Psalm 13: Human or Teaspoon?

I don’t know about other people, but when I eat breakfast I need something to read. Don’t worry, I’m not being anti-social because all that is at my table is a bowl of Grape-nuts (yes, I said Grape-nuts!), a glass of juice, and my two dogs, Boethius and Erasmus laying under the table. Currently I’m reading through a commentary on the Book of Psalms and am realizing something about the scholarly approach to the Psalms with which I don’t fully agree: commentators like to classify the Psalms into different categories. You may have heard of this before when a pastor, author, or friend has described various psalms as praise psalms, lament psalms, imprecatory psalms, royal psalms, or some other kind of category. It isn’t that I think classification is unhelpful, but I it to be restricting.

What I mean is, I think we often neglect the fact that the psalms are poems and songs written by people, like you and I, who struggled through this thing we call life. They were not written to convey doctrine, though they can; they were not written to be prophetic, though they often are; they were not written to teach history, though they can give us insights. They were, and are, quite simply, at their most basic level, songs and poems written by fallen people to their creator.

Now I know I’m not the greatest literary mind around but I think for the most part we have lost our ability to understand poetry. Good poetry brings an aesthetic appeal in the way the words, form, and meter coincide. But great poetry conveys something beyond the mere words, form, and meter: it allows two people to cross the great divide between individuals and share an emotion or an experience in a way otherwise unattainable. And in so doing so, we not only catch a glimpse into the soul of another human being, but for the briefest of moments, a great poem lets us know that we are not alone.

At this point you might be rightfully asking what any of this has to do with Psalm 13. Well, before I answer that question I ask that you read Psalm 13…right now…I mean it…before you read any more of my words…I’ll wait for you…

Ok, you’re back, good! Now tell me something, how would you categorize Psalm 13? Would you call it an imprecatory psalm (1-2), a complaint psalm (3-4), a praise psalm (5-6), or something else? Maybe, after reading the introductory words to the psalm you might think it was written as a song sung by a congregation, but then, why would they sing this? If you are looking for an answer to those questions here you will be greatly disappointed, because I have none.

I think most of the time I’m a bit dense and make things more difficult than they really are, but regard to categorizing the psalms I think we, by an large, have simplified them too much. Human experience is far more complex than a single checked box. What I mean is, when was the last time you experienced a single emotion at a time? Now I’m pretty sure most of the guys reading this will say, “emotions, what are those?” But if we are being honest with each other, I think we all realize the complexity of human emotions prohibits describing them in a single category.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Hermoine explains to Ron the feelings of another girl. It goes like this:

Hermoine: Don’t you understand how she must be feeling? Well, obviously she’s feeling sad about Cedric and therefore confused about liking Harry and guilty about kissing him. Conflicted because Umbridge is threatening to sack her mum from the ministry and frightened to fail her O.W.L.s because she’s so busy worrying about everything else.

Ron: [After a long awkward pause] One person couldn’t feel all that, they’d explode

Hermoine: [With a laugh] Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon…

Like the psalmists, I think Hermoine understands the multi-faceted complexity of the human heart, and as such, when reading the psalms we must be wary of categorizing them. Instead, we should enter into the psalmist’s experiences and allow their cry to inform ours.

In the case of Psalm 13, we have a song for when we feel abandoned by God and therefore overwhelmed and frustrated with having to continually wrestle through our sorrow, even as we still trust in God’s promise to conquer our fears and punish the evil doers, all the while crying about our circumstances and singing of the Lord’s goodness. It is a psalm, like so many others, for those times when we are about to explode due to the wide range of conflicting emotions battling in our heart and mind. In short, Psalm 13 is a divinely inspired song for those of us who do not have a heart with the emotional range of a teaspoon.

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