This Wednesday, our regular Bible study returns after the special Lenten Bible study. We’re using Beth LaNeel Tanner’s book, The Psalms for Today, in looking at the psalter. In chapter 1, we’re presented with a good question: what are the psalms? Throughout history, they’ve been recognized as scripture, songs, poetry, and prayers—and that doesn’t include the many other uses people have made of them.
As prayer, the psalms have always been a source of life for the church. In the sixth-century Rule of Benedict, psalms are continually cited as topics for meditation. In her comment on chapter 8 of the Rule, “The Divine Office at Night,” Joan Chittister relays a story from the desert monastics:
“Once upon a time the disciples asked Abba Agathon, ‘Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?’ Abba Agathon answered, ‘I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time we want to pray, our enemies, the demons, want to prevent us, for they know that it is only by turning us from prayer that they can hinder our journey. Whatever good work a person undertakes, if they persevere in it, they will attain rest. But prayer is warfare to the last breath.’” (Emphasis is mine.)
Warfare to the last breath! Sometimes that may feel like what we experience when trying to make sense of even individual psalms, in which lofty praise and glorious joy butt up against desire for vengeance and bloody retribution. We humans are a strange bunch. Why wouldn’t that be reflected in our scriptural poetry?