When the prayers of the worshiping community, the small group or family, and the individual are formed and guided by the psalms, the result is a balanced, God-centered, complete diet of prayer. People grow in grace and God hears what God is waiting to hear. Here are some examples and suggestions for including this diet in Sunday worship and throughout the week.
Note: All Scripture quotations in this article are from the NRSV.
Sunday Comes Alive
At a midsummer Sunday worship service, the first Scripture reading from Genesis 24 was about Abraham’s servant as he meets Rebekah, the woman who will become Isaac’s wife, at the town well. In response to that reading, a psalm was used as a prayer: “Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house, and the king will desire your beauty” (Ps 45:10-11). The congregation then sang “O Royal Bride, Give Heed” (author unknown):
O royal bride, give heed,
and to my words attend;
for Christ the King forsake the world
and every former friend.
Thy beauty and thy grace
shall then delight the King;
he only is thy rightful Lord,
to him thy worship bring.
Suddenly it’s clear that the story is about more than a search for Isaac’s bride. Isaac is a type of Christ, the coming One, and Rebekah is a type of the church. This insight gives new meaning to the New Testament reading about Paul’s struggle, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15), with Christ’s invitation “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). Together these texts suggest that the Christian life is like a marriage (Gen. 24; Ps. 45), with Christ’s gracious invitation (Matt. 11) and our ambivalent responses (Rom. 7), and the promise that the One who invites is the One who rescues: “Thanks be to God” (Rom 7:25).
Singing in the Assembly
A psalm used as a liturgical response is not “just another song.” Usually it picks up a theme from the Old Testament reading, either offering praise for God’s character or works or petitioning God to fulfill his promises, to remember the world in mercy and hear the cries of the needy. It may also anticipate the New Testament reading.
Praying the psalms out loud, moving our tongues and lips, gets our bodies into the act. Kim Long points out that as you “stand firmly on your feet, expand your core to inhale, firm up your middle as you make the sound, and feel your head resonate as your sound emerges,” your whole body is involved (The Worshiping Body, 73).
Besides paraphrases and metrical versions, psalms can also be sung to chant tunes. You can find simple tunes for chanting in some hymn books. The Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer and The Psalter: Psalms and Canticles for Singing are two other sources (both available from Westminster/John Knox) as is the recently published Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Faith Alive Christian Resources; see ad on the inside back cover of this issue).
As liturgical song, the words are patterned according to rhythm and sound, elevating them above our everyday, sometimes haphazard, speech. As a tune is added, the words are augmented a bit more. Harmony further intensifies the words of the whole assembly. Instrumental accompaniment expands the song even more. All this happens whether we think about it or not. When we sing the psalms, the assembly is formed into praise and petition, minds and bodies together, blessing and begging God.
Throughout the Week
Praying the psalms in the assembly provides a context for praying them in other times and places throughout the week. For example, I lead a weekly morning prayer group. Each time we begin by praying the psalms. First we pray a psalm, and then use phrases from the psalm to guide our free prayers for the church and its leaders, for the world and its leaders, for members of our community, and for friends and family and their needs.
The psalms have also shaped my personal prayer life. For the past twenty-five years I’ve been praying the psalms five or six mornings a week, following a schedule I found in the back of The Book of Common Prayer. All 150 psalms are arranged for morning and evening over a seven-week cycle. The schedule follows the canonical order, with some adjustments on weekends so you can pray from Good Friday to Easter—from death to life—each week.
Usually, I simply pray the words of the one to three psalms listed for the day. That’s right—I use those words instead of my own. It’s amazing how this has expanded and enriched my praying. The range of topics in the psalms is immense. Apparently God is interested in more things than I can imagine. The words help me praise God in a rich variety of ways. All God’s character and works are open for praise and pleading. The words tell me what to ask for—for the world, the church, my friends, my family, myself. They also tell me how to pray about pain, loss, and injustice, so that my prayers are a balanced diet of praise and petition.
Before reading Scripture, my practice is to pray a psalm. I look for connections between the psalm and the following readings, letting the psalm suggest themes I might otherwise miss. In a recent week, I prayed Psalms 1-3 one morning and 5-6 the next, with a Scripture reading from 1 Samuel 15:1-23 (Saul’s sin) and 24-36 (his repentance). Praying those psalms made me more sensitive to the temptations to pride for political leaders—kings in Psalm 2—and the possibility that they might repent—Psalm 6. That reminded me to pray later for President Obama and for the leaders of Congress, the governor, and other political leaders around the world; that God would open their hearts to his power and wisdom.
That’s a prayer we could all use!
More on the Psalms
from Faith Alive Christian Resources (www.FaithAliveResources.org)
- Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Martin Tel, Joyce Borger, John Witvliet, 2012) see ad on inside back cover
- 150 (Kevin Adams, 2011) Explore the psalms through the human experiences of joy, anger, pain, fear, and love as Kevin Adams tells the stories of real people crying out to God.
- Psalms Unplugged: The Psalms Project (2011) This CD features the ancient biblical psalms set to fresh and contemporary settings of 16th century tunes from the Genevan Psalter as performed by The Psalms Project from the Netherlands.
- Seeking God’s Face (Philip F. Reinders, 2010) A year-long prayer book drawn from the ancient Christian tradition of the “daily office.” Includes daily readings from the psalms. Foreword by Eugene Peterson.