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Tim and Kathy Keller on the Psalms: A guide for practical living

The book of Psalms is not just a matchless primer of teaching but a medicine chest for the heart and the best possible guide for practical living.

Theologians and leaders of the church have believed that the psalms should be used and reused in every Christian’s daily, private approach to God and in public worship. We are not simply to read the psalms; we are to be immersed in them so that they profoundly shape how we relate to God. They are the divinely ordained way to learn devotion to our God.

Why? One reason is that the book of Psalms is what Luther called a “mini Bible.” It gives an overview of salvation history from Creation through the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, the establishment of the tabernacle and temple and the exile due to unfaithfulness, and it points us forward to the coming messianic redemption and the renewal of all things.

The psalms are more than just instruments for theological instruction, however. One of the ancient church fathers, Athanasius, wrote, “Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book [the Psalms] you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you … learn the way to remedy your ill.” Every situation in life is represented in the book of Psalms.

Psalms anticipate and train you for every possible spiritual, social and emotional condition — they show you what the dangers are, what you should keep in mind, what your attitude should be, how to talk to God about it and how to get the help you need from God. The book of Psalms, then, is not just a matchless primer of teaching but a medicine chest for the heart and the best possible guide for practical living.

In calling psalms “medicine,” I am trying to do justice to what makes them somewhat different from other parts of the Bible. They are written to be prayed, recited and sung — to be done, not merely to be read. We are, in a sense, to put them inside our own prayers, or perhaps to put our prayers inside them, and approach God in that way.

The psalms lead us to do what the psalmists do — to commit ourselves to God through pledges and promises, to depend on God through petition and expressions of acceptance, to seek comfort in God through lament and complaint, to find mercy from God through confession and repentance, to gain new wisdom and perspective from God through meditation, remembrance and reflection.

The psalms also help us to see God — God not as we wish or hope Him to be but as He actually reveals himself. The descriptions of God in the Psalter are rich beyond human invention. He is more holy, more wise, more fearsome, more tender and loving than we would ever imagine Him to be. The psalms fire our imaginations into new realms yet guide them toward the God who actually exists. This brings a reality to our prayer lives that nothing else can.

Most of all, the psalms, read in light of the entire Bible, bring us to Jesus. The psalms were Jesus’ songbook. The hymn that Jesus sang at the Passover meal (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26) would have been the Great Hallel, Psalm 113-118. Indeed, there is every reason to assume that Jesus would have sung all the psalms, constantly, throughout His life, so that He knew them by heart. It is the book of the Bible that He quotes more than any other. But the psalms were not simply sung by Jesus; they also are about Him.

The psalms are, then, indeed the songs of Jesus.

Daily Devotion samples:

READ: Psalm 45:10-17

OUR BEAUTY. The bride is led to the king (verses 10-15). If the king is Jesus, we are His spouse. He is enthralled with us (verse 11), but Ephesians 5:25-27 teaches that He doesn’t love us because we are lovely but He loves us in order to make us so, by grace. On the last day we will be united with Him, as will others, in love forever. Christian marriages can display a small bit of the joy that awaits us in heaven. But idolatry is a temptation. We must let our marriages reveal Christ, not replace Christ. And if we are not married but wish to be, we should remember that we already have the only spousal love that will truly fulfill.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You look on us as a spouse and lover, with passionate love and delight. I praise You that You can love like that, but I confess that I don’t live like someone who is loved like that. Make it a truth that controls how I act every day. Amen.


READ: Psalm 128

FAMILY. A loving spouse and growing children are a great blessing (verses 3-4). But sin in the heart and evil in the world have disrupted the life of the human family. Many wish to have families who don’t, and many who have families wish they had very different ones. There are also people who have suffered terrible abuse within their families. Jesus said that His family did not consist of His biological relatives: “For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). The church must not only support and repair families but also find a way to become the family of God where everyone, married and single, childless or not, can flourish in love.

Prayer: Lord, too many of us today relate to others at church as fellow customers rather than as brothers and sisters. We go to get religious services, not to live out our common lives together like family. Change my thinking; help me to help my church become a family. Amen.

Timothy Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and the author of several best-selling books including The Reason for God and The Meaning of Marriage.

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