On Praying The Psalms
“Let’s bow our heads to pray,” speaks the worship leader. “Lord, we thank you for this day, that we can, just, gather here to worship You…we just ask for You to bring Your presence here as we come to worship. We just love You so much. Amen.”
Prayers like this more and more frequently permeate the contemporary church’s worship. For some reason, prayer has become an afterthought, or at least a formality, something we do because “that’s what good Christians do.” When did prayer drop to the
wayside in corporate worship, or even in everyday life? Eugene Peterson argues in Working the Angles that prayer is one of three spiritual “angles” that give shape to the triangle of pastoral ministry, but too many church leaders and laypeople neglect prayer. Peterson roots the loss of prayer in the decline of the use of the Hebrew psalter, Israel’s prayer book, in our own prayers. I will argue that praying the psalms is a fundamental practice that, if embraced, would help the church recover a robust prayer life because the psalms have the power to spiritually form us, the power to give us the language we need to properly respond to God’s revelation, and the power to force us to encounter God as He truly is.
Historically, the people of God have prayed the psalms since their composition. People like David wrote the prayers, which were later compiled into the current form of the psalter contained in the Bible. These prayers were still in use during New Testament times; in fact, Jesus frequently quoted the psalms, even crying out words from Psalms 22 and 31 on the cross, depending on the gospel account. According to Peterson, the decline of the psalms’ importance came about as a result of the scholarship of Julius Wellhausen and others with similar claims to his. They postulated from their evidence that the psalms were written in the 160s B.C., long after Israel’s zenith had ended (those “glory days” when the prophets once proclaimed God’s word); this evidence suggests that the psalms were merely, in Peterson’s words, “the pathetic prayers of a once proud people” (p. 36). If prayer is so pathetic, why should Christians pray? It would be better to focus on preaching and prophesying: visible acts that typically yield visible results, and this is precisely what the American church seems to have done in a time where a given church is often judged by how well its pastor preaches! However, Wellhausen’s late dating of the psalms was eventually
overturned, and a better understanding of biblical history emerged: the great prophets actually arose from a people who prayed. Out of the grunt work of prayer came the visible results of prophecy. Today, corporately and individually, we would do well to emulate the prayer habits of those who came before us by allowing the psalms, through prayer, to form us into the people God would have us to be, the type of righteous people described in the psalms themselves.
Why pray the psalms in particular, though? Why not simply carve out time to pray on our own? One key way the psalms form us is by teaching us the language we need to respond to the God who has first spoken to us. The psalter is divided into five books, which correspond to the five books of the Jewish Torah: God spoke first (Torah), and we are expected, even invited to respond (psalms). The psalms offer us the appropriate language for a worshipful response to God’s revelation. Left on our own, the emotional contours of our prayers can be flat, our language limited. The psalms invite us to a better command of prayer language by allowing us to express the full spectrum of human emotion to God, from celebration to lament. The lack of penitence and petition language in some church traditions today is evidence that we either do not know how to pray in the fullest sense that we should, or that we choose not to, instead opting to deny certain facets of Christian life that make us uncomfortable. Praying the psalms forces us to acknowledge the good and bad parts of life. Now, some people take issue with prayer that is not spontaneous or original, questioning its authenticity. I would argue that learning the psalms actually increases our vocabulary of prayer language, and over time we will find ourselves using the same kind of words when we pray spontaneously. Just as we learn to talk by listening to others speak, so we learn to pray by hearing what others have prayed, and we make their prayers our own. By hearing how spiritual giants of the Bible have approached God in prayer, we too can take courage and boldly approach God.
Finally, regularly reading and praying the psalms forces us to attend to God as He truly is, not as we would like Him to be. The
psalms greatly expand our vision of God, noting His magnificence and splendor, but they also often lead us to consider attributes we would rather look over, such as His jealousy or righteous anger. If we ignore the fullness of what is revealed about God in the Bible, picking and choosing only the parts we like, we risk creating a god of our own making: idolatry. While we may at first be uncomfortable with seeing God in certain ways He is portrayed, praying the psalms can help reform our vision and enable us to see God on His terms, and also to see the world the way He sees it. The psalms are a tool to respond to divine reality, even if we do not fully understand God (Peterson, p. 41).
For pastors, learning to pray is vital. The psalms provide substantial means for aiding their prayer lives. Pastors can only become truly prophetic by first becoming prayers, and they should urge their congregations to do the same. With prayer as the starting point, the possibilities are endless. The mighty God of the psalmist is still at work, always speaking, and the psalms help us respond to Him by articulating the language we would otherwise be unable to express. Christians must learn to see the psalms as more than poetry; the psalms are also prayers, and they are the place where our humanity and God’s divinity meet to converse. It is high time the church became trained to respond to God more fully.