Jesus Prays the Psalms

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:19-20

How to Pray as a Christian

How can I learn to pray? Like many other evangelicals, I’ve given this advice: just pray whatever is on your mind. There is no right or wrong in prayer. We don’t please God or earn his favor by saying the right formula (or feeling the right emotion or having the right spiritual experience) and God is certainly tough enough to handle our honesty in prayer. That’s all true enough, but by itself this advice is somewhat misleading and unlikely to help one grow much in Christian prayer.

Christians pray with words. They may pray in other ways as well, but Christian prayer is basically verbal. For the most part, prayer in the Bible has to do with words and ideas. While there are instances of non-verbal prayer in the scriptures (e.g., glossolalia in 1 Corinthians 14:14-15), the passages which might refer to non-verbal practices in prayer are few and far between.

So when it comes time to pray, what do you say? The problem is not that we have too much wrong stuff to say to God; it’s that we don’t have much to say at all. In extemporaneous prayer, one can become lost in one’s own emptiness and crushed by one’s own shallowness.

Praying the scriptures is one antidote to the lack of direction in prayer. And within the scriptures, one section is stands out as the “prayer book of the Bible” – the book of Psalms. The Psalms are prayers. The proper response to the word of God in the Psalms is not just “what should I believe” but “what should I pray?”

What should I say, then, when I pray? The words of the Psalms are one answer to that question. Yet, when most Christians begin to pray the Psalms, they quickly come to Psalms that they know they cannot pray. It’s easy to pray Psalm 23. It’s much harder to pray the Psalms that claim innocence before God, that ask for the destruction of one’s enemies, that cry out to God from a place of unparalleled suffering and so forth.

The secret to praying the Psalms is that you do not pray them alone. Only one man in all of history has been worthy to pray the Psalms. He lives and reigns at God’s right hand and dwells in his people by the power of the Holy Spirit. When we pray the Psalms, we pray them with Jesus Christ.

When I pray the words of the Psalms, I don’t just think about how this is my prayer, I think about how it is the prayer of Jesus Christ before the throne of God. It is his prayer for his church and for the world. Jesus is the one who is innocent before God. Jesus is the one vanquishes God’s enemies. Jesus is the one who is worthy to reign over all creation. Jesus is the one who is worthy to receive honor and glory. Jesus is also the one who suffered as I have never suffered. Jesus, in fact, continues to pray the psalms with and through his Church. He gives each of us the privilege of praying with him and through him to God the Father.

Bonhoeffer’s Secret of the Psalter

This idea is not new. I first came across it in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little gem Life Together (or, in its original German title, Gemeinsames Leben). Bonhoeffer, of course, is more profound that I can ever hope to be. Here are some excerpts from the section entitled, “The Secret of the Psalter.”

The Psalter occupies a unique place in the Holy Scriptures. It is God’s Word and, with a few exceptions, the prayer of men as well. How are we to understand this? How can God’s word be at the same time prayer to God?

The question brings with it an observation that is made by everybody who beings to use the psalms as prayers. First he tries to repeat the psalms personally as his own prayer. But soon he comes upon passages that he feels he cannot utter as his own personal petitions. We recall, for example, the psalms of innocence, the bitter, the imprecatory psalms, and also in part the psalms of the Passion. . . .

Actually, however, this difficulty indicates the point at which we get our first glimpse of the secret of the Psalter. 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 it 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. Now do we understand how the Psalter can be prayer to God and yet God’s own Word, precisely because here we encounter the praying Christ? Jesus Christ prays through the Psalter in his congregation. His congregation prays too, the individual prays. But here he prays, in so far as Christ prays within him, not in his own name, but in the Name of Jesus Christ. He prays, not from the natural desires of his own heart; he prays out of the manhood put on by Christ; he prays on the basis of the prayer of the Man Jesus Christ. But when he so acts, his prayer falls within the promise that it will be heard. Because Christ prays the prayer of the psalms with the individual and the congregation before the heavenly throne of God, or rather because of those who pray the psalms are joining in the prayer of Jesus Christ, their prayer reaches the ears of God. Christ has become their intercessor. . . .

The Psalter is the great school of prayer. Here, we learn first, what prayer means. It means praying according to the Word of God, on the basis of promises. Christian prayer takes its stand on the solid ground of the revealed Word and has nothing to do with vague, self-seeking vagaries. We pray on the basis of the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ. This is what the Scripture means when it says that the Holy Spirit prays in us and for us, that Christ prays for us, that we can pray aright to God only in the name of Jesus.

Second, we learn from the prayer of the psalms what we should pray. Certain as it is that the scope of the prayer of the psalms ranges far beyond the experience of the individual, nevertheless the individual prays in faith in the whole prayer of Christ, the prayer of him who was true Man and who alone possess the full range of experiences expressed in this prayer.

Can we, then, pray the imprecatory psalms? In so far as we are sinners and express evil thoughts in a prayer of vengeance, we dare not do so. But in so far as Christ is in us, the Christ who took all the vengeance of God upon himself, who met God’s vengeance in our stead, who thus – stricken by the wrath of God – and in no other way, could forgive his enemies, who himself suffered the wrath that his enemies might go free – we, too, as members of this Jesus Christ, can pray these psalms, through Jesus Christ, from the heart of Jesus Christ.

Can we, with the Psalmist, call ourselves innocent, devout, and righteous? We dare not do so in so far as we are ourselves. We cannot declare our virtue as the prayer of our own perverse heart. But we can and we should do so as a prayer out of the heart of Jesus Christ that was sinless and clean, out of the innocence of Christ in which he has given us a share by faith. In so far as “Christ’s blood and righteousness” has become “our beauty, our glorious dress,” we can and we should pray the psalms of innocence as Christ’s prayer for us and gift to us. These psalms, too, belong to us through him.

And how shall we pray those psalms of unspeakable misery and suffering, the meaning of which we have hardly begun to sense even remotely? We can and we should pray the psalms of suffering, the psalms of passion, not in order to generate in ourselves what our hearts do not know of their own experience, not to make our own laments, but because all this suffering was real and actual in Jesus Christ, because the Man Jesus Christ suffered sickness, pain, shame, and death, because in his suffering and death all flesh suffered and died. What happened to us on the Cross of Christ, the death of our old man, and what actually does happen and should happen to us ever since our baptism in the dying of our flesh, this is what gives us the right to pray these prayers. . . .

Oetinger, in his exposition of the Psalms, brought out a profound truth when he arranged the whole Psalter according to the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. What he had discerned was that the whole sweep of the Books of Psalms was concerned with nothing more nor less than the brief petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. In all our praying there remains only the prayer of Jesus Christ; this alone has the promise of fulfillment and frees us from the vain repetitions of the heathen. The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together, Harper & Row, 1954, p. 44-50.

It is only in faith that we can pray the Psalms with a straight face – faith that we are united to Christ’s innocence and righteousness through the cross – faith that we are united to his sufferings (and through him, to the sufferings of his church and all humankind) – faith in his victory over the powers of sin and death – and faith in the coming of his promised appearing kingdom, which will bring final judgment on sin, salvation for God’s elect and the redemption of God’s creation. We dare not pray the Psalms except as Christ prays them in us and for us.  Our faith makes us bold, however, to pray the Psalms in the name and power of Jesus and in union with all the people of God.