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The Book of Psalms – the Bible’s own devotional book for days of crisis and anxiety

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

The Book of Psalms – the Bible’s own devotional book for days of crisis and anxiety


Last Sunday, the first day when the COVID-19 coronavirus closed all the churches for public worship, I viewed four separate livestreamed services of worship. It was an unusual Sunday for all of us, but it gave a whole new perspective on Christian worship, and it was sobering to realise how painful it is not to be with God’s people on the Lord’s Day.

One feature that struck me about the livestreamed offerings was that all four preachers based their messages on the Psalms. In a time of great crisis and widespread anxiety, comfort and hope was sought in that book which one American writer describes as “the 800lb gorilla of evangelical worship”.[1]

It is no wonder that so many church leaders opted for a Psalm in our situation. While the whole range of Christian experience finds expression in the Psalms, they provide us with a particularly helpful resource in times of trouble. Athanasius (ca 296-373) says that they “embrace the whole life of men, the affections of his mind and the motions of his soul.” One may find, he says, “a Psalm suited to every occasion, and thus will find that they were written for him.”

Whether one has plunged to the “depths” (Ps. 130:1) or to the “lowest pit” and the “dark places” (88:6) or is stuck in the “deep mire” (69:1, 2, 14-15), there is a psalm suited to the occasion. Are you “pursued by enemies” (7)? Does God seem distant (10)? Are you lonely and afflicted (25:16-22)? Are you needy (86:1)? Despairing (42-43)? Encompassed by the cords of death (116:3, 4)? Walking through the valley of the shadow of death (23)? In all these situations, the Psalms give us a language and words that allow us to express ourselves to God.

The positive side of Christian experience is given full play as well. Luther says: “In whatever situation he may be”, the Christian will find “in that situation Psalms and words to fit his case.” Indeed, he or she will find words better than their own “so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”[2]

Calvin concurs with this, referring to the psalms as “an anatomy of all parts of the soul” in which “there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.” The Holy Spirit, he says, “has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions, with which the minds of men are want to be agitated.”[3]

There is a wholeness to the psalms as designed by their Divine Author that addresses the whole of human life. There is a realism that reflects the light and the dark, the delightful and the degrading, the hopeful and the discouraging. Basil (ca 330-70) summarises it like this: “The Book of Psalms is a compendium of all divinity; a common store of medicine for the soul; a universal magazine of all good doctrines, profitable to everyone in all conditions.”[4]

Over the next weeks as ministers and pastors seek to minister to their flocks, I imagine that much use will be made of the longest book in the Bible. Some further reflections on the appropriate use of the psalms in worship for Christian believers might be appropriate so that we make effective use of the Bible’s own devotional book. In these days of anxiety, the 800lb gorilla should not be ignored.

[1] Terry L. Johnson, “Restoring Psalm Singing to our Worship” in Give Praise to God, eds. PG Ryken, DWH Thomas and JL Duncan III (Philipsburg; P&R, 2003).

[2] Luther, “Preface to the Psalter” (1528) quoted in Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 1980), 17.

[3] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 1.xxviii, trans. James Anderson (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845).

[4] Quoted in Bushell, Songs of Zion, 166.

Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

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Very Rev Dr Stafford Carson

Stafford Carson is a graduate of University of Ulster, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadel…

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