"Sing for joy to God our strength;
Begin the music, strike the tambourine...
Sound the ram's horn at the new moon...."
- Psalm 81:1-3
By the sound, Asaph, a musician in King David's court and author of a number of Psalms, was as excited about a new moon in his day as we are about a new year in ours.
Change a few instruments and Psalm 81 could have been written for our holiday celebrations last week, not 3,000 years ago. But looking back to Psalm 79 - "We are objects of reproach to our neighbors ... How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?" - and we wonder if Asaph was bipolar, or perhaps the proverbial temperamental musician.
If you've resolved to spend more time reading the Bible this year, or if you identify with a recent title by Kenneth Davis, "Don't Know Much About the Bible," you may want to skip the historical narratives for now and start with the Psalms. You might not learn who begat whom, or what God created on which day, but you'll discover every emotion you've ever experienced in this longest book of the Bible.
Also, when you consider all that could have been included in the "Word of God," you may be surprised that so much space was allotted to the words of men.
A Jewish friend and I often speak about the contrast in our religious beginnings. "We're taught to question everything," she reminds me, and I reply that, much of the time, we Christians are taught to accept what we learn about God without question. So it wasn't until I had left my home church behind, graduated from a Christian college and met people with contrasting views that I dared - oh, so cautiously - to question what I'd been taught.
During my questioning period I conceded that the "days" in Genesis could have been periods of time longer than 24 hours. The story of Jonah was suspect for a while, until I understood the parallel between the world's greatest fish story and the crucifixion. The kings and prophets of the Old Testament, however, seemed too plausible to be made up, and I had no trouble believing all the New Testament revealed about Jesus and the Apostles who carried on his work.
That left what is called "wisdom literature," (Job to Song of Solomon), which could easily have been the fiction or human ideas of the ancient world, much like novels and how-to books are in ours.
But Job seemed to preview the ultimate win of good over evil promised in the rest of the Bible, and the writings of Solomon were more profound than anything the world's philosophers have offered since. So I accepted those books as the Word of God, too.
Now I was down to the Psalms, and judging by sections like, "O Babylon, ... a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks" (137:8-9), I was going to have a time reconciling this book with the inspired Word of God.
But I read on, past the anger, through the poetry, all the way to the doxologies at the end of nearly every Psalm. I read the hopes of the oppressed, the remorse of those who knew they had sinned, and the continuous thanks that God existed and cared about every situation they faced. Finally, I concluded, whatever I feel or do today has been felt or experienced before, and no matter what those flawed thoughts and actions are, God allows them to be exposed to his healing and forgiveness.
A minister once challenged his congregation to become psalmists. "Follow the Biblical pattern," he said. "Tell God whatever you are thinking, what need you would like him to address and whatever degree of praise you can honestly offer him at the close."
The following is my attempt to accept that challenge:
"Lord, help your servant - if, in fact, I am the server and not the one wanting to be served. Give aid to my spirit; teach me that good works are a responsibility, not a cry for recognition.
"Lord, you have already promised to feed, clothe and shelter me, and to increase my bounty when other needs arise. Give me more concern for the needs of others than for myself.
"For you, Lord, are mighty and praiseworthy; you open Heaven's window and pour out your blessings; you heal persons and lands, and restore order and meaning to both. Teach us - teach me - to serve and trust you more."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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