This is the third of three posts, in which I poke most churches and most of my friends in the eye. I am throwing down some ways in which the psalms broaden the soul of the church.
The psalms show us that God grants salvation in the real world. Not just heaven when we die, but security in the land, peace in the city, healing of the body, extension of physical life, food for the hungry, sight for the blind, and freedom for prisoners. It is liberation from the rule of false gods, demons, and empires. Many of the psalms rejoice in an individual’s communion with God (“I remember you on my bed, and meditate upon you in the watches of the night.”), but just as many locate salvation in the defeat of enemies, victory in battle, and God’s care in everyday life. This is just what wealthy Christians (as well as poor) need to hear: our well-being (salvation in the fullest sense of the term) is wholly dependent on God’s daily mercy. We do not get our own daily bread, nor protect ourselves with our wealth or military might. Rather, we receive every good thing from him. Insipid praise choruses that talk about getting to know God undermine their own stated aims. By refusing to sing to the rider in the deserts, the widow’s help, the one who makes me strong so that I can bend a bow of bronze, we come to know God less and less.
The psalms lead us into theologically uncomfortable places. They are the substance of a conversation in which Nestorians and Jacobites, Orthodox and Catholic, and a host of non-fundamentalists participate. Postliberals like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder; “new perspective” proponents like N. T. Wright; theonomists like James Jordan; Dooyeweerdians like Richard Mouw; evangelical Anglicans like Oliver O’Donovan. These people see things very differently than we do. Sometimes, we may say, they stray beyond the pale. But they recognize Christ as Lord and worship him in the singing of psalms, shaping their self-understanding and theology in a way that transcends culture, denomination, and even place in the theological spectrum. You cannot be a serious psalm singer and be unecumenical in your outlook.
The psalms give us the true eschatological perspective. The righteous inherit the earth: “The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever.” Demonic powers are being and will be completely overthrown by the tangible rule of God: “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.’ Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” The promise of just judgment goes hand in hand with the missionary promises of God: “For you will judge the peoples with equity / To nations of the whole earth a governor you’ll be. / O God, let peoples praise you, let all the peoples praise! The earth has brought its bounty throughout its harvest days.” (Psalm 67:3-6,Book of Psalms for Worship). This is not mere “postmillenialism,” though it ratifies the joyful expectation inherent in that school of thought. It recognizes in one movement God’s perfectly just judgment of nations, of his own people, and of each soul among them and his mercy and grace toward mankind and the whole of creation. God’s promise to Eve is fulfilled: the smoke of evil’s ruin goes up forever and ever, and to our joy we are on the right side of that victory.