The Book of Psalms is a collection of prayers written originally to shape God’s people in ancient Israel for identity, mission, community, and holiness. These prayers continue to serve as a guide for God’s people today as we journey through the life of faith. In this essay, I’m going to share with you a key mindset as well as three questions that I’ve found help me to open myself even deeper to being astonished and shaped by the message of the Psalms.
By mindset, I mean the intention that I bring to the reading process. I don’t want merely to read the text. I want the text to read me. At this point in my life, I am done trying to master Scripture. I want to surrender my desire for mastery so that Scripture can master me. Thus, of first order of importance, I come to the text with the desire to integrate my life into its message. By integration, I mean allowing the teaching of the Psalms to penetrate my head (what I think about), heart (what I care about), and hands (what actions I take). I hold to this intention regardless of whether I’m reading the Psalms to prepare a sermon or lesson, write an article, or ponder them during a time of personal devotion. I want to share with you the three questions that I use to draw out the powerful messages of the Psalms for my own life. By the way, these questions will also help you integrate any prayer that you’ll find in Scripture.
1. How does this Psalm teach me to pray?
One of the fundamental questions you need to ask yourself when reading an individual Psalm is this: How does this Psalm teach me to pray? We can read the Psalms in many different ways, such as looking at their genres, or their use by Jesus and the New Testament authors, or for what they teach about God. But at their core, the Psalms are prayers. Never forget this baseline level of interpretation. They started as the authentic prayers of flesh-and-bone men and women before they became recognized as the Word of God. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how an individual psalm teaches us to pray.
2. What kind of person does the Psalm assume that its reader is?
The Psalms have expectations for their readers. Many of us struggle with some of the violence in the Psalms or even some of the stances that individual Psalms take. For example, when reading the Psalms, there’s the contrast between the righteous and the wicked, and the psalmist always considers himself to be among the righteous. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves, What kind of person does this Psalm assume that its reader is? In other words, what does it look like to be the ideal reader of this Psalm? What would be the characteristics, location, and kind of life this person would have? By understanding the intended audience of the Psalm and its assumptions about who is praying, we can avoid misapplying or misappropriating the text. More importantly, we can reflect on the differences between us and the ideal reader. For example, when we read the violent statement that ends Psalm 137 (“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock”), we don’t simply begin to pray it against our enemies. Instead, we reflect: Who is such a prayer really for? What was going on in the life of the psalmist to lead him/her to utter such violent words?
3. What would it take for me to become a person who could pray this prayer with integrity?
The last question is the one that really pushes us to grow. What would it take for me to become a person who could pray this prayer with integrity? Who do we need to become? Where do I fall short? By answering, we can identify areas in our lives that need growth and transformation. One of the challenges of reading the Psalter is its often black-and-white distinctions between good and evil. The psalmists believe that they are in the right when they pray. I’m not suggesting that our divided world needs even more division in it by increasing our level of certainty in our judgment of others. Rather I’m implying that hearing the testimony of God’s people through the words of the various psalms can help us to open ourselves even more to the deep work of sanctification that God desires to do in us so that we can truly pray these words of life with integrity.
In conclusion, the Psalms may serve as a powerful guide for our prayer lives. By asking ourselves the three questions outlined above, we can allow the messages of the Psalms to penetrate our hearts and transform our lives. Remember, these questions work with any prayer found in Scripture, so don’t hesitate to apply them to other parts of the Bible. As you continue to read and pray through the Psalms, allow them to inhabit your head, your heart, and even your hands. You’ll be glad you did. Even more importantly, so will the people you interact with and serve each day.