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A text has texture. Words, woven into a fabric of meaning, have a characteristic feel to them. When our fingers touch textiles, we know what they are good for by their feel silk for hair ribbons, denim for bib overalls, wool for a ski sweater. When our eyes go over the words of a text and our tongues and lips reproduce the sound of the words, we get a feel for how they are being used and how to take them. Getting the feel of the text is prerequisite to getting its meaning, for if we don't know how to take words, we will probably take them incorrectly. When we hear words spoken, we pick this up easily through tone and rhythm. Words spoken harshly and jerkily mean one thing, softly and languidly another, and in measured monotone still another the dictionary meaning of the words is the same each time; the intended and received meaning different. When we read words that are written, we compensate for loss of voice by observing how the words are arranged in the loom of the text. As we discern the texture, we know how to take the text.
The Psalms are poetry and the Psalms are prayer: this is the texture of the text.
Poetry and Prayer
Poetry is language used with personal intensity. It is not, as so many suppose, decorative speech. Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poets use words to drag us into the depth of reality itself. They do it not by reporting on how life is, but by pushing-pulling us into the middle of it. Poetry grabs for thejugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal. It is root language. Poetry doesn't so much tell us something we never knew as bring into recognition what is latent, forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed. The Psalms text is almost entirely in this kind of language. Knowing this, we will not be looking here primarily for ideas about God, or for direction in moral conduct. We will expect, rather, to find the experience of being human before God exposed and sharpened.
Prayer is language used in personal relation to God. It givesutterance to what we sense or want or respond to before God. God speaks to us; our answers are our prayers. The answers are not always articulate: silence, sighs, groaning these also constitute responses. The answers are not always positive: anger, skepticism, curses these also are responses. But always God is involved, whether in darkness or light, whether in faith or despair. This is hard to get used to. Our habit is to talk about God, not to him. We love discussing God. The Psalms resist these discussions. They are not provided to teach us about God but to train us in responding to him. We don't learn the Psalms until we are praying them.
This texture, the poetry and the prayer, accounts for both the excitement and difficulty in dealing with this text. The poetry requires that we deal with our actual humanity these words dive beneath the surfaces of prose and pretense, straight into the depths. We are more comfortable with prose, the laid-back language of our arms-length discourse. The prayer requires that we deal with God this God who is determined on nothing less than the total renovation of our lives. We would rather have a religious bull session.
Soil and Weather
Specific conditions account for the particular texture of the Psalms. These conditions do not assertively call attention to themselves. Conditions never do. They the climate, terrain, and culture we grow up in that determine much of who we are and become, but that we are so used to that we don't notice are just quietly there. So it is possible to have an extensive informational acquaintance with the Psalms without being aware of the conditions determinative of their being. The astonishing bloom and blossom blazing in the Psalms cannot be cultivated into maturity in us apart from entering into, insofar as we are able, the soil and weather conditions in which they came to flower. It is impossible for the Psalms to become prayer in us unless we embrace the conditions in which they were prayed. We cannot abstract the Psalms from their conditions. We cannot substitute conditions congenial to our temperament. Since the Psalms are the classic texts that train us in prayer, it is essential that we immerse ourselves in their "soil and weather." Our purpose is to grow a garden, not just cut a few flowers. Three conditions are definitive: a revealed theology, a defined canon, and a practiced liturgy.
Theology: The One God
God (theos) is the single most important condition accountingfor the Psalms. The God without which the Psalms could not exist is the God who reveals himself in Israel and in Christ. He makes himself known. Because he makes himself known, he is a God whom we know. It is required, therefore, that we use our minds to think on him, not lazily (or anxiously) guess our way. Hence theology: people of faith using their minds to understand who God is and how he works.
In an age and among a people saturated with psychology, it is hard to concede primacy to theology in anything, not exempting religious texts. With the Psalms, brimming with human experience and explosive with energies of soul (psyche John Calvin called them "an anatomy of all the parts of the soul" it is virtually impossible not to work on the assumption that psychology has the primacy. We want to understand these souls in their intimacy and depth, these souls that quail at nothing, push through frontiers in their exploration of meaning, vigorously grappling with everything they encounter across the entire spectrum of experience.Answering God copyright © by Eugene H. Peterson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All Rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.