A Thought on Praying the Psalms

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Throughout the history of Christianity, Christ-followers have prayed the psalms for the simple reason that Jesus prayed the Psalms. Lucien Deiss chronicles the inevitable relationship between Jesus and the Psalter.[1] With others, he notes that the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth most-likely prayed the Psalms in the synagogue. He also most-likely sang the “songs of ascent” (Psalms 120-134) during his annual pilgrimage from Galilee to Jerusalem. Once there, he surely visited the temple where he undoubtedly recited the Psalms during times of personal daily prayer and joined in singing Psalm 122: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’.” If he joined his family for the Seder ritual, then Jesus sang the Psalms of the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) at the end of the Passover supper. While on the cross of Calvary, Jesus drew from the Psalter when offering this prayer of agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22:2; Mk 15:34). Finally, according to Hebrews 10:5-7, the early church quoted Psalm 40:7-9 as Jesus’ prayer of commitment to the will of his Father in heaven.

While the example of Jesus offers a sufficient reason for Christ-followers to pray the Psalms, many Christians have developed additional Christ-centered reasons for embracing the practice. Thomas Merton echoes the conviction of the church, held throughout the centuries, that the Psalms offers a “summary and compendium of all that God has revealed”; they “contain in themselves all the Old and New Testaments, the whole mystery of Christ.”[2] More recently, Michael Morales states that much of the Psalter concerns Christ; he then provides extensive references in the Psalter to the life of Christ, sufferings of Christ, and glories of Christ.[3]  For Morales, the New Testament’s glorious proclamation is that Jesus is this Christ, the long-expected “Anointed One” of whom the Psalter speaks. “Thus, the New Testament continually uses the book of Psalms to fix our gaze upon the excellences of Christ, upon the majesty, beauty, and glory of the One who through his humiliation and exaltation reigns over the nations, leading them to the heavenly Mount Zion so that, lost in wonder, love, and praise, they may proclaim eternally the glory of the triune God.”[4]

Historically Christians have not limited themselves to praying the Psalms in order to model the behavior of Jesus or to learn more about the mystery of Christ. Some, including Benedict, prayed the Psalms believing Jesus is the God of the Psalms, thereby understanding the Psalms as prayers to him.[5] Others, most notably Augustine, prayed the Psalms with the understanding that the Psalms are the prayers of Christ. Rowan Williams describes Augustine’s hermeneutic which guided the church father to that conclusion. “The key passage in the Enarrationes is probably in the exposition of Psalm 140,” notes Williams, “where Augustine identifies two texts fundamental for all Christian hermeneutics:” Acts 9:4 and Matthew 25:40. In the first, Jesus asks Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” In the latter, Jesus says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” Since “both of these (verses) assert the unity of the Head and the Body in the church,” we may conclude that “Jesus speaks in the voice of the suffering Christian.”[6]

Furthermore, since much of the Psalter expresses “spiritual desolation and struggles,” we may also conclude that “the Psalms are the words of Jesus, the Word who speaks in all scripture.” Consequently, when we come across verses in the Psalter that imply alienation from God, we may read them as “spoken by the whole Christ, that is, Christ with all the members of his Body.” In this way, Christ “speaks for us, makes his own the protesting and troubling cry of the human being, so that his own proper and perfect prayer to the Father may become ours.”[7] Williams concludes, “By approaching the Psalter, then, as the prayers of the “whole Christ,” that is Christ with all the members of his body, we, in effect, join Christ when we pray the Psalms.[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer held a similar position.  He writes,

All prayers of the Bible are such prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God. Otherwise, there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.[9]

Praying the Psalms as the prayers of the “whole Christ” holds potential to broaden our use of the Psalms. I tend to pray the Psalms as my prayer to the Lord or, when I am gathered in community, as our prayer to the Lord. In this way, the Psalms function as personal or corporate prayers of praise, thanksgiving, confession and petition. In contrast, seldom have I prayed a psalm in intercession for others. But if I view the Psalms as prayers of the “whole Christ” and the “whole Christ” includes those outside of my life or church, then they may be offered as prayers of intercession for even the “least of these.” This way of praying the Psalms holds potential to dramatically change the focus of many prayers.

Throughout most of my pilgrimage with Christ, while reading a psalm, I would listen for a word from God for me and my life. More times than I can count, I did not hear a word from the Lord because the particular psalm I was reading seemed too distant from my life. Psalm 74, for example, begins, “Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?” It continues with men wielding axes and hatchets, the sanctuary of God burnt to the ground, and a reminder to the Lord that He once crushed the head of Leviathan. I might reflect for hours on that psalm and never receive a word from the Lord for my life to ponder in my heart. My typical response, then, was to take a pass on the Psalm and focus my attention on another reading from Scripture.

But what if I approach Psalm 74 as an intercessory prayer? What if asked myself and the Lord, “For whom may I offer this prayer?” Surely there is some person or people within the “whole Christ,” within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, for whom I can pray, “Do not let the oppressed retreat in disgrace; may the poor and needy praise your name” (Ps 74:21). Personally, praying the Psalms with and for the “whole Christ,” then, enriches my prayer life. It unites my heart with that of Christ. It increases my appreciation for the global church. It weakens the grip of individualism in my life. It brings to life many Psalms that I might otherwise overlook.  

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