Praying the Psalms

People often complain to me that the Bible holds little that is relevant to their lives today. The Old Testament in particular, they argue, contains archaic language and images of a violent and vengeful God. How can THAT help them weave their way through the complicated reality they face? What comfort can they find there?

To such challenges, I offer the Psalms. The 150 poem-prayers, many attributed by tradition to King David, offer a glimpse into the souls of the ancient people of Israel. Their hopes, fears, anxieties, aspirations, and even hatreds and jealousies are remarkably similar to our own emotional ups and downs. As such, they provide a valuable human link to our own religious tradition. More than just words on a page, the Psalms resonate not just with our rational minds but also with our own longing for a spiritual connection.

The people of the Psalms had something we lack today: an intimate, visceral relationship with God. No distant clockmaker for David and his people. No “prime mover” or mere “force.” The God of David was very real, very near and very much a part of the lives of his people.

So much so, in fact, that the psalmists saw nothing amiss in appealing to the Lord in anger or demanding that he eliminate their enemies. In fact, there was nothing they kept hidden from God, testifying to the faith they had, not only in his existence, but also in his concern for their well-being.

The psalms range from being hymns of praise and gratitude to laments for their troubles, even cries of despair. They were originally songs, meant to be sung.

Today, we have incorporated the Psalms into our public prayer. However, they also can be a wonderful way to bring scripture into our private prayer lives. Over the years I have turned to the Psalms time and again. Sometimes, I go to special ones to match my mood. Other times, I simply pick them at random, and am often amazed at how they capture a particular spiritual need. But one of my favourite ways of using the Psalms is to simply read one each morning to start my day.

I find this helps me in several ways. One: they kick start my conversation with God as the words help me to recall my own relationship with the Creator of all things. Secondly, the Psalms of thanksgiving and praise remind me that God has given me so much to be grateful for. Thirdly, the verses often articulate my own feelings on a given situation I happen to be facing and allow me to set it before the Lord. Finally, they are a daily reminder that my relationship with God is also with a people and a history, going back centuries. With such prayers, religion can never be simply a private affair.

To delve more into the value of the Psalms, I urge you to read Living with the Psalms, by Karen A. Hamilton (Novalis, 2012). It can open your mind and heart to a deeper and richer prayer life.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my favourite Psalms to get you started:

Psalm 104

God the Creator and Provider

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
11 giving drink to every wild animal;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

—Joseph Sinasac, Publishing Director

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