One of my favorite things about songwriting with Scripture is when a passage “unlocks” before my eyes. Often a psalm will at first strike me as opaque, like a box that is sealed shut and whose contents are of unknown relevance to me. Instead of awakening my childlike curiosity, this sometimes brings out the annoyed teenager inside of me who has been dragged along to a church event asking, “Why do I have to be here?”
But then something happens. Sometimes it’s a little bit of research on the context of the Scripture passage, or sometimes it’s simply the act of leaning in and starting to work with the text and some music. As I begin trying to rephrase the psalm in my own words, suddenly a key to the locked box appears. The key often seems to be connected to my own emotions; it’s the realization that what the psalmist is saying or crying or shouting is something I have experienced as well. Suddenly, the annoyed teenager inside of me feels seen by the text and therefore implicitly known by the God whose Spirit inspired its writing. The box unlocks. Its treasures come forth, and I feel that I am not alone in the universe, that God is with me and cares about my life, my experience, my cries.
When I sat down to write a song for Psalm 37, this was my experience. An acrostic poem that follows the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 37 always struck me as formulaic. “Fret not yourself because of evildoers,” the English Standard Version translates verse 1. It sounds like something a prim and proper high school English teacher would say and not the kind of gut-gripping, earthy poetry that moves my heart.
But as I sat at a piano and read the psalm aloud, searching for its sound, what I began to see in the psalm was anxiety—something that resonates deeply with my experience. I know the anxiety of living in a world where loud, boastful voices seem to carry the day, where we feel powerless to change what is wrong, where it’s difficult not to grow angry at the news because of the blatant injustice in the world around us.
I know about anxiety, and this began unlocking the psalm for me. But I was still stuck on all the commands. When you are feeling anxious or scared, it does not help much for someone to simply say, “Don’t be afraid.” And that is how I at first read the admonitions in Psalm 37: as preachy finger-waggings that misunderstood what it’s like to live in a place of real anxiety.
I was wrong. The psalmist knows exactly how to get from a place of anxiety to a place of hope. That road from anxiety to hope is through imagination.
“In just a little while,” says verse 10, “the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.” The psalmist is inviting us to close our eyes and, through the gift of imagination, sojourn for a time in a beautiful dream of God’s hand repairing all that is broken in the world. In other words, the psalmist asks us to suspend disbelief—not so that we can escape reality, but rather so we may attune our hearts and minds to something more real than what we can see with our eyes.
Images are woven through the psalm. The clamor of proud voices announcing their prestige? Imagine listening for them and hearing only the quietness of creation at peace. The institutions and authorities that trample the poor? Imagine looking where they were seated and seeing only the meek who have joyfully inherited the earth. Can you hear the sound of God’s holy laughter rumbling through the earth as he sweeps death and sin aside and begins making all things new?
Through the power of imagination, we are able to picture the day of God’s justice that is coming soon. Surely when that day comes and God’s shalom finally and fully fills the earth, the glory of witnessing its arrival will be so profound that we will feel as if our long, anxious years of waiting were only “a little while.” Can you imagine that?
When we open our eyes from this dream and return to the bitter reality of evil and oppression all around us, we find that the time spent picturing God’s future has left us with the gift of hope. Now all those commands in the psalm seem possible. In light of the vision God has shared, we can be still. We can set our hands to the work of ordinary faithfulness, trusting that what we saw through the eyes of faithful imagination is possible.
As we prepare to enter the season of Advent, the gifts of Psalm 37 are available to us now. No doubt you, like me, carry around your own anxieties about life in this unfair, unpredictable, uncontrollable world. Very often in Christian circles, our response to both our own inner fears and the anxieties of others is to jump straight to commands or advice. But the deep wisdom of Psalm 37 is this: human hearts only move from anxiety to hope through imagination.
What imaginative aids can you employ to move your heart toward hope this Advent? What art, film, music, or stories can you sojourn with? What pictures of the coming kingdom can you close your eyes and behold so that your heart might awaken to the imminence of God’s kingdom?
As I sat and wrote my take on Psalm 37—a song called “The Day of the Lord,” which you can see on these pages—God unlocked my imagination to see the beautiful pictures the psalmist painted. What shifted my perspective from that of an annoyed teenager to that of a child sitting in wonder was the act of engaging my own imagination to set the psalm to music in my own words. But you don’t have to be a songwriter to do this. Simply sitting with a psalm and rewriting it in your own words can open your imagination and move you from anxiety to hope.