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The book of Psalms could be described as the most eclectic and diverse collection found in the Bible, and this collection has served as a centerpiece in individual and collective worship for thousands of years. The poems and prayers and songs gathered in this scroll commemorate moments of despair and moments of elation, times of national glory and national collapse, tensions between imagined futures and the reality in front of the composers. And through it all, the reader is invited to open themselves to see God’s presence in all the twists and turns of life, to name confusion and pain and yet never accept these states as the end of the story.

The Hebrew Bible is divided into three sections, the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The first book in the Writings section is the book of Psalms, a magnificent collection of 150 poems that have formed the bedrock of communal and personal worship for millennia.

I come to my study of the Psalms as a Hebrew Bible scholar, a musician, and an outdoors enthusiast. As an acknowledgement of how our perspectives and experiences impact our reading of scripture, I want to outline here the main interpretive lenses through which I view the Psalms. And as you embark on your study of the Psalms this quarter, I invite you to take stock of your training, background, experiences, and interests and reflect on what these contribute to your reading of these ancient prayers and songs.

The Psalms as Cultural Artifacts of Awe

Awe is a fundamental part of human experience. For many years now I have thought of the poems and stories collected together in the Bible as memorials to people’s encounters with something larger than themselves—encounters that were so significant that they were told to others, written down, and preserved through the generations. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “To be spiritual is to be amazed.” William Brown argues that wonder is a productive lens through which to read and engage with the biblical literature. This is his working definition of wonder: “an emotion born of awe that engenders a perpetually attentive, reverently receptive orientation toward the Other by awakening both emotional and cognitive resources for contemplation and conduct” (Wisdom’s Wonder, p. 24). In a world where writing materials were scarce and time and resources for transcribing poetry were available primarily to the elite, the process of composing, editing, compiling, and passing on the beautiful collection of prayers we find in the Psalms would have been a truly monumental task. Songs and prayers would have been composed and passed from person to person, generation to generation primarily orally. And I would argue that the experience of awe, amazement, awareness of or encounter with transcendence or mystery—this is what compelled people to write and preserve these poems. Dacher Keltner, who researches wonder and awe at the Greater Good Science Center, talks about how culture “archives” awe (Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, 2023, p. xviii). After reading Keltner’s book, I’ve started thinking about Psalms as cultural artifacts of awe that have been passed along like heirlooms. And why should we read these texts with wonder, and carry on this legacy of memorializing moments of awe? “Reading the Bible with wonder inspires passion,” William Brown writes, “passion for God, passion for community, passion for life and for all that makes life whole and good” (Sacred Sense, p. 13).

The Psalms as Apprenticeship in Prayer

We find in the Psalms examples of the full range of human experience and emotion. And a remarkable assertion is implied throughout the collection—that in the midst of joy and betrayal, defeat and jubilant celebration, sorrow and consolation, God is present. And in contrast to messages of “keep it positive here!” that we may encounter in society or in religious communities, the Psalms assert again and again that there is no better place to express the full intensity of painful emotions than in direct dialogue with the Creator. As Dragoslava Santrac, author of the adult bible study guide, asserts, “The Psalms bear witness to a spiritual journey that is common to many of God’s children” (Introduction). One of the books I have found to be a helpful companion for the journey of learning to pray the psalms is Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. Peterson clarifies what he means by “tools” when he notes, “Prayers are tools, but with this clarification: Prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” The prayers collected in the book(s) of Psalms provide a way for us to connect with other worshippers around the world and remember our relation to the many generations who have come before us. And these poems provide space for us to show up with our full humanity and engage in the life-long process of becoming all that God created us to be.

The Psalms as a Fun and Accessible Way to Learn About Hebrew Poetry

Learning about ancient Hebrew literary devices and poetic structures can be dry and boring, as my students used to point out to me years ago when I started Hebrew Bible courses by asking them to read textbook chapters cataloguing the technicalities of Hebrew poetry. What I have since found is that encountering the Psalms teaches us, and imagining the embodied experience of people through the years who have prayed these same poems increases our understanding of Hebrew poetry and also reinforces our connections with those who have come before us. Imagine joining your voice with a great throng of others calling out the response in Psalm 136. The worship leaders would call out a statement about God and the people’s history with God, and then a great chorus would cry out “His covenant love endures forever!” Recite Psalms 42 and 43 and ask yourself how a refrain functions. When we venture out with tough questions, express vulnerable longings, and request God’s intervention, in what ways might returning to the same chorus again and again offer safety, emphasis, or solidarity? Imagine being a writer or reciter of poetry like the acrostics found in Psalms 25 and 34. What would having each verse start with the next letter of the alphabet do for you? Would it assist in memorization? Allow a sense of wholeness or completeness in the midst of exploring the uncertainy and chaos of human life? Renew your connection to your national and religious identity as the creative process of composition was guided by the structure of the alphabet? We will encounter many rhetorical devices and structural elements as we engage with the Psalms, each ancient poem inviting us to read—both the text and our lives with God—with care and curiosity.

How to Use the Guide

The lesson subjects and accompanying list of scripture texts come from the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide written by Dr. Dragoslava Santrac and published by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. The Good Word study guide is not intended to replace the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, but rather to accompany it, bringing additional voices to the conversation. Therefore, I invite you to use this guide to the extent that it is helpful to you in your individual or group engagement with the Psalms. The accompanying recordings use this study guide as a jumping off point, and if you enjoy listening to conversations about the Bible, you may enjoy listening to the Good Word recordings and using them as a launch pad for further study and conversation, on your own, or with those around you.

Unless otherwise stated, scripture references are from the New International Version.

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