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Podcast: Reading the Psalms with Jesus in View (Dane Ortlund)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

An Invitation to Prayer

In this episode, Dane Ortlund discusses how the psalms uniquely invite us into prayer and devotion, how they reflect the greatness of God, and how he cares for his people.

In the Lord I Take Refuge

Dane C. Ortlund

In the Lord I Take Refuge invites readers to experience the Psalms in a new and refreshing way, featuring devotional content written by Dane Ortlund.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

00:54 - Personal Devotions: Your Daily Food

Matt Tully
Dane, thank you so much for joining me again on The Crossway Podcast.

Dane Ortlund
It’s a pleasure to do so. Thanks, Matt.

Matt Tully
It's becoming almost a monthly tradition for us.

Dane Ortlund
It is!

Matt Tully
The idea of daily personal devotions—in the Bible, in prayer, communing with God in that way—is about as basic to an evangelical approach to Christianity that you could have. It’s baked into the cake from the very beginning. For those of us who have grown up in the church, we just know that this is a big emphasis for our lives as Christians. You grew up as a pastor’s kid, so I would imagine that was all the more true for you. Speak to that a little bit. As you were growing up as a young person, how did you think about the idea of personal devotions?

Dane Ortlund
It was always very normal to me. Not to do devotions necessarily, but I walked down stairs every morning in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and my mom was sitting there on the couch in the living room with her Bible open and cup of tea. I am so happy and grateful that that was normal. It was a normal morning, not an odd morning, to see that. I know my dad had similar habits more privately in the home, so I am very grateful for that. I was never pressured to do that; it was never forced on me like a burden or anything, but that’s a powerful example to grow up observing.

Matt Tully
Why do you think your dad did it in a more private way away from you?

Dane Ortlund
I’ve never asked him. That’s a great question. I don’t know. I find myself to be kind of similar though. I need to get in the zone, and I need it to be quiet and still and distraction-free—at least for that half hour or forty-five minutes in the morning because the rest of my day the text messages, emails and calls are coming in. So I have to protect and guard that time.

Matt Tully
You said that you didn’t necessarily feel pressure from your parents to be making a habit out of that, but maybe even more broadly in the church that you were a part of, or in the broader Christian culture that we live in, did that ever feel like it was this expectation that if you weren’t super jazzed about or super consistent in it you were somehow failing?

Dane Ortlund
Probably so. I don’t remember particular people pressuring me to have daily devotions. I don’t remember ever resenting that or being annoyed by that. If they did, today I’m happy they did. There are a lot of worse pressures one could have than to read the Bible and pray everyday! Probably as time went on I was putting more pressure on myself to do that, having seen the example and knowing that I needed that.

Matt Tully
When do you think it became a habit for you or something that personally, for your own spiritual vitality, was something that you just knew was a priority and you felt a desire to do it?

Dane Ortlund
In my mid-twenties during seminary. Maybe a little bit sparratically in college. I went through probably what a lot of us go through in terms of just life progress in building the discipline of Bible and prayer in my life. Namely, 1) not doing it; 2) doing it legalistically; 3) Doing it habitually, joyously, and needing it. In phase 3, it’s like eating breakfast. You have to have it to be nourished throughout your day. Maybe I’m just weird, but maybe a lot of us need to go through phase 2 to get to number 3. I don’t know. If you can skip phase 2, great! But the point is, get to number 3 where it is your daily food.

Matt Tully
Elaborate on that. How does phase 2 look different than phase 3?

Dane Ortlund
Feeling like God’s smile has decreased just a smidge over my life if I didn’t have time in the Word that day, or if it was hurried or distracted, and very, very subtly connecting—building a little bridge—between how I think my morning devotions went (or didn’t go) and God’s favor over me, rather than viewing the Scripture and prayer in the morning as one more way to be assured that his favor is resting on me, irrespective of how I’m doing and performing spiritually.

Matt Tully
That’s so interesting. I think we can get into the mindset that doing these morning devotions—spending this time in the word and prayer—is something we’re doing for God rather than for ourselves.

Dane Ortlund
Absolutely. I want to learn better that I need to get up in the morning with my Bible and coffee to receive. I am receiving. I don’t have something to give him. I give him my worship and my consecrated life I suppose in some sense. But that’s very derivative and secondary. I need God to go through my day, so I need to stockpile my mind and my heart with God first thing in the day if I want to live a fruitful life.

Matt Tully
Do you think there’s anything to the critique that sometimes comes out in reaction to an emphasis on the idea of personal devotions and making that a daily habit—namely, that it’s easy to view that as panacea? If there is ever a struggle in someone’s life, if they’re ever struggling with a certain sin or they are struggling with anxiety or anything, then the first question is always, Well, how are your personal devotions? Is that a valid concern?

Dane Ortlund
It could be unhelpful if we are formulaically viewing devotions as you put a coin in the slot machine and out comes the soda.

Matt Tully
Yeah, transactional.

Dane Ortlund
Exactly. It’s impersonal. How awful! At the same time, while it’s not like taking a pill for a headache, nevertheless, yes, in some sense it is a panacea. Maybe that’s not the right definition of panacea, but it is the solution to everything to spend time in Scripture and prayer because God is the solution to everything. I need to go through my day with God. Therefore, I have to start my day, launch my day, with Scripture and prayer. So actually, there are a lot worse things that one could ask someone who has plateaued spiritually than, Have you been spending regular, daily time in Scripture and prayer? So let’s not be overly cautious about asking that.

Matt Tully
Do you think there’s something especially powerful about spending this time in the mornings before the day begins?

Dane Ortlund
I would not want to put that on anyone, because we’re all wired differently. I can only speak for myself, Matt, and what I find is throughout the day, all those hours of being awake and working and doing life, my mind is building up static throughout the day. If I try to do it at the end of day, or even midday, I can’t! I’m too distracted with the swirl of conversations, emails, meetings, and decisions. To put it the other way, in the morning my mind is most blank, so I want to get at my heart and mind when it’s most open and available to get shaped and helped. For me, that’s in the morning.

Matt Tully
You made a comment earlier about how in your twenties you made this a habit for the first time. That whole question of habit formation—sometimes we can just say when someone’s struggling, You should just be reading the Bible more. Just do it. I think that feels like it can be a little bit simplistic and it doesn’t take into account that sometimes we need to develop that habit, and that’s hard. That takes time and that takes intentionality. As you think back on your own life, are there certain insights or examples that you saw that helped you to actually make a habit out of Bible reading so that now it isn’t something that you’re having to exert as much will to do every single day?

Dane Ortlund
Well, it still does take a lot of will because I am sinful. I really like the way you put the question there, Matt. We don’t want to go through life and then once life takes a hard turn, then we’ll figure out how to do Bible and prayer. No, let’s figure it out now so that we can stay afloat when life does torpedo us. But in terms of what has helped me make a daily habit out of it, actually, the answer is my own fear, worry, anxiety, sin, shame, guilty feelings, kids, feeling overwhelmed by life. If we are breezily floating through life, who needs Bible and prayer? Who needs God? For me, the answer to building regular Bible and prayer into my life is not a really comfortable chair, great coffee, the particular type-setting of the Bible, and an amazing reading plan. All of that helps, but it’s merely cosmetic. The engine is living in a fallen world and fighting not to go cynical. That’s what I’m trying to do all day long. Not to put it too negatively, but that’s one way to understand what I’m doing all day long. I just want to be happy and not go cynical. So for me, it’s either stockpile my heart with Bible and pray my way through the day, or go cynical.

Matt Tully
What about the person who is listening and says, But it’s on those bad days and with those difficult things in life that I feel like I can’t read my Bible. I feel like I’m not in a good state to do it. My mind isn’t there, I feel like I’m distant from God, I’ve sinned against God in some way, and it feels like I need to get straightened out there before I really have the ability to go meditate on the Bible?

Dane Ortlund
I don’t want to give any simplistic response to that on anyone. Sometimes we are so shut down and so traumatized by life all we can do is sit, all we can do is be prayed over by a friend, all we can do is call our mom or dad. So be it. But in stiff-arming and holding at arm's length the Scripture and prayer because you just feel like you’re too spiritually flat or dry is to say the very thing I need to step out of that flatness and dryness I’m holding at arm’s length. It’s the very medicine you need! All you need is God. Maybe there are other ways, but I don’t think there are other than opening up the Scripture and praying, which I just view as inhaling and exhaling. I’m inhaling when I’m reading Scripture, and I’m exhaling when I’m praying. We have to breathe.

12:10 - The Uniqueness of the Psalms

Matt Tully
One of the things that you emphasize is that the Psalms in particular are a great place to camp in the Bible, in part because they are very unique compared to the rest of the Bible. What makes the Psalms so unique and special in particular as a place for us to meditate and dwell in our communion with God everyday?

Dane Ortlund
If we had the Psalms taken out of the Bible, we would be eviscerating the Bible, wouldn’t we? It’s the heart of the Bible. The book of Psalms is the one book of the Bible written to God. The whole Scripture is the word of God to us, and in one of those books of the Bible, he flips it around and it’s not only his word to us, it’s actually giving us words to talk to him. It’s the Bible’s prayer book. It is training us and shaping us in how to pray. So yes, Matt, if we don’t have it in us to follow Pauline logic or to trace the historical narratives, and we can’t even go to the Gospels and see the Lord Jesus, then if nothing else, we can open up to the Psalms and have voice given to our hearts.

Matt Tully
It’s a uniquely helpful portion of Scripture, especially when we’re suffering or struggling. What’s your favorite psalm?

Dane Ortlund
I can’t pick one. I love Psalm 1. I love Psalm 23; Psalm 34 has been very important to me, and Psalm 103 (especially the first half). I don’t know if I could pick just one. I think a lot of the listeners would agree that there are favorite psalms in different seasons of life—when we are higher or lower emotionally or psychologically. But God always has a word in season in the Psalms. It’s the full range of human experience and emotion.

Matt Tully
Is there a certain theme in the Psalms that has, maybe in the last year or so, been especially helpful for you or comforting to you in your life?

Dane Ortlund
One of my favorite themes in the Psalms recently comes out in Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” This comes through in the second half of Isaiah quite a bit as well, but it’s all through the Psalms. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” We think, I’m crushed in my spirit. Let me try to work myself out of this and then come to God. Actually, that very state of being is what God is most strongly drawn to. Of course, the Lord Jesus is the living incarnation of this in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but even in the Old Testament we shouldn’t have been surprised that the Lord Jesus is drawn to the brokenhearted. God said that’s who he is always drawn to.

Matt Tully
Actually, that totally connects to something. I was reading through the devotion you wrote on Psalm 51, which happens to be one of my favorite psalms. I’m sure many people resonate with that. It’s a beautiful, encouraging psalm for us when we feel like we are far from God and that we have sinned in some way. You write in your devotion, “David is asking God to be who he is. He’s asking God to act in a way that’s consistent with himself. All that God asks of you is to bring the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart. He gave his Son because of that brokenness.” That made me think a lot of your other book that you’ve written recently—Gentle and Lowly. In the book you say something very similar about Jesus in particular. You say, “If we were asked to say one thing about him, we would be honoring him to say that he is gentle and lowly.” You say that’s not who he is for everyone indiscriminately, but for those who come to him—who take his yoke upon him, who cry out for help—that he is gentle and lowly. That is who he is. As you think about Gentle and Lowly—this book you wrote that is focused on Jesus and how that disposition that he has towards us is fundamental to who he is—did any of the Psalms that aren’t as directly referencing Jesus but nevertheless they seem to, in many places, say the same thing. How did that influence what you wrote in a book like Gentle and Lowly?

Dane Ortlund
I love that. The Psalms are rolling out the red carpet: Matthew 11 and all four Gospels and what you just said about the Lord Jesus is the throne and person walking down that red carpet. The point is, the Psalms are the perfect preparation for what we see of the Lord Jesus. For example, Psalm 103, as you know, the psalm is exalting—as you just said about Psalm 51—in God and who he is most freely, most naturally, what pours out of him most naturally. He will not always chide, he will not keep his anger forever, he does not deal with us according to our sins. I deeply believe in my flesh God will deal with me according to my sins. Exact reciprocity. What else could he be like? But apparently, this text says he does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. It goes on to quote Exodus 30:4--the Lord being slow to anger--this passage that is quoted several times throughout the Old Testament so that by the time we see Jesus walking around on planet Earth, he is the entire psalter—the theology of God—on two legs, in flesh and blood. God said he is slow to anger throughout the Old Testament, and he proved it and was a picture of it. What we heard God say in the Old Testament and in the Psalms, we see God—in Christ—being in the Gospels. They are perfectly complementary.

18:25 - Reading the Psalms Christologically

Matt Tully
That connects to the broader idea of reading the Psalms Christologically. People might have heard that theological term used and I think sometimes we wonder what that actually means: How do I do that in a way that honors what the Psalms were originally saying in the original hearers ears and minds, but also understanding that all of Scripture is a unified whole and ultimately points forward to Christ? Help us think about that. What does it look like to read the Psalms with that Jesus-centered lense?

Dane Ortlund
If we don’t read the Psalms with a Jesus-centered lense, we’re not reading the Psalms the way Jesus himself told us to. We’re not imposing anything on the Psalms to read it in a Christ-mindful way. We’re doing what Jesus himself said in Luke 24: All the psalms were about me. He didn’t say, There are a couple of prophetic anticipations of me explicitly in a handful of psalms, and then I fulfill those and the rest are

Matt Tully
That’s what we often look for. We’re looking for a prophecy where it’s just a one-to-one comparison: Okay, this talks about this person coming and doing this; therefore, that’s about Jesus.

Dane Ortlund
And there are those. Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 are really laced throughout the New Testament at Christ fulfilling them. But he is the fulfillment of the entire psalter. The laments culminate in Christ’s cry from the cross—Christ’s lament—and are ultimately healed in Christ’s own restoring work in the world. The praises in the Psalms culminate in our praise to God for his climactic work of restoration in Christ. The confessions of sin in the Psalms culminate in Christ’s atoning work, which render certain the forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ. We know it’s proven—we know in black and white, objective reality. The lifting high of the word of God in Psalm 19, Psalm 119, Psalm 1 are ultimately fulfilled in Christ as the Word of God (John 1 and Hebrews 1). The entire 150-psalm psalter funnels into, is clinched in, is fulfilled in every way by Jesus Christ.

Matt Tully
Are there any ways of misapplying this idea that the Psalms are Christological and that we should read them in that way? Do you even like that term? I think you said at some point they use a different word to describe how the Psalms connect to Christ.

Dane Ortlund
I suppose we could overdo it and we could get weird. I’ve just flipped here to Psalm 102:26: “You will change them like a robe and they will . . . “ Oh! Well that must be connecting to us being robed in the righteousness of Christ. No, no, no. That’s allegorical. That’s not right. That’s weird. That’s bizarre. What we want to do is take the original historical intent of the Psalms and see how, according to its original meaning, it’s on a trajectory that is historically and ultimately fulfilled in Christ. The apostles in the New Testament coach us on how to do that. They connect Jesus to the Psalms, so we just want to follow their coaching and their example.

22:08 - Preaching the Psalms

Matt Tully
Absolutely. What’s it like to preach the Psalms? You’re a pastor and you’re preaching every week; are they easier than other portions of Scripture to preach?

Dane Ortlund
I would like to grow in that. I would say preaching the Psalms is connecting the heart of God to the heart of a sinner or a sufferer through the heart of the preacher. It’s connecting God’s heart with their heart. I’m using the word “heart” because the Psalms are so heartful. They are so deeply plumbing where we are really at on a given day—our real-time earthly fallen existence. It is plunging our hearts into the ocean of God’s grace and goodness, and the Psalms are replete—they’re overflowing—with who God is for us in our need. So it’s a joy to preach the Psalms.

Matt Tully
Some of those psalms of lament where, for example, they’re actually quite dark and there’s not a lot of hope within a certain psalm, it can be hard for the individual Christian reading it, much less a preacher who’s preaching this, to figure out how to then draw out of that some kind of gospel hope. How have you dealt with that kind of a passage?

Dane Ortlund
Psalm 88, of course, is the darkest of the Psalms, but there are more that are like it. A couple of thoughts come to mind, brother. One is how kind of God to give us passages of Scripture that don’t super spiritualize and give us facil assurances that give us a little pep talk and say, Come on! Your life isn’t really that bad. Our lives are profoundly, tortuously dark at times—and this is as believers! How cruel to try to tell people, Hey, chin up! Get a little more caffeine in your life. What’s wrong with you? That’s cruel. That exacerbates. That doubles pain when we give people in pain shallow solutions. The Bible never comes to us and does that. It acknowledges the pain, number one. Number two: it heightens our longing for heaven. It’s not the end of the story! The Psalms are halfway through the Bible, and it’s not the end of the story. So at the least we can say, This is a reality in this psalm: darkness. This is the reality in your life: darkness. It’s not going to end there. Hang on. And more deeply, Christ is hanging on to you. Thirdly and finally, none of us will ever walk through the deepest valley of the shadow of death that Jesus walked through; namely, condemnation. We walk through profound valleys, but none of us is ever going to walk through that valley. That’s the deepest, darkest one of all. So, that’s great hope.

Matt Tully
What do you think it says about our church culture that it seems like so often we do want that positive silver lining at the end? We do want that uplifting, encouraging final word. Sometimes we don’t seem to have a category for just acknowledging that even the Christian life can be full of profound suffering.

Dane Ortlund
You’re so right. Let’s agree—you and me—not to be shallow, Matt. Let’s model that for others. The Lord Jesus Christ walked around and did not give glib answers. He wept with others. In John 11 as Lazarus had died—and he knew he was about to raise him—but he entered into the profound distress of his friends there and wept with them. John 11:33 and John 11:38 say he was deeply indignant over what death had done to bring ruin and wreckage into the emotional and psychological state of his friends. Yes, we believe Romans 8:28: “God works all things for good . . .”; but when we are with someone who is in distress, let’s first do Romans 12:15 and weep with those who weep.

Matt Tully
Have you felt that temptation, even as a pastor, when you see someone who is struggling and wrestling with something to sort of rush and jump into that Romans 8:28? Again, it’s a truth from Scripture.

Dane Ortlund
Yes, it is, and no, I have not. Maybe if I had gone into the pastorate right out of seminary then I would, but I’m forty-two and I became a pastor seven months ago. It took me twenty years for God to chisel away some of that facil shallowness from me, and there’s still a long way to go. But no, I have found it profoundly joyous. Last week I was at two graveside services—one I led and one I did not. What did they need from me? They needed solidarity of sadness; that’s what they needed. I guess one reason that I haven’t been tempted to do that is when I have walked through sadness in my life, I have known how obnoxious and painful it is when people give me theology. I don’t need them to give me theology. I need them not to stand facing me and telling me something, but to stand next to me and crying with me. That is profoundly comforting.

Matt Tully
It seems like part of the challenge here and one of the reasons we often feel tempted to just throw good theology at someone in the midst of suffering is because maybe we don’t have a category for feeling pain and anxiety and sadness and sorrow with good theology. We think that those emotions are a sign of perhaps bad theology.

Dane Ortlund
Agreed. Like if we just were doctrinally deep and precise enough then we wouldn’t really feel this pain as deeply. Not true. Jesus felt pain very deeply. And Matt, we should say there’s a lot of bad theology out there, so we do want to do theology with people, just not when the pain is raw. Not when it’s fresh. We want to keep empowering people over time while they’re doing okay with good theology—fortifying them so that when suddenly the bottom falls out and they are in deep pain, they are fortified with that good theology. What I’m not saying is let’s downplay theology. The point is timing and what people need when the pain is fresh and raw.

28:44 - Applying the Psalms

Matt Tully
Another challenge with the Psalms that I think we’ve all maybe experienced at some point in our lives is just thinking about how to apply them. We’ve been talking a little bit about reading them as a helpful reflection of our own struggles and even pointing forward to Jesus, but as evangelicals we are also very interested in application. We always want to know what difference could this make in my life today or tomorrow. What do you think about that? Is that a helpful way to approach the Psalms?

Dane Ortlund
Yes, if we’re asking it in the right way. If we’re reading a psalm and we are then simply saying, Okay, how do I apply that to my life? we might actually be bypassing, circumventing, skipping the deeper heart work that God is doing as we are reading the Psalms and meditating and marinating in them. We want to put the Psalms in the crockpot, not in the microwave inside us. We want them to do their deep, simmering work. Sometimes, Matt—I don’t know if you would agree—I believe we too quickly go to how do I apply this to my life, and we haven’t plowed up our hearts first. So I think yes, we want to always have that question, How do I apply this to my life? James (in the New Testament) is very clear we can’t be hearers of the word but not doers. We must be doers of the word, absolutely. We don’t want to be hypocrites. But I want to be a deep Christian where the Psalms have really plowed up my heart. And sometimes the reading and exegeting and interpreting and praying of the psalm is the application. That is it.

Matt Tully
We often think of application as only expressed in what we do or what we say, perhaps. But why don’t we think of application as sometimes just how we’re thinking about it?

Dane Ortlund
That’s a great point. We are applying the text not only to our hands but also to our heads and hearts. And actually, our hands “applying” the text anywhere in Scripture—the Psalms or otherwise—if our hands are applying it and it hasn’t touched our heads and hearts, actually, we’re just being Pharisees. We’re just crowbarring ourselves into a certain behavioral adjustment without being melted and lifted into change.

Matt Tully
How would you describe someone who has perhaps applied it so much to their head that they know it well—we all know people like this who know Scripture really well—who don’t exhibit in their words or actions the qualities that Scripture would seem to teach?

Dane Ortlund
We all have done that from time to time, and perhaps continue to. But what we need to do is seek to let our hearts crack open afresh whatever text we are looking at, especially the Psalms. Let our hearts crack open and not let it reside only in our head. When we are doing what you have just described—when we are stockpiling our minds with truths about God and in the Scripture—actually, we’re using the Bible. We are not opening ourselves up to it. We’re standing over it; we are not sitting under it. So what we need to do is ask God for grace to humble ourselves and open ourselves up to it and stop manipulating the Bible for our own pride and our own ends.

Matt Tully
What’s a psalm that you’ve recently been reading and studying? Walk us through how you’ve been interpreting that, how you’ve been reading that, and what impact it has been having on your life.

Dane Ortlund
Psalm 23 is one that I have come back to recently several times with others because of several tragic events occurring in the lives of families in our church. What I love about this psalm is not only is it justly famous, not only should it be knit into blankets and put on mugs, but more deeply, it is so realistic. I’m walking through the valley of the shadow of death. I am at my wit’s end. Nevertheless, you are with me and you’re this kind of God. You’re a shepherd who leads me beside still waters and causes me to lay down and take a nap in a green pasture like a content sheep. That’s the kind of God he is. Circumstantially, that’s not what is going on in my life or in the life of one of my parishioners, but that’s who God is. We are all going to die one day, and we have not plumbed the depths of the comfort of Psalm 23.


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