Praying Like the Psalmists
“The only way to understand the psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the psalms with all its strength”—Deitrich Bonhoeffer.
I’ve spent a good bit of the past several months studying the Psalms as a guide for prayer, praise, and worship. I completely agree with Bonhoeffer’s sentiment. I think most of us do. Our modern hymns demonstrate we believe the best way to use and understand the Psalms is in prayer and song. Consider some of our modern songs:
- “As the Deer” from Psalm 42
- “This is the Day” from Psalm 118
- “The Lord’s My Shepherd” from Psalm 23
- “How Majestic is Your Name” from Psalm 8
- “Unto Thee O Lord” from Psalm 25
- “I Will Call Upon the Lord” from Psalm 18
The list could go on, but you see the point.
Having said this, there is still part of us that is overwhelmed at the thought of using the Psalms as our guide for prayer. There are 150 of those psalms to go through. On top of that, sometimes the psalmists use phrases with which we are unfamiliar. Like greeting cards, the Psalms often sound good to us when we read them, but they don’t seem to fit us when we actually say them. Not to mention, there are just some ways in which the psalmists speak that seem almost blasphemous. I’ve read some psalms (e.g. Psalm 88) that make me want to change locations when I’m done for fear that lightning will strike where I was standing.
Thus, there is a huge part of us that wants to pray like the psalmists. At the same time, there is a part that doesn’t. With that in mind, I’m going to devote our Monday spiritual springboard to prayer and the Psalms for a while. But, I want to begin in an odd place. I want to first set our minds at ease where we don’t want to pray like the psalmists. Hopefully, as we consider these things we can relax as we look to the Psalms and not be so overwhelmed. Then we’ll be free to gradually learn as much as we can about prayer from the Psalms.
Today, I want to show you 2 of the 4 reasons we don’t have to pray exactly like the psalmists. Next week, we’ll wrap up the other 2 reasons.
2 Reasons We Don’t Have to Pray Exactly Like the Psalmists
1. The Psalms are part of the Old Covenant not the New
Despite the usual practice of Bible printers to include the Psalms when they publish a pocket New Testament, the Psalms are not part of our covenant or the law of Christ. They are part of the Old Covenant law. Note John 10:34. While debating with the Jews, Jesus said, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’?” Jesus quoted from Psalm 82:6. I certainly recognize the Psalms were not written as a legal code. I understand they are not part of the decalogue. I see that they are not written with “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” Nevertheless, Jesus demonstrates they are part of that Old Covenant.
In Hebrew 7:12, we learn when there is a change of priesthood, there is a change of law. We are no longer under the levitical priesthood. Rather, we are under the priesthood of Jesus Christ. Our priesthood has changed, so has the law.
Romans 10:4 says Christ is the end or goal of the Law. When Christ came, He fulfilled the Law. He superseded the Law. It is no longer our pattern and guide for glorifying God.
Having said that, don’t forget Romans 15:4, which explains we can learn from what was written even in the days of the Old Covenant. I’m not suggesting tossing out the Old Testament. That would be silly. In fact, we cannot possibly understand the New without learning from the Old. We just need to keep the Old in proper perspective. Now that the Messiah has appeared, we are no longer under the schoolmaster/tutor/guardian (cf. Galatians 3:19-29).
The point being that we can learn from the Psalms, but we can be relieved from the idea that they are somehow the universal pattern for all praying for all time. We can learn timeless principles about prayer, praise, and worship from them. But we are not seeing our pattern for how to glorify God under the New Covenant.
Let me show practically why this is important. Psalm 5:3 says, “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.” If we want to pray, do we have to offer the morning sacrifice? If we have to pray exactly like the psalmists, we do. But this is not our pattern. Rather, we learn from this psalm within its Old Covenant context that sacrifice is what grants us access to pray to God. However, under the New Covenant, killing an animal is not how we glorify or draw near to God. We know Jesus is our sacrifice whose blood brings us into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-22). See from this how we learn from the Psalms timeless principles about prayer and praise but we do not follow them as our Law and guide for prayer.
2. The Psalms were written using a culturally appropriate genre, not a universal guide for all praying everywhere.
To claim we can only pray like the psalmists, would be akin to claiming we could only ever speak about judgment in apocalyptic. We would be taking a culturally appropriate genre and mandating it as the guide. In that case, we would be missing the real point in the Psalms. The real point is not that we have to use the psalmists’ genre to pray. Rather, we need to learn the lessons God revealed through that genre.
The genre of the Psalms is not an exclusively biblical genre. In fact, it is not even an exclusively Hebrew genre. Many scholars have pointed out that this exact genre was used among the Egyptians and Babylonians of the same time period. The genre of the Psalms is not the universal guide for the only way to pray or even the best way to pray. It was simply a form of prayer used at that time and God used that culturally appropriate genre to reveal His servants’ proper response to Him.
Some are thinking I’ve gone off the deep end and turned into a liberal theologian here. That is not the case at all. Isn’t this what God did with all of the Bible? He used people within their culture, in their background, their styles, their language, and revealed His will through that. That’s all I’m saying God did with the Psalms. He did not use this genre to say this is the only way to pray. He simply revealed His will through the background and culture of the people of that time.
We do not have to become masters at Hebrew parallelism, chiasm, or other characteristics of this genre in order to pray properly. We do not have to use the exact forms and phrases. That was all part of their culture. We have a different culture with different forms.
Consider one example. Psalm 102:1-2 says, “Hear my prayer, O LORD; / let my cry come to you! / Do not hide your face from me / in the day of my distress! / Incline your ear to me; / answer me speedily in the day when I call!” I have a very hard time with this or even remotely praying to God like this. In my culture, I should at least say, “Please.” I can imagine telling my kids, “Listen up!” like that, but I can’t imagine talking my parents like that, let alone my God.
What is happening here? It’s all about culture. Apparently, in that Old Testament culture and in the culturally appropriate genre, this could be said without concern. While I’m sure it is perfectly legitimate at the base level to recite this psalm in prayer, culturally, I’ll never feel comfortable demanding God listen to my prayer. Do I have a lack of faith? Am I weak because I don’t pray like the psalmists in this regard? No. I’m in a different culture. We have different means by which we show respect.
Consider an illustration. In John 19:26, Jesus addressed His mother saying, “Woman, behold, your son!” I wouldn’t remotely encourage modern sons to call their mother, “Woman,” just because Jesus did it. All by itself, it must not be wrong. But in our cultural context it is considered inappropriate and disrespectful. I think we need to consider the same point when we address God.
We are going to learn a lot of great information from the Psalms about praying. I can’t wait for us to discuss this and learn from each other as we converse about praying. But I hope we can set our minds at ease. We don’t have to pray exactly like the psalmists to go to heaven. We can relax and take as long as we need to learn from the psalmists.
Let me know what you hope to get out of discussing the Psalms. That will help guide where we go with this.