It’s hard to enjoy a drive through the Blue Ridge Parkway when you’re used to the interstate. The turns drone on and on, while every few minutes a beautiful overlook makes you feel guilty for breezing by it. And there’s the frustration of getting behind a motorist who wants to go much, much slower than you.
But that’s O.K., you tell yourself. You’re not there to get to your destination quickly, or you would have taken I-40. You’re there to enjoy the beauty of the Smoky Mountains, to get out and look at all those overlooks. The trouble is that your well-ingrained interstate habits don’t examine every mountain peak, drink in their glory, or do anything close to sitting still. You can’t help but zoom through it all, because that’s all you know how to do behind a wheel.
In the same way, when we’re so used to flicking through Twitter, skimming blog posts and trekking through our Bible-in-a-year plans, it can be very hard to slow down and soak in the richness of the Psalms.
But the Psalms were meant to be savored. They aren’t Cheetos; they’re Kobe steaks. They aren’t mile markers on the interstate; they’re curves on the Blue Ridge Parkway. And every one of them has a view you could sit with for an hour.
There’s a concrete reason for this: The Psalms employ visual images more frequently than other books of the Bible. They feel dense because they really are dense with imagery. But it’s those images that, like a scenic overlook, are so easy to miss when you drive too fast.
So the advice I give to someone reading the Psalms is the same advice I give to a first-time driver on the Blue Ridge Parkway: slow down, stop often and come back sometime.
When we read the beginning of Psalm 42 (ESV), “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God,” it’s easy to either speed on to verse 2 or slip into interpreter’s mode. “He’s thirsty for God. Am I thirsty for God? Does my soul thirst?” We want the shortest possible distance between our minds and the meaning, so much that we’ll skip right by the powerful deer imagery to get there. But, so often, it’s that imagery that speaks to the heart. It’s there for a Spirit-inspired reason.
In other words, that word picture is like a scenic overlook. Stop and take it in.
Beyond meditating on the meaning, meditate on the image. Picture a magnificent deer running from the archer’s arrow or the lion’s roar, confused, tired and dehydrated. What does it want more than anything? Water. It pants for it. That deer is thirsty—and your soul is thirsty, too. Now you’re ready to ask if your soul thirsts for God, because now you can sense the meaning more deeply. Your heart was moved before your head even knew what that thirsty deer was all about.
One way to make it come alive is to relate the imagery to your own experiences. When was the last time you were that thirsty? Whether it’s my memory of the Burger King Coke my dad bought me decades ago after my first long workday in the Florida sun, or the tall glass of water I had the other day after mowing the lawn in Kentucky humidity, I know what it’s like to pant. Thankfully, I know what it’s like to have thirst quenched too. I can still feel that first sip of cold Coke coating my 8-year-old overheated stomach. I can’t even imagine how much more refreshing the sight of Jesus will be than that.
So chew on the images for a while before you move on, the same way you’d chew on a piece of a good steak before you swallowed it. Sometimes they come more easily, but other times they don’t. You might have to learn something about the gold of Ophir to fully grasp Psalm 45:9, for instance. But you can probably guess that it’s exotic gold, and thus very valuable. Whatever effort you have to put in, Bible dictionaries you have to open, or Google searches you have to type — the image is worth it.
Read slowly enough that you catch these images. Stop, park and look at them for a while. Finally, come back every once in a while. You need to see these pictures over and over again. They won’t get old. The views are great.
Dave Cook is worship pastor at Hawesville Baptist Church.