The Problem of the Psalms


Psalm 48.9-10
We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness. 

As a general rule the psalms take more time to access than other sections of scripture, like the pastoral epistles. Take the excerpt above as an example. Each sentence holds a sermon’s worth of theology.

The psalmist opens by saying, “We have thought on your steadfast love.” When was the last time we thought on God’s unrelenting love in community? Or when have we confessed our sins to one another and celebrated God’s grace together — so that in the revelation of our brokenness and God’s faithfulness we discover a vivid and glorious image of God’s love? 

It is rare in modern Christianity to hear the psalms used in corporate prayer, worship, or teaching. This could be due in part to modern individualism’s befuddlement with public lament, corporate rejoicing, and communal singing. It may also be due to changes in the written word, as C. Richard Wells and Ray Van Neste explore in their book Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming The Psalms for Christian Worship.

“There are special reasons for neglect of the psalms,” they explain. “The language of poetry doesn’t easily connect in a sound-byte culture. The psalms call for time, not tweets — time to read, ponder, pray, digest. It’s easy to be too busy for the psalms.”

Perhaps the real reason doesn’t have as much to do with fads in technology as it does with the realities of sin in our hearts. The primary reason the psalms have fallen out of preaching, prayer, and singing, Wells and Van Neste conclude, is that, “We are fascinated with ourselves; the psalms are fascinated with God.”

The answer to this problem isn’t self-loathing — which is another form of self-obsession — but to use the psalms as a guidebook for our prayers, songs, and understanding of God. When we think on God’s steadfast love together we rediscover our lives in light of the glorious grace of our Savior.

Father, you are beautiful. Shine your light on our lives, that we might see you more clearly. Kindle our hearts, that we may experience you more deeply. Renew us you through your word. Guide and encourage us through your church.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 11 (Listen – 5:22)
Psalm 48 (Listen – 1:28)

Finding Our Way
Part 1 of 5,



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The Church’s Complaint in Persecution


Psalm 44.6-8
For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me. But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us. In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. 

As a nonconformist Issac Watts had been banned from Oxford and Cambridge, which were exclusively Anglican at the time. Even though he was an accomplished poet, hymnodist, teacher, educational theorist, logistician, pastor, and author, Watts faced enormous pressure from the Church of England.

Yet in the face of trial and loss Watts clung to his savior. He articulated his faith with thoughtful precision in every field he practiced and dedicated himself to the church throughout his life.

Each day this week we’ve looked at works from Isaac Watts book, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Today, Psalm 44:

Lord, we have heard thy works of old,
  Thy works of power and grace,
When to our ears our fathers told
  The wonders of their days.

How thou didst build thy churches here,
  And make thy gospel known;
Amongst them did thine arm appear,
  Thy light and glory shone.

In God they boasted all the day,
  And in a cheerful throng
Did thousands meet to praise and pray,
  And grace was all their song.

But now our souls are seized with shame,
  Confusion fills our face,
To hear the enemy blaspheme,
  And fools reproach thy grace.

Yet have we not forgot our God,
  Nor falsely dealt with heav’n,
Nor have our steps declined the road
  Of duty thou hast giv’n;

Though dragons all around us roar
  With their destructive breath,
And thine own hand has bruised us sore
  Hard by the gates of death.


We are exposed all day to die
  As martyrs for thy cause,
As sheep for slaughter bound we lie
  By sharp and bloody laws.

Awake, arise, Almighty Lord,
  Why sleeps thy wonted grace?
Why should we look like men abhorred
  Or banished from thy face?

Wilt thou for ever cast us off,
  And still neglect our cries?
For ever hide thine heav’nly love
  From our afflicted eyes?

Down to the dust our soul is bowed,
  And dies upon the ground;
Rise for our help, rebuke the proud,
  And all their powers confound.

Redeem us from perpetual shame,
  Our Savior and our God;
We plead the honors of thy name,
  The merits of thy blood.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 8 (Listen – 3:27)
Psalm 44 (Listen – 2:44)

Melodies of Heaven
Part 5 of 5,


This Weekend’s Readings
Saturday: Numbers 9 (Listen – 3:20); Psalm 45 (Listen – 2:17)
Sunday: Numbers 10 (Listen – 4:11); Psalms 46-47 (Listen – 2:15)



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Desertion and Hope


Psalm 42.1, 5
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

“As congregational song, hymns were an extraordinary kind of poetry,” notes the Poetry Foundation in their biography page for Isaac Watts. “It is no coincidence that Watts, as [the] originator [of hundreds of hymns], was both an accomplished poet and a recognized religious leader and teacher. His admiration of dramatic effects and familiarity with devotional imagery served him particularly well. Indeed, hymns depended for their success on real pleasures, on their value as entertainment. Insipid or obtuse poetry would fail to provoke the desired response.”

For Watts the real pleasure wasn’t simply the craft, at which he was immensely talented, but the glory and beauty of the Savior his words beheld. 

“If a transtemporal, transfinite good is our real destiny, then any other good on which our desire fixes must be in some degree fallacious,” writes C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory

Watts found God’s beauty in the community of the church. His hymn drawn from Psalm 42 reveals this even in its alternative title: Complaint of Absence from Public Worship. Desertion from the church lead him to cry out — hope was found when he returned to the wonders of God incarnate in the joy and trial of community.

Today we look at Isaac Watts’ words, from his book The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, inspired by Psalm 42:

With earnest longings of the mind,
  My God, to thee I look;
So pants the hunted hart to find
  And taste the cooling brook.

When shall I see thy courts of grace,
  And meet my God again?
So long an absence from thy face
  My heart endures with pain.

Temptations vex my weary soul,
  And tears are my repast;
The foe insults without control,
  “And where’s your God at last?”

’Tis with a mournful pleasure now
  I think on ancient days;
Then to thy house did numbers go,
  And all our work was praise.

But why, my soul, sunk down so far
  Beneath this heavy load?
Why do my thoughts indulge despair,
  And sin against my God?

Hope in the Lord, whose mighty hand
  Can all thy woes remove,
For I shall yet before him stand,
  And sing restoring love.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 7 (Listen – 12:50)
Psalms 42-43 (Listen – 2:32)

Melodies of Heaven
Part 4 of 5,



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Christ Our Sacrifice


Psalm 40.4
Blessed is the man who makes the LORD his trust, who does not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after a lie! 

John Calvin was among the first theologians to rewrite psalms for communal singing. When Isaac Watts joined the tradition nearly two centuries later the culture in the church was more hostile to mixing the arts and spiritual disciplines.

The Poetry Foundation, which in its own words is “committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture,” reports on Watts work to unite the church and arts for spiritual formation. “Watts’s short critical essay introducing Horae Lyricae claims poetry for the cause of religion and virtue, rejecting the common secular debasement of the heavenly genre.”

“Watts wonders at the potential poetic impact of the Incarnation and the Passion of Christ and the evangelical power of Christian poetry to transform readers’ lives. This line of argument at once recalls the criticism of John Dennis and anticipates the achievements in Christian musical drama of George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Thankfully Watts pressed on in his work.  

We enjoy him today not only for the beauty of his craft, but for the theological clarity he brings through all of his work.

This week we are looking at five works from Isaac Watts’ book, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Today, Psalm 40:

The wonders, Lord, thy love has wrought,
Exceed our praise, surmount our thought;
Should I attempt the long detail,
My speech would faint, my numbers fail,

No blood of beasts on altars spilt
Can cleanse the souls of men from guilt;
But thou hast set before our eyes
An all-sufficient sacrifice.

Lo! thine eternal Son appears,
To thy designs he bows his ears,
Assumes a body well prepared,
And well performs a work so hard.

“Behold, I come,” the Savior cries,
With love and duty in his eyes,
“I come to bear the heavy load
Of sins, and do thy will, my God.

“’Tis written in thy great decree,
’Tis in thy book foretold of me,
I must fulfill the Savior’s part;
And lo! thy law is in my heart!

“I’ll magnify thy holy law,
And rebels to obedience draw,
When on my cross I’m lifted high,
Or to my crown above the sky.

“The Spirit shall descend and show
What thou hast done, and what I do
The wond’ring world shall learn thy grace,
Thy wisdom, and thy righteousness.”

Today’s Readings
Numbers 6 (Listen – 4:04)
Psalms 40-41 (Listen – 3:57)

Melodies of Heaven
Part 3 of 5,



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The Vanity of Man as Mortal


Psalm 39.4, 7
“O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.”

As an infant Isaac Watts “nursed on the steps of the Southampton jail where his father was imprisoned as a Dissenter,” says his biography at the Poetry Foundation. Upon his release the elder Watts, also named Isaac, began teaching Latin to his four year old son. In primary school the boy learned Greek, French, and Hebrew.

While Watts is remembered for his poetry and hymns, like Joy to the World and When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, he was successful across multiple disciplines. The Poetry Foundation notes that after his formal education concluded, “Watts was to become a prominent educator whose textbooks and educational theory were republished in Britain and America for more than a century.” He also published four volumes of poetry, 750 hymns, hundreds of sermons, and seven books that span a number of fields.

In all this success Watts grounded himself in the scriptures and prayer. His book, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, provides a glimpse into this world. This week we’re looking at five works where Watts rewords the Psalms to make overt what the psalmists allude — Christ is at the center of every longing, joy, and cry.

Today, we look at Isaac Watts’ words, inspired by Psalm 39:

Teach me the measure of my days,
  Thou Maker of my frame;
I would survey life’s narrow space,
  And learn how frail I am.

A span is all that we can boast,
  An inch or two of time;
Man is but vanity and dust
  In all his flower and prime.

See the vain race of mortals move
  Like shadows o’er the plain;
They rage and strive, desire and love,
  But all the noise is vain.

Some walk in honor’s gaudy show,
  Some dig for golden ore;
They toil for heirs, they know not who,
  And straight are seen no more.

What should I wish or wait for, then,
  From creatures earth and dust?
They make our expectations vain,
  And disappoint our trust.

Now I forbid my carnal hope,
  My fond desires recall;
I give my mortal interest up,
  And make my God my all.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 5 (Listen – 4:39)
Psalm 39 (Listen – 1:49)

Melodies of Heaven
Part 2 of 5,



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