What are the Psalms, and what can non-Christians learn from them?
I begin with the assumption that the Psalms are poetry. “If this is true,” I ask myself, “Why poetry? And what makes poetry worth reading? What does it give me that I may not find anywhere else? What is lacking in me that poetry might fill?”
The answers are not obvious to me, but poets and readers of poetry have helped me with my questions. They have taught me to appreciate the ability of poetry to provide not only cognitive truths, but experiential and emotional truths that are difficult to get in any other way. More specifically, I have learned that poetry helps us articulate what is going on inside of us, especially when we lack the language to do that for ourselves.
Readers from all walks of life have been captivated by the ability of the Psalms to do what poetry does. The Psalms can powerfully give a shape to our inner lives and express what all humans experience and feel. The church father Athanasius (AD 295-373), for example, says that the Psalms have this peculiar marvel that in all their variety are portrayed the movements of the human soul.”
Thus, the Psalms might provide some common ground for both Christians and non-Christians to meet and talk with each other about some important things like God, humanity, faith, forgiveness, grace, fear, anger, hope, salvation, sin, life, death and on and on. Abstractions such as these words fill the poetry of the Psalms. But they themselves need to be filled with content before their meaning can be unpacked. So, when you see such a word in the Psalms, ask each other: What do you mean when you use these words? For example, what is your idea of grace? What do you mean by God? What are you afraid of? Where do you find hope? How do you find salvation? The possibilities for discussion are endless. Ask each other, what do the voices in the Psalms mean by words such as these? Why do you think so? How and why do Christians read them, as we say, “in the light of Christ?” What perspective does that give on their interpretation?
Such habits of conversation and thinking may help some of us learn not to reflexively categorize those who think and live differently from us as enemies or evil. I think that it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said that the line dividing good and evil doesn’t simply cut between groups of people (us vs. them), but it cuts through the heart of every human being.
The Psalms, of course, not only can reflect our inner lives, but they can also shape them. The Psalms lead us and form us as well. By coming together over the voices in a psalm, we just might find the experience to be transforming.
To number our days honestly—teach us,
and we will get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12)
Timothy E. Saleska, Ph.D. is professor of Exegetical Theology and Dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
For Professor Saleska's full treatment of this question:
Saleska, Timothy E., Psalms 1-50
Saleska, Timothy E., Baker, David, Psalms: God's Abiding Word