Praying the Psalms
by Jessica Snell
The best times and the worst times of our lives have one thing in common: it’s hard to find words for them. Our hearts cry out to the Lord, but so often those cries are wordless. Our thoughts and emotions whirl, formless, and what we long for are the words to express what we’re feeling and thinking.
The Psalms have long been the prayer book of the church, and praying them regularly, so that our hearts and minds are soaked in their rhythms and phrases, gives us the words that we desire when our hearts are full. When we pray the words of the psalms, we don’t have to doubt whether our words are good and true and right. They are. They’re the words the faithful have used for centuries to pour out their hearts to the Lord.
A few things to consider, if you’re new to the practice of praying the Psalms:
1) Revisit the familiar ones and go deeper with them. There’s a reason Psalm 23 is so beloved. The ones you’ve memorized are the ones that are already deep in your bones, and the more you pray them, the more meaningful they’ll become. There’s always further to go in prayer, because the Lord’s goodness is infinite.
2) Read new ones regularly. Some of the best are the Psalms of Ascent, from Psalm 120 through Psalm 134. These were sung on the way up to Jerusalem, and they’re possibly the most beautiful and joyful and accessible psalms in the book, with many reminders of God’s great faithfulness. Perfect for the Easter season.
3) Try them set to music. There are many great hymns that are paraphrases of the Psalms (Isaac Watts wrote a vast number) or you can try singing them to plainsong (use the Book of Common Prayer and the 1984 Hymnal to get started). They were written to be sung, and though we don’t have the original tunes, singing them to the ones we have is a great joy.
4) Remember that they’re both poetry and prophecy. Most Psalms can be read in several ways: as the words of the man who composed them, as prophecy about Christ, and as prophecy about Christ’s church. And probably more that I’m missing because I’m still only a beginner myself! But it’s clear there are layers of meaning in each psalm. You don’t have to focus on each meaning every time you read a given psalm, but it’s good to be aware, for example that the “beatus vir” – “blessed is the man” – in psalm 1, is probably first about Jesus, the perfect man, and then about those who, by his grace, are sanctified by his Spirit, and then . . . well, like I said, I’m a beginner and need to study them even more myself. (Patrick Reardon’s excellent book, Christ in the Psalms, is a great place to start.)
5) Mostly, just read them a lot. It was traditional to read the Psalms in the morning and the evening – more often than that if you happened to be a monk or a nun! In this case, familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; it breeds love.
Prayers for All Seasons
In the hard times of my life, I find myself returning to the Psalms again and again. Frustration or fear or sorrow rises, and I find myself saying, “Hope, oh my soul, in the Lord, for I will yet praise him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.” Triumph and joy ride shouting in my soul, and I find myself declaring, “Had it not been the Lord who was on our side, when men rose up against us, had it not been the Lord who was on our side, then they would have swallowed us alive . . . Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us to be torn by their teeth!”
The words of the Psalms are words that God gave to his people, so that we would know how to pray, so that when our hearts were full, with joy or with sorrow, we would have the words to express ourselves to him. I am so grateful for this great gift.
Peace of Christ to you,