The Psalms: “An Anatomy of the Soul”

The Psalms are a treasure trove for the spiritual life of an individual or a community. In these 150 poems the full gamut of human experience is captured and given voice in the form of prayer. It’s all there: joy, despair, fear, anxiety, rejoicing, love, hate, sadness, grief, contentment and much more. The 16th century reformer John Calvin once referred to the psalms as an “anatomy of the soul,” and I think he’s dead on. No matter what you’re feeling, you can be sure to find it expressed in the Psalms.

The 23rd Psalm is among the most well known. Even folks who rarely go to church are familiar with it from funerals: “The Lord is my shepherd….” And a funeral is often the context in which we hear the 23rd Psalm. But what if we allow the 23rd Psalm to shape our entire worldview as individuals or a congregation? How would that contribute to the shape of our future?

The 23rd Psalm is about trust, gratitude and confidence in God’s provision. It’s not naïve however, recognizing that “dark valleys” and “enemies” are part of life. In fact, the claim of this Psalm is that it’s in the midst of such “dark valleys” that God’s presence and provision is most palpable. From the point of view of this Psalm, a future of hope therefore takes shape.

But can we really view the future from this point of view? Who can, in other words, truly say, “The Lord is my shepherd…?”

In 1919 a young pastor named Karl Barth preached on this Psalm in a tiny church in Safenwil, Switzerland. In the wake of World War I, Barth said none of us simply have the right to view the future from this perspective of this Psalm. I think that’s an instructive insight for our time.

For Barth, the harsh reality of the war had shattered naïve notions of human “progress” and exposed a gulf between humanity and God.   In his sermon, Barth says the repentance of an entire society stands between the 23rd Psalm and us. For Barth, the words of the 23rd Psalm belong only to those committed to a complete spiritual transformation. He put it this way:

“Do we not recognize that we would be lying to God if we said the words of the 23rd Psalm without becoming a person in renewal and transformation?”

The 23rd Psalm is no doubt a prayer of trust, gratitude and confidence in God’s future for one’s life – and for the life of the world. The question Barth wants to ask though is this: what kind of life does this Psalm call us to? What if, rather than hearing the Psalm only as reassurance and comfort we also hear it as “divine summons?” In other words, a call to work for the kind of world envisioned by the psalm.