Turning to the Psalms in the Crisis of COVID-19

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Throughout church history, the Psalms have served an important place in the worship of God’s people. Luther held them in such regard that he called them a “little Bible.” Today, these poems of ancient Israel can feel just that: poems for an ancient people. In our modern sensibilities, the Psalms can feel obscure, hard to understand, and repetitive. However, as we seek to shepherd our students and our families from afar (or maybe from all too close) during this time of crisis, we should rely on the songbook of Israel.

I once had a friend remark that he could not really enjoy the psalms because, “They are just too sad.” While there are many problems with such a sentiment (notably the frequent praise and exuberant joy in the Psalms), my friend was identifying something deeply true: the psalms recognize the plight of the human condition.

The Psalms acknowledge the reality that disease, death, pain, and enemies exist in this world. They give voice to the human soul (lament and prayer), by reminding us of what God has done, and by pointing our eyes back to God. In the midst of this pandemic, the psalms are an invaluable resource for blessing our students and our families.

Just as these Psalms spoke to the David in his nights of anguish and Israel in their years of exile, they now speak to God’s people. Here are three ways the psalms can minister to the souls of our students during the COVID-19 crisis.

Giving Voice to our Souls

The fear, anxiety, and questions of our students during this time can easily lead them to deep recession into themselves. This is why it is crucial that we demonstrate that the Psalms minister to the deepest part of us. It is for this reason that Calvin could call the Psalms, “The anatomy of all parts of the soul.”[1]

Consider Psalm 6. The Psalmist immediately cries out that they are languishing and greatly troubled (v.2) and even asks, “But you, O Lord – how long?”

Right now, I am sure that no cry feels nearer to our students’ lips than, “how long?”

How long will we live under threat of this virus?

How long until we return to daily life?

How long, Lord, until you act to solve this?

These are hard questions, but we must show our students that asking them of God does not mean we are faithless. In fact, the Psalmist goes on to say, “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” (v.6). This is pain expressed. Mark Futato writes of Psalms of disorientation like this one, “(They) give us permission, and show us how, to let the tears flow.”[2]

However, in this place of disorientation, the Psalmist receives an “answering touch.”[3] He is comforted by the knowledge that the Lord has heard his weeping and his plea and accepts his prayer (v.8-9). In this trying time, filled with anxiety, there is perhaps no better book for us to direct our minds and the minds of our students than the Book of Psalms. The Psalms allow us to have our hearts opened and to lay them before God.

Reminding our Souls

While the Psalms give voice to our souls now, they also point our souls back to God’s past times of deliverance. Yes, when God hears the weeping and pleas of his people, he acts! It is important when speaking with our students and children that we point them to God’s past faithfulness to redeem our souls and deliver his people. The Psalms frequently sing of thankfulness to God’s past saving.

Consider Psalm 18. The title of this Psalm tells us that it recounts David’s delivery from Saul and his enemies. The Psalmist recalls, using apocalyptic language, of a time when “the cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me” (v.4). But in the midst of trouble, God, “sent from on high, he took me; he drew me out of many waters… He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me, because he delighted in me” (v.16, 19). While God never literally delivered David in these ways, looking back, he can see how the Lord was working in all that was happening to deliver him.

We must use the Psalms to point our students back to God’s past saving action in the life of Israel, in the work of Christ, and in our own lives. This looking back gives confidence that God will again deliver his people, that his salvation will continue to his children forever (v. 50).

Redirecting our Souls

The first word in the book of Psalms and introduces the purpose of the Psalms is the word, “blessed” (Ps. 1:1). The biblical idea of blessedness refers to a state of true human flourishing – defined by life, joy, purpose, and contentment. However, given the constant themes of lament and pain in this world, how can the Psalms properly be said to direct human beings towards blessing?

The Psalms set us on the path toward the blessed life in the midst of pain by redirecting our gaze back to God. Indeed, while it is the purpose of the Psalms to direct human beings to the blessed life, it is the message of the Psalms is that the Lord reigns as king (2:4, 6). In this knowledge that the Lord reigns, our students can be assured that He will lead them into the blessed life. In this way, we are directed to see that God is both sovereign and good. It is in beholding this God that we can have the utmost confidence in this crisis, for, “Our God is in the heavens, he does whatever he pleases” (115:3).

Practical Ideas for Turning to the Psalms

I am leading my own students in a weekly devotion through various Psalms as long as we are unable to meet together. My hope is that they will have the opportunity to spend time with these psalms and thus be taught to lament and to praise with the Psalmist. Each week we will ask questions from the following list:

  • What does this psalm say about God? How does it point our minds to God?
  • What images are in this psalm? What do they try to communicate?
  • How does this psalm give voice and confront the fear and anxiety in the world right now?
  • How can I share this psalm with others through word and deed?
  • How does this psalm remind us of God’s past deliverance?
  • How does this psalm point to Jesus?
  • What hope is given through these words?[4]

But there are so many other ways for us to work the Psalms into our daily rhythms in this season. These questions can be worked through alone or in family worship. These Psalms can be sung together, prayed together, and proclaimed together.

The Book of Psalms contains the breadth of human emotions, pains, and anxieties and directs them back to God. May God use the Psalms, as he has for thousands of years, to remind his people that we need not fear this present threat or any other.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present  help in trouble” (46:1).

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Psalms (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1979), xxxvii.

[2] Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook, 7/16/07 edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2007), 151.

[3] Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (Viking, 2015), 8.

[4] Questions adapted from another a fellow Youth Minister.

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