The Psalms vs. Systematic Theology

Those who know me are aware that I am a person who likes rules. I want to know how things work, what I should expect from others, and what is expected of me. I like progress and success to be defined by clearly identifiable markers.

I don’t like the Psalms. I do like systematic theology.

Let me explain that:

The Psalms are prayers from someone else’s heart, poems from long ago, and songs with no music. Bor-ing! Sure, some true things are said about God, but nothing you can’t find elsewhere in the Bible. I believe the psalter is inspired and all, but I’d so much rather read something that just lays it out for me—minus the drama. What are the rules? What does life with God as the boss look like. How should I expect God to behave? How does he want me to behave?

That’s why a neat system that I can count on is so appealing. These are the rules. These are the boundaries. God won’t step out of them, and if I want to be right, neither should I. I say I am seeking God and I say I want to know Him, but I think sometimes what I’m really after is making God safe and predictable. I want to understand how he works, not who he is. I want to know when he will act or intervene and in what way, not what he thinks or feels about circumstances or my response to them.

In my opinion the claim that following Christ is a relationship, not a religion is either naive or dishonest. It is very much a religion…based on a relationship. My gratitude and love for God motivate me to obey his word—and the outworking of that obedience is religion, by most definitions.

Religion: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a supernatural agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.  (

Religion is not bad. That being said, it is pathetic and tragic for me to comfort myself with religion, while forsaking depth of relationship.

Exodus 20:18-19 (NASB)
19 Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.”

At Mt. Sinai God invited intimate relationship and the people chose the safety of religion. That story breaks my heart, especially when I recognize my own ability to do the same.

It isn’t that I neglect prayer…or that I approach the Bible without passion. But too often I don’t want to push, work, or seek. I don’t want to dig, search, and listen—really listen.

Psalms 139:23-24 (NASB)
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts;
24 And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.

I used to think this was a silly prayer. Search what? He knows, doesn’t he? But now I think I understand what the psalmist is asking. It is an invitation for God to speak. It is a surrender to listen and a willingness to struggle.

Search my heart and show me what you see. Holy Spirit, help me dig deep. Remind me of truth and help me apply it. Show me where I’m wrong, where I’m selfish, where my motives are wicked. Help me change. Hold my hand, and guide me through life. I want one on one with you. I need to hear from you. Show me your heart. Reveal yourself to me…

Maybe the Psalms have more to teach me than I once thought.

I believe the Bible is the inspired, authoritative word of God. It is trustworthy and true, and we will never in this life exhaust all that it has to offer to us. It is a precious and amazing resource, given to us by God. And I am thankful for those who dedicate their lives to studying it, offering fresh insight, and handing down sound, biblical doctrines. However, the Bible falls far short of telling us everything—about God or otherwise. We do not and will not “have it all figured out” have God “nailed down.”

He didn’t give us that.

God has told us some of our story—that he loves us, that we are broken, that he will restore us if we let him. He has revealed enough about himself for us to see that he is worth pursuing. His word is an invitation to do just that. It is an offer to begin now an amazing, beautiful, passionate, intimate relationship with God that will continue and deepen on into eternity.

He won’t always fit what I have decide is safe, comfortable, or predictable but what is that when the God of the universe invites me to pursue him, to know him, and love him for who he is—when his passionate desire is for me to seek him so he can reveal himself to me? That is crazy, amazing beautiful! How could I ever hold my systems in higher esteem than such an offer?


7 thoughts on “The Psalms vs. Systematic Theology”

  1. Actually, if you study the psalms in depth you will soon discover how ordered and how structured they are. After flowing from various pens (including David) they most likely went through quite a process of editing to come to us in the form they are now.

    Having said that, you main point is still VERY true! Grrr. 🙂

    1. Good point.
      Needless to say, I haven’t studied the psalms in depth. 🙂
      I wasn’t trying to make any actual contrast between the structure and arrangement of the psalms and the systematizing of theology, though–more just recognizing my preference for decisive answers over searching and struggling in relationship.
      And…umm…did you growl at my main point?

    1. J –
      Yeah, I’m coming around. 🙂
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on 138 with me. I had a read through. I like this from 139: “How precious also are your thoughts to me, Oh God!”

      That’s what I’m taking away from the psalmists now–what it looks like to have a heart “after God’s own,” a vibrant, honest, searching, growing, highs and lows relationship with God (plus interesting tidbits of cultural perspective).

      I want every season and circumstance to extract my desire to know him better and confirm my confidence in his greatness. In the psalms, I can see this process in action.

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