The Pain of Life, the Supreme Goodness of God, and the Joy of the Psalmists

From Stephen Westerholm’s little gem, Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans (Baker, 2004), pages 33, 87–88:

The psalmists of the Bible found joy in the presence of God: an overwhelming sense that, wherever one found oneself, and whatever one’s circumstances, God is there — and God is good. The joy may be expressed, as the Psalms frequently enjoin, with music and dance and boisterous shouts. It may find voice in a quiet prayer of assurance: “When I awake, I am still with thee.” In any case, the psalmists repeatedly speak of discovering in the Eternal not only their provision and protection but also their heart’s delight:

Thou hast put gladness in my heart,

more than in the time

that their corn and their wine increased.

In thy presence is fullness of joy;

at thy right hand

there are pleasures for evermore.

Delight thyself also in the LORD;

and he shall give thee

the desires of thine heart.

Not incidental to the pleasure was the belief that the enjoyment was mutual:

He [God] delighteth not in the strength of the horse:

he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.

The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him,

in those that hope in his mercy.

The psalmists’ joy is rooted in their conviction that, circumstances notwithstanding, life is good, and that they have a share in its goodness, loved by the One who matters most. Praise, for them, is the natural, appropriate venting of joy: to praise the Lord is “fitting” and “good.”

And yet,

The psalmists who found such satisfaction in God’s “face” were fully aware of the darker aspects of life: is there anywhere a literature that more profoundly probes the lot of the despised, the slandered, the despondent, those ravaged by disease or war? God’s ways are often disturbingly mysterious even for the psalmists. They feel that at times he has “hidden” his “face,” and they cannot understand why.

Nonetheless, what prevails in the end is the unshakable faith in their bones, whatever the fate of their flesh, that underlying all is goodness, beyond human understanding but deserving of human trust: a goodness not only worth clinging to when all else fails, but more precious by far than anything else one might desire.

Speech-Act in the Psalms

“Speech-act theory [SAT] insists that language does not exist idly to make certain sounds, but is always language in action, and usually communicative action” (Briggs). SAT can be taught well or poorly and the difference is how clearly the teacher brings to bear the “so what” of why it matters in the first place.

If you’re going to explain the “so what” of SAT, and you want to avoid abstractions, the psalms are a great place to do it. By praying or sing the psalms we are not merely reciting idle sounds with our tongues. We are performing. This is especially true because language is part of our covenant relationship, as we will see shortly.

I appreciate how Gordon Wenham explains the “so what” in his forthcoming book, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Crossway, Feb. 2013). Here’s a spattering of quotes. Perhaps it will spark more interest in the book or in SAT and its implications for our devotions, our local churches, and all forms of corporate speech.

Page 27:

Promises change a situation by imposing obligations on the speaker and creating expectations in the listener. A promise is an example of a speech act. Wedding vows are speech acts too. The key words in a marriage ceremony are spoken publicly and before God. “I A take you B to be my wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

One trusts that brides and grooms pronounce these words after careful thought beforehand and with complete sincerity on the big day. The words themselves transform their status: the two become man and wife. Thus the words are performative.

Page 120:

To say, “I give thanks to Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart” is not merely informing God about one’s feelings, but also performing an act of thanksgiving in itself.

Pages 34–35:

To sum up, singing or praying the psalms is a performative, typically a commissive, act: saying these solemn words to God alters one’s relationship in a way that mere listening does not. This is not a new insight. St. Paul saw confession of faith as altering one’s status before God: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved” (Rom. 10:9–10).

Paul’s argument may be applied to the Psalms. Throughout the Psalter one is confessing that the Lord is God, and as the Psalms often insist, this is supposed to be a confession that comes from a pure and sincere heart. And it is certainly salvation that the Psalmist seeks: time and again he pleads to God to save him, to deliver him, to hear his prayer, and so on. Whether or not this always occurs is not my purpose to discuss now. I simply want to draw out some of the similarities between taking an oath, making a vow, confessing faith, and praying the psalms. I think these parallels may help us to see how powerful the commitment is that the psalms demand of their user. In singing the psalms, one is actively committing oneself to following the God-approved life.

Joy’s Ignition

This Sunday at his church (Sovereign Grace Fellowship; Bloomington, MN), my friend Rick Gamache kicked off a new summer sermon series in the Psalms. The series begins with Psalm 33.

On the opening three verses (Psalm 33:1-3) Rick made the following comments in his sermon:

This is not a casual suggestion to worship God. This is not a suggestion at all. It’s a command. There are five imperatives in this three-verse invocation to worship. Here they are: “shout,” “give thanks,” make melody,” “sing,” “play.” We are to do all those things joyfully and so we are to do all those things very loudly. It is a call to passionate, exuberant exultation. As Charles Spurgeon said, “Joy is the soul of praise to God.”

This is a hymn to be sung when the people of God gather together. The Psalmist, by commanding that we worship joyfully, is saying that joy should mark the people of God. Joyful praise, the Psalmist says in verse 1, befits the people of God. In other words, joy is the appropriate response to God. It’s not the only response. There are other hymns that call for other types of response: stunned silence, or awe and wonder, or holy fear, or brokenness and contrition, or deep longings. But in all those other responses to God, there should be an undercurrent of joy because joy is the soul of praise. So when the people gather–like we are gathered this morning–the accent should be on joyful celebration.

Note that the joyful shouts and the joyful expressions of gratitude and the joyful singing and all the joyful playing are not tied to our circumstances.

Were not told:

  • Shout for joy in the Lord … if everything is going well with you.
  • Give thanks to the Lord … if everything went as you planned it this week.
  • Sing a new song to God … if you got a raise.

The imperatives are not tied to our situations or our circumstances. …

So what is all this joy about? Why give exuberant thanks? Why sing new songs? The Psalmist does not encourage us to put on a show. He’s not saying, “Gather with the people of God and when you do, do all that you can to appear joyful.” This is not a command to be disingenuous. The Psalmist and God expect us to experience joy–real joy–as we shout and give thanks and sing. And so the rest of the Psalm tells us why we should be joyful.

Three verses tell us what to do (1–3), and those are followed by 17 verses that specifically tell us why (4–22). And that’s evidence of the fact that we need all the help we can get to be stirred to joyful praise.

If you are anything like me, then you are fickle, you are distracted, your joy wanes, and sometimes it seems to disappear completely. And yet here is a call to joyful worship. Why? What or who ignites this joy? God. God is the one who ignites the joy. The 17 following verses answer why we worship with joy—because of God, who he is, and what he’s done for his people. God is the reason for our joy. And it is this joy that runs as an undercurrent and withstand all the attacks of life.