Praying the Psalms

“Whoever prays the Psalms earnestly and regularly will soon stop those other light and personal little devotional prayers and say: Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalms.” Martin Luther[i]

By Archie Parrish. God blessed my wife and me with three children. From the moment of their births we talked to them. Daily we did everything we could to get them to repeat what we said. At first only Jean and I could understand the sounds they made. Day after day, we continued talking to them, and after a while they began echoing our words back to us. Single words grew into short sentences. Because we continued to talk to our children they learned to talk to us.

In a similar fashion God teaches His children the language of prayer. The Holy Spirit prays for us and helps us learn to pray. The Holy Spirit inspired the whole Bible; and He uses all Scripture to help us pray. But He especially uses the book of Psalms. As we pray the Psalms, the Holy Spirit helps us commune with the Father, conform to the Son, and combat the devil.

Only men and women set free from sin through faith in Christ can successfully fight spiritual warfare. As sons and daughters in a conscious vital relationship with our Father and with His family in a local church, we can properly serve as soldiers in Christ’s army and gain victory in battles with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Leaders in spiritual warfare need not be brilliant; they cannot be self-confident. They are to be humble servants, who are courageous because they are confident in the Lord. They lead by example and are people of prayer who multiply after their kind. Soldiers in spiritual warfare are humble followers of Jesus who maintain their morale by a steady diet of psalms and basic Christian truth, especially Scripture. They boldly engage the enemy. Spiritual warriors know their enemies and believe God is sufficient to defeat them. Spiritual warriors believe kingdom-focused prayer is their super-weapon.

The Calvinist reformers were led by a militant aristocracy and financed by wealthy bourgeoisie. They put up long and frequently successful battles. Yet the leadership and finance could not have won the day had the individual Calvinists not possessed, to quote Cromwell, “a conscience of what they were doing.” In many cases, they won their battles or retrieved those they had lost, not through generalship nor through greater economic power, but because of superior morale. In building up and maintaining this morale, the battle hymns of the Psalter played a conspicuous part.[ii]

The psalms owed their importance in this connection primarily to Calvin himself. Usually when thinking of all his influence on the resistance movements, we tend to stress his teachings, his organization, and his personality. Yet at the grass-roots level these perhaps did not have all of the impact which we usually attribute to them. The thing that really “grabbed” the common man, the ordinary Calvinistic soldier, was something much more mundane: his catechetical training[iii] and the congregational singing of the psalms.

David said, “I give myself to prayer” (Psalm 109:4). Literally the original Hebrew reads, “I prayer”, i.e. “I am prayer.” The Holy Spirit desires to help us become prayer. Here is how He is helping me. I begin every day with the book of Psalms. I divided the book into thirty almost equal portions and I spend about thirty minutes prayerfully reading aloud one portion. I use the English Standard Version because it is an accurate translation and it is easy to read.

This daily discipline has been so rewarding that I am now trying to learn all 150 Psalms by heart. It was not unusual for devout Jews in the time of Jesus and His Apostles to know by heart the “whole of David,” i.e., the entire book of Psalms. It is probable that our Lord Jesus had all the Psalms memorized. They certainly were the very fabric of His life. In His most painful moments, as He faced death on the cross, He instinctively cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). These are David’s words recorded in Psalm 22:1.

Jesus’ last words from the cross were, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). As soon as their children began to talk, devout Jewish mothers taught them to pray, “Into Your hand I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5). Each night before going to sleep the children prayed these words. To this childhood prayer, Jesus adds the personal address, “Father.” Concerning His atoning work on the cross, Jesus declared, “It is finished” (John 19:30), then He prayed to the Father as a little child turning in for the night.

Paul urged earlyChristiansto “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Praying the Psalms built the early Christians into an army of kingdom intercessors. New Testament writers quote more verses from the Psalms than any other Old Testament book.[iv] Praying the Psalter shaped the life of early Christianity into a militant kingdom focus.

Martin Luther relied on the Psalms to become a man of prayer. Said Luther:”When I feel that I have become cool and joyless in prayer because of other tasks or thoughts (for the flesh and the devil always impede and obstruct prayer), I take my little Psalter, hurry to my room, or, if it be the day and hour for it, to the church where a congregation is assembled and, as time permits, I say quietly to myself and word-for-word the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have time, some words of Christ or of Paul, or some psalms, just as a child might do.”[v]

The Secret that unlocks the Psalter is the fact that it is the prayer book of Jesus, the Messiah and Mediator. He is the Head; the Church is His Body. And Head and Body are one; so the Body should join in the prayers of the Head. With this perspective we can pray all the Psalms, even when the writer protests his innocence or invokes God’s judgment, or goes through infinite depths of suffering. Jesus Christ Himself is praying here and in the whole Psalter.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer observes:”This insight the New Testament and the Church have always recognized and declared. The Man Jesus Christ, to whom no affliction, no ill, no suffering is alien and who yet was the wholly innocent and righteous one, is praying in the Psalter through the mouth of His Church. The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word. The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for His Church. This prayer belongs not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. In the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s prayer.”[vi]Ask the Father to show you the praying Christ in the Psalms and teach you how to use the Psalms in your prayer life.

A Significant Question

One question that often is asked concerning praying the Psalms is: How can I pray a Psalm when it does not express exactly what I feel in my heart at the moment? Anyone who is truly honest will admit the need to pray against our own heart in order to pray rightly. After all is said and done, it is not what we want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. Jeremiah warns, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) If we only follow our hearts, we would probably only pray for “our daily bread,” God wants us to pray that His will be done, not our will. As you pray the Psalms, begin by praying, “Father, enable me to pray not from the poverty of my heart, but from the richness of Your word.”

Making the Psalms yours

Let me close this plea to pray the Psalms by sharing with you a few practical suggestions. Below is a thirty-day schedule for praying through the Psalms. Each section requires about fifteen minutes, depending on how much meditation I do.

Before reading pray: “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law…. Give me understanding, that I may keep Your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:18, 34). “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts; and see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23, 24).

  • While reading turn the words of the Psalms into prayer.
  • Read aloud, in a normal voice if possible but at least in a whisper. (This helps concentration and avoids distraction.)
  • Read on your knees, when possible.
  • Read daily-I usually do this when the Lord awakens me early in the morning.
  • Read frequently during the day–Carry the Psalter with you and refer to the day’s portion frequently.

Let us join Luther in the following prayer:”Our dear Lord, who has given to us and taught us to pray the Psalter and the Lord’s Prayer, grant us also the spirit of prayer and grace so that we pray with enthusiasm and earnest faith, properly and without ceasing, for we need to do this; he has asked us for it and therefore wants to have it from us. To him be praise, honor, and thanksgiving. Amen.”[vii]

[i] Foreword to the Neuburg edition of the Psalms, 1545.

[ii] W. Stanford Reid, The Battle Hymns of the Lord-Calvinist Psalmody of the Sixteenth Century, p. 36.

[iii] The use of question and answer instruction used in Catechisms was part of the Passover celebration. See Exodus 12:25-27: “When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.'”

[iv] Nestl

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