How the Psalms Help Us to Pray
Prayer is hard work. It is hard for even the best of Christians. The reason why most of us find prayer hard is our pride. In prayer, we confess our utter helplessness and plead with God for his mercy. This attitude does not come naturally to us. Our flesh puts up a stiff fight dissuading us from prayer. But pray we must. How can we find help to pray? One way to find help to pray is the book of Psalms. The psalms enable us to develop a vibrant prayer life. Let us consider three ways by which the psalms help us to pray.
The Psalms Supply Words To Us For Our Prayers
The book of Psalms is unique among the books of the Bible. The Bible can be generally characterized as God’s word to his people. But the book of Psalms is the words of God’s people with which they have responded to God. Some scholars suggest that the five books of the Psalms are the response of God’s people to the five books of the Law. God has been pleased not only to inspire his communication to his people, but also his people’s communication to him. Why did he choose to do this?
He chose to do this because he wanted to supply his people with a manual of prayer (and praise). The Apostle Paul says, “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26 NKJV). One place where the Spirit has deposited his intercession and groanings for us is the psalms.
In this book, the Spirit covers a whole range of human emotions and groanings. If we are depressed, we can turn to Psalm 42 and 43. If we are sick, we can pray Psalm 41. If we are anxious, we can use the words of Psalm 34. As Calvin says, “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”1 So, if we don’t know what to pray or how to pray, then let us use the words of the book of Psalms.
Not only do the psalms supply us words for our prayers, but they also enable us to fellowship with Christ’s suffering in prayer.
The Psalms Enable Us To Fellowship With Christ’s Suffering In Prayer
A professor of mine once speculated, “If Jesus had written his journal, how eager we would be to read it!” Then he smiled and said, “We have that journal in the book of Psalms!” The professor went on to teach us that Jesus is the first recipient of the book of Psalms. In other words, all that David and the other psalmists wrote was ultimately meant for Jesus (Lk. 24:44). Seen this way, the book of Psalms is highly Christocentric.
Therefore, when we pray using the book of Psalms, we experience a deep fellowship with Christ himself. On the cross, Jesus had the words of Psalm 22 on his lips, which says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, And from the words of my groaning?” When we use these words in prayer, we not only utter our groaning, but we also remember Jesus’s groaning. We experience deep fellowship with Christ in his suffering.
This fellowship with Christ in his suffering gives us both comfort and perspective. We receive comfort because we realize that our Saviour is a merciful and faithful high priest who can sympathize with our struggles (Heb. 2:18). We also receive the perspective that our sufferings are not as intense as our Saviour’s, and therefore we should press on with his help (Heb.12:4).
Psalm 22 is not the only psalm that reveals our Saviour’s sufferings. Psalm 40, Psalm 69, Psalm 118, Psalm 119, and numerous other psalms remind us of Christ’s suffering. Many of these psalms must have been on Jesus’s lips numerous times during his life. May we pray to God with the very words which Jesus used.
Finally, the book of Psalms enables us to persevere in prayer.
The Psalms Enable Us To Persevere In Prayer
The psalms give us a realistic picture of life. The Christian life is not all happy and gay, but is often marked with struggle and sorrow. During difficult times in our lives — like the one we are going through right now– we need hope. Only as we hope, can we persevere in prayer. Without hope, all motivation for prayer is lost.
The book of Psalms provides us with that hope in abundance. Many psalms begin with the deep spiritual struggles of the Psalmist, but end with a testimony of the marvellous deliverance he has experienced. Psalm 3, Psalm 13, and Psalm 22 are prime examples of such psalms. When we pray or sing these psalms, it gives us a lot of hope. Praying (or singing) in unison with the Psalmist and ultimately Christ enables us to wait on the Lord.
There are also psalms where a clear deliverance is not present. Psalm 42 and Psalm 88 belong to this category. The Lord put these psalms to help us understand that deliverance may not always be immediate. We need to wait for it patiently as the psalmists did. When we pray these psalms, we develop this perspective and patiently wait on the Lord. We can pray in hope and pray with perseverance.
Let us cultivate perseverance in prayer as we pray these psalms.
The book of Psalms teaches us how to pray. We can think of the Lord’s Prayer as the template for prayer. We can think of the book of Psalms as the content for prayer. I am not saying that we should restrict the words of our prayer to the words of the Psalms. The Lord does want us to express our thoughts to him freely and extemporaneously. However, what I am saying is that we should saturate our language of prayer with the book of Psalms. As we do so, we will find ourselves developing an honest, reverential, Christ-centered, and vibrant prayer life. May the Lord give us the grace to do so.
1 Calvin in his introduction to the book of Psalms