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“Praying the Psalms”: Heard about the phrase. Read, studied the psalms. Finally I understand why.

Over the past decade, I have heard the phrase “praying the psalms, but it never seemed like something I needed to understand. Then I began the year of rest and renewal.  

The first thing I did was start reading—not church related prep material, but fun reading.  Oddly enough I picked up the novel series of the Yada Yada Prayer Group, written by Neta Jackson.  The characters in this series were encouraged to ‘pray the psalms.’  

And I began to sort out the significance of that phrase:  pray the psalms.  

The problem I have long had is how to make psalms fit into today’s culture.  How does the language work?  How does the ancient problems fit or match today’s?  How can the language be used when language changes?

Then I began the year-long Bible study and moved into the psalms this month and I started to understand why the phrase continues to surface as a method of prayer for God’s faithful today as much as in ancient times.

Maybe one of the key tools I have that helped open up my understanding of how to pray the psalms is theWesley Study Bible.  I have a wide range of Bibles and several with study notes, but the subtitles and descriptors that are provided for the psalms, clearly states the purpose of each one.  

Why in the world did I never understand the topic of the various psalms or even the structure of the entire book itself?

I guess that is not really an issue at this point.  The issue is that I have finally unlocked the psalms as prayers that are as appropriate today as they were in ancient times or any time:  past, present and future.

For example, the first section of psalms are considered Book 1 of the Psalter and include Psalms 1-41.  As one begins the study of these psalms, there are clear subtitles for almost each one:

  • Psalm 3:  Trust in God under Adversity
  • Psalm 4:  Confident Plea for Deliverance from Enemies
  • Psalm 6: Prayer for Recovery from Grave Illness
  • Psalm 12:  Plea for Help in Evil Times
  • Psalm 22:  Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility

These are simply the ones I have already studied within the first book.  There are four other books:  Psalms 42-72, Psalms 73-89, Psalms 90-106, and Psalms 107-150.  Looking ahead at how the Wesley Study Bible prints these, one can tell that the subtitles continue to identify the purpose of each psalm.

Praying the psalms may not be a habit that faithful Christians are using, but at times finding words to put one’s thoughts into a logical prayer leaves us in a mental block.  By stopping and scanning through the psalms in a Bible that can guide the reader, such as the Wesley Study Bible,removes that block.

Finding the right source is so important for anybody wanting to understand scripture, but to ‘pray the psalms’ a version that provides subtitles or study notes to guide the reader to find a psalm that matches his/her own need at the time.

While considering how to discuss the idea of ‘praying the psalms,’ I googled the phrase.  What I was unprepared for the number of hits that came up:  about 11,800,000 results!  

And then I began scrolling.  The websites on the first page provided a range of blogs and theologies, but I opened up The Upper Roombecause it was familiar to my Methodist background.

Check out the site: https://www.upperroom.org/resources/praying-the-psalms

Again, identifying the purpose of the psalm can guide one in how to pray the psalms.  On the Upper Room site, there is an explanation of the concept, then a list of topics aligned to an appropriate psalm is included.  And this is just one of the first website I opened.

A caution needs to be added at this point. When doing a web search, make sure to identify the source of the site.  Make sure to understand the theology or the philosophy from which the author speaks/writes.  Some of those 11 million plus websites may not be solid in theology or may be using an entirely different definition of psalm which would be anti-Christian, anti-faithful.

Because the ancient cultures did not have the law or the hymns in print and readily available, the teaching of scripture was done through singing as it was easier to memorize.  The practice has not been maintained, so praying the psalms is not part of our educational process in most cases.  We do not know the psalms—at least not 150 of them.

Therefore, as one begins reading the psalms and re-reading them, the words become familiar and when needed might surface into conscious thought –if we allow ourselves to pray the psalms.

When stress settles in and the mind freezes up, turning to the familiar psalms can unlock the communication channel to God. Certainly he knows what our issues are, but as we seek to work through the stress, turning to the ancient words used throughout the millenniums can reconnect us with God.

And, maybe it is not stress that we need to pray about; maybe we find joy or success or health and we lift our words of praise to God for those experiences, too.  The psalms are not singularly for stressful circumstances; they are for the celebrations, too.  

God is a moment-by-moment presence in our lives and we live in prayer when we remain faithful.  We remain faithful by praying or communicating with God at all times. 

Praying the psalms is a method of communicating with God; and if one has read them repeatedly, the words are familiar.  The words will surface in our minds when we face stress.  Those are the times God is speaking to us through the Holy Spirit.

Please join in prayer:

Using the words from Psalms 34:11-14 (NRSV)

Lord we pray. . . 

Come, O children, listen to me;

     I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

Which of you desires life,

     and covets many days to enjoy good?

Keep your tongue from evil,

     and your lips from speaking deceit.

Depart from evil, and do good;

     seek peace, and pursue it.  –Amen.

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