Starting the Journey
The Psalms: Near to God to Trust and Obey
Dr. Gaylen J. Byker, President, Calvin College
“What makes the Psalms strong and lasting? I think it is because they show both the simple clarity, and the deepest depths, of the Christian faith. A child can understand them, a scholar still finds fresh insights…. We use them in worship on campus, in residence halls, chapel, the LOFT, and in churches. Think about worship as prayer. Many traditional and contemporary song lyrics use the language of the Psalms. Like the Psalms, good worship focuses our minds and hearts on the God with whom we have a relationship, and to whom we can pray.”
—President Gaylen Byker
1 O LORD, you have searched me
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.
5 You hem me in—behind and before;
you have laid your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,"
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand.
When I awake,
I am still with you.
19 If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
and abhor those who rise up against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
The full address
Students, faculty, staff and friends of Calvin College: Welcome! And to those of you joining us this fall, a special welcome. We hope you will prosper here, and enrich this place with the gifts God has given you. We will do our best to help you find your place here.
The end of summer brings mixed feelings. Anthony Diekema, my predecessor as president, used to read a poem on this occasion titled “Where has summer gone?” that lamented summer’s end. Many of us wish we had another month before classes begin. Others are happy to leave a tough summer job behind and get back to campus life. For some of us, the last three months have been joyful, for others hard, even painful.
The Christian life also has its seasons. Some of us feel closer to God today than we did in May. Others wonder if he is still there. We are rooted in a Christian tradition that knows both great joy and deep sadness, both faith and doubt. The best expressions of that tension are often found in the Psalms. I’ve been reading and thinking about the Psalms over the summer, in fact, since my childhood. Like many of you, I memorized Psalms at an early age:
Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…”
Psalm 8: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
Or, in a time of fear or seemingly senseless death, I have found strength in the words of:
Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…”
Let me tell you one of my own stories involving a Psalm, one that I have used before. Our family lived in Beirut, Lebanon in the 1980s, during the civil war. After spending a week in the basement of our apartment building while intense fighting and artillery shelling occurred in our neighborhood near the American University, my wife and I and our two young daughters fled to the beach with other foreigners early one morning to be evacuated by U.S. Marine helicopters. As the first helicopters appeared on the horizon above the Mediterranean, militiamen in the hills above Beirut started firing mortar shells at them. In near panic, everyone lay down along the stone wall at the edge of the beach. But soon we had to run to the basement of the nearby British Embassy. Our six year old daughter, Gayle, who had recently memorized Psalm 23 and listened to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, tugged on my wife Susan’s sleeve as we entered the Embassy. She whispered, “Mom, do you know why I’m not crying anymore? It’s because Jesus is right here with us.” Our six-year old reminded us that day that God is always with us, in all circumstances.
The early Jews organized the Old Testament as the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Included in the Writings are the Psalms and the wisdom literature: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. These wisdom books were associated in Biblical times with “sages” who, along with priests and prophets, were influential leaders in society. The priests and prophets dealt with the religious aspects of life, while the sages thought about practical and philosophical matters, advising kings and teaching the young. These writings were sometimes optimistic, showing the young how to act so they would lead happy and prosperous lives. But they could also be challenging, wrestling with hard questions like the problem of evil or the prosperity of the wicked. Both taught the people of Israel, and they still teach us today inside and outside of the classrooms at Calvin.
But, what makes the Psalms strong and lasting? I think it is their ability to show both the simple clarity, and the deepest depths, of the faith. A child can understand them; a scholar still finds fresh insights.
Calvin professor Debra Rienstra writes about this power of the Psalms in her book, So Much More. She writes:
“I have come to appreciate the power of the “I” in the Psalms, that flexible little pronoun with its layering of voices. It is the key to the enduring power of the Psalms as models for prayer. When I read or pray a Psalm, the “I” becomes my own…At the same time, because the Psalms are ancient, because Jews and Christians share these words, these prayers bring to bear a whole community of people, assuring me that I am not the first person to feel doubt, terror, anxiety, fury, anger, gratitude, ecstasy. Even the “I” is a “we” in other words, thousands of thousands of voices, in many languages, have prayed like this before.”
Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, calls the Psalms “the stylized, direct speech of God’s people addressed to God.” He says that this stylized speech avoids raw religious confrontation. It tells the story from one generation to the next. The Psalms are both timeless and egalitarian. They are not weighed down by theological reflection. They are not filled with pious or mystical language. They are clear and conversational, blunt and honest, like we are when talking with a good friend, suitemate, or colleague. This is covenantal speech – speech between two people in a relationship. This kind of speech is crucial for building a faith community here at Calvin, a community that challenges us, teaches us, and holds us accountable.
Calvin professor John Witvliet, in his recent book on the Psalms and worship writes:
“Praying the Psalms requires vivid, playful imagination, which makes praying the Psalms liturgically in North America a stubbornly counter-cultural act.…(They) give us a whole gallery of images or metaphors for use in prayer and preaching… including chaotic waters, illuminating light, faithful movement of heavenly bodies…They ring with sheer delight in the praise of God. They depict a world in which trees clap their hands, in which whales and hippos sing praise, in which all creation is caught up in a symphony of shalom to God”
We use the Psalms in worship on campus, in residence halls, chapel, the LOFT, and in our churches. Many traditional and contemporary prayers and songs use the language of the Psalms. Like the Psalms, good worship focuses our minds and hearts on the God with whom we have a relationship, and to whom we can pray. Consider a hymn well-loved at Calvin:
"Be Thou My Vision O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art –
Thou my best thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.”
The hymn is still popular today, even with its archaic language, because it speaks eloquently of a relationship with the almighty and sovereign God, creator of the universe.
Or, consider the contemporary song:
Those who trust in the Lord…
are a strong mountain, though the world moves like mad,
You, O Lord, are faithful.
The song says in today’s language that God is present to guide us and give us strength, and we are called to trust in him.
The Psalms bring us nearer to God today, just as they did for God’s people of the Old Testament. The Psalms are about relationship; about nearness to our God. This becomes the model for all of our social relationships. The way we Christians love God, is crucial for how we love our neighbors every day. And our conversation with God determines how we know and what we know. Without God we know poorly, and dimly. “It is the fool who has said in his heart, there is no God,” according to Psalm 14.
Abraham Kuyper, from whom we at Calvin draw some of our best theology and approaches to Christian liberal arts education, wrote a series of devotional essays entitled To Be Near unto God. Many of these essays are based on Psalm texts. In one of them he writes:
“…Our mind’s capacity is not limited to our personal concept of God. To think Christianly—and to do so deeply—requires a comprehensive understanding of history, of doctrine, of science, of what is known in many areas… And yet, loving God with the mind is more than imbibing academic knowledge….What we eat, how we choose to spend our leisure time, how we behave when working—these things are the work of the mind at a very personal level, and they too need to be considered in loving God. Our time is Christ’s time, all of the time.”
At Calvin, we insist on more than just prayer at the beginning of a class or a meeting. Our faith touches every aspect of what we do. But even as we seek this 24-7 integration of faith and learning, we must never lose sight of the importance of explicit Psalm-like prayers of direct address to God. We need both emphases, so clearly demonstrated in Kuyper’s writings, of Christian thinking and Christian praying – never one without the other.
The Psalms teach us that we are called to a faith that models responsibility and obedience. This is not blind obedience, but a compelling mystery – a mystery whose name we know as THOU, Lord, Yahweh, God. We know the purpose of that mystery, and we are called to educate one another into obedience as a mode of that knowledge – a willing, ready response to God’s purpose for us, no matter what the circumstance. Kuyper writes in his meditation on Psalm 73:
“The modern age is extremely dangerous to us—and even more so to our children. But he is here, as he always has been, awaiting our desire for a secret fellowship with him that will sustain us no matter what happens in our world. To know that, to seek him passionately, and to find him, face to face, in the muddle of our travail here on earth—all of that makes us testify with the psalmist, “I love you, Lord.”
The Psalms remind us that God is sovereign over all things. This assurance allows us to approach our tasks at Calvin and wherever we go in the future eagerly and earnestly, because we know that God is with us to offer the resolution of every need and hope. As we are called, then, to live in trust, obedience and responsibility, the Psalms can be some of our best guides.
This is why we turn to the Psalms in times of grief or fear. Some of us have cried in agony using Psalm 55, in times of deep depression or after a terrible tragedy when someone we love dearly dies in an accident or of an illness.
“Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught…”
Knowing God means that we are never alone. God is always present, even and especially in time of solitude or deep grief. God’s presence is sure, the Psalms tell us. They are words of hope, written by people who felt all that we feel.
Another response that the Psalms guide us to is gratitude. Psalm 136 begins:
“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.”
When I think back on my experience as a student at Calvin, I am most grateful for the teaching and mentoring of my philosophy professor, Richard Mouw, who is now President of Fuller Seminary. One of his favorite Psalms is Psalm 42 which begins: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. Whenever I think of Psalm 42 I am grateful to God that at a critical time in my life I had professor Mouw as a great Christian intellectual role model and that he is still my friend and mentor today. His favorite Psalm has become one of my favorites too.
Today we begin a new academic year. For those of you new to Calvin, whether you are a student, faculty member, or staff member, most everything about this day is new – unfamiliar. And for those of us returning to campus—today is a fresh start. Just as on January 1 some of us make New Year’s resolutions, each new school year is also a time for new beginnings. This is a good moment to strengthen the habits of the Christian faith. They are at the center of all we do. If after your time at Calvin your faith is not deeper, no matter how much you may have learned, how many scholarships you may have won, how much research you might have done, how many goals you may have scored, Calvin will have failed you.
I challenge you to join me this semester in reading the Psalms, each and all of them. Not hurriedly, not as an assignment, but thoughtfully, prayerfully, slowly. I promise to do that this fall. Will you join me?
And, when you look into the mirror each day, I hope you will see more than yourself – that there you will see a face that reflects our creator: the God of our fathers and mothers, the Alpha and the Omega, and one to whom we can say with conviction “You are Holy, you are my God, and I will Trust and Obey.”