Context matters in the Bible. When we read a single verse without understanding what came before and what comes after, we can seriously misunderstand what God says in his word. There’s a fantastic comic from Sacred Sandwich, that illustrates how funny this can be. A man is working hard to open a jar. Sweating, he shouts, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” His wife replies, “It’s a pickle jar...Twist the lid, not the scriptures.”
When we pray the Psalms, some might expect the context to work against us. The Psalms were not written by Christians, but they were written by Jews. They worshipped in the temple. They brought sacrifices to the altar of God. They ate kosher and worshipped in the way of the Old Covenant. The Psalms, then, were written for a different people at a different time for a different purpose than we would use them.
You can see this especially when the Psalms refer to God’s promises to the city of Jerusalem or to the nation of Israel. In Psalm 46, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.” The city is Jerusalem. The river makes a city glad, because it prevents a city dying of thirst when an enemy attacks. This passage points to God’s promise to protect Jerusalem. The context points us to a different time and a different set of promises than what Christians have.
But that should not prevent Christians from using the Psalms as their own prayers any more than it should prevent us from understanding God’s actions toward us through the events and prophecies of the Old Testament. We can use them as our own stories and our own prayers.
The key to understanding the whole Bible is Jesus Christ. His birth, life, death, and resurrection drive us to view the Old Testament in a different light than the authors would have. He is both the fulfillment of the promises that God gave Israel and the one who brings those promises to the church.
The Apostle Paul describes this relationship best when he writes to Christian churches who are filled with Jews to show how Jesus is a continuation of the faith of the Old Testament. In 2 Corinthians 1:20, Paul writes, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” Everything that God promised Israel comes true in Christ.
In Galatians 3, Paul describes how the church is Israel, because we are one with Christ. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.” The promise that God gave Abraham in Genesis 12 comes true through Christ in the church.
That means that we can pray the Psalms just as they are written, but we interpret them in light of Jesus Christ. In many ways, we can do that by switching out Old Testament words with New Testament ones.
In other places, we have to take the promises of God to the nation-state of Israel and make them cosmic instead of local. Here’s an example: Christians interpret the Exodus from Egypt in the light of Christ by making it about more than freedom from slavery under Pharaoh. We understand that the sacrifice of the passover lamb points us to the sacrifice of Jesus. The passover is not just a momentary passing over of the angel of death. It is now universal, because Christ’s passover sacrifice destroys the power of death that held us captive in slavery.
In the Psalms, then, we regularly see the Psalmists calling on God to deliver them from human enemies, whether individuals or other nations. We can interpret that call in the light of our cosmic enemies, death, Satan, and sin. We call on God to protect us from these greatest of evils.
One of the ways the church taught it’s people to read the Psalms in light of Christ was by adding a Trinitarian doxology to the end of each Psalm. It’s often called “The Gloria Patri,” in reference to the first two words in the Latin version. English hymnals typically use one of two forms:
“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning is now and will be forever. Amen.”
Some older English hymnals use this version:
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son: and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.”
Here are just a few tips for making the Psalms a part of your regular prayer life:
Like any habit, praying the Psalms takes time and practice. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you miss some time or forget, keep going on the next day. After some practice, praying the Psalms will become a natural part of your prayer life, and you will join your prayers with those of the faithful who have prayed these passages for millennia.
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