Praying the word – The Psalms
What a fabulous subject to talk about! We are going to have a look at praying The Psalms – God’s hymn book, and how to use their endlessly rich treasures to enliven, invigorate, stimulate and – dare I say – transform our prayer life.
In order to understand how fundamental this source material is to our whole Spiritual walk, our church life and our praise and worship we need to have a look at what the Psalms are. We will also touch on the type and structure of the book (books), the different type of Psalms and how we can use them to pray.
If we understand the role of the Psalms in our prayer life – truly understand it – we will stand tall as the beautiful bride of Christ, fully confident in the hope we profess. Just as a taster for what is to follow, here are what I think are some helpful quotes from past Godly saints, saints who came to an understanding by the Holy Spirit why the Psalms are so important and useful:
“The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become.”
― Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“It has been said by church historians that in those periods of Christian history where renewal, revival, and awakening took place and the church was at its strongest, that coincidental with those periods in church history, there was a strong focus on the psalms in the life of God’s people–particularly in the worship of God’s people.”
― R.C. Sproul
“The psalms, like no other literature, lift us to a position where we can commune with God, capturing a sense of the greatness of his kingdom and a sense of what living with him for eternity will be like.”
― Gordon Fee
“In the psalms, we have a collection of 150 prayers that were inspired originally by the Holy Ghost. If you want to know how God is pleased and honoured in prayer, why not immerse yourself in the prayers that he himself has inspired?”
What are the Psalms?
We clearly see from the structure of the book of Psalms that it is a collection of poetry and/or songs which have been compiled from various writers and sources (the actual compilation was likely to have been post exile (1st temple period), but the writings would have certainly existed both orally and in written form prior to this). It is important to note that the Psalms cover at least 900 years of the history of the Jewish people as evidenced by the historical references and recollections of actual events. Pretty much all of these can be cross-referenced elsewhere in scripture; and that is without mentioning the fulfilled Prophetic events which have been documented in the New Testament.
It is thought that this collection of ‘writings’ was put into the form we know now in the third Century BC. As such it served as the prayer book for the Second Temple and for use in the synagogues, and they have been used in Jewish worship ever since. The Psalms are the cornerstone of Judeo-Christian worship.
Let’s have a look at the meaning of the word ‘Psalms’ as it gives us a clue as to their purpose and their importance:
HEBREW: Tehillim, “praises”
GREEK WORD: psalmoi, meaning “instrumental music” and, by extension, “the words accompanying the music.”
Nearly half of the 150 Psalms are attributed to King David. We know from scripture David was a musician, (1 Samuel 16 has him soothing the troubled King Saul with the melody of his harp) and a prolific songwriter. In addition to the many Psalms, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls attributes 3600 tehilim (songs of praise) plus other compositions to him.
Other Psalms are attributed to Asaph (12), Sons of Korah (11), Solomon (2), Moses (1). Many more have no author attributed to them.
The book is subdivided into five ‘books’ and each book finished with a doxology
(a hymn or form of words containing an ascription of praise to God).
- Book 1 (Psalms 1–41)
- Book 2 (Psalms 42–72)
- Book 3 (Psalms 73–89)
- Book 4 (Psalms 90–106)
- Book 5 (Psalms 107–150
Many psalms are clearly written as songs with music as over a third have superscriptions (secondary titles) that provide musical direction. For example:
Psalm 80: To the chief Musician upon Shoshann-im-Eduth, A Psalm of Asaph
Psalm 49: To the chief Musician. A Psalm for the Sons of Korah
Psalm 19: To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David
Types of Psalms
We can categorise the Psalms to some extent, and some clearly have a distinct purpose for their existence. So we are going to have a look at some of the major categories with some examples. This will give us some insight on how to use the Psalms in our praying. However, what has stuck me as I have prepared this talk tonight that is there are elements of multiple categories in most of the Psalms.
Now these categories are not exhaustive, and I would need a series of talks to cover this subject properly, but I have somewhat crudely divided the Psalms into these categories:
Praise & declaration
Prophetic / Messianic
And then two very interesting categories as far as prayer is concerned:
Now, as I said – many Psalms could fall into more than one category, but we’ll go ahead and have a look at some examples…….
Praise & declaration
This is the fundamental purpose of the Psalms of course and with the exception of a very few examples (which we will come on to look at), praise and the declaration of who God is impregnates the entirety of the wirtings – even those that have a note of despair and petition. Here are SO many praise & declaration Psalms, but some of the purest are Psalms 47, 98 and 150.
Lets look at Psalm 47:
To the Chief Musician. A Psalm of the sons of Korah.
1 Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples!
Shout to God with the voice of triumph!
2 For the Lord Most High is awesome;
He is a great King over all the earth.
3 He will subdue the peoples under us,
And the nations under our feet.
4 He will choose our inheritance for us,
The excellence of Jacob whom He loves. Selah
5 God has gone up with a shout,
The Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
7 For God is the King of all the earth;
Sing praises with understanding.
8 God reigns over the nations;
God sits on His holy throne.
9 The princes of the people have gathered together,
The people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
He is greatly exalted.
Psalm 47: (NKJV)
The Psalms have set the pattern for worship in the Christian church over the centuries, and as we have already learned are a central part of Synagogue life for the Jewish people. Some traditional Puritan / Protestant congregations (to this day) ONLY sing the metrical Psalms. I saw a service on BBC ALBA a few months ago in a Gaelic speaking Scottish Islands church. The worship to our ears would be a dirge like drone through the Psalms! – BUT – this was a Spirit filled Church as evidenced by their heartfelt worship and an amazing sermon. I mention this because…..
Many of our modern worship songs (the best ones in my opinion) are grounded in the Psalms. For the older among us – remember ‘Scripture in song’? Just the words of Psalms and scripture set to music just like the ultra-traditional Scottish church I mentioned. The Psalms unify very different worship streams into one unified body!!
Lets looks at Psalm 95 as a pattern for worship:
1 O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.
3 For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also.
5 The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land.
6 O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker.
7 For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice,
8 Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness:
9 When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work.
10 Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways:
11 Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.
Psalm 95: (KJV)
v2 Come into His presence with thanksgiving
v3 Declaration of who God is
v4-5 Declaration of what God has done
v7 We are His people
v8-9 Be reconciled
v8-10 Be obedient
The NKJV version of the Bible entitles this Psalm ‘a call to worship and obedience’. Sums it up pretty well. Isn’t that what we are called to as the body of Christ? I would be going off topic if I unpacked this any more but there is a lot in there we can learn!
Singing and praying the Psalms therefore ensures our patterns for praise, worship and prayer are grounded in the principles of scripture. Without this resource to keep us in line we could go off in all crazy directions….. unfortunately some churches and ministries have, but not here!!
Lets briefly look at another couple of important categories before we start looking at how to use the Psalm as a rich prayer resource:
History and Prophecy
The Psalms are constantly looking back to historical events, both good AND bad and use them as a teaching lesson and a reminder of the moving of God’s hand in the course of history. Let read Psalm 114:
Psalm 114: (KJV)
This is of course looking back at the monumental events of the Exodus from Egypt. It’s purpose? To remind us of the Awesome intervention of God. What a powerful device in prayer! To be reminded that the same God of yesterday is the God of today and of tomorrow!!
Talking of tomorrow, the Psalms contain Prophetic signs and signals. They clearly signal the coming of the messiah, the so- called Messianic Psalms; not just foretelling His existence, but also His death and His Kingdom reign:
Psalm 22 – I won’t read it now, but that is the clearest prophetic / Messianic Psalm and describes his crucifixion.
Psalm 110 – Describes the Kingdom reign of the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus
and so it goes on…..
The final categories are very relevant as we think about how to pray the Psalms as these are Psalms that include at their core PRAYER.
Petition, repentance and Lament
The Psalm are full of prayers, personal heartfelt prayers, sometimes downright uncomfortable prayers and pleadings before Almighty God. There are agonising cries for help, for deliverance, for the Hand of our Lord to be moved. There are yearnings and longings for His presence His intervention….. and it goes on.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means but Psalms 4,10,13,17,25,42,70, 130, 143 are all prayers of petition for example. Look at the language used here in Psalm 4:
For the choir director; with stringed instruments; a psalm by David.
1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness. You have freed me from my troubles.
Have pity on me, and hear my prayer!
2You important people, how long are you going to insult my honour?
How long are you going to love what is empty and seek what is a lie? Selah
3 Know that the Lord singles out godly people for himself. The Lord hears me when I call to him.
4 Tremble and do not sin. Think about this on your bed and remain quiet. Selah
5 Offer the sacrifices of righteousness by trusting the Lord.
6 Many are saying, “Who can show us anything good?” Let the light of your presence shine on us, O Lord.
7 You put more joy in my heart than when their grain and new wine increase.
8 I fall asleep in peace the moment I lie down because you alone, O Lord, enable me to live securely.
Psalm 4: (God’s Word Translation)
Pretty passionate and heartfelt! The Psalmists are not timid before God – and this should give us confidence to pray in a similar way.
Repentance too is common thread in the Psalms. What is interesting is that personal repentance is expressed, but IT IS ALSO CORPORATE. There are pleas before Almighty God for sins of the nation of Israel. We too must be prepared (as Sue Sinclair so powerfully testified the weekend) to offer prayers of corporate repentance. By far the most obvious example of a penitential Psalm (in this instance personal repentance) is Psalm 51. Just a snippit:
Have mercy upon me, O God,
According to Your lovingkindness;
According to the multitude of Your tender mercies,
Blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
And cleanse me from my sin.
Psalm 51:1-2 (NKJV)
Finally, and we’ll get into applying this knowledge in just a moment I need to cover the category of Lament, because it is misunderstood and rarely is given a place in the Christian church. To lament is to “to express sorrow, regret, or unhappiness about something”
Is that ‘having a whine’ at God? No, not a whine, but it is BEING REAL BEFORE GOD ABOUT HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT SOMETHING. We don’t have time to read in detail but in your own time read Psalm 79 – entitled in the NKJV of the Bible as ‘A dirge and prayer for Israel, destroyed by enemies’.
“Here the Psalmist laments Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. He prays for the nations spiritual needs, curses their enemies (that sits uncomfortably with us today doesn’t it?) and prises God’s anticipated actions. This psalm helps the believer express his anguish in a situation where God does not seem present.” (MacArthur Student Bible – notes)
How to we use the Psalms to pray?
Use the exact words
Just reading our the words of the Psalms has power – after all it is God’s word!!
This is especially applicable when it comes to praise and worship. These Holy Spirit inspired writings have been brought before our dear Lord countless times over the generations and I can guarantee you he does not tire hearing them!
As we discovered when I spoke about the power of praise a few weeks ago, praise, worship and prayer are all about the heart attitude and using pre-written words are a good way to express ourselves; especially when we do it with God’s unadorned and unadulterated powerful word.
Use the exact words but contextualise and personalise them
Here’s another idea; use the framework of a Psalm for your own personal prayer by adapting it to your own circumstances: Here’s a great example using a famous Psalm, 23:
Lord you are my shepherd, I do not want for anything.
You make me lie down in green pastures, you lead me besides still waters.
You restore my soul, you lead me in the paths of righteousness for Your name’s sake……. Etc.
Use the themes
As we have seen Psalms fall into categories, and many Psalms cover multiple themes in one Psalm. So for example Ps:116,
Psalm 116:1-7 (NIV)
Sooo.. we go from thanksgiving, to faithfulness, to deliverance, to petition, to praise and then to petition all in seven verses!!! This is quite an extreme example, but what I mean about praying thematically is using the way a Psalm is constructed as a prayer guide (Praise to petition to praise for example).
Pick out key phrases and themes and expand them
What I mean here is we can use the LANGUAGE of the Psalms to energise our prayers. Actually this is what a lots of modern Christian songwriters do. So for example Psalm 95:1 says Oh come let us sing for joy to the Lord, let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our Salvation (NKJV). So your prayer might start:
Lord, I shout joyfully to you for you are the rock of my salvation, you are worthy to hear the joyful cries of my heart and you, my rock I stand…… etc.
This I think is where the terminology and language of the Psalms can be most helpful in our prayer life. If we immerse ourselves in the language of the Psalmists then we are unlocking the power of scripture in our praying
Charles Spurgeon, in his preface to The Treasury of David writes “The delightful study of the Psalms has yielded me boundless profit and ever-growing pleasure; common gratitude constrains me to communicate to others a portion of the benefit, with the prayer that it may induce them to search further for themselves.”
Sing them as praise, petition and lament
Finally we are not so much talking about sung worship as prayer tonight, but given the Psalms are a book of songs, it would be remiss to mention the power that is found in singing the Psalms. We have already touched on in my earlier talk this and I do not feel the need to further expand on this here – but there is real power is singing the Psalms in all it’s forms.
And finally…….. I want to give you a guarantee; if you employ some of the teaching we have heard tonight and apply it to our prayer life it WILL be enriched, it WILL be empowered, it WILL be invigorated and it WILL transform our lives, the life of our church and the life of others.