Best of Daily Reflections: Let’s Stop Sucking the Life Out of the Psalms

Daily Reflection / Produced by The High Calling
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Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens! May your glory shine over all the earth.

Psalm 57:5

Psalm 57:5 is the basis of dozens of hymns and songs of praise, and for good reason. Standing alone, this verse serves as a succinct, powerful chorus: "Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens! May your glory shine over all the earth." In fact, this verse is a refrain in Psalm 57, appearing both in verse 5 and again in verse 11, the final verse of the psalm.

Almost all contemporary songwriters base their lyrics on the second appearance of this chorus, which is preceded by a heartfelt confession of God's goodness: "For your unfailing love is as high as the heavens. Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds. Be exalted, O God. . ." (57:10-11). Yet, virtually no writer pays any attention to the first appearance of this chorus in the psalm. Here's what we find in verses 4-6: "I am surrounded by fierce lions who greedily devour human prey—whose teeth pierce like spears and arrows, and whose tongues cut like sword. Be exalted, O God, above the highest heavens! May your glory shine over all the earth. My enemies have set a trap for me. I am weary from distress. They have dug a deep pit in my path, but they themselves have fallen into it."

Now that context changes the sense of the chorus, don't you think? The first time David says, "Be exalted, O God . . . ," he is not in place of gratitude for God's faithfulness. He is not in a good place at all. Rather, he is surrounded by enemies who are seeking to kill him. He is desperate, crying out to God for help. And then, right in the middle of his peril, David cries out, "Be exalted, O God ..." Here is worship in the midst of turmoil and trial. Here is praise in the messy trenches of life. Here is real faith, the kind of faith we need.

I believe that we can suck the life out of the Psalms when we remove glorious, joyful passages from their fuller context. We whitewash the struggle, the challenge, the gut-wrenching agony of genuine faith. We turn worship into something that is removed from everyday life, that seems appropriate in a safe, comfortable sanctuary, but not in the confusion of work, school, and civic engagement.

I don't mean to unfairly criticize those songwriters who used Psalm 57 as the basis for their lyrics. I'm thankful for their efforts and especially for their use of the Psalms. More power to them! But, don't we need more songs and hymns that reflect the true struggles of faith? Don't we need to be taught how to praise God when our enemies surround us and we see no way of escape? Don't we need to let the Psalms – the whole of the Psalms – teach us how to have a gritty, honest, growing relationship with God?

Yes, by all means, let's use the glorious sections of the Psalms to guide and enrich our praise of God. But, let's also pay attention to the unkempt and unflinching passages that teach us how to praise God when our lives are painful and confused. Let's stop sucking the life out of the Psalms by taking from them only that which is happy and comfortable.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever been "surrounded by fierce lions"? In that situation, how did you pray? Did it occur to you to praise God? Why or why not? How does praising God in the midst of suffering and turmoil make a difference in us?

PRAYER: Though at this moment, Lord, I am not "surrounded by fierce lions," I know I will be before too long. That's just the way life is. So help me, I pray, to praise you, not just when I am filled with gratitude because life is good, but also when I am filled with dread or sadness because life is broken.

I pray for those in my life – including those who read this reflection – who are surrounded by fierce lions today. Yes, I pray for their deliverance. But I also pray that, in the midst of their struggle, they might lift their hearts to you in praise. By your Spirit, help them to worship you. Be glorified in and through them. Amen.

Image courtesy of Laity Lodge, one of our sister programs in the Foundations for Laity Renewal.