The Psalms teach us to Pray
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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.
Seventy-three of the Bible’s 150 psalms are attributed to David, whom God called “a man after my own heart” (Acts 13:22). David was a gifted poet and musician, and Israel’s greatest king. He lived life to the full, made mistakes, reaped the pain and the suffering, and got deeply discouraged. But David loved God, and even in those moments of agony and despair he continued talking to him.
There are times when we all need to talk about our problems with a close friend to help put them in perspective. This is exactly what David did with God. He was not afraid to express his emotions — fear, sorrow, hope, anxiety, joy, longing and even frustration, impatience and anger. In the Psalms, David poured out his heart to God. When we meditate on these inspirational prayers, we will see that, in the end, David always found strength and comfort in God and was able to express hope and trust in him.
The psalms of David, and the book of Psalms in general, can invigorate your prayers with real, down-to-earth expressions that reflect your own thoughts. You’ll think: That’s exactly what I want to say! It’s reassuring to know that other people have had your problems. God inspired and preserved these prayers and songs so that you, too, could know how to talk to him.
The Psalms can help us understand this, as we share the intimate thoughts of servants of God who have gone before us. They help us talk to God as a friend. They remind us of what we tend to forget when we are discouraged and temporarily disoriented. They are spiritual levees that control the flood of negative emotions and worry, guiding it along safe channels, where it can be dissipated safely (Psalms 32:6; 69:1).
As we build our relationship and friendship with the same God who listened to the prayers of David and other authors of the Psalms, we will also grow in courage and faith. We will feel confident in asking, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight” (Psalm 19:14). Like David, we can look beyond the immediate situation and realise “there is a future for the man of peace” (Psalm 37:37).
The Psalms have been sung, prayed, read, cherished, and memorised by the people of God for thousands of years. It is no mistake that God put, right at the heart of the Bible, an inspired prayer and worship book. The Psalms were given to us as a means of grace. In other words, each of the psalms represents a bridge or conduit through which the grace of God can be conveyed into our lives.
What I love about the Psalms is that they point to the one thing we all have in common: we are all human. We have human emotions, human struggles. Sometimes, we get mad at God. Sometimes, we want to praise God. Sometimes, we’re thankful. You know that saying, “There’s an app for that?” I like to say, “There’s a Psalm for that.”
Let me challenge you to find a Psalm for what you’re feeling next time you come to God in prayer. Doing this can enrich not only your prayer life, but also your relationship with God.