So why pray the Psalms at all? Why would repeating the words of poems written hundreds of years ago by persons whose experience is foreign to ours help us draw closer to God? The answer to those questions could stretch a lot longer than a blog post, but let me offer a few thoughts that I believe are compelling.
The Psalms were the prayer book of ancient Israel. They were vital to the pattern of synagogue worship that nurtured Jesus, all of the first disciples and the apostle Paul. When we pray the Psalms, we are quite literally walking in the footsteps of Jesus. The words of the Psalms provided the grammar of prayer that are the foundation of early Christian worship. Through these songs of faith, Jesus learned to pray and worship the Father. What better avenue for you and I to learn the same thing?
Throughout the book of Psalms, the whole range of human experience and emotion are explored in the context of conversation with God. Joy, sadness, grief, betrayal, anger, relief, love, the desire for revenge and more are all expressed in bold and raw fashion in the words of these ancients songs and prayers. Praying with the Psalms teaches the believer not to censor themselves in the presence of God. It encourages honesty and realistic self-examination before God. These are not hook-filled, catchy tunes to give the faithful a warm fuzzy. At times the Psalms are filled with anguish and confusion, asking God questions such as why and for how long. If we are going to grow in prayer, we must bring our whole selves to God and pour out who we are and what we are feeling. The Psalms give us a language to do just that. But the Psalms do more than just give us an outlet to vent to God. They put those human experiences in the context of the larger story of God’s love for His people. They contextualize grief and joy in the rhythms, not just of human life, but of God’s divine purposes. It embeds our story in the biggest story of all.
Praying the Psalms joins us in the communion of the saints in a tangible way. Even the most cursory study of the history of Christian worship demonstrates the centrality of the Psalms to the worship of the Church throughout all of history, in every corner of the globe. When we pray the Psalms we join with the body of Christ that goes far beyond our own four walls, our own local church or even our own denominational (or non-denominational) background. It knocks down the misconception that the life of prayer is merely private, that spiritual growth is simply a personal responsibility or an individual journey. It is a participation in the building up of the body of Christ across all the boundaries of geography and time.
Praying with the Psalms provide for each of us a grammar for prayer and worship, a path to bring our whole selves before God and a plunge into the river of God’s work in His people across centuries and continents. How do I pray with the Psalms? Well, that’s for the next post.