Psalms: Orientation, Disorientation, & Reorientation

The largest book in the Bible is the Psalms. You would be hard pressed to find a book throughout the Scriptures that speaks more clearly to what it means to be a human being than the Psalms. This worship book is packed with an incredible breadth of emotion that oftentimes comes across as shocking to those who think that prayer and worship is all roses. The writers of the Psalms face real circumstances in the real world that try us as human beings and they speak out of their own lived experiences in a Godward direction. The people of God have benefitted for thousands of years because of the raw, vulnerable places to which the writers give poetic expression. 

 

 

A Book of Books

The Psalms are broken in major sections, or books. The section breaks are: 

  • Book I Ps.1-41,
  • Book II Ps.42-72,
  • Book III Ps.73-89,
  • Book IV Ps.90-106,
  • Book V Ps.107-150).

 

Authors and Timeline

Contrary to what many assume, David is not the only person to pen the Psalms. Rather, there are many other writers that contribute such as Moses, Asaph, sons of Korah, Solomon, Ethan, Heman. Additionally, there are many who bear no author’s name whatsoever. It would do us well to be reminded that the Psalms are not the result of one generation of writers but many, many generations went into this enormous "project." Scholars tell us that it took approximately 1,000 years for the Psalms to be penned throughout Old Testament history.

Just like in your local music store (Sonic Boom!), the music is arranged by genre, so also the Psalms have seven genres in which they fall. They are psalms of lament, thanksgiving, enthronement, pilgrimage, royal, imprecatory, and wisdom. 

Old Testament scholar and theologian, Walter Bruggemann points out something that I’ve found very helpful over the years and now it makes more sense than ever. He helps readers see that the Psalms basically depict three experiences we face as human beings in relation to God and he describes them as psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.*

 

Orientation

Psalms of orientation speak of things like creation, wisdom, and the favor of God. An example would be Psalm 8 -

I look up at Your heavens, shaped by your fingers, at the moon and the stars you set firm – what are human beings that you spare a thought for them, or the child of Adam that you care for him?
— (v.3-4, New Jerusalem Bible)

Here we see David totally oriented toward God. He's thinking clearly and full of worship and wonder at God in light of his creation. He not only knows who the maker is, he knows the maker himself... and his maker knows him, too. He is at peace in this beautiful world knowing that he’s not just part of creation in general, but that he uniquely belongs to God. He’s humbled in light of this reality and worship pours from his mouth. David is genuinely impressed with God.  Have you ever felt that way? Where were you? On a retreat? In your living room? Last Christmas? Yesterday? 5 years ago? How did you feel then? Here in Seattle, I run the Discovery Park loop trail a few times a week (weather permitting). Every time I come out of the forrest and get to the bluff, I'm stunned, totally in awe of what God has created and usually say something to God about what he's made.

"The sand is fantastic!"

"The mountains are peeking out behind the clouds."

"The black sail boat on the choppy slate-grey water is just perfect!" 

That's orientation. 

 

Disorientation

Unfortunately, remaining oriented toward God is not our only experience as Christians. (Oh, one day it will be!) Rather, not unlike the saints of the Old Testament, we go through sometimes extended seasons of feeling totally disoriented in our relationship with God, ourselves, and the world around us.

During times of disorientation we get a better grip on what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. To believe in spite of not feeling or experiencing the powerful presence of God gives the word “faith” a bit more credibility. It is in the seasons of disorientation that life just doesn’t make sense. Things have fallen apart at work or at home or in a relationship and we're left in a thick fog, full of questions and doubts.

Psalms of disorientation are both corporately and privately sung in the Old Testament. This is where we see the gritty stuff of faith comes to the surface of Scripture where hurt, anger, depression, despair, and deep questioning of God permeate the psalm. An example would be Psalm 13 – 

How long, Yahweh, will you forget me? For ever? How long will you turn your face away from me?
— (v.1, New Jerusalem Bible)

Feeling disoriented can go on for hours, days, weeks, months, and for some, even years.


Before moving on to reorientation, let’s sit in this fog one more second. What has caused disorientation in your life? When did God stop making sense to you? Disorientation can happen in valleys or on mountaintops. Did tragedy strike your life? Or did you succeed at something and forgot all about God? Are you expressing yourself to God in heartfelt, honest prayer? Or are you tempted to smother your true feelings because you think God is disinterested or annoyed by your complaints? Did you buy into that “fake it until you make it” nonsense that flies in pithy evangelicalism? Does anybody know that you’re feeling disoriented? How are you coping with it? Take it to somebody today who you love and can be trusted that will listen patiently and pray diligently for your soul. 

 

Reorientation

Thanks be to God that for the believer, disorientation is never the final word! Rather, over and over again we see Psalms of reorientation. These are where the psalmist has experienced God as his Rescuer! Listen to the words of Psalm 73 –

My heart grew embittered, my affections dried up, I was stupid and uncomprehending, a clumsy animal in your presence. Even so, I stayed in your presence, you grasped me by the right hand; you will guide me with advice, and will draw me in the wake of your glory. Who else is there for me in heaven? And, with you, I lack nothing on earth.
— (v.21-25, New Jerusalem Bible)

 

Can you feel the joy in his soul as he emerges from the fog and has clarity again? His heart and mind are filled with praise and gratitude that God came through! God made a way! Just when things got their darkest, God’s grace burst onto the scene in brilliant light! Have you ever been there? What was that experience like for you? Who did you celebrate with? What kind of images come to mind? What kind of language would you use to describe your experience of being reoriented?

 

Perhaps today you feel oriented around who God is and what he has done.  Maybe today is another day for you to walk in faith feeling fairly disoriented. Today might be the day that God reorients your perspective and heart around his ferocious love for you.  Whatever the case may be perhaps a look into the Psalms may be just what you need.

 

 

*Bruggemann, Spirituality of the Psalms (Facets)