What is theology? This is usually the first question I ask my students in my systematic theology course at Fuller Seminary. Their answers typically revolve around the idea of thinking, talking, and writing about God. The assumption for many, and not without good reason, is that theology—that is, real theology—is the kind that you find in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics or in Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key. This is another way of saying that theology, properly executed, is done in analytical, rational, and discursive modes of knowing.
But what if theology proper is also something that occurs through poetic modes of knowing? What if so-called real theology takes place in liturgical contexts, not just in academic ones?
What I would like to suggest here is that, while the psalms are ordinarily perceived as the domain of devotional activities, revolving around heartfelt expressions of personal and communal piety, we should also see them as a place where ideas about God are contested and clarified, where the things of God’s world are described and defined with real-world consequences for believers, and where God is confronted directly—in short, where theology actually happens.
The point here is not to argue that disciplined and critical reflection on the nature of God, such as we find in Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, does not have an important role to play in the church’s work of speaking about God in faithful ways. It does—very much so. The point rather is that poetic modes of knowing God should also have a place at the theological table.
Put otherwise, the Psalter isn’t “merely” applied theology, existing downstream from the allegedly more substantive work of systematic theology. The Psalter is a place where theologia prima occurs, where the ways and words of God are discerned before the face of God, in the company of God’s people, for the sake of the faithful praise of God.
In this vein, the New Testament scholar Gordon Fee would often quip to his students, “Let me hear you sing, let me hear you pray, and I will write your theology.” His point wasn’t to state the obvious, namely that “God words” get used here and there in our songs and sermons and supplications. His point rather was to draw attention to what remained largely hidden to us: that in worship we rehearse and reveal what we really believe about God. It is in this sense, for instance, as Geoffrey Wainwright notes, that certain “Eastern anaphoras call the praises of God not doxologiai, but theologiai” (“The Praise of God in the Theological Reflection of the Church,” Int 39, no. 1 (1985): 41).
I would like to make a similar point in this brief essay, namely, that our work of praying the psalms is not only doxological work but also theological work. When we sing the psalms, we enter not just into a school of prayer but also into a school of theology. When we read and preach the “Book of Praise,” the Tehillim, as the Hebrew title calls the Psalter, we are not only discovering words from God and to God; we are also learning a grammar for talking about God.
What then do we discover about God through the psalms? First, we discover that true knowledge of God occurs through poetry, not despite or beyond poetry. Second, we discover very specific things about this God. Let me explain. (I write at greater length about these matters in my book Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life [Nelson, 2020].)
With nearly a third of Holy Scripture coming to us through poetic means, appearing not just in the psalms, but also in Joel and Job, Ezekiel, and Revelation, it is not too much of a stretch to say that poetry is a native language of God and a mother tongue of the word-made-flesh. It is a primary medium by which the author of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, instructs the people of God. Said otherwise, poetry affords us God-ordained epistemic access to the character of God, which is a point that bears underscoring to Christians this side of modernity who might presume otherwise.
But what exactly is poetry and how does it work as a mode of knowing? Allow me to note two things in brief. (See W. David O. Taylor, Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts [Eerdmans, 2019], ch. 6: “Worship and the Poetic Arts.”)
First, poetry is a kind of language that says more, and says it more intensely, more densely, more musically, than does ordinary language. Biblical poetry does this through similes, metaphors, parallelisms, rhythm, symbols, and hyperbole, among other literary devices. These are the ways that a poem “means” a thing. Take, for example, the sound of words in Ps 8:1–4 (NRSV):
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 stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
In Hebrew, “your name” and “your heavens” sound almost the same (Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Spirituality of the Psalms [Liturgical Press, 2002], 16). The sound of words shows us how the heavens—with its stars, moon, and sun—spell out the name of the Lord, an intimate, personal presence. But even without knowing Hebrew, we might still catch this nuance if we observed carefully the repetition of the term “your.”
In most English translations the term appears six times to describe the Lord. The work of the Lord, by “your fingers” and “your hands,” which results in the creation of “your heavens,” is a reflection of “your glory” and of “your name,” the latter of which is repeated at the beginning and end of the poem as a way to frame the meaning of the psalm in a musically attuned, orally oriented manner.
Said simply: certain things about the name of God can only be discovered when we say and sing them out loud in the way that poetry often wants from us.
Second, poetry brings us into metaphor-rich territory. What is a metaphor? A metaphor is a figure of speech whereby we speak of one thing in terms of another, usually in surprising ways—for example, Juliet is the sun, the church is a temple, God is our rock. In the Psalter, the truth about God does not exist on the other side of a metaphor; it exists through the metaphor.
Take “the Lord is my shepherd,” for instance. The Lord is not, of course, an actual shepherd by profession. Nor is the point simply to say that the Lord generically cares for his people. The metaphor of shepherd involves so much more. The metaphor of a shepherd evoked memories of Moses. It evoked associations with Israel’s exodus. It evoked an image of a wilderness, where wild animals endangered the safety of sheep, along with non-cozy pictures of great kings as sovereign lords, who treated their people as vassals (John Goldingay, Psalms, vol. 1, Psalms 1–41 [Baker Academic, 2006], 348).
Evoking all these images, the metaphor involves a surplus of meaning. It’s not therefore that metaphors tell us things we already know, just in a spruced-up way. Nor is it that metaphors function as decorative, but ultimately unnecessary, elements of language. Metaphors represent a form of figurative speech that enables us to figure out reality. In the case of Ps 23, no other image will do the job quite the same—not God as caretaker, not God as protector, only God as shepherd.
This is the true knowledge of God, in short, that cannot be captured in quite the same way through prose. It is an irreducible knowledge of God; or, as John Wesley might put it, an “experimental and practical divinity” (John R. Tyson, “Charles Wesley and the Language of Evangelical Experience: The Poetical Hermeneutic Revisited,” The Asbury Journal 61, no. 1 : 25–46). On this view, theology is a holistic enterprise. It is experienced, not just explicated; it requires the involvement of the heart and its affections, not just the investigations of the mind and its abstractions; and it involves a bodily apprehension of God, not just a detached inquiry into the ways of God.
What else do we learn about God in the psalms?
The True Knowledge of God
First, the psalms invite us into a conversation with a particular God, not a generic deity. This God is not just Elohim, but Yahweh: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who delivered Israel from slavery. This God has a story. As such he is a specific kind of Creator (Ps 104), King (Ps 5), Lord (Ps 2), Mighty One (Ps 62), Shepherd (Ps 23), Refuge (Ps 46), Light (Ps 27), Warrior (Ps 24), and Sun and Shield (Ps 84).
Here we find a Just Judge (Ps 9) who exacts vengeance against all oppressors as well as a Merciful One (Ps 86) who inclines his ear to the cries of the afflicted. This God avenges the vulnerable (Ps 26), heals the brokenhearted (Ps 147), protects the widows (Ps 146), provides for the needy (Ps 68), forgives the penitent (Ps 32), and redeems the sinner from sin (Ps 51).
Left to our own devices, we will as likely pray to a god made in our own image—a rational god, an activist god, an abstract god, or a wonder-working god. Because of humanity’s inability to know God truly on its own, then, the psalms, which Martin Luther once called a “little Bible,” reveal God to us through his words and deeds. This God reigns over heaven and earth; this God rules over past and future; this God governs nations and galaxies.
Second, the God of the psalms is both immanent and transcendent. In other words, the God whom we encounter in the hymnbook of Israel and the prayer book of Jesus is both “near and far.”
With regard to God’s immanence, the Psalter uses a range of images to describe God’s nearness. He is presented as our shepherd, with a particularly intimate phrasing appearing in Ps 28:9: “Be [your people’s] shepherd and carry them forever.” Psalm 73:28 puts it simply: “But for me, it is good to be near God.” These images suggest a God who draws near, who stays close at hand, who knows us from the womb and who knows by name.
But the Psalter also shows us a God whose nature has an inaccessible holy “other” quality about it. In Ps 80:1 we encounter the God who sits “enthroned between the cherubim” (NIV). God is the Lord of Hosts (Ps 103:12), the Creator and King (Pss 104; 29:10), the Just Judge who defeats evil (Pss 18:47; 58:10). This is a God who cannot be manipulated. This God cannot be reduced to human whims. This God can be known—but not exhaustively.
What systematic theology may often place in separate compartments—the transcendence of God over here, the immanence of God over there—the Psalter places in a common space in order to commend to us a God who is both sovereign shepherd and personal king. The God-of-the-Angel-Armies (Ps 46) whom we worship in the congregation is the very same God who gives sleep to his beloved (Ps 127).
In the Psalms, we discover words about God, words from God, and words to God. We discover a God who reveals himself through both metaphor and mighty deed. We discover the character and being of God through both the “Book of Nature” (creation) and the “Book of Moses” (Torah). In discovering all these things, we enter the business of theology.
The Psalter does this purposefully through poetic modes within a range of liturgical and devotional contexts, which Scripture places in complementary, rather than oppositional, relationship to propositional modes of communication and a variety of learning communities. When we enter the world of the psalms, then, we are entering a school of theology, where we are schooled not in the manner of a typical western academic institution but in the manner of an artist’s studio or an athlete’s gymnasium, where both know-about and know-how are required in order to know a thing properly.
While we may not go as far as the sixth-century monk Cassiodorus to say that we can obtain a knowledge of the “mysteries of the Holy Trinity” in these songs of “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (cited in John D. Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources [Eerdmans, 2007], 10), we can say in confidence that they afford us true knowledge of God and a model for how doxology can become a proper context for doing theology—how, for example, theodicy is resolved or humanity is theologized.
In brief, while the usual way that the problem of evil is treated in a systematic theology class involves a logical resolution of the goodness and power of God in relation to evil and suffering, in the Psalms the issue of theodicy is “resolved” through an invitation to pour out the griefs of one’s heart to God, to fiercely interrogate God, to imprecate evil in the name of God, and to sit in silence before the presence of a sympathetic God in the company of God’s people.
Likewise, while a doctrine of humanity is often examined as a separate topic to a doctrine of creation in academic theology, in the Psalms humans are presented as embedded in creation. They are charged to “till” and to “tend” creation as earthlings themselves. Their responsibility to creation is grounded in God’s love for all his works—beasts and birds, oceans and orchards, creepy crawlies and celestial bodies.
Within the context of the psalms, these are things that we get to think about in order to arrive at the truth of the nature and work of God—but not only that. We also get to sing ourselves into the truth, to see the truth through a rich repository of images, to get a feel for the truth as we put the words of the psalmist on our lips, and to pray the truth so that we might wholeheartedly trust the one who comes to us as the fullness and fulfillment of the truth.