc through the Psalms. The redemptive-historical narrative arc is often summarized like this: creation, fall, redemption, consummation. That’s integral to the Bible’s through-line-of-action. It’s the Story. It’s God saving His people.

Now, with all that in mind, let’s return to my questions about Psalms 146-150. Why do you think there are more Psalms of lament than any other category? Because, like us, the Psalmists were living before receiving their full and final salvation. The world is still fallen; it’s still broken. Psalms of lament acknowledge this in ways that draw our hearts to the Father.

Why do you think the Psalms ends with 5 wonderful Psalms of praise? Because of how the Story ends. Our final hope – our full and final salvation – is assured. King Jesus will return and make all things right.  

The Psalms tell a story using poetry. A story that communicates, among other things, that who we are and our experiences can’t be reduced to the I, to me. And that poetic story invites us into the Story – God’s Story. We aren’t just observers; we’re participants. One of the main questions is, who are we? Are we the wicked or the blessed? How does our relationship to the King define us?  

Let the poetic story wash over you. Don’t approach the Psalms as an intellectual exercise to unlock the nuggets of information in it. Prayerfully allow yourself to be placed in the story and then respond honestly.

Before concluding, let’s look again at Psalm 42. It ends in verse 11 with the assurance, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

But before that full salvation reappears, before his full and final salvation comes, the Psalmist lives in a broken world and confesses that. Pours out his heart. And he’s able to do so – to be brutally honest – because he knows salvation is coming. He knows that he belongs to a King that is going to make all things right. The solution exists in relation to the problem – it’s a whole poem, not a half a poem like “As the Deer Panteth”.

If in our worship of God, we mainly reside in the redemption and consummation part (the happy part) of the creation, fall, redemption, and consummation through-line-of-action, we’re only living in half the poem, half the story. Not only are we not being honest, we’re running the terrible risk of taking God for granted, taking His salvation for granted. When we resist the Psalter’s powerful emotional content from grabbing hold of us, we’re not allowing ourselves to be placed inside the Story, opting instead for imminent, individualistic perspectives as we study the Psalms.


If we’re not already, we need to begin reading, listening, and interacting with the Psalms as the divinely inspired poems they are, poems that give voice to our emotions and invite us into a story – the Story.

I realize some are probably a little skeptical about some or even much of this. It’s hard to divorce ourselves from the mind-centered cognitive approach that has been drilled into us. But I’ll leave you with this: At the beginning, when I was talking about how our emotions give us understanding, when I was offering propositional statements about how emotions work, how did you respond? Now compare that response to your response when I related the story about my mom dying. For many, although I’m sure there are exceptions, the story opened you heart in ways that gave you better understanding than my attempts to convince you via your mind.

That’s how stories work. They affect us and produce understanding and change. And not only is God’s Story no different, it’s the model that all other stories fall short of. God’s Story will change you. Don’t keep it at an intellectual arm’s length.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Billy Collins, Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry (New York: Random House, 2003), xvi.

[2] Matthew Walther, “Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month” New York Times, Dec. 29, 2022. Accessed Dec. 29, 2022. Opinion | Poetry Died 100 Years Ago This Month – The New York Times (

[3] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Harper One, 1958), 3.

[4] John Piper, Shaped by God: Thinking & Feeling in Tune with the Psalms (Minneapolis: Cruciform Press, 2017),15.

[5] Robert Smith, Jr., Doctrine that Dances: Bringing Doctrinal Preaching and Teaching to Life (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008) 48.

[6] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2005), 89.

[7] William Edgar, Created & Creating: A Biblical Theology of Culture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 165.

[8] I.A. Richards, Poetries and Sciences (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1970), 47.

[9] William A. VanGemeren, “Psalms” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5 ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 5.

[10] O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2015), 54.

[11] David M. Howard, “Introduction to Psalms” NIV Zondervan Study Bible ed. D.A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 975.

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