My favourite psalms

As with my lists of the top ten hymns and the top ten prayers, it is almost impossible to narrow down the list of psalms. There are so many possible ‘winners’. I ‘googled’ the world’s top ten psalms, and came up with the following list Psalms 1, 23, 37, 46, 62, 84, 117, and 138, but the reality is that Psalm 23 apart no psalm is in every list. Perhaps not surprisingly Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote that the ‘Book of Psalms’ was his favourite part of the Bible. Reading, saying and singing the psalms is a tonic to the soul. They enable us to express our love and worship, they also enable us to cry out to God when he seems to be absent and life is unutterably tough. So recognising that everybody has their own favourites, let me boldly set down the ones that appeal to me most.

Psalm 1, which in the Good News Bible is headed ‘True Happiness’, speaks of the two ways: God’s way and the world’s way. In the words of the GNB, “Happy are those” who “find joy in obeying the Law of the Lord… They succeed in everything they do”.

Psalm 8, which the GNB heads as “God’s glory and human dignity”.

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth….. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the starts that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them..?

Psalm 19 begins with  the words “The heavens are telling the glory of God” and then  speaks of how the study of God’s Law revives the soul and makes wise the simple. It ends with words which can be usefully prayed by any preacher: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer”.

Psalm 23, the shepherd psalm, is great for weddings, but also for funerals: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me”.

Psalm 42 describes our inbuilt desire for God: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you O God. My soul thirsts for God”.

Psalm 46 reminds us that in tough times God is with us: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear”. God doesn’t promise that life will be smooth, but rather he promises that when the “waters roar and foam” he will be right there.

Psalm100 is a magnificent hymn of praise and serves as a wonderful call to worship:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness, come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his.

Psalm 103 is from beginning to end a thanksgiving for God’s goodness and begins: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul and do not forget all his benefits”. To bless God is to praise him for his loving kindness.

Psalm 121 is one of the ‘Song of Ascents’ sung as God’s people made their way to the temple in Jerusalem. It was a journey fraught with danger from robbers and from wild animals. Hence the opening question: “I lift up my eyes  to the hills – from where will my help come?” The psalmist confidently replies: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth”. I love too the picture of God as the great insomniac: “The protector of Israel neither dozes nor sleeps” (GNB).

Finally Psalm 139 which, as the GNB puts it, tells of “God’s complete knowledge and care”: “O Lord , you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar”. When I have had the sad duty of taking the funeral of somebody who in desperation has taken their own life, I always quote the verse: “even the darkness is not dark to you”. There is no situation, however dark, that God is not there.

I am told that according to the rule of St Benedict’s scheme, religious communities were to read through the entire book of Psalms every week. Richard Schmidt, an Anglican scholar commented that the monks were:

… therefore exposed to all the despairing, doubtful, bitter, vindictive, jingoistic, nationalistic, and seemingly racist passages in the Psalter. It is not that every sentiment expressed by a psalmist is admirable, but that in praying the Psalms, we confront ourselves as we really are. The Psalms are a reality check to keep prayer from becoming sentimental, superficial, or detached from the real world.

One comment

  1. *I was so glad that you included Psalm 139 , which is my personal favourite. It was interesting that you used it for the funerals of people who had sadly committed suicide. ..” even the darkness is not dark to you”. I love Bernadette Farrell’s hymn which is based on that psalm. Perhaps we might all take courage from her final words “safe in your hands , all creation is made new” . Perhaps nothing we can do to ourselves, even suicide , puts us outside the possiblity of being made new!

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