Praying the Psalms

“If we are to pray well, we too must discover the Lord to whom we speak, and if we use the Psalms in our prayer we will stand a better chance of sharing in the discovery which lies hidden in their words for all generations.” Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms

From my own experience, there is great benefit in praying the psalms. Consider the following:

“Praise the Lord!
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures for ever.
Who can utter the mighty doings of the Lord,
or declare all his praise?
Happy are those who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times.” (Psalm 106:1-3)

How might I employ these verses from Psalm 106 in prayer? Would I just repeat the words? Maybe, but I might also allow the Psalm to guide my prayer. “Praise the Lord!” I might begin my prayer by doing just that. And, for what am I praising the Lord? Is there a limit to the things for which I might praise God? Of course, not. So, I begin my prayer by praising the Lord for so many blessings, spiritual and physical. I name them and thank God for each one of them. As I thank God I am reminded that “…he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.”

So, not only do I thank God for specific blessings, but I meditate on who God is. God is good! God’s steadfast love endures forever! Try to imagine what that means. Forever is a long time to love. So, the psalm brings to mind the nature of the One to whom I pray. And, in being reminded of who God is my faith in the Lord and my love for the Lord is strengthened.

It’s important that as I pray the psalm, or allow the psalm to guide my prayer, that I do not get into a rush. There is no hurry in prayer. If I am in a hurry, I’m probably not praying. I’m probably just saying words in hopes of getting to the “amen” so that I can get on with what I really want to do. So, don’t hurry. Focus on the One to whom you pray. Remember that God is listening, God is with you, God’s Spirit is in you. Spend some time letting that truth sink in. Don’t just speak words as if you’re trying to complete a task. Instead, commune with the One who loves you.

“Who can utter the mighty doings of the Lord, or declare all his praise?” Indeed, who? Well, you can! In fact, as you pray and thank and praise God, you are uttering the “mighty doings of the Lord.” But, maybe this part of the psalm is instructing you to ask for strength to speak of God’s love and grace and wonderful works more often. Or, maybe this part of the psalm reminds you that the One to whom you pray is holy, and should be approached with awe and reverence. Or…there is no set way to allow the psalm to inform your prayer. Try not to get too bogged down in assumptions of what should be done or said in prayer. Let the Spirit guide you through the Psalm.

“Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.” How might these lines inform your prayer? Maybe this is a moment in prayer to ask for strength to observe justice and to do righteousness. Maybe this part leads you to pray for those who are in need of justice. Maybe these lines lead you to once again thank God because the Lord upholds what is right and good. Again, let the psalm speak to you. Or better, let the Spirit speak to you through the psalm, and then let that inform your prayer and meditation.

Let’s try another:

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.” (Psalm 25:1-5)

Here, we have a psalm that can be prayed as is. I can simply pray the words. But again, I caution against simply saying the words. Prayer is not magic, it’s communication. Instead of simply saying the words, speak each line and savor the meaning of the words. Consider what the words mean for you, as you pray them. Also, take time to let God speak to you. Listen and observe what comes into your heart as you pray. Communication works both ways. But, no matter what, take your time. God has all day.

There are many different psalms, each addressing different themes. As you use the psalms for prayer, or as guides to prayer, keep a list of the ones you find most useful. I have used just a few lines from a psalm as a prayer guide for days. Do what works for you. Some psalms will be better guides to prayer than others. Be warned, there are some lines in the psalms that, as I do, you may find impossible to pray (see the last line in Psalm 137 as an example). As Christians, we interpret and use all of the scriptures through the lens of Jesus Christ and the love he has taught us to embody. So, if you come across something that is not helpful in your prayers, no worries. Move on to what is helpful. There are many psalms and much that you will find helpful.

May God bless you in you prayers. May the Spirit guide you and teach you. And, may the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ fill you and flow out from you into the lives of others.

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