“You’ve never prayed the psalms?” said my professor incredulously. A quick look at the blank faces of a room full of seminary students confirmed that we weren’t joking. It had never occurred to us. “The psalms are a collection of 150 of the greatest Holy Spirit prayers ever recorded. They were placed in the Bible to teach us how to pray.” I grew up in church. My father is a pastor. I went to a Christian college. And now I was attending seminary. I had never heard this once.
Now that I think about it, I am not too surprised. The idea of prayer that we tend to teach in our churches is something like closing our eyes and praying whatever comes to mind. We are encouraged to pray from our heart. The idea that we would use written prayers in our prayer life seems rote and forced. We think real prayer flows spontaneously from the heart
I am not speaking against “prayers from the heart.” We’ve all been there, when God has met us in a place of great fear and pain, and the only prayer we could muster was a single word, “help.” We certainly see this in the life of Jesus. He prayed in Gethsemane with sweat pouring off him like drops of blood falling to the ground. His cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 26:46) And then, at the moment of his death, he prays these last words, “Father, into your hands I commit your spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
Jesus certainly practiced heart felt, spontaneous prayers, but what if I told you that in two of his most anguish-filled prayers, Jesus is quoting the psalms? Matthew 26:46 is Psalm 21:1 and Luke 23:46 is Psalm 31:5. Jesus was immersed in the psalms his whole life as a devout, first century Jew. They were central to Jewish worship. They were central to Jewish prayer. So, in that final moment, when his suffering was at its height, and in the moment where prayer is difficult to put into words, the words that leaked out of Jesus’ soul were the words of the psalms. The psalms can be for us, what they were for Jesus.
Learning to pray is a lot like playing jazz. If you or I were to attend a jazz concert, we would be struck by the musicians’ ability to improvise, playing off the creativity of the others’ talent. The music would seem to flow effortlessly from the soul. What we wouldn’t see are the hours of practice those musicians put in learning to play, nor the time they put in listening to the music of the masters. They come to know the music so well, that they can play and improvise without thinking.
The Psalms invite us to listen to 150 of the most beautiful, soulful and Holy Spirit inspired prayers ever written. The psalms invite us into a master-class on prayer. They teach us how to pray when we are angry, terrified, disappointed, joyful, grateful, worshipful, grieving and even enraged. They can give us words, when words won’t come.
So, how can we pray the psalms? How can we use them to enrich our prayer lives? The first thing I would suggest is that you read one psalm a day. The Pacific Union Connect daily Bible readings include a psalm. Try sitting down and reading the psalm through slowly. Take note of the emotions and themes that are expressed in the psalm. Some psalms will resonate with your current life situation, others will not. For example, the psalm you are reading may express grief, while you may be experiencing joy that particular day. If that happens, you can pray that psalm on behalf of someone you know who is grieving. Write down the words, phrases or verses that jump out at you and meditate on them. Offer a prayer in your own words reflecting the themes of the psalm you just read.
But, this is just scratching the surface. There are a lot of resources on praying the psalms, if you are interested in going deeper. Here are some books and blog articles that might be helpful:
- Answering God by Eugene Peterson.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a section on praying the psalms in Life Together, and an entire book devoted to the subject, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible.
And here are some blog articles …