Praying the psalms.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 December

Psalms is one of the oldest prayer books in the world, y’know.

The psalms—yep, the very same psalms we find in the book of Psalms, as well as various random psalms we find elsewhere in the bible—are sacred songs to and about God, used to worship him. A lot of ’em are addressed directly to God. As such, they’re prayers.

Hence Jews, Christians, and Muslims have used ’em as rote prayers for millennia. In fact, Christians who’d ordinarily never pray a rote prayer (for fear they’re praying something God didn’t inspire) have few qualms about praying the psalms. ’Cause they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, so they’re solid. Memorizing a psalm is as good as memorizing any other passage in the bible. And useful, ’cause now you can recite that psalm to God, praise him with it, and pray it to him.

Likewise, because they’re bible, they’ll help us understand God better, and show us we can pray the very same things we find in the psalms. Including all the stuff Christians balk at: “Are you sure you can pray such things?” Yes you can. If it’s in the psalms, you can pray it. You can ask God anything. You can tell God anything. Seriously, anything.

Really, those people who feel they’re limited in what they can pray, get that idea because they haven’t read the psalms, or don’t think of psalms as praise and prayer. They imagine ’em as nice poetry (or odd poetry, since they don’t rhyme), but don’t realize they have any practical purpose beyond the occasional proof text. If you’re one of those people, and feel you don’t appreciate psalms to that degree, break yourself of that. Read the psalms. Memorize a few. And if you’re gonna pray the scriptures, start with Psalms.

(And once you memorize some of the shorter psalms, you can brag how you’ve “memorized entire chapters of the bible.” ’Cause technically you have.)

“Wait, you can pray that?

One of the things which regularly startles Christian newbies are the imprecatory psalms. The psalmists get downright furious at their enemies, and pray all sorts of hateful things upon them. David in particular. He didn’t play around; he wanted the LORD to do some pretty violent stuff to his foes, and credited God whenever he successfully did such things.

Psalm 3.7-8 KWL
7 You rose and saved me, LORD my God. Face-punched my every enemy.
Broke evildoers’ teeth. 8 You bless your own with rescue, LORD. Selah.

So… can we pray for God to beat the tar out of our enemies? After all, didn’t Jesus instruct us to love our enemies? Lk 6.35 How is David consistent with Jesus?

Well he’s not. Let’s be honest: David was venting his spleen. And once again, we can pray that. It is totally fine with God if we talk with him about the stuff which makes us angry. He wants us to do that—because he can talk us down. He can help us exercise some of that self-control he’s trying to grow in us. Vengeance is for God to take, not us, Ro 12.19 and better we should pray that God pour out wrath than pour out some of our own wrath, and in so doing, sin.

Yes, I’ve heard Christians object to the very idea: “You know, asking God to curb-stomp your enemies isn’t healthy. You need to get rid of that anger.” Yes we do. And if we’re actually listening to God when we pray, he definitely helps us get rid of that anger. It’s the Christians who don’t listen—who imagine God doesn’t talk back—whose angry prayers simply make ’em angrier, who work themselves into a frenzy, then go out and sin. Never do that; listen. Listen to the Spirit tell you to forgive. Listen to the Spirit tell you to love. Let the Spirit get rid of your bitterness. ’Cause he will.

Suppressing that anger isn’t healthy either. And hiding that anger from God is hypocrisy: He already knows we’re furious. May as well be honest with him about it. Best to share how we’re really feeling, and let him help us control our emotions.

So that’s what David did, in this and many other psalms. He hid nothing from God. When we pray David’s prayers, we learn how healthy and proper it is to do as David did—not to wish evil and curses on others, but to be utterly transparent with God. We need to do likewise.

So if psalms cause you to trip over your personal beliefs, relax. It‘s not because the psalms are out of date. It’s not some kind of “Old Testament thinking” which dispensationalists use to cancel out huge portions of the bible. It’s because we’re wrong, and God’s using the psalms to set us right. There’s more to prayer than the formal, solemn, theologically-correct examples we see in church. We really do have the freedom to pray anything—as the psalms demonstrate.

Putting the psalms to use.

Most Christian monks and nuns pray the psalms as part of their daily prayer services. Most orders have a schedule which takes ’em through all 150 psalms every four months. So, the whole psalter gets prayed thrice a year.

Many bible-reading plans are set up so you read a psalm every day. (Or something from one of the wisdom books, like Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and so forth.) If you’re working one of those programs, you can use your Psalms passage as something to pray and meditate upon.

But if your plan doesn’t work like that, create your own. Every day, read and pray a psalm. For some of the longer psalms, like Psalm 119, feel free to divide it into segments and pray a segment each day. When you get to Psalm 150, next day go back to Psalm 1 and start again. Or go ahead and look for the psalms mixed into the other books of the bible and pray those, then go back to Psalm 1. However you wanna do this.

Or use the TXAB bible-reading plan: Print it out, go through Psalms in whatever order you like, mark each psalm off after you’ve read it, and once you’ve finished Psalms print another copy and start over.

Like any scripture you meditate upon, watch how the Holy Spirit shows you new things the second time around. And the third. And the fourth. And the five hundredth. He does that when we pray ’em earnestly. So give it a try.