What the Psalms Do

From Pastor John's sermon, “Songs that Shape the Heart and Mind” (May 25, 2008):

If you read the Psalms only for doctrine, you’re not reading them for what they are. They are psalms, songs, poetry. They’re musical, and the reason human beings express truth with music and poetry is to awaken and express emotions that fit the truth.

One of the reasons the Psalms are deeply loved by so many Christians is that they give expression to an amazing array of emotions. Listen to this list of emotions I pulled together:

  1. Loneliness: “I am lonely and afflicted” (Psalms 25:16).
  2. Love: “I love you, O Lord, my strength” (Psalms 18:1).
  3. Awe: “Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him” (Psalms 33:8).
  4. Sorrow: “My life is spent with sorrow” (Psalms 31:10).
  5. Regret: “I am sorry for my sin” (Psalms 38:18).
  6. Contrition: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalms 51:17).
  7. Discouragement and turmoil: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me” (Psalms 42:5)?
  8. Shame: “Shame has covered my face” (Psalms 44:15).
  9. Exultation: “In your salvation how greatly he exults” (Psalms 21:1).
  10. Marveling: “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalms 118:23).
  11. Delight: “His delight is in the law of the Lord” (Psalms 1:2).
  12. Joy: “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalms 4:7).
  13. Gladness: “I will be glad and exult in you” (Psalms 9:2).
  14. Fear: “Serve the Lord with fear” (Psalms 2:11).
  15. Anger: “Be angry, and do not sin” (Psalms 4:4).
  16. Peace: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep” (Psalms 4:8).
  17. Grief: “My eye wastes away because of grief” (Psalms 6:7).
  18. Desire: “O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted” (Psalms 10:17).
  19. Hope: “Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you” (Psalms 33:22).
  20. Brokenheartedness: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalms 34:18).
  21. Gratitude: “I will thank you in the great congregation” (Psalms 35:18).
  22. Zeal: “Zeal for your house has consumed me” (Psalms 69:9).
  23. Pain: “I am afflicted and in pain” (Psalms 69:29).
  24. Confidence: “Though war arise against me, yet I will be confident” (Psalms 27:3).

More explicitly than all the other books in the Bible, the Psalms are designed to awaken and shape our emotions in line with the instruction they give. What happens when you read and sing the Psalms the way they are intended to be read and sung is that your emotions and your mind are shaped by these psalms.

Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) is a content strategist at Desiring God, blogger, the author of Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (2011) and John Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ (2015), and hosts the Ask Pastor John and Authors on the Line podcasts. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife, Karalee, and their three children.