The Psalter is the largest book in our Christian Bible. Divinely inspired, these 150 psalms have been formed though human engagement with the covenant-making God as revealed in the First Testament. The poets’ achievements demand that those who want to be shaped by individual psalms should study the rules and impact of Hebrew poetry and literary forms. The faithful person of God who seeks to pray and inhabit a psalm should not only study and learn the literary, historical, and theological achievement of each psalm but should be formed by the entire Psalter in regular, systematic ways. As Christians take seriously the form and breadth of the Psalter we have received from Israel and the tradition of the church, we will receive a rich education of transformative prayer in our Christian pilgrimages.
The individual psalms fall into many literary forms: praise/hymn, lament, thanksgiving, torah/instruction, historical, royal, trust, pilgrimage, and wisdom. The first three categories are the primary forms of the collection and exhibit a similar structure. Although there are exceptions, most praise, lament, and thanksgiving psalms begin with an introduction, continue with the main part or body, and draw to a conclusion. The specific contents of these structural sections provide the distinguishing characteristics of each category of psalm. The Psalter contains more laments than any other type of psalm. As we pray the book of Psalms regularly, these laments should profoundly influence our theology of Christian prayer.
The NT writers quote from the book of Psalms more than any other book in the First Testament (Isaiah is second). Psalms are particularly crucial in NT Christology. New Testament writers use certain psalms as they reflect on Jesus’ titles, and as they interpet his baptism and passion. Why is this the case? It is because the Psalter served as the prayer and hymnbook of the Hebrew people, Jesus included. When Christ ascended to God’s right hand, Israel’s prayers and songs in the Psalter became Christians’ prayers and songs. As such, they have served and should continue to serve liturgically as a guide for corporate and individual Christian worship, and thus should assist us to talk authentically to God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the courageous German Lutheran theologian and pastor executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg in 1945, reminds us, “It would not be difficult to arrange all of the Psalms according to the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. We should need to change only slightly our arrangement of the order of the sections” (Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996], 177). Thus, following the order of the Lord’s Prayer – with its introduction, seven petitions, and doxology (Matt 6:9-13; cf. Luke 11:2-4 for the shorter version and Didache 8:2 for the earliest indication of a doxology) – let us consider nine psalms that correspond to the sections of the Lord’s Prayer that can assist us in one way of praying the psalms.
1. For the introduction of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father in heaven,” study and pray Ps 23, a psalm of confidence or trust. A handful of psalms refer to God as Father (Pss 2:7; 68:5; 89:26; 103:13). Even though the title Father is not found in Ps 23, it nevertheless captures the qualities of our compassionate, tender, heavenly Father most eloquently through the metaphors of shepherd and host. These convey God the Father’s amazing provision and protection. Memorize Ps 23, pray it often, and let the Spirit marinate your whole being with a rich theology of our heavenly Father.
2. For the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “hallowed be your name,” pray and study Ps 8, a psalm of corporate praise. The psalm is bookended in vv. 1 and 9 with the affirmation that the Lord’s name is majestic. Indeed, God is mighty, and we observe in vv. 2-8 the specifics of the majesty of the name of the Lord and the reasons why the Lord’s name is majestic in all the earth. God has condescended to, recognized, and honored humankind, and allowed us to rule all of God’s creation. Thus, when Christians exercise their power over creation with a deep sense of God-given responsibility and humility, we sanctify the name of the triune God.
3. For the second petition, “your kingdom come,” study and pray Ps 110, a royal psalm and favorite of NT writers. This psalm contains a promise that the true king who is also the true priest will be able to lead his people successfully and defeat all enemies. In conjunction with the kingly metaphor, the expanding kingdom is by conquest. Today, this is the conquest of the truth of the gospel bringing the nations into submission. But, there will be a day when the king will arrive in priestly garb as King of kings, and the great victory will at last be consummated (Rev 19:11-21).
4. For the third petition, “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” pray and explore Ps 119, the most beautifully crafted and lengthiest psalm. This torah or instruction psalm has been shaped as an acrostic with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet initializing eight ideas in a row. If you want to know the Lord’s good and gracious will and learn from an enthusiastic teacher, then pray this psalm. The psalm is 176 verses, however, so you may have to pray it in bite-sized portions.
The spirituality of meditation in Ps 119 is not an emptying of the mind, seeking detachment, or generating alpha rhythms. Torah is no mantra or mandala. Yet we see in the juxtaposition of lament language and precept language a context for the kind of meditation that Ps 119 promotes. Peace of mind is involved and study of torah is a means of paving the way forward in life with what the person of God can rely on. God’s instruction is solid, a basis for living.
5. For the fourth petition, “give us today our daily bread,” learn and pray Ps 136, a thanksgiving psalm. Praying the refrain, “His love endures forever,” at the end of each of the 26 verses becomes rhythmic and powerful as we are commanded to thank the Lord for so many good things. This psalm contains a liturgical use of tradition that denotes the way the past impinges on the present and shapes the future (James Mays, Psalms [Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1994], 418). Toward the end (v. 25) we learn this truth: God gives food to every creature (see Pss 104:14-15, 27-28; 145:15-16; 146:7; 147:9). The poet brings Israel’s and our story to a conclusion by relating God’s mighty acts in every meal we eat. Jesus taught us to pray for the gift of daily bread because each day of living is part of the Lord’s enduring love.
6. For the fifth petition, “and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,” pray and study Ps 51, a penitential lament. Every Christian needs to learn how to lament and to exhibit penitence more consistently and wholesomely as this psalm instructs. Psalm 51 teaches the people of God that we cannot get away with saying one thing in public but doing something different in private.
In our God, there is mercy, unmerited favor. God’s unchanging love is passionate and based on a solemn commitment. Yet, our sin contorts and hinders our relationship with God. Praying this psalm will give us sinners words to ask God to wipe clean, to purge, and to remove any sins that have created a barrier to our fellowship with God.
7. For the sixth petition, “and lead us not into temptation,” examine and pray Ps 91, a lament-and-trust psalm. Satan ironically and paradoxically quotes part of this psalm to Jesus while tempting him (Matt 4:1-11). This psalm reminds us that danger is prevalent in this life, but the Lord will never fail or leave his people. Note carefully how the Lord’s eight promises blanket initial saving action to fully enjoyed salvation and all things between the two poles — rescue, security, answered prayer, closeness in need, deliverance, vindication, personal satisfaction, and enjoyment of salvation. This is a psalm to be prayed by every believer on every day.
8. For the seventh petition, “but deliver us from the evil one,” pray and know Ps 25, an individual lament. As with many other psalms, Ps 25 presupposes tribulation, strife, and pressure. When these are your experience, you may not have a concrete, tangible reason for confidence that you will come out on the other side. The foundation for confidence lies in the God who delivers with our eyes “ever on the Lord” (v. 15). Praying this psalm helps a Christian develop an attitude of prayer, trust in God, and moral determination to oppose the evil one.
9. For the doxology of the Lord’s Prayer, “for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever,” study and pray Ps 22, a psalm of both lament and praise. The beginning words of the psalm (lament, v. 1) are quoted in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as Jesus is crucified. The beginning words of the last one-third of the psalm (praise, v. 22) are quoted in Heb 2 in an account of the resurrection of Jesus. God’s kingdom, power, and glory remain forever through the power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As John Goldingay reminds us, this psalm is a model prayer for ordinary Christians when they experience affliction. But, the psalm is also a prayer particularly for Christians who feel as though they are falling apart, experience persecution, or feel as though God has abandoned them (Psalms 1-41 [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006], 340). This psalm may serve to mature our Christian faith by indicating how to hold to two contradictory sets of facts. It can impart words that reflect grim facts about the present and also words for the glorious reality about the future in the conviction that God has heard this prayer, even though God has not yet fully acted.
These nine psalms are just a sampling of the awe-inspiring, marvelous prayers and songs in the Psalter. All 150 psalms call out to the people of God to inhabit them as a regular prayer and songbook as they were for Jesus. Christian prayer is language used in relation to the triune God and indeed the lingua franca of the human heart. In order to learn this language, we must attend to the Scriptures, which provide the vocabulary and grammar appropriate to speak to God (Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006], 103-4). The most holistic, comprehensive source for prayer language is the Psalms. I wish I had learned more fully as a young person what the young Athanasius, later Archbishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, learned: “Most Scriptures speak to us; the Psalms speak for us” (Letter to Marcellinus). Thankfully, the Psalms have now become part of my everyday prayer language, which has emboldened, educated, and formed my prayers in new, more satisfying ways. I invite you to taste and see (experience!) that the Lord is good by praying the Psalms every day.