How to Pray through the Psalms
- Donald S. Whitney
- 2015 9 Nov
By praying the Psalms back to God, we learn to pray in tune with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As a whole, the psalms comprise the best place in Scripture from which to pray Scripture. I base that on the original purpose for which God inspired the psalms. The book of Psalms—which means “book of praises” in Hebrew—was the songbook of Israel. The psalms were inspired by God for the purpose of being sung to God.
It is as though God said to his people, “I want you to praise me, but you don’t know how to praise me. I want you to praise me not because I’m an egomaniac but because you will praise that which you prize the most, and there is nothing of greater worth to you than I. There is nothing more praiseworthy than I, and it is a blessing for you to know that. It will lead to your eternal joy if you praise me above all others and above all else and to your eternal misery if you do not. But there’s a problem. You don’t know how to praise me, at least not in a way that’s fully true and pleasing to me. In fact, you know nothing about me unless I reveal it to you, for I am invisible to you. Therefore, since I want you to praise me, and it is good for you to praise me, but since you don’t know how to praise me, here are the words I want you to use.”
Why the Psalms?
In other words, God gave the Psalms to us so that we would give the Psalms back to God. No other book of the Bible was inspired for that expressed purpose.
In addition, we know that singing the Psalms continues to be pleasing to God and edifying to his people today, for in two key New Testament passages (Eph. 5:18–19 and Col. 3:16) a healthy church is characterized by singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”So in the Psalms God teaches us to come before him using words such as:
You, O Lord, are a shield about me. (Ps. 3:3)
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. (Ps. 8:1)
You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! (Ps. 36:7)
A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Ps. 51:17)
Your righteousness, O God, reaches the high heavens. You who have done great things, O God, who is like you? (Ps. 71:19)
Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? (Ps. 77:13)
You, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you. (Ps. 86:5)
O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment, stretching out the heavens like a tent. (Ps. 104:1–2)
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. (Ps. 119:105)
O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. (Ps. 139:1–2)
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. (Ps. 145:13)
Have you considered the Psalms from this perspective? That is, for our good and his glory, God wants us to praise him. And, indeed, all those indwelled by his Spirit yearn to praise him. But we have no way of knowing what sort of praises are worthy of our glorious God. So he revealed in the Psalms the praises that express the yearnings his Spirit produces in us and which are appropriate for and consistent with his glory. As we pray the Psalms, therefore, we are returning to God words that he expressly inspired for us to speak and sing to him.
The Psalms—Like a Little Bible
Book for book, I believe the best place in the Bible to pray the Bible is the book of Psalms. One reason for this, as someone has said, is that “the Psalms are like a little Bible. Every doctrine in the Bible is there: either in the bud or in the flower, but they are all there.”
Another reason the Psalms adapt so easily to prayer is that God has inspired a psalm for every sigh of the soul. Within the breadth of 150 psalms, you can find the entire range of human emotion. You will never go through anything in life in which you cannot find the root emotions reflected in the Psalms. Exhilaration, frustration, discouragement, guilt, forgiveness, joy, gratitude, dealing with enemies, contentment, discontentment—you name it: they are all found in the book of Psalms. Athanasius, a fourth- century, North African theologian who famously defended the doctrine of the Trinity, said of the Psalms, “Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it.”That’s why, if you will look briefly at just five psalms, at least one of them almost always puts into words the burden of your heart at the time.
But the main reason why the psalms work so well in prayer is that the very purpose God put them in his Word to us is for us to put them in our words to him.
Donald S. Whitney is professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has written several books related to Christian spirituality, including Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Don blogs regularly BiblicalSpirituality.org.
Publication date: November 9, 2015