Don’t Sanitize the Psalms

In some churches, if our public worship and prayers echoed what we find in the Psalms we might find ourselves called before the church board for correction. Unlike the stoic legalist or safe churchman, the psalmist expressed the full range of emotions in worship. He felt no need to pretend that he had it all together. He did not limit himself to safe clichés about God.

Yet God’s people’s deeply cherish the Psalms because they openly express many of the emotions we feel. Sometimes the psalmist expressed deep anxiety and fear; other times he was plagued with a sense of despondency and discouragement. He vented anger over injustices and admitted a loss of perspective when he envied the prosperity of the ungodly.

The psalmist reminds us that the language of lament is permitted in worship. Christopher J. H. Wright suggests,

It is precisely those who have the closest relationship with God who feel most at liberty to pour out their pain in protest to God—without fear of reproach. Lament is not only allowed in the Bible; it is modeled in abundance. God seems to want to give us as many words with which to fill out our complaint forms as to write our thank-you notes. (The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith)

The Psalmist’s Full Range of Emotions

Although the psalmist pondered dark questions out loud—even expressing feelings of helplessness and despair—more often, he overflowed with joy and praise to the God who is his “mighty rock and refuge” (Psalm 62:7). His astonishment at the compassion and unfailing love of God resounds throughout the psalms as one amazed that God “does not treat us as our sins deserve” (Psalm 103:10).

The psalmist worked through all of these emotions and frustrations in worship and prayer. He did not allow wrong responses to God win ultimate control over his heart, but readily admitted deep struggles with difficult realities common to mankind.

Whatever his frame of mind or condition of heart, he openly expressed his thoughts and feelings to the God he loved and longed to know. He worked things out in God’s presence. Isn’t this part of what prayer involves? Can you identify with what it means to wrestle in prayer? (cf. Colossians 4:12).

Psalmist ‘Self-Talk’

The psalmist also engaged in what some call “self-talk.” He writes letters of protest to himself. Sometimes he pressed his soul with questions: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” Then he launched pointed exhortations to himself: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him my Savior and my God” (Psalm 42:5-6). “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone” (Psalm 62:5).

The psalmist also paused—in the midst of his prayerful struggles—to offer a lesson or word of challenge to God’s people:

Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Lowborn men are but a breath, the highborn are but a lie; if weighed on a balance, they are nothing; together they are only a breath. Do not trust in extortion or take pride in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them. One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Surely you will reward each person according to what he has done. (Psalm 62:8-12)

If David applied for a staff position in our churches and gave us his “diary of worship” to better understand his life, would we hesitate to give him serious consideration? I am sure we would want clarification on his imprecatory psalms as well as many other parts. Is it possible that we have a lot to learn in our churches from this man after God’s own heart? Do we sanitize our worship in a way that would never allow someone to express the range of emotions found in the Psalms?

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  • Todd

    Wow! This is both encouraging and convicting. As I struggle with how I treat my children and how they relate to me, this gives me some perspective on God. He allowed people to openly struggle with him or circumstances in the Psalms. What a God of grace! I want to image him and be a father of grace to my children.

  • Tom Brainerd

    We follow the Revised Common Lectionary in doing a responsive reading of the Psalm each Lord’s Day. Since the RCL seems ‘allergic’ to imprecatory language, we frequently have to augment what is otherwise included.

  • Terry Gbison

    I go through the psalms one by one for devotional for our prayer services. This week I came to Psalm 88. This is a psalm of lament with no turn to hope in it. For some this is how their life feels in the midst of trouble. I reminded our people that the very fact that the psalmist was crying out to God is a demonstration of his trust in God even in the most despairing of circumstances. Ultimately the only hope that anyone has is for God to send a rescuer.

  • Nicholas

    There is a group actively setting all 150 psalms to music in their entirety, with a modern worship sound:

  • Paul

    I just visited the that another post-er mentioned. Alas, the song lyrics I checked were not in fact simply the psalms in real translations. Of course, these artists are free to do what they want. But it’s so frustrating: I’d prefer that all that effort be spent on setting untouched, untweaked psalms. That’s one of the great needs of the moment.

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  • Tim

    So what would a church service look like that used unsanitized Psalms?

    • Steve Cornell


      You ask a good question and Simon offers one way of answering it. Perhaps before asking what it would look like in Church (formally), we should ask how it might shape fellowship (informally). How would it posture us and tone our fellowship? Do we converse about God and life with Him in ways that allow room for the kinds of struggles the Psalmist expressed. Or, do we learn the proper cliches and more acceptable ways that portray us as those who always “have it all together.” I certainly don’t want to hear everyone’s dirty laundry but we could probably all benefit from more transparency and vulnerability. Is it permissible to “struggle out loud”? Do we allow for lament without feeling a need to immediately remind someone that God is sovereign? I think many of us play our deeper spiritual struggles close to the chest — perhaps giving the impression that the gospel isn’t as necessary for us as it actually is.

      • Simon

        Steve, just a quick question. When were the singing of Psalms removed from public worship in the radical Reformation? Now many Protestant denominations don’t have a traditional worship style, which includes readings from the lectionary and appointed Psalms to be sung. This seems strange considering that these elements are Scriptural. Also, when looking at the genre of the Psalms, it seems obvious how they are meant to be used by worshippers (I mean, there are even liturgical notes to the “Choirmaster” in the text). It seems like Biblical scholars like to talk about different genres in the Bible, without necessarily considering how they are meant to be used in worship. We can study the Psalms, acknowledging that the text is poetic (although some fundamentalists will always take things literally, even poetry and apocolyptic writing). But do we find deeper meaning, encounter God, when they are sung and prayed? I believe there are these benefits in using the text in they way it was intended to be used. Which is why there is so much wisdom in traditional liturgies. I don’t know why such a worship form was thrown out by some in the Reformation. The lectionary guards against preachers setting their own agenda each week and the Psalms are literally God’s hymn book. This isn’t to say you can’t have other songs. But, I mean, it’s obvious how they are meant to be used and many Protestant groups forgo the tremendous spiritual blessings by ignoring the proper use of the Psalms. This is probably one of the reasons you felt the need to write this piece. Free churchers have lost the meaning of the Psalms in their haste to apply Aristotelian logic to the text. Sing them guys! That’s what they’re there for! I know the Anglicans get a bad rap on this website, but at least they know what to do with the Psalms! As do the Catholics and the Orthodox

  • Simon

    Tim, Look at the traditional liturgies. They use the Psalms as they were originally intended, i.e. sung/chanted – the Psalms are, afterall, songs. This is how you have the Psalms unsanitized – you sing them, have them permeate your being. One of the tragedies of the Free Church movement and other radical Reformation groups was the deconstruction of public worship – the reduction of church services to a sermon with a few hyms. The Book of Psalms is primarily (and literally) a liturgical book and should be used as such. This is where the spirituality contained in them is most fully experienced.

  • Belinda Carrico

    I hghly recommend Jamie Soles’ music, he has three CD’s of Psalms very close to the ESV. Chaeck out his website here:

  • Seth

    Where is that image from? I’d love to know and see more.

    Thanks for this article! I’m totally on the same page.

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