“O LORD, in the morning You hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice (or prayer) for You and watch.”
Anyone who has tried to pray knows it isn’t easy. We can all offer an obligatory blessing before meals or fire off a panicked SOS petition in a moment of crisis. But who among us has a practice of prayer that becomes habituated into a rhythm of life with all the personal qualities of communication experienced in relationships of actual intimacy? I usually wake in the morning more concerned about what I have to accomplish in the day ahead rather than what type of person I’m becoming. And I’m not alone. Most of us, I think, conceive of prayer in terms of getting what we want or think we need rather than communing with the God who is intent upon shaping our souls and lives into beautiful reflections of Himself and His designs for this world. We need help to pray—the disciples knew this (Luke 11:1), so too does the Holy Spirit, whom the Apostle Paul says prays for us with “groanings too deep for words” because “we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom 8:26).
So how does the Spirit help us pray? For centuries the Church has given one primary answer to this question: the Psalms.
“Prayers are tools that God uses to work His will in our bodies and souls. Prayers are tools that we use to collaborate in His work with us… The Psalms are the best tools available for working the faith—one hundred and fifty carefully crafted prayers that deal with the great variety of operations that God carries on in us and attend to all the parts of our lives.” (Eugene Peterson, Answering God)
In God’s hands the Psalms shape and mold us, just as they formed Jesus. It’s remarkable to notice not only how often, but when Jesus quoted the Psalms. When He realized His death was imminent, Jesus spoke Psalm 42: “Now My soul is troubled…” (John 12:27); then at the Last Supper, before Judas’ betrayal, Psalm 41: “My friend in whom I trusted, who ate My bread, has raised his heel against Me…” (John 13:18); after that, in the final moments before His arrest, Psalm 35: “They hated me without cause…” (John 15:25). Jesus used the Psalms to make sense of His life; through them He interpreted what was happening to Him and how His Heavenly Father was at work.
And Jesus isn’t alone in this type of personal appropriation of the Psalms. In the Old Testament, the capricious prophet Jonah set this pattern of praying that Jesus eventually followed. When Jonah prayed from the belly of the fish, he didn’t author a completely original prayer, but instead the words of Psalm 18 came bubbling over his lips as he sank further beneath “the waves of this troublesome world” inside his strange ark: “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and He answered me…” (Jonah 2:2, echoing Ps 18:6); “The waters closed in over me to take my life…” (Jonah 2:5, echoing Ps 18:16); “My prayer came to You, into Your holy temple…” (Jonah 2:7, echoing Ps 18:6). Jonah applied Psalm 18 to his life when his circumstances mirrored the story and message of the psalmist. He prayed Psalm 18 while he was beneath the waves because it explained to him his own depths and assured him that the Lord listened no matter how low he sank.
Centuries later Jesus followed Jonah when He was cast beneath the waters of our sin and death: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:2), and “Into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46; Ps 31:6). When Jesus needed to pray, more than any other time in His life, the Psalms flowed from His lips. Why? Why does God’s Son repeat the words of the Psalms while suffering His Father’s punishment for our sin? Did He know the Psalms speak of Him and His death? Yes. But more simply and essentially, Jesus repeated the psalmists’ words because these are the words that had shaped His life and taught Him to pray.
I don’t think I go too far in saying that the Psalms enabled Jesus to endure His passion. Or stated another way, the Psalms were what God used to administer the grace necessary for Jesus to bear the sins of the world.
Why wouldn’t we join the Savior, as well as Jonah and countless other Christians throughout history, and pray the Psalms, also? Many lectionaries (e.g. the Revised Common Lectionary and the Book of Common Prayer) organize the Psalms into morning and evening prayers, so that the entire Psalter is read and prayed regularly. This is my practice and also my challenge to you—to take six weeks and pray through the morning and evening psalm every day. Then, at the end of those six weeks, ask yourself if and how the Psalms are shaping you. I did this four years ago and I’ve been praying the Psalms daily ever since.
To begin you may simply want to read the Psalms and offer them to God as your prayer. If that is all the time, energy, or understanding you have, great. That is enough! Let their words wash over you as you speak them and trust that the Lord is hearing them as your prayer and using them to shape you spiritually as you pray. At other times read the Psalms and then use them as launching pads for your own prayers. Follow Jonah’s lead—personalize the words of the psalmist; take the Psalm’s ideas, themes, emotions, and words and let them guide your thoughts and prayers for yourself and others.
As you begin, know that there will times when it seems as if the psalm you’re reading was written just for you and your life as it’s unfolding on that very day. At other times the psalms will seem irrelevant to your life and needs. That is part of the point in praying them—we need to be drawn out of our myopic, self-absorbed orientation to life and prayer and speak to God on His terms, with His words, and on behalf of others. Even though we can’t identify with each psalm on every day, we certainly know of someone whose current circumstances are reflected in what we’re reading. Pray for them.
The Church now stands in the place of Jesus’ disciples, asking: “Lord, teach us to pray.” When need to realize that He already has. Open your Bible, read the Psalms. Meditate on them. Take their words to God as your own and wait. “O LORD, in the morning You hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice (or prayer) for You and watch” (Ps 5:3). Read, pray, and watch.