Following Jesus in the Psalms

Christ Preaching at Capernaum

'Christ Preaching at Capernaum' by Maurycy Gottlieb (Wikimedia Commons).

Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow him, and he makes a striking provision for us in the Psalms to do so. The Psalter—in its own way as much as the Gospels—sums up Christ’s life and work while also making that life and work something with which we can identify in a powerful way.

Jesus goes to the Psalter many times. Passages such as Mark 12, Luke 10, and Matthew 27, for instance, refer back to Psalms 118, 91, and 22. Dig into that last psalm. Not only does Jesus quote it from the cross (and I think it’s presented as an indictment on the people that they do not know their own Psalter), but the psalm itself unfurls the entire passion scene—the mocking words and wagging heads; Christ weak and thirsty; the pierced hands and feet; the divided garments; even in a sense his final words. “It is finished,” says Christ in Matthew 27. “He has done it,” say the people in Psalm 22. Christ lived and died with the Psalms on his lips.

According to the Letter to the Hebrews, Christ entered the world with the Psalms on his lips as well, specifically Psalm 40, which discusses his self-sacrifice on our behalf. Several times the writer of Hebrews refers to the Psalter with Christ in mind; browse the first, second, third, fifth, seventh, and tenth chapters (the last being where Psalm 40 is so powerfully quoted) to see what I mean.

Finding Christ in the Psalter has preoccupied the church since its earliest days. You see it throughout the New Testament (it’s not just Hebrews). You also see it in the writing of the fathers. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Athanasius, and Hilary of Poitiers only start the list. The whole point of the Psalter, says Hilary, “is our instruction concerning the glory and power of the coming, the Incarnation, the Passion, the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of our resurrection.” To drive it home, Hilary refers to the psalmist primarily as “the prophet.”

As with Psalm 22 in particular, the prophetic links to Christ in the rest of the Psalter are impossible to miss:

  • God’s only begotten son (2, 110)
  • Christ’s supreme kingship (2, 45, 72)
  • Role as the suffering servant (28, 55, 102)
  • Healing ministry (107)
  • Quelling of the raging sea (65, 107)
  • Hated without cause (35, 109)
  • None of his bones broken (34)
  • His atoning work (69, 72)
  • His ascension (24, 47)
  • That he is judge over the earth (50)

Through these and many other passages we discover a striking fact about the Psalter: It invites identification of and with Christ. Come find Christ, the psalmist says. Come take on Christ, he further encourages.

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon provides a perfect example in Psalm 119. Since “[e]very line speaks of Jesus” we can pray the words as referring to him, a prayer in a sense about Christ. Or we can pray it “as the prayer of Jesus to His Father, filled with the resolve to do in all things the Father’s will” (emphasis added).

By praying Christ’s words after him, we enter into his life of obedience. We suddenly identify with him. His life becomes our life; his words, our words; his thoughts, our thoughts.

We are called in Scripture to live as Christ, to suffer with Christ, to be holy like Christ, to grow into the image and likeness of Christ. How can we take our shallow souls, our frail bodies, our divided hearts and do this? By adopting the Psalms we can begin to read the words, pray the words, sing the words as if they are our own. We take the Psalter upon our lips in prayer and worship and discover sometimes midsentence that we are saying Christ’s words after him—that we are sharing in the pains he bore for us, participating in the victory he won for us. We say the Psalms and we become more like him.

When we pray the Psalms in Jesus’ name, they submerge our shallow souls to deeper fathoms in Christ. They ready and prepare our bodies for the tasks of the savior. They unify our hearts to him. Christ has made provision for us in the Psalms to find both our cross and our path to follow him.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.