Psalms For Life
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Why read the Psalms?

To be fully alive, our hearts must beat in time with God’s heart. By letting the Psalms course through us, we make the divine pulse our own, as he floods our lives with his grace, truth, freedom, and joy—which is why he made us. The way God does that is inseparable from the kind of book the Psalter is. So grasping why we should read it involves exploring its nature and how best to approach it.

Though the Psalter is admittedly one of the Bible’s most challenging books, it is also one of its most life-giving books. No pious Jew in Jesus’ day and no one in the Early Church could have imagined a believer flourishing without submitting themselves to the tutelage of the Psalms. Yet most Christians today seem to think otherwise.

The Psalms remain a favorite book for some. But its popularity in the West has dramatically waned over the past century. According to Walter Brueggemann, most Christians now know only about 5 psalms.[1] Psalms 23, 46, 91, 100, 121, for example. We have a love-hate relationship with the Psalter, considering it as troubling a mix of the graceful and grotesque as Bosch’s painting. We don’t know what to do with poetry, and we want only those psalms that give us an emotional lift, which cuts out a lot of the book—anything, raw, angry, or too honest. Even liturgical churches now edit out much of the book.

All this is in keeping with at least four pronounced aspects of our time: our culture’s general sidelining of poetry, the modern Evangelical’s dislike of the discipline of prescribed prayers, the contemporary Church’s distaste for the Old Testament’s messy theology, and the left-hemisphere dominant thinking that so afflicts our culture.[2] But understandable or not, it’s highly lamentable.

The world has always eroded biblical faith and does so even more in an age that’s devoted to self-worship, disdainful of external authority, and distracted by the many voices seeking our attention. Reading any part of scripture can help prevent faith’s erosion. But the Psalter’s singular nature makes it uniquely able to strengthen faith. It can even bring unbelievers to faith, as British poet Malcolm Guite’s conversion story attests.

Much of the Psalms’ power to restore faith lies in the way it infuses its poetry with life-giving story, and both its poetry and story with prophetic truth-telling—these being the Psalter’s three dimensions. This fusion effectively brings us, our world, our beliefs, and our values into the circle of God’s transforming light. And as with fine art, the more we understand what the Psalms do and how they do it, the more we’ll enjoy them and experience their transformative power.


[1] Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014) 8.

[2] This last point is based on the Iain McGilchrist’s work on the brain, as presented in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).



Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.