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Why Emphasize the Psalms?

Like all liturgical traditions, Anglicans read from the book of Psalms at every eucharistic service. Our liturgy generally includes readings from an Old Testament book, a Psalm, an Epistle, and a Gospel. What this means is that we spend more time in the book of Psalms than in any other book of the bible. Have you ever wondered about this? Why so much emphasis on the Psalms in worship?

The truth is that no other book of the bible has received more attention throughout Christian history than the Psalms. And this isn’t only true of Anglicans. It is also true of Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, and any denomination using a Sunday lectionary. Christians all over the world consistently read the Psalms more than any other book, and this has been true of Christians for nearly 2,000 years and true of the Jewish people much longer. Consider the following points: 

  • If any of you pray the daily office –  morning and evening prayer – then you read the psalms each day and the entire psalter once through every month.  
  • Monks of the middle ages prayed the entire psalter every single week and some still do. 
  • Before the printing press existed, when very few people owned a complete collection of biblical texts, individual Christians were more likely to own the psalter than any other book of the bible. 

But why we might ask, are the Psalms so important? Why read them every day of every week for thousands of years? This is what the Church has done – it’s fascinating. Let me offer several reasons why the Psalms receive so much emphasis… 

First, The Psalms are the Prayer book of the bible. They not only reflect the best of Israel’s worship – revealing the heart of King David and others – these psalms were prayed by the people of Israel for Centuries and are prayed by Jews and Christians to this day. 

Second, the psalms remind us that our part in worship is always secondary and responsive. It is absolutely crucial that Christians remember that God always speaks first. We receive the Word from him and he draws out and enables our response. This is why we should not take our liturgy for granted. The Anglican liturgy is based upon a fundamental theological insight that far too many people forget – God always speaks first, and God always gives us his Word – Jesus Christ through the testimony of sacred scripture– which becomes our word of response. The Bible is meant to be both God’s Word to us, and the wellspring of our response to God. This is the great value of our prayerbook – it is absolutely saturated with scripture and ensures that our prayer and worship never departs from God’s Word. 

Worship is a kind of dialogue that God initiates, and the psalms offer a visible illustration of this fact. Eugene Peterson explains it like this. He reminds us that 

The first word is God’s Word. [We are] never the first word, never the primary word…This massive overwhelming previousness of God’s speech to our prayers, however obvious in Scripture, is not immediately obvious to us simply because we are so much more aware of ourselves than we are of God. [But the language] of God is spoken into us;” Our words are always a response. 

Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer

Third, if we take them seriously, they will force us to deal with the true condition of our own hearts. Sometimes, if things are well with us, this can be a positive experience. Consider Psalm 84, for example. It begins like this..

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! * My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

From Psalm 84

A Psalm like this can remind us that we are made for God and that we find our true rest in Him. It may even give words to the way you really feel – right now.  But it’s also possible that you have to lie to say these words. Have you ever thought of that? Have you ever prayed the psalter in church and thought – you know, I’m not really feeling it today? 

What if you’ve been fighting with your spouse all morning and did your best just to get to church at all? What if, throughout the whole service, your kids are whispering to each other and to you – driving you crazy? And although they probably aren’t bothering anyone else, you think they are. Are you really “longing for the courts of the Lord?” Is your flesh really rejoicing in the Living God? 

Or consider Psalm 63. 

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water

Psalm 63:1

Very often, when I pray a psalm like this – I just think – ugh. Not true at all for me right now. Because very often, if we are honest, the psalms will confront us with our own emptiness… and we should let them do so. If we are feeling empty, I can assure you that God is not surprised – we should just fess up, and the Psalms can help us do that.

At other times, the psalms are too emotionally dark and vengeful. Take Psalm 143 for instance…

For the enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead. And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies, and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul, for I am your servant

Psalm 143:3

Or how about this from Psalm 137…

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

Psalm 137:8

What can it possibly mean to pray these words as our own? Are any of us righteous enough to think that God should destroy our enemies? Are any of us innocent enough to own Psalms of protest as though they apply directly to our situations? Have you ever wondered what it means to protest your innocence while praying a psalm of David and then confess your sin after the sermon? Which is it? Are we innocent? Or is it true that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)?

This brings me to my next point. Because the psalms represent the full range of human experiences and emotions, we discover that their words are often foreign to us. When we really try to make them our own, the psalms have the potential to turn us into liars. They don’t always represent our true feelings, but that is a good thing because worship is not really about our feelings. Again, Eugene Peterson explains this really well. He says, 

What is essential in prayer is not that we learn to express ourselves but that we learn to answer God. The Psalms were not prayed by people trying to understand themselves. They are not the record of people searching for the meaning of life. They were prayed by people who understood that God had everything to do with them. God, not their feelings, was the center. God, not their souls, was the issue. God, not the meaning of life, was critical. 

And this is the key. Jesus Christ is the meaning of the psalms. Jesus prayed these psalms. He knew them deeply. He internalized them so that they were part of the formation of his own thinking. The words of the Psalmist became Jesus’ words in times of celebration and in times of despair. There are illusions to psalms and direct quotations from the psalms scattered all over his many sayings recorded in the gospels.  

You probably know, for example, that when he cried out from the cross “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” Jesus was quoting Psalm 22.  And when he spoke his final words recorded in John’s gospel, “into your hands I commit my Spirit” Jesus was quoting Psalm 31. In the most critical moments of his own Passion, Jesus makes the psalmist’s words his own… and when he does, he gives them a much deeper meaning. Jesus, you see, fulfills the psalms. He gathers them up into his own life and bestows on them their true and deepest meaning. 

When we pray these Psalms together on Sundays, the best thing that we can do is to keep in mind that we are praying words spoken by Jesus Christ himself. They can always be our words because they belong to Jesus first, and he makes us his own. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains it this way. He says…

A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter….The Psalter is the prayer book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word. He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time…

Bonheoffer, Life Together

Tim Keller offers some helpful advice in order to make this insight practical. He says that when we pray the psalms, we should imagine Christ praying them in the various aspects of his life and ministry. For instance, we might imagine Christ praying:

  • in his humanity – as the truly innocent one whose enemy is satan himself
  • in his deity – as eternally begotten Son of the Father and second person of the Trinity. 
  • in his humiliation – as the suffering servant crying out on our behalf.
  • and in his exaltation – as the one who has triumphed over evil and now reigns supreme.

So why do we pray the psalms? For many reasons, but most importantly, we can pray them with deep conviction because these are the Words of Jesus Christ. He is our high priest, and the sacrificial lamb, and the very Word of God that creates and redeems us.  We can be confident that the words we speak are true, not because they represent our feelings or life situations but because they are God’s word spoken by Jesus Christ on our behalf.  

Published inLiturgy

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