Praying the Psalms

Praying in the Synagogue
Detail from 'Jews Praying in the Synagogue,' Maurycy Gottlieb, Wikimedia Commons.
I wonder how often we find our prayers dead and lifeless. I wonder how often we come up dry and dumb with no words, no thoughts, no way of formulating the feelings, frustrations, and various shades of grief that we bear. Burdened and distracted, we can hardly remember to pray, and when we do we have nothing to say.

What if someone could guide you to God in those moments, could take you before the throne, lean over and whisper, “Just say it like this,” and then unfurl a stream of words that meant everything your heart was feeling but cannot communicate? That someone is Christ, and he whispers in the Psalms.

The church has always recognized the Psalter as its first tutor in prayer, just as it was for the saints of the Old Testament. Early Christians, ministers and laity alike, turned to the Psalms to learn what, when, and how to pray. Sts. Athanasius of Alexandria (293–373), John Cassian (360–435), and Benedict of Nursia (480–547) all, for example, wrote about using the Psalter in prayer. The latter two focused on monastic use, but Athanasius’s words apply to any believer.

Says that ancient defender of the faith, the Psalms not only enjoin us to be thankful, encourage us to endure tribulation, and point us to repentance, they also give us the words to use for those moments. And it’s not just these things; the Psalms provide words fitting for the myriad “movements of the human soul. . . . In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.”

And the supreme grace of it: God has provided the words. They are the words of Christ himself. Standing in total solidarity with us, Jesus, the New Adam, is in every way like us. He assumed our total human experience and thereby healed and redeemed it. But unlike us, Christ is without sin, and so has complete and perfect communion with the Father. Only he can truly pray, and for this reason we can only truly pray when we do so in his name, following his lead. One place he leads is in the Psalms.

Traditionally, the primary speaker of the Psalms is David. But Christ is in the shadows. “In the Psalms of David the promised Christ himself already speaks,” explains Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “The prayers of David were also prayed by Christ. Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David.” This perspective on the Psalter is shaped and informed by two millennia of church tradition and interpretation—by men like Athanasius, Cassian, and Benedict—which sees Christ in the Psalms as our elder brother teaching us how to pray.

When we pray the words of the Psalter, we pray with Christ at our elbow. Again Bonhoeffer:

It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who pours out the heart of all humanity before God and stands in our place and prays for us. He has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we. Therefore it is the prayer of the human nature assumed by him which comes here before God. It is really our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves and since he himself was true man for our sakes, it is also really his prayer, and it can become our prayer only because it was his prayer.

When we open the Psalms and begin to read, begin to pray, we are often surprised at how fitting they are, how they capture our moment, whatever we feel (or want to feel). It should not surprise us that the Psalms speak our secrets. They know both the open spaces and dark corners of our heart because they are the words of the one who first fashioned our heart and then later took its joys, sufferings, hopes, and struggles upon himself for our sakes.

In his little book on praying the Psalms, Thomas Merton talks about people who “know by experience” that through the Psalter “Christ prays in the Christian soul uniting that soul to the Father in Himself.” I want to be one of those people. How about you?

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  • @kurtlytle

    Well said, Joel. As the chanter in the Orthodox church reads the Psalms at every service, I feel this to be especially true:
    “It should not surprise us that the Psalms speak our secrets. They know both the open spaces and dark corners of our heart because they are the words of the one who first fashioned our heart and then later took its joys, sufferings, hopes, and struggles upon himself for our sakes.”. I’m looking forward to everyones comments.

  • karen

    The Psalms have always been to me my “go to” book of the Bible when words fail. These words have been often both my cry out and my praise to God.

  • Really good stuff Joel. Well stated. Well written. Great challenge.

  • As a worship pastor I am amazed at how many times I can find a Psalm to fit in any portion of a worship service. Last week it was Psalm 51, used as our prayer of confession.

  • My mom first taught me to pray the psalms as a young artistic boy experiencing depression. It was amazing how comforting and all-encompassing it was—and is still today.

    Great post!!!


  • Michael: I love Psalm 51. I find I use it in my personal prayer several times a week. I think if we can’t fit a psalm into what we’re doing, we should probably question whether we should be doing it at all.

    Randy: Great to hear about your personal experience like that. I wish I had been more open to the Psalter as a boy–it wasn’t for lack of my mom trying though. The Psalms were always her favorite.

  • Hey… Things look a little screwy with the way your site is displaying. For some reason the text block is getting mixed with the border. Is this just me or have you heard this from other ppl? Just wanted to let you know in case you’ve been updating the site. Thanks! Ivory Salmen