John Calvin is often quoted for saying that the Psalms are an ‘anatomy of all parts of the soul.’ That is to say that every possible human emotion is expressed in the Psalms. Do you feel angry, frustrated, betrayed, sorrowful, thankful, worshipful, or joyous? In the Psalms you can find the God’s people crying out to God in the midst of all these experiences (and more). They talk to God in prayer and praise with the words and language that God himself has given them.
This not only makes the Psalms ideal for singing to God, but also for making them the basis of our prayers to God. Most of the Psalms are in fact prayers to God. Like the saints of the Old Testament, we might set them to music, but they are first and foremost prayers.
Most of us will readily admit that we need help with our prayers. Probably, the best way to improve our prayer lives is to learn to pray God’s own words back to him. This will bring balance to our prayers (mixing adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication). It will also teach us to pray according to God’s priorities (which are always better than our own). And will we be able to express ourselves – even in moments of raw honesty and anger – in ways that please God. While all of the Bible is suitable for informing our prayers, the most powerful place to begin is surely the Psalms.
So how do we go about praying the Psalms? Learning the practice of praying the Psalms falls into two activities – 1) reading the Psalms, and 2) praying the Psalms.
Knowing how to read the Psalms is important because if we do not understand them, we cannot pray them. Here are some practical steps to begin understanding the Psalms:
Read them as poetry. The Psalms are examples of Hebrew poetry. This means that you cannot read them the same as other parts of the Bible. You have to be aware that they are going to use imagery and metaphors to convey the writer’s meaning. As poetry, the Psalms use a lot of parallelism. Basically, parallelism is repeating the thought of one line in the next to intensify what they are saying. That means that though the words might be different, often when they are similar, the author is trying to say the same thing in a different way. So, do not try to pick them apart the way you would a paragraph in Paul’s letters. Try to ‘feel’ the emotion behind the imagery and go for the big picture, rather then the details. This requires you to read the Psalms a couple of times.
Read them as theology. While the Psalms are filled with emotive language, they are more than that. Some have said that you can understand God based on the Psalms alone. The prayers/songs of the Psalms are driven by certain beliefs about who God is, and how he has acted according to his character. Thus, the psalmist cries out to God with belief that that the Lord will continue to act according to his character. Read them the Psalms trying to better understand God. A more glorious view of God will make your obedience more joyful, you love for intense, and your worship more sincere.
Read them through the person and work of Christ. Remember, that these were written by believers under the Old Covenant. As a Christian, you are part of the New Covenant that has become a reality through the person and work of Christ. Remember that the things of the Old Covenant were types and shadows of the things to come (Col 2:7; Heb 8:5; 10:1). While, it is important to understand the original setting of the Psalms, to make them immediately beneficial to us in prayer, we will need to think in New Covenant categories. So for example, language of the temple, sacrifices, and priests are not fulfilled in Christ. Battles against Israel’s (=the Lord’s) physical enemies point to the greater spiritual conflict that we face (cf. Eph 6:11-20).
Secondly, knowing how to read and understand the Psalms, how then are we to pray them? There are at least three ways to pray through the Psalms. Some authors give more ways, but I think these are the basic, essential ways.
Pray the words. Simply read the Psalm, digest its passion, teaching, and intention. Then make the actual words your own as you pray. You may need to adapt the words slightly, changing words like ‘God’ and ‘the Lord’ to ‘you’ where appropriate. Based on the context, you might want to change ‘Israel’ to the church, or make plural pronouns singular (or vice versa if you are interceding for a larger group, like your church or small group).
Pray the thoughts. Instead of the praying the words, verbatim, you can read over the Psalm, then paraphrase what it is saying in your own words in prayer.
Pray the themes. Instead of tying yourself to the specifics of the Psalm, you can pick up on the larger themes. This means you can use the Psalms as an outline for your prayers, confessing specific sins or giving specific praises. Or you might read over and soak up the themes of longer Psalms and summarize them in prayer. For example, some longer Psalms give praise to God for his mighty acts of salvation throughout the history of Israel. Give praise to God for some of these things, or meditate on what Christ has accomplished for us (cf. Ephesians 1) and offer praise and thanks for those things.
Some authors go into more detail on these things, giving helpful programs and explaining the life rhythm that can come in praying the Psalms. What I have given is the basics. If you want to go further, then I suggest the following resources:
God’s Prayer Programs: Passionately Using the Psalms in Prayer by T. M. Moore. An excellent work that provides background on prayer and the Psalms and how to unite both to help serve your communion with God. Very biblical and helpful.
Heart Aflame: Daily Reading from Calvin on the Psalms by John Calvin. There is probably no better commentator on the Psalms then Calvin. Blending theological instruction with pastoral insight, this devotional provides a glimpse into his genius as a theologian with a pastor’s heart.
Prayer, Praise, & Prophecy: A Theology of the Psalms by Geoffrey Grogan. Grogan gives an excellent work on the theology and teaching of the Psalms. He gives an enormous amount of material an easy-to-read manner that will repay high dividends for those who read his work.
How to Read the Psalms by Tremper Longman, III. Excellent work on the basics of interpreting the Psalms. Longman goes more in depth on Hebrew poetry and the theology of the Psalms. He gives some practical examples of his approach to reading and applying them.