The Psalms: Wisdom for Hard Times
I have a recurrent dream—or perhaps a nightmare—that when in extremis the only words that I can bring to mind are advertising jingles. My last breaths are accompanied by trite ditties about chocolate bars, insurance, or supermarkets!
The thought is made all the worse by my dreamy determination to remember noble thoughts despite my complete inability to do so.
The irony is that in these nocturnal struggles I am unable to find any of the elevated thoughts and expressions that I, as a preacher, have dwelt on in a lifetime of sermons. The reassurances of Christ, the confidence of Paul, the promises of Isaiah, the transformations required by Jeremiah, and all the rest of the biblical repertoire of hope, trust and watchful faith are out of my mental grasp.
No wonder this dream awakens me to clammy sleeplessness—but at least I can then rehearse in my conscious mind the very words that slumber denied me.
These days of COVID-19 trauma and lockdown have been described to me by several people as a nightmare. And indeed, they are. Loss, worry, illness, unemployment, threat, and uncertainty stalk our world in ways most of us have never experienced before.
Mutual sympathy and the care that goes with it are the order of the day. How encouraging therefore to hear so many stories of simple kindness and neighbourly intervention for the good of someone else. These are the things to bring to mind before troubling accounts of folly, ill-will, and abuse.
Again, the words of Saint Paul echo through our experience, ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things’ (Philippians 4:8).
That those words of wisdom came to my mind in the cadences of the Authorised Version is pertinent. That is not a translation that I have ever used regularly. Those words are embedded in my memory from their use in scripture classes more than fifty years ago.
The Headteacher who instructed us, invariably used the AV; not for him the ‘pop’ New English Bible in vogue at the time. I mention this not as an advocate of any translation of the Bible, but to point out how deep-seated is my memory of those words. Such memories are a profound resource for difficult times.
The Psalms have usually been the very bedrock of such memories. Our forebears in the faith found within them a readily usable repository to express every human emotion – reprehensible as well as praiseworthy. We set aside that usage at peril of our very souls. It is there we find words that matter in the nightmare of dumb-struck anguish.