As the summer course on Psalms began, I became aware of two glaring sentiments brought into the classroom. One: “Professor, prove to me why I should care about the Bible, especially the Old Testament.” Two: “Prove to me that God really cares about me.” It can be a tough audience in those initial getting-to-know-each-other moments. Sometimes a cynical posture seems justified in its edge-over-faith due to life’s disappointments.
Most of my students acknowledged they hadn’t read Psalms before, some even unfamiliar with Psalm 23. This worked in our favor, however, as I witnessed their initial amazement as they read through the heartfelt prayers of David, Solomon and the sons of Korah (psalters in Moses’ day). Together, we examined psalms of wisdom, praise, lament, thanksgiving and encountered the real struggles of the psalmists who were weak — just like us. They discovered these prayers weren’t ashamed to cry out: “God, why are you so far away?” Or, “Why do the nations rage?” And, “Why do the wicked prosper?” The psalters didn’t deny life’s curve balls. They also found relief in realizing it’s even orthodox to take our anger to God. In fact, it’s the safest place. Then we wrestled with the imprecatory psalms, those that actually pray curses against an enemy. So we discussed, can we really do that? After completing a few study-exercises in the various psalms, something turned in our conversations. Their questions had a little more oomph. Gingerly, they started connecting their 2015 prayer journal assignment with prayers said/written in 1500 B.C.
Though the course has necessary academic objectives, I vowed, “Lord, there is no way I can teach the Psalms as merely skilled poetry. You show them this matters. I can’t remove cynicism from their hearts.” I pleaded, “Lord, how can I better point my students to you? I feel so helpless.” And then He mercifully led me through Psalm 118 through the eyes of Jesus.
In my personal study, I had reached Passover Week in the Gospels, when Jesus was about to become the Passover Lamb. The Holy Spirit orchestrated this to fall right in sync with the course material on the Psalms. The Hallel (praise) psalms (113-118) were sung before and after the Passover meal, serving to corporately proclaim supreme confidence in the steadfast love of God. (Note: Jesus quoted the Psalms more than any other book.) As Jesus celebrated Passover Week with the disciples, he prayed Psalm 118, which was likely the last psalm our Lord sang before His passion (Mark 14:26). In unity, He worshiped with the Jewish community, “The Lord is my strength and my song … This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” With death right in front of him, Jesus sang the text with a depth we cannot fully understand, “This is this the day that the Lord had made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24). In the dark hours of Gethsemane when every disciple deserted Jesus, he sweat drops of blood, indicating He suffered beyond what a physical body should bear. The weight of sin. Betrayal. Profound grieving for you and me.
He confronted the Pharisees with Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Jesus clearly was declaring himself as the Messiah when he quoted it, knowing his oppressors would sing these very words after the Passover meal. Without pushing toward persuasive speech, he continued to stand on scripture, “The Lord is on my side; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me. Save us, we pray, O Lord” (118:7). His spiritual thirst was quenched, though offered sour vinegar from the Cross. The psalm strengthened him, over and over.
My class read the psalm as Jesus’ own prayer for the first time, “I shall not die, but I shall live, … the Lord has disciplined me severely, but He has not given me over to death” (118:18). Suddenly, gratitude took over. They saw for themselves how marvelous he is. The two initial glaring sentiments they carried vanished, as they began to write their own psalms of praise. They “knew” the Old Testament was relevant. And they “knew” God loved them. Hallelujah!
“Lord, enlarge all our souls with renewed gratitude. Let us sing with the psalter, ‘Your steadfast love endures forever!’”
Tracey D. Lawrence is an adjunct faculty for Biblical studies at Colorado Christian University.