The Psalms are more than just literature. They were designed to be used in worship for Israel. Scholars of the Psalms, like Hermann Gunkel, show us how they might fit in different circumstances. We read psalms that celebrate the gifts of God to Israel, and to his church through Christ. The psalmists lament the suffering God’s people faced and call upon God to rescue them. They celebrate the king’s accession or rejoice in God’s protection for Israel through King David’s line. They even call on God to bring his wrath on God’s enemies.
The Psalms are prayers. We can use them in our own devotional life, just as Christians have used them for millennia. Monks have prayed the psalms in their daily prayer services since men like St. Benedict of Nursia wrote the first monastic rules. In Benedictine monasteries today, they pray the psalms, working their way through all 150 of them in four weeks.
Like the rest of the church, Christians should pray the psalms. Here are a few reasons why you should give it a try.
The Psalms Connect Us To The Whole Church
Western Christians tend to believe that the individual is the primary unit of the church. We talk about God as if his relationship is only to the hearts of every individual. But the church has not always understood herself that way. For Paul, the primary unit of the church is Christ, himself.
Throughout his letters, Paul refers to the church as the body of Christ. Christ is the head, and the church is his body, hands, feet, heart, and innards. The church is not a collection of individuals. We are a people, bound together by the covenant of God in Christ. The psalms are a way for the church throughout time to express our unity.
When we pray the Psalms, we pray the same prayers as the whole church throughout time. The Hebrews prayed these prayers and sang these songs. The first Christians prayed them, too. The monks in their monasteries prayed them. The priests in local churches chanted them. No matter what time in history, Christians prayed the psalms.
It’s not just time, either. Christians pray the psalms throughout the world. Psalms are an important part of the worship service for liturgical churches. Often sung or spoken in the beginning of worship, our brothers in Africa, India, China, and everywhere else pray the psalms each Sunday.
The Psalms Change Our Perspective
The Psalms also help us to gain a broader perspective on prayer. Many of us assume that our cultural assumptions are universal. Western Christians might assume that freedom or individualism are universal values, but that hasn’t always been the case. We also assume things about the nature of God and how he works in the world.
The Psalms pull us out of our cultural heritage, and they insert us into someone else’s perspective. The Hebrews were not 21st century Americans Europeans—surprise, surprise. They thought differently than we do. They acted differently than we do. They prayed differently than we do. What came naturally to their lips feels foreign on ours.
The Psalms force us to pray the way the church has prayed long ago, challenging us to think more broadly than our own narrow perspective. Holy Scripture always challenges us in this way. When we take it seriously, it pushes our boundaries, challenges our cultural assumptions, and gives us an eternal perspective.
The Psalms Show Us What To Pray
Many people believe that prayer is something that should flow from the heart without the taint of training. Much like organic farming, this way of praying seeks a primal relationship without human influence or artifice. This belief extends from a general assumption that our feelings are the key to knowledge and understanding.
But nothing in Christianity comes naturally. Husbands and wives do not develop life-long marriages because it comes naturally. They work hard, learn skills, and push past hurt feelings, dedicating themselves to each other. Fighting sin doesn’t come naturally, either. Our parents have to train us to not steal. Our teachers force us to share with our fellow kindergarteners. Nothing in Christianity comes naturally.
Why should it be different for prayer? God gives us the Psalms to help us know what he wants us to pray. We see Psalms where God’s people give thanks for his blessings, praise him for his power, and celebrate his salvation, all prayers we might expect. But we also read prayers that command God to smite enemies or that castigate him for causing harm. If King David– and Jesus himself– can challenge God in prayer , perhaps we can learn the right way to do it, too.
So, give it a shot. Try inserting the psalms into your prayer life. You’ll find that it opens you mind to new ways of speaking to God, and you’ll learn about his promises from how he commands us to pray.
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