Praying the Psalms
Recently, I was in a faculty meeting discussing the meaning of prayer in contemporary liturgy. It did not take long before complaints were expressed about the length and, particularly, the language of liturgical prayers. The prevailing impression was that public prayers tended to be too long and saturated with superficiality. One person objected that some people were inclined to preach, teach, and even supply information to God when praying. This made me think. Although this article is not based on research on how people pray or how they view public prayers, I want to share some thoughts on how we could better our prayers and find new ways that will enrich both our liturgical and personal prayer lives.
Unjustly dismissed borrowed oil
Rolf Jacobson shares an interesting anecdote from his friend’s life. An evangelist was visiting her home, and as they were sitting down for dinner, her father began the meal with a prayer that consisted of reciting Psalm 145:15, 16: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”1 As he was in the midst of his prayer, the evangelist interrupted him: “We thank you God that we do not have to burn our lamps with borrowed oil.” Jacobson rightly remarks that with this pejorative critique, the evangelist dismissed the irreplaceable value of prayer uses of psalms.2
A belief that only spontaneous, unlearned prayer is real prayer appears to be prevalent among many Christians. God placed a prayer book, Psalms, at the heart of the Bible not simply to inform us about how people of ancient times prayed but to teach us to pray today. With all due respect to spontaneous prayer, I am arguing here that our conventional, routine prayer lives can be offered new dimensions and power when the spiritual oil of the psalms is poured into our lamps.
Here are some ways of how praying the psalms can transform our individual and communal prayers.
Praying the psalms articulates our experience
Careful use of Psalms in liturgy can exalt God’s power and splendor. The psalms can praise God for His marvelous deeds and salvation. While thanksgiving psalms can be heard from pulpits quite often (e.g., Pss. 8; 23; 147–150), other psalms, with complaints and laments, seem to be inappropriate for many liturgies. For example, the words of Psalm 137:8, 9 just do not seem right to most of us, “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Many would argue that Psalm 44 does not fit a worship service: “Our hearts had not turned back; our feet had not strayed from your path. But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals and covered us over with deep darkness” (vv. 18,
19). Thus, the selectiveness of Psalms in liturgy reflects the exclusiveness of moods and words that we express in our communal prayers.
Sometimes contemporary worship services featuring the popular genre of praise music attempt to create “a sense of ‘false happiness’ as the main purpose
and normal state of the Christian Church and of individual Christian lives.”3 This could cause us to miss the point of worship. Such restrictiveness may be a sign of our inability or uneasiness to engage the dark realities of life and worship. Walter Brueggemann rightly observes that “surface use of the Psalms coincides with the denial of the discontinuities in our own experience.”4 This is true not only of the selective use of Psalms but also of prayer. Though we may sometimes feel that God treats us unfairly when suffering hits us, we do not find it appropriate to express our thoughts in liturgy or even in private prayer. The failure to express honestly and openly our feelings and views before God in prayer often leaves us in bondage to our own emotions and sin. This also denies us confidence and trust in approaching God. Praying the psalms gives “an assurance to us that when we pray and worship, we are not expected to censure or deny the deepness of our own human pilgrimage.”5 Psalm 44, for example, can help worshipers articulate their experiences of innocent suffering freely and adequately. Praying the psalms also helps us experience the freedom of speech in prayer. The psalms give us words that we cannot find or do not dare to speak.
Praying the psalms supervises our experience
Praying the psalms does more than enable worshipers to articulate freely their experience. Walter Brueggemann and Patrick Miller suggest that the psalms supervise the experience according to God’s standards that make it bearable, manageable, and, hopefully, meaningful in the community. The psalms make the experience “formful just when it appeared to be formless and therefore deathly and destructive.”6
Praying the psalms will sometimes reveal a dissonance that may exist between the emotions of the psalms and the emotions of the worshiper. Imagine a worshiper who learns that he is dying of cancer. The lamenting words of Psalm 22:1 will help him express his grief and sense of loneliness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?” However, he will also read in the same psalm: “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you” (v. 22). These words may not coincide with his present experience, and they may even drive him to despair. Rolf Jacobson argues that pastors and theologians must learn to make fruitful use of this dissonance and help the worshiper resolve the spiritual discomfort by letting the psalms introduce new cognitions and attitudes into him.7 By giving us words to pray, the psalms teach us that we pray first and later feel what we pray.8
When my husband and I lost our first child due to some complications at delivery, I was left without any spiritual oil in my reservoir. As I was lying alone in my room that Friday evening, I reached for my Bible to begin the Sabbath. I could not pray; I had no words to say. The Bible opened at the place where the marker was placed the day before. This was Isaiah 49, that is, the song of Restoration of Zion. I began reading mechanically. It seemed as if each word of the song was meant to pierce my heart: “Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains!” (v. 13a). But when I read verse 14, I felt that my lost words came back to me, and I read over and over again: “But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’ ” These words became my words for they expressed everything that was in my heart. These were the only words spoken by Zion in the song. The Lord continues the song by answering Zion: “ ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!’ ” (v. 15). I felt that God was talking to me. I was still sad and desperate, but not forsaken and forgotten anymore.
One of my students copied Psalm 42 on a beautifully decorated scroll and sent it to me in the hospital. “My tears have been my food day and night. . . . Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God” (vv. 3, 5, 6). These words filled me with hope—that tears would be exchanged for praise one day in the future. Isaiah 49 and Psalm 42 became my prayers at the time when I had no words of my own. Over the days and weeks, I began to feel and mean the praise and hope expressed in these two songs. I still pray them when I wish to express special thanks to God.
Praying the psalms supervises the experience by taking the worshipers to new spiritual horizons. The psalms let the worshipers express their feelings and understanding, but the worshipers are not left where they presently are. Worshipers are led to abandon their burdens of pain, disappointment, hatred, anger, and despair before God and adopt new understanding and eventually healing. In the same way, praying the psalms provides a joyful, grateful heart with inspired ways to experience new dimensions of praise and thanksgiving.
Praying the psalms transforms our experience
Tremper Longman says that when “we read the Psalms with faith, we come away changed and not simply informed.”9 The language of the psalms is creative. Praying the psalms does not always pronounce what is, but rather “evokes into being what does not exist until it has been spoken.”10
The psalms are not simply ancient human words that help believers express their inner feelings before God. The psalms are the Word of God by which a believer is transformed into, for example, a person with a broken and contrite heart as described in Psalm 51. The constitutive power of the psalms in relation to piety is demonstrated in the ability of a psalm to enable the believer through the Holy Spirit to act in the way demanded by the psalm. “In other words, the praying of the psalm is an event by which God’s grace is made manifest in the lives of believers.”11
However, a mere repetition of the words of the psalms with only a slight comprehension of their meaning may not produce the authentic transformation intended by their use. Praying the psalms does not mean to serve as a kind of use of amulets with quotations from the Hebrew Psalter that are believed to have some kind of magical curing power.12 James Mays observes that the words of the psalms may become empty and perverted if they are spoken without an understanding of the distinctive faith of the psalms. “We must by means of the psalms enter and live in that particular world if praise and prayer with their words are to be authentic.”13
Praying the psalms broadens our experience
Sometimes there may be a total disjunction between the words of a psalm and the worshiper’s present experience. Imagine a happy newly wedded couple praying Psalm 88: “May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave” (vv. 2, 3). However, Jacobson shares two reasons why praying a lament psalm is beneficial to the worshipers who are not in distress. First, it prepares them for a time of trouble that may come in the future. Contrary to the popular gospel of prosperity, the psalms make worshipers aware that suffering is part of general human experience and happens to the righteous, not just to the wicked. The psalms give the assurance that God is in control and provides strength and solution in times of trouble. Second, praying the lament psalms teaches the worshipers compassion towards the sufferers. We must be mindful of the less fortunate when expressing our happiness and gratitude to God. In the same way, introducing a psalm of praise to sufferers can transform their suffering by creating hope.14
Praying the psalms makes the believing community aware of the full range of human experience and teaches the worshipers to engage the various facets of that experience and worship. The responsibility of a pastor or priest includes leading in that process and keeping the lamps of the congregation burning constantly with good oil. The psalms are abundant with precious spiritual oil. The psalms are divine-human prayers. For that reason, praying the psalms brings the believing community to the center of God’s powerful healing grace while empowering the worshipers to share the deepest impressions of their hearts.
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1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the NIV.
2 Rolf Jacobson, “Burning Our Lamps With Borrowed Oil,” in Psalms and Practice: Worship, Virtue, and Authority, ed. Stephen Breck Reid (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 90.
3 Beth LaNeel Tanner, “How Long, O Lord! Will Your People Suffer in Silence Forever?” in ibid., 144.
4 Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007), 8.
5 Ibid., 14.
6 Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1995), 86.
7 Jacobson, “Burning Our Lamps,” 92, 93.
8 Ari L. Goldman, Being Jewish: The Spiritual and Cultural Practice of Judaism Today (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 209.
9 Tremper Longman III, How to Read the Psalms (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 13.
10 Bruggemann, Praying the Psalms, 18.
11 Harry P. Nasuti, “The Sacramental Function of the Psalms in Contemporary Scholarship and Liturgical Practice,” in Psalms and Practice: Worship, Virtue, and Authority, ed. Stephen Breck Reid (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 83.
12 Eli Davis, “The Psalms in Hebrew Medical Amulets,” Vetus Testamentum 42, no. 2 (1992): 174.
13 James Luther Mays, The Lord Reigns: A Theological Handbook to the Psalms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 6.
14 Jacobson, “Burning Our Lamps,” 94–97.