Whenever Christmas rolls around, I get a little sad. I look back and am encouraged in the ways God worked in the past year, but also acutely aware of the things still hoped for—the things yet unseen (2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 11). I look back and have hope. I look forward and ache.
One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” I tend to be a melancholy person, so a song in a minor key speaks my language of angst. But I think another reason it resonates with me is because it contains echoes of our collective longing. I find a kinship in this haunting song because, like the ancient Israelites, I am also mourning in exile, waiting for the Son of God to appear. I count myself among the “weary souls” we sing about in “O Holy Night.” I am waiting for Christ to return, and every unanswered prayer in my life today is a reminder that his return is still an awaited longing in my own soul.
This is also why I am drawn to the Psalms. At Advent, we often gravitate toward the same passages—Matthew’s genealogy, Luke 1–2, and the prophecies in Isaiah. But the Psalms have been a comfort to God’s people since this first songbook was put to parchment. They were the songs of ancient Israel as they were forced into exile and longed for their return. They were the songs of Israel’s greatest king as he faced persecution, struggles to ascend to the throne, and even his own sinfulness. They lived thousands of years before us, but they too were waiting for the Christ to come. And in their waiting, they sang of their experience. They sang of their questions. They sang of their sorrows. And they sang of their hope.
The Psalms continue to be the songs we sing or read in our moments of deep anguish and times of great joy. But they also have something to teach us during Advent.
First, the Psalms instruct us to remember. Scripture helps us to remember the story of how God has worked in his people from Creation to Christ (Ps. 89, 90, 114, 124). Israel was called repeatedly to remember how God had delivered them over and over again (Ps. 103:2–5). Christians are called to the very same remembrance. We remember our salvation Sunday after Sunday when we preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. We remember our Savior’s birth at Christmas. We even remember the personal ways he has worked in our lives.
In 1 Samuel 7, the prophet Samuel set up a stone of remembrance—an Ebenezer stone—to call the Israelites to remember God’s deliverance of them from the Philistines. They had the Ebenezer stone as a continual reminder that God saves. The Psalms contain similar “stones” of remembrance. There are entire Psalms that recount Israel’s history. There are Psalms that remember what God has done personally in the life of the psalmist. There are Psalms that look back only to have the faith to be sustained in the future (Ps. 66, 116).
Advent, too, calls us to remember. In our pain we need to remember that we have a God who saves (Ps. 68:20). In our grief, we need to remember that we have a God who raises the dead (Ps. 27:13). In our joy, we need to remember that we have a God who gives good things to his people (Ps. 107:9). And in our waiting for Christ’s return, we need to remember a God who is near, not far off (Ps. 46:1).
The Psalms also teach us to wait. Advent means to wait or be expectant. In the weeks leading up to Christmas Day we are looking forward to Christ’s birth and expectant with hope. But we are also waiting for another entry of Christ into this world—when he returns to make all things right (Rev. 21:1–8). The Psalms speak to this story of waiting, both for Israel in the Old Testament and for us.
Many believe that Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 set up the entire book of Psalms. Charles Spurgeon even called Psalm 1 the “preface Psalm.” Psalm 1 begins with “Blessed is the man” and Psalm 2 ends with “Blessed are all who take refuge in him.” Sandwiched between the “blessed” are the expectations of this blessed life. The blessed life is the one spent meditating on God’s Word (Ps. 1:2). The blessed person flourishes like a tree planted by streams of water (v. 3). The blessed life is found in believing that the true King rules and reigns (Ps. 2:12).
We can get behind that, can’t we? Especially as we end a calendar year and look forward to the next one, we tend to be more hopeful. In Psalm 1 and 2, we are getting the end before we even begin. We get the outcome before we get into the reality of life. But we also have Psalm 3 in quick succession, where David is under oppression rather quickly after this introduction filled with hope of the blessed life. We may have hope before us in Advent, but we also are living real life. And the Psalms give us real life and tell us we are not the first or the last to ask God, “How long?”
As we look forward at Christmas, the Psalms prepare us for real life, and in looking forward they give us hope for the future. Psalm 1 reminds us that as we meditate on the Word—the Word made flesh—we will live and have hope. Psalm 2 reminds us that there is a final and sure outcome to all the raging around us, where God wins in the end.
In light of victory, the Psalms call us to worship. We may have the messy middle of lament in Psalms 3–144, but we also have what many call “an explosion of praise” in the final five Psalms of the book. The Psalms are telling our story in poetic form, and as we sing the songs of anxiety in our seasons of waiting, we have a hopeful reminder that as we were always intended to, we will one day sing the songs of the delivered.
This is exactly why the Old Testament poems can and should be read during a time when we are looking back at what Christ has done and looking forward to what he will do again. They speak to our stories even as they speak to the larger story we are part of. And in doing that, they speak to our deepest longings.
We can sing along with the psalmist in the deliverance:
I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.
I will be glad and rejoice in you;
I will sing the praises of your name, O Most High. (Ps. 9:1–2)
And in the questions:
How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire? (Ps. 89:46)
With the psalmist, I am in exile. I am waiting. I am mourning. I am lamenting. I am broken. I am betrayed. I am sometimes just plain sad. The psalmists of old were waiting for Christ’s first coming, and in waiting for Christ’s first coming they experienced all of the ravages of life in this world in need of healing by the Son of God. We are waiting for his second coming, also ravaged by brokenness, sin, and a fallen world. In all the ways they ached for the restoration of all things in this promised Messiah, we wait with the same expectancy—but with even more understanding of what is to come.
As we wait for the return of our promised King, we hold on in faith like the psalmists before us, knowing he is coming soon. And when he does, we will join the collective song of the redeemed and our waiting will be over.
Courtney Reissig is a writer and Bible teacher living in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is the author of the upcoming book Teach Me to Feel: Worshiping Through the Psalms in Every Season of Life.