Psalms: A Biblical Model of Art

Psalms Illustration-David Taylor

Protestant Christians, evangelical Protestants in particular, are known as people of the Word. Although the arts have played an important role in Protestant history, especially in its hymnody, they have usually played a subsidiary role to the word-based, cognitive-oriented activities that favor facts over stories and reason over imagination. But this implies a false dichotomy between the Word and the arts. It also might fail to perceive the aesthetic nature of the Bible and the manifold ways in which the revelation of God comes to us through artistic media. So while the Bible matters to Protestants, one might ask: What exactly does it mean to have a biblical vision for the arts?

The answer to this question hinges largely on which scriptural text is privileged as a departure point and used to authorize a practice of art making. Do we begin with Genesis 1 and 2, with its story of the primordial creation and the command to cultivate the garden and construct a theology of arts from there? Do we start with Exodus 31 and the Spirit-empowered work of Bezalel? Do we build off the narratively constitutive work of Jesus in the Gospels? Perhaps Philippians 4:8 is the key text that opens up a way forward for the artist? Or the Book of Revelation: might its hyperrealist vision of a world turned upside down by the second coming of Christ illumine the path for artists of faith today?

These options, attractive as they may be, ignore possibly the most obvious starting point: the Psalter. The Psalter commends itself to us for many reasons. It has functioned for 2,000 years as the church’s songbook, it represents one of the most influential books in the New Testament, and it is Jesus’ most quoted book. But I commend the Psalter because it is here that we observe how a community practices art in faithfulness to God for the sake of the world that God so loves. The following, then, are five features that characterize the Psalter’s practice of art making and the power of such art in the life of God’s people throughout the ages.

First, the psalms are poetry. This is perhaps to state the obvious, but the obvious often needs stating. In the psalms it is through poetry—and not despite poetry or beyond poetry—that faithful worship occurs. This begs the question: How does poetry mean? A fully satisfying answer lies beyond the scope of this essay. A preliminary response could be drawn from the work of the English professor Laurence Perrine and the Hebrew scholar Robert Alter.1 Together their works suggest that poetry communicates in ways that say more and say it more intensely, more densely, and more musically than does ordinary language. Hebrew poetry does this through similes, ellipses, rhythm, hyperbole, assonance, and parallelism. These are the ways that a poem means a thing in the psalms. Consider the beginning of Psalm 8, for example:

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all
the earth,
Who have displayed Your splendor
above the heavens!
. . . When I consider Your heavens, the
work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have
ordained . . . (Psalm 8:1,3)

“Your name” and “your heavens” sound almost the same in Hebrew. In Hebrew, the sound of those words shows us how the heavens, with its stars, moon, and sun, spell out the name of the Lord, an intimate, personal presence. We would fail to catch this nuance if we did not attend to the way in which poetry works. The point for us today? In the Hebrew mind, prose is not seen as a more faithful way than poetry to get at the truth—of God, of humans, of the world. They’re both capable of doing so, but they do so in their own distinctive ways. By implication this means that art is a no less reliable or appropriate means of communication than discursive, prose, or propositional forms of expression.

Second, the psalms traffic in metaphorically rich language. A metaphor is a figure of speech whereby we speak of one thing in terms of another. In the psalms, the knowledge of God is not to be discerned on the other side of metaphor; it is discerned through the metaphor. Take “the Lord is my shepherd,” for example. The Lord is not of course an actual shepherd by profession, like a Tunisian goatherd. Nor is the point simply to say that the Lord generically cares for his people. The metaphor of shepherd involves much more than that. As Old Testament professor John Goldingay reminds us, the image of a shepherd in Israel was not a gentle one. Shepherds were rough characters who at times had to become ruthless killers to defend their flocks.2

The metaphor of shepherd evoked memories of Moses. It evoked associations with Israel’s exodus. It evoked an image of wildernesses where sources of water were scarce and wild animals endangered the safety of sheep. It evoked non-cozy pictures of great kings, as sovereign lords, who treated the people as vassals. Evoking all these images, the metaphor of the Lord as Shepherd involves a surplus of meaning. Yahweh shepherds his people with a “fierce tenderness,” as Martin Luther once put it. If metaphor is one of the defining characteristics of the arts, as plenty of philosophers suggest, then with the Psalter on our side we can say that the arts remain central to the work of Christ in the world. The arts open up the world of metaphor and symbol that engages our imaginations about a God beyond our full comprehension, while nonetheless offering us the true knowledge of that God.

Third, in the psalms the sensory is a way through to the knowledge of God. As I write in my book The Theater of God’s Glory, the arts engender a way to grasp the world through our physical senses, give us a feel for things that we might not be able otherwise to articulate, and enable us to perceive what, at first glance, may seem improbable or even impossible. The psalms invite the reader to immerse herself in richly sensory territory: of smelling, tasting, feeling, seeing, hearing. If we wish to know how a psalm means, then, we need to say it or sing it out loud. We cannot simply read it silently. A psalm’s meaning occurs through sensory means, in this case through its musicality—which is of course what all poets might tell you, including Miss Honey from Roald Dahl’s story Matilda:

There was a moment of silence, and Matilda, who had never before heard great romantic poetry spoken aloud, was profoundly moved. “It’s like music,” she whispered. “It is music,” Miss Honey said.3

The point is this. We could write a theology book about injustice—and we need such books. But it is in the singing of Psalm 7 that we grasp injustice. We could preach a sermon about the loss of a friend, and Lord knows we need those sermons. But when we read Psalm 88 responsively, we know it from the inside. We say, yes, it’s just as intensely painful and tragically sad as that. We could talk about the majestic, highly exalted character of God; or, more kinesthetically persuasive, we could dramatically recite Psalm 147 and find ourselves saying, ah, yes, I see now. In all these ways meaning comes through the sensory aspects of the poem, not beyond or despite it. This is true, I suggest, for all the arts. Knowledge involves our entire self, not just our minds. The arts, accordingly, invite our whole selves to know and love God.

Fourth, the psalms operate within “the tradition of David.” That tradition includes both the individual poet and the community. There are three kinds of poets that we find in the Psalter: (1) those who are named and known, (2) those who are unnamed and unknown, and (3) those who are unnamed but known by the guild to which they belong. In the Psalter we have poems by David and in the spirit of David. We have poems by the guild of temple musicians: the Korahites, for instance. We also have poems by individuals who remain anonymous. Whether known or unknown, the poets whom we find in the psalms give voice both to their own concerns and to the concerns of the community. It is not one or the other. It is both. The heartbreaks of moms and dads, the hopes of young and old, the fears of the working class and the anxieties of the ruling class, the little people and the famous people, the artist and the non-artist—everybody somehow, somewhere gets a voice.

This is true for artists today, in particular for artists of faith. Though contemporary works of art will not have the authority of Holy Scripture, many believing artists today feel inspired by God to use their gifts to both speak to and speak for the church. Some of those works, like the poetry of Venantius Fortunatus, the stories of Dante Alighieri, and the songs of Mahalia Jackson, speak to God’s people at that time and across the ages.

Fifth, not every psalm is a masterpiece. This is great news. We will never know how many poems failed to make it into the final edited volume of the Psalter. But perhaps we could guess by comparison to Charles Wesley. As scholars reckon it, the younger Wesley brother composed approximately 9,000 poems over the course of his lifetime. The number of his hymns that are included in the official United Methodist Hymnal is, however, a surprisingly modest number: 51. That’s 0.5% of his songs that see the light of day. Not every poem that Wesley wrote sees the light of day in a public capacity. Not every poem of his is a masterpiece, either. This is true, I suggest, for the Psalter as well.

Psalm 70 may be one of the most carefully crafted poems in the Psalter, for instance, and exceptionally sincere, but this psalm of lament lacks the agony of Psalm 12 or the pathos of Psalm 22. But there it is: a decent poem alongside great ones. And this too is good news for artists today. There is a place for all sorts of art in our lives: some of it passable, some of it great, some of it in between. Some of the work will become renowned. Some of it will be known only to the artist. But in the economy of God, all such artists matter, all such art needs to be made.

These, then, are five characteristics of a community practice of art as we witness it in the psalms.

There are two things that we will not get in the Psalter. We will not get a single key idea about art and faith that, in turn, magically translates into the biblical charter for artists of faith today. Nor will we get a blueprint for faithful artistry that absolves us of the hard work of discernment. What we will get, I suggest, is something much better: a vision of a community of artists, of all kinds, in all times and places, who over a long period of time make art for God’s sake and for the sake of the world. These artists give expression to things that matter deeply to them, but they also give expression to the deepest concerns of the community at large. They do so in poetically rich, aesthetically intensive, and contextually meaningful ways. They do so in ways that both comfort and disturb, in faithfulness to the Word of God. If a biblical vision for the calling of artists is on offer, then, I can think of few better places to discover that vision than the book of Psalms.

1. L. Perrine, Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense, 5th ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988); R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 2011).
2. J. Goldingay, Psalms, vol. 1: Psalms 1–41 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 348.
3. R. Dahl, Matilda (New York: Puffin Books, 2007), 185–86.