New Horizons

Singing the Psalms with the Psalmist

Eric B. Watkins

Edmund P. Clowney once observed that in Hebrews 2, Jesus is portrayed, not merely as the recipient of our worship, but also as the one who, through his resurrection, leads and even participates in our worship of his Father in heaven. This is truly a remarkable idea!

Hebrews 2:11–12 says, “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’ ”

The quotation in this passage is taken from Psalm 22:22. The ascription of that psalm reads: “To the choirmaster: according to The Doe of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.” It is noteworthy that the Psalm comes unambiguously with music, and that it was meant to be sung. The Psalms, in so many ways, are not simply the heart-cry of the individual, but the heart-cry of the congregation. They were meant to be sung, not simply as personal ballads, but in the setting of the whole church, the gathering of God’s pilgrim people in the sanctuary of his presence.

Abandoning the Son

Perhaps one of the more perplexing features of this particular psalm is that it begins with that most painful expression from Jesus at the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1). The moment these words come from the lips of Jesus, we understand how utterly abandoned he truly is: his Father has left him. This is quite beyond me, and it hurts even to think about it. Thus far in his life, Jesus has made it clear that his Father is always with him. Jesus is the perfect Son, perfectly obedient, perfectly pleasing to his Father in heaven. And his Father is the perfect Father. He always delights in his Son, and is always with him. But at this moment, as the paramount expression of human rebellion and cruelty overtakes Jesus, his Father abandons him. As Jesus’ soul begins to sink into that dark mire of death, his all-powerful Father refuses to intervene and come to his rescue. If the covenant promise is “I will be your God and you will be my people,” then the covenant curse is effectively “I will not be your God and you will not be my people.” Jesus is left all alone.

I cannot pretend to fully understand this. The ironies are too strong for me; the paradox is too profound. But I can relate it, to some extent, through a recent family trial. When our son Carl was four years old, he had a very serious double infection. He spent roughly a week in the ICU of a children’s hospital. Twice he was prepped for surgery and left waiting while doctors debated whether or not to cut him open, as they were not sure what they would find inside him. I cannot say that I had ever before known such a feeling of helplessness, coupled with such a strong desire to intervene. There was not a moment in that entire week that we left our son alone. He knew that we would never leave nor forsake him. Through every procedure, we were there, and while they worked on one side of him, we held the other. He was never alone.

Late one night, while holding his little hand and helping him walk the hallway, I could not help but notice the children in other rooms. It was a collage of broken, little bodies. Babies in oxygen tents, little boys wrapped in casts like mummies, little girls hidden behind a maze of tubes and tape. Most of these kids had families like ours beside them. But some were alone—all alone and fighting for their lives. I was overcome by emotion; never in my life have I been filled with such compassion for other human beings. I wept over them. I prayed for them. I felt knit to their struggle. Still, I must confess that for all the compassion that I felt for these little, hurting children, there was not a single child on that floor for whom I would give my son—my Carl. None. If that is selfish, so be it. But it is honest.

Then it really hit me. God the Father had not simply given his Son for helpless little children like the ones in this hospital; he had given his Son for defiant rebels like me—and like you.

I thought a lot about Psalm 22 then, and in particular its piercing first question, “Why?” Why would God allow this to happen to his Son? I wish you could find your reflection in a mirror now, for there is the answer to Jesus’ question. The answer is you and me—his church. God abandoned his Son to that wretched cross, so that through his agony and abandonment, the Son of God might truly “taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9) and thus redeem us from eternal death. God’s precious Son stood in our place, sharing in what we deserve, so that we might join him in his place (heaven) and share in what he deserves!

But we cannot separate the redemptive sufferings of God the Son from the redemptive plan of God the Father. We might think of it this way: was it harder for Jesus to die on the cross for us, or for the Father to stand back while his enemies tortured and crucified his beloved Son? You may have your own answer, but I believe it would be easier for me to give up my own life than to give up the life of my son.

This has caused me to step back in amazement and to love our Father all the more! I do not pretend to understand this great mystery. I do not pretend to understand the willingness of the Son to go the cross, or even more the willingness of the Father to give up his Son. But in the absence of understanding, there is faith and deep gratitude. We do not have to understand all of God’s ways in order to love him and thank him dearly for his grace and glory.

The Psalms and the Christian Life

Is this not the nature of the Christian life? We believe in a God whom we cannot actually see. We follow a voice that we do not audibly hear. We are held by a hand that we cannot physically feel. This is also the nature and emotion of the Psalms. They encompass virtually every aspect of our lives and emotions. They catalogue every expression of the soul in poetic form. They summarize our spiritual experiences, both highs and lows.

But if Clowney is right, the Psalms do not simply capture and express the experiences of God’s people; they also draw us into the heart of Christ himself. They are Psalms—not perfectly, for the Psalms contain confessions of sin that Jesus did not need to make for himself. Yet in so many ways they express the songs of the soul that Jesus would sing as he made his own pilgrimage through the dark valleys of this world to the highest peak of the hill of the Lord.

Martin Luther was right in calling the book of Psalms “the Bible in miniature form.” For not only is the story of the soul sung in the book of Psalms, but so also is the story of redemption sung there. The Psalms, like Genesis, begin with the hope of the blessed man who is to shun evil, keep God’s laws, and become like an everlasting tree that bears fruit unto God. The book of Psalms, like Revelation, ends in the jubilant sanctuary of God, where the voices of God’s redeemed people are heard in concert with a myriad of joyful sounds, all forming one voice of praise that rises before God’s throne. In the middle of the Psalms is the story of redemption, with the trials and suffering of the psalmist displaying for us not simply the story of David, or even typifying the story of Israel, but telling ahead of time the story of Jesus, whose lonely exile on the cross would redeem the sin-laden people of God.

This is why the book of Hebrews beautifully leads us to the pastoral conclusion: “Jesus is better.” He is better than Moses, Aaron, and David as he fulfills his office of prophet, priest, and king perfectly and perpetually. He is better than the angels, for they are simply servants sent to attend the redemption that Jesus came to accomplish through his death and resurrection. He is better than the sacrifices of the old covenant, as his sacrifice needed to be offered only once. He is even better than the word spoken of old, for he is God’s final word (Heb. 1:1–2), which not only pierces our soul (Heb. 4:12), but also gives us eternal life. Simply put: Jesus is better!

Jesus, the Songwriter

Who is the best songwriter you have ever heard? I would like to suggest the answer: Jesus. He is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:1–2)—and the author and finisher of the Psalms. He is the heavenly poet who inspires the psalms of David’s soul and ours, and assures us that God will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5). Jesus not only leads us into the presence of his Father to hear us sing, but also joins the choir! We love to sing the Psalms because they are God’s inspired songs. And who better is there than Jesus to help us sing them?

The author is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Saint Augustine, Fla. He quotes the ESV. New Horizons, March 2014.

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