How to Pray the Psalms

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If you want your prayer life to be shaped by the word of God — as I hope you do! — you cannot do better than to make the Psalms a central part of your prayers. For in the Psalms we have words that God has given us to speak to God. Such a rich tapestry of praises, laments, meditations, requests, and urgent supplications is given to us that we neglect it at our peril. The Psalms tie our personal prayers to the corporate prayers of the people of Christ in every generation. They warm our hearts, inform our minds, and shape our wills.

“The Psalms connect our personal walk with God to the corporate life of the whole church of Christ.”

Christian history certainly supports a robust use of the Psalms in our worship. In the first few centuries after Jesus, the Psalms generated more commentaries than any other biblical book. By the fourth century, at the latest, the book of Psalms (the Psalter) was being used regularly for Christians to sing. For Benedictine monks, the Rule of Saint Benedict (c. 530) stipulated that all 150 Psalms should be sung each week! We have come a long way from this focus on the Psalms. Now, in many Christian churches, the Psalms get no more than the occasional sermon and some songs loosely inspired by psalms. Does this matter? I think it does.

I want to encourage you to make the Psalms a rich and major part of your life of prayer and praise, both privately and corporately in your churches. I want to persuade you that this is right and good. And I want to give some pointers to help you know how to do this.

Teach Us to Pray

Let’s go back to basics. We need to be taught how to pray. It is a wonderful privilege that Christian people have: through Jesus Christ and his death for our sins, and by the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, we have access to God the Father in prayer (Ephesians 2:18). That is a magnificent, life-transforming, joyful privilege. And yet we need to be taught how to use this privilege; we need to be taught how to pray.

God hears us when we ask according to his will (1 John 5:14) and in Jesus’s name (John 14:14; 16:23, 26). But what does this mean? Jesus gave his disciples the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer when they asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:2–4; Matthew 6:9–13). In many ways, the Psalms are the expanded version of the Lord’s Prayer, or we might say that the Lord’s Prayer is the compressed version of the Psalms. Just as the Lord’s prayer expresses in brief an adoration for the majesty of God’s holiness, a yearning for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, a supplication for God to provide for us all that we need, and a concern to live with pure piety in a sinful world, so we shall find that the Psalms express all these expansively and majestically.

No wonder, then, that the epistles give the Psalms a central place in the life of the church. In Ephesians 5:19, Paul says that a Spirit-filled church will speak to one another “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” In Colossians 3:16, he instructs the church to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly as they sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” All three words — psalms, hymns, songs — are most closely associated with the biblical psalms in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint). It is not that “psalms” mean psalms, whereas “hymns” and “songs” mean other things; they all (mostly) mean biblical psalms. (The adjective “spiritual” may apply to all three, since all biblical psalms are given by the Holy Spirit.) So the New Testament tells us that the speaking, the praying, and — yes! — even the singing of psalms is part of a church that is in tune with the Scriptures.

Why Pray the Psalms?

The blessings of praying the Psalms are many.

For one, the Psalms are Spirit-inspired words, given us by God to speak about God and to God. Even the best of our Christian hymn-writers or songwriters are not inspired by the Spirit in this definitive and authoritative way. Every word of every psalm is given by God.

“The interpretive key to the Psalms is how the New Testament uses them.”

Also, the Psalms connect our personal walk with God to the corporate life of the whole church of Christ worldwide and through the centuries. We do not invent our individual spiritualities (in the way that is so fashionable in Western cultures today); rather, we join in the God-given spirituality of the whole Church of Christ. In particular, many psalms will help us to identify and stand with the persecuted church.

And then the Psalms greatly enrich the depth and breadth of our affections and our emotions, so that we learn, for example, to lament in a godly way, to wait and hope in a godly way, to praise even in dark days in a godly way.

But how are we to do this? I am not here asking the musical question. In the past, Psalms have most often been chanted, as they still are in some denominations. But this musical form can often be dreary when sung by a congregation, and it doesn’t exactly feel contemporary. So we should be grateful for musicians who set psalms to contemporary settings that can be sung well by an untutored congregation.

How Do We Pray the Psalms?

By asking the question “How?” I mean, “How do we overcome the many problems we encounter in the words of the Psalms?” Many of us cherry-pick; we read through a psalm and fix on a verse we like. Perhaps we put that verse on a devotional calendar or as the screensaver on our tablet. But we skim over all sorts of difficult verses. For example, we ignore verses where the psalmist claims to be deeply innocent (Psalm 17:3, 5, for instance); we skip over verses where the psalmist’s sufferings feel too intense for us (such as Psalm 88); we feel awkward in the many places where the psalmists pray for God to punish the wicked (as in verses 19–22 of the otherwise popular and well-loved Psalm 139).

“It is vital that we ask of every psalm just how it speaks to us of Christ.”

So how are we to use all the verses of every psalm in our prayer life? I cannot here do more than offer some pointers. (I have written at greater length about these questions, both for readers and for teachers of the Psalms.) The interpretive key to the Psalms is how the New Testament uses them. The New Testament quotes often from the Psalms and echoes the Psalms with bewildering frequency and rich variety. We may sum up the main lines of these echoes and quotations as follows.

1. Prayers of Jesus

Often, the Psalms express the experience, the sufferings, the faith of Jesus of Nazareth in his fully human nature during his life on earth. They are the prayers of Jesus. They express his “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7) as well as his praises. As the early church father Athanasius wrote, “Before Christ came among us, God sketched the likeness of this perfect life for us in words, in this same book of Psalms; in order that, just as He revealed Himself in flesh to be the perfect, heavenly Man, so in the Psalms also men of goodwill might see the pattern life portrayed, and find therein the healing and correction of their own.”

2. Prophecies About Jesus

Not infrequently the New Testament sees in the divine nature of Jesus the fulfilment of words spoken of God in the Psalms. The most remarkable of these is Psalm 45:6–7, in which the king in David’s line is addressed as God. But also, for example, the Psalms three times rejoice that God “will judge the world in righteousness” (Psalms 9:8; 96:13; 98:9); the New Testament proclaims that he will do precisely this through the resurrected Jesus (Acts 17:31).

3. Words for the Church

Finally, the New Testament understands that what is true of Christ overflows to his church today. His sufferings overflow (see, for example, Psalm 44:22 quoted in Romans 8:36). His government of the world will be shared with his people (Revelation 2:26–27 promises Psalm 2:9 to the believer who perseveres to the end). Just as Jesus entrusted his soul to the Father in the words of Psalm 31:5, so Christians are to entrust their souls to a faithful Creator (1 Peter 4:19). And similarly in various other ways.

“The Psalms are Spirit-inspired words, given to us by God to speak about God and to God.”

Colossians 3:16 indicates that the singing of Psalms will lead to a rich filling with the word of Christ. It is therefore vital that we ask of every psalm just how it speaks to us of Christ. It may show us Christ praying, and leading us, his church, in prayer. It may speak to us of Christ’s kingship and rule (as in Psalm 72, for example). It may speak to us of Christ in some other way. There is a rich variety in the Psalms.

Four Questions for Every Psalm

I have found it helpful to ask, as I read a psalm, the following questions:

  1. What would it have meant for David, or the original psalmist, to sing the psalm? How would it have expressed his convictions, his hopes, his prayers, his praises in his original circumstances?

  2. What would it have meant for old-covenant believers (such as Simeon and Anna in Luke 2) to sing this psalm?

  3. What might it have meant for Jesus of Nazareth, as the perfect worshiper, to sing this psalm in his earthly life?

  4. What will it mean for us, as men and women in Christ, as the church of Christ, to make this psalm our own today?

May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus fill you with his Spirit, and cause the word of Christ richly to indwell you, as you too join with God’s people in praying and singing the Psalms.

is writer-in-residence at Tyndale House, Cambridge, and a former pastor and director of the Cornhill Training Course in London. He has written several books and commentaries on Job and the Psalms, including Trusting God in the Darkness.