The Psalms have ministered to many hurting people throughout the centuries at funerals and hospital bedsides, Sunday worship and family devotions. They effectively care for troubled souls by giving expression to our prayers: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (Ps 119:92). They also teach us to lean on God’s promises, follow Christ’s example, and come before his presence in the community of faith. The Psalms give voice to God’s people in every situation and every era of history. As Peterson explains, “All prayer is prayed in a story, by someone who is in the story. There are no storyless prayers. Story is to prayer what the body is to the soul, the circumstances in which it takes place.”1
The Psalms also teach us to pray like little children in response to our Father’s divine revelation. They walk us through our troubles, then direct our hearts to God. As Leister writes,
In almost every Psalm, after initial sorrow, trust triumphs over fear, and the lament turns into praise (Ps. 30:11). This is only possible because the praying person always relates his feelings and present situation, however dark they may be, to the eternal God and to the two great facts of His existence: creation (e.g., Ps. 121:2; 124:8) and redemption (Ps. 31:5; 71:23; 107:2).2
The preacher, Robert Murry M’Cheyne, once entreated us, “Turn the Bible into prayer…….. This is the best way of knowing the meaning of the Bible, and of learning to pray.”3 Yet before we consider the Psalms as words addressed to God, we must first accept them as the very Word from God. For the Psalms are more than simply pleasant poetry or ancient wisdom. They are first and foremost God’s inspired Word. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated clearly, “We learn to speak to God because God has spoken to us and speaks to us. If we wish to pray with confidence and gladness, then the words of Holy Scripture will have to be the solid basis of our prayer……. This is pure grace, that God tells us how we can speak with him and have fellowship with him.”4
If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and then we shall be able to pray them. It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.5
Thus, we imitate the pattern of call and response from within the Psalms. As God’s Word speaks to us, we meditate on the meaning of each psalm: What was the psalmist thinking and feeling? How were his circumstances similar to ours? What means of communication does he use to impact his fellow worshipers? We meditate on each psalm’s main idea as we let it personally minister to our soul. How will we apply its truths and live out its timeless wisdom? What difference will it make in our life today? As Joni Eareckson Tada has testified:
I have learned to . . . season my prayers with the word of God. It’s a way of talking to God in his language—speaking his dialect, using his vernacular, employing his idioms…… This is not a matter simply of divine vocabulary. It’s a matter of power. When we bring God’s word directly into our praying, we are bringing God’s power into our praying. Hebrews 4:12 declares, “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword.” God’s word is living, and so it infuses our prayers with life and vitality. God’s word is also active, injecting energy and power into our prayer.6
The Psalms themselves were written in the language of prayer as the script and pattern by which God’s people spoke to their Creator: Thus, they “have opened up to us familiar access to God.”7 In the words of Athanasius, “Most of Scripture speaks to us while the Psalms speak for us.”8 Many psalms even address the Lord with direct speech, “O God,” and second person pronouns, “You, Your.” In this manner, they do not merely speak about God, but personally to God.
John Calvin (1509–64), The Author’s Preface, Psalms 1–35, xxxvi-xxxvii. As Calvin adds, “The psalms illuminate the mind for the purpose of enkindling the soul, indeed to put it on fire. It may indeed be said that the purpose of the psalms is to turn the soul into a sort of burning bush” (ibid., 27).
As Eugene Peterson asserts: “We don’t learn the Psalms until we are praying them.”9 In the Psalms, “God comes and speaks—his word catches us in sin, finds us in despair, invades us by grace. They were prayed by people who understood that God had everything to do with them. God, not their feelings, was the center. God, not their souls, was the issue. God, not the meaning of life, was critical.”10 “Prayer is continuing a conversation that God had started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him.”11
This dexterity of the Psalms also enables us to praise the Lord for the varied aspects of his person and his work: “I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever” (Ps 145:1). As we steep ourselves in the Psalms, we can never run out of fuel for worship. In fact, our prayers will draw us into deeper intimacy with the Lord: “The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (25:14). We reach out to touch God’s heart as we pray the very words he has set out for us to pray.
The poetic nature of the Psalms connect us across many centuries with the generations of God’s people. One benefit of poetry is that its ambiguity applies to so many different situations. We all know what it’s like to be “in the pits” like David (Ps 63) or to be “envious of the arrogant” (73:3). We can also relate to the shared experience of receiving comfort and consolation from God’s Word. For example, David’s prayer when fleeing Absalom has been the cry of many saints throughout the ages: “O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. Selah. But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (3:1–3). The universal language of the Psalms makes it wholly accessible to anyone who seeks the treasure of its wisdom. As Luther extolled, “The Psalter is the book of all saints; and everyone, in whatever situation he may be, finds in that situation psalms and words that fit his case, that suit him as if they were put there just for his sake, so that he could not put it better himself, or find or wish for anything better.”12
Over the centuries, believers have also grown familiar with the Psalms because of their common usage in both
public and private worship: “The Psalter is the songbook of the people of God in their gathered worship. These songs cover a wide range of experiences and emotions, and give God’s people the words to express these emotions and to bring these experiences before God.”13 For this reason, the “Psalms are the most-often quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. It was the songbook, poetry book, and meditation book of the church. Alongside the teachings of Jesus and the apostles, Psalms was the book that shaped the thinking and feeling of the first disciples more than any other.”14 And to this day, God’s people still express the language of their prayers through the Psalms. Thus, our prayers have “changed from musical clamor to beautiful music once the Father’s hands grasped the little child’s hands.”15
It is wondrous when believers first realize that our Lord Jesus once read, memorized, prayed, and sang the Psalter when he walked upon this earth. He spoke the Spirit-inspired language of the Psalms in his prayers to our heavenly Father and fulfilled the truths of which they spoke. The Psalms then are the prayers of Jesus originally prayed through the psalmists: “These same words which David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke through him. The prayers of David were prayed also by Christ. Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David. It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God, and who stands in our place and prays for us.”16
Jesus prayed the Psalms as his very own words, for each of the Psalms were words of revelation spoken both by Christ and also about Christ. They would then ultimately unveil the word of Christ in “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16; Eph 5:18–20). For example, Jesus once prophesied about his impending death, “They hated me without a cause” (John 15:25; see Pss 35:19; 69:4). He uttered forth the Psalms as he hung upon the cross in excruciating pain: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46; Ps 22:1).
Sadly, the modern church has started to neglect the Psalms in worship and prayer: “We are in danger of losing the Psalter in our churches; indeed, many have already lost it, and so it is no accident that many people in our congregations do not know how to pray” (Elizabeth Achtemeier, “Preaching from the Psalms,” Review and Expositor 81 , 443).
One-fifth of the apostle Paul’s citations are from the Psalms.
The Psalms warn the unrepentant against eternal judgment: “And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:23; see Ps 6:8). Thus, as Bonhoeffer claimed:
Those who pray the psalms are joining in with the prayer of Jesus Christ . . . their intercessor……. The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church. Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the Body of Christ on earth continues to pray his prayer to the end of time. This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. Only in the whole Christ does the whole Psalter become a reality, a whole which the individual can never fully comprehend and call his own. That is why the prayer of the psalms belongs in a particular way to the fellowship. Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on earth.17
“We need the Psalms, then, because they point us to Jesus, who is the source of our salvation. But we also need them because they describe what the lives of Jesus-followers should look like—that is, the qualities that those who have faith in the Messiah are to seek and to practice.”18
Counselors themselves are also in need of wisdom, blessings, protection, encouragement, conviction, confession, forgiveness, healing, and hope. We find such grace to help in time of need within the collection of the Psalms. A counselor, for example, might pray Psalm 19:14 to request wisdom from the Lord before a session: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” She might even pray this prayer aloud to signal to the counselee that everything which takes place in the counseling session should ultimately glorify God.
Praying Psalm 19:14 also declares “that counseling is pastoral work. It’s not some alien adjunct to the church’s ministry, but—as much as preaching and teaching and worship—a ministry of the Word.”19 It reminds everyone in the room that their primary concern is to please the Lord. As followers of Christ, both counselor and counselee submit themselves under the authority of God’s Word. In this way, the Psalms are rich deposits of such varied prayers to prepare the counselor’s heart.
When asked what they have done about their problems, many counselees claim that they have prayed about them. Yet a wise counselor should ask what they have prayed and how they have prayed, since not all counselees are praying in such a way that pleases God. Some prayers are self-centered, while others are focused on the wrong goals. So, like Jesus’ disciples, some counselees may need instruction on praying biblically (Matt 6:5–15). Langley proposes that counselees must learn to pray in theological alignment with God’s Word: “Prayer may seem a natural response to trial and temptation—as natural as breathing, some would say. But God knows that prayer—at least the kind of prayer that pleases Him most—does not come naturally to us. We must be schooled in prayer. The Psalms are God’s school.”20 They contain the rich language and the promised blessings of believers from generations past. And a counselee must appreciate their depth of meaning if they would engage in meaningful prayer.
A counselee, for example, who struggles with anxiety might be taught to pray Psalm 4:8 when she struggles to sleep at night: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” By meditating on Psalm 4 within its proper context, she can rest in the God of peace and put off the anger and anxiety in her heart. Then, as Augustine explained, “If the psalm prays, you pray; if it laments, you lament; if it exults, you rejoice; if it hopes, you hope; if it fears, you fear. Everything written here is a mirror for us.”21 Augustine even marveled at his sheer delight when he first began using the Psalms in prayer:
What utterances sent I up unto You, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those faithful songs and sounds of devotion which exclude all swelling of spirit, when new to Your true love What utterances used I to send up unto You in those Psalms, and how was I inflamed towards You by them, and burned to rehearse them, if it were possible, throughout the whole world, against the pride of the human race! I read the fourth Psalm in that time of my leisure — how that Psalm wrought upon me…… when I spoke by and for myself before You, out of the private feelings of my soul.22
The Psalms also provide counseling guides to help troubled souls process and engage their complicated passions. Each psalm addresses a myriad of emotions such as anger, grief, anxiety, loneliness, joy, gratitude, hope, and comfort with the depth of biblical contemplation. The passionate outpouring of these prayers invites our counselees to display their full emotions before the Lord and grants them permission to not hold back. About forty percent of the Psalms are those of lament, for example, yet many were written long after the psalmists had taken the time to biblically process their situation. Thus, the psalmists express honest and forthright prayers, even as the measured effort of their finely-crafted poetry transforms their pain into worshipful praise. As our counselees begin to pray with the psalmists, God’s Spirit refines their wayward thoughts, measures any misplaced words, and cultivates their passions as pleasing to the Lord. Then, just as the Psalter ends with praise to the Lord (Ps 150), we will also praise the Lord as our counselees rejoice in his holy presence.
Due to the prayer-like nature of the Psalms, even imprecations can express our longing for God’s justice and for his name to be revered (e.g., Ps 109). Such psalms, though shocking in their language, serve to sanctify the believer who prays such words aloud: “When one submits to God by praying a curse he or she is no longer free to take revenge, because vengeance is transferred from the heart of the speaker to God, who plays an interested role in the believers life.”23 As Peterson reminds us, “Prayer does not arrange our disordered lives into labeled file folders. Prayer is the intensification of life. Since life doesn’t come to us in neat categories, neither does prayer. The Psalms teach us to pray by immersing us in the stream of life as it comes to us, wet and wild.”24 Thus, in every form, the Psalms provide the basis for our prayers.
As recorded prayers, the Psalms are intentionally designed to aid in corporate prayer and worship (e.g., Ps 100).
Yet praying the Psalms is meant to be more than a personal encounter with our God. The Psalms are a group discussion with the community of faith: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). As Peterson writes, “The praying people, whose prayers are the Psalms, prayed as a worshiping community. All the psalms are prayers in community: people assembled, attentive before God, participating in a common posture, movement and speech, offering themselves to each other and to their Lord. Prayer is not a private exercise, but a family convocation.”25 The prayers of David (and Dominick D. Hankle, “The Therapeutic Implications of the Imprecatory Psalms in the Christian Counseling Setting,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 38, no. 4 (Winter 2010), 278.
Gary Millar also adds, “The psalms are (largely) first the prayers of David the messiah. Presumably, they were then picked up and prayed (or sung) by Israel as “the people of the Messiah.” These “prayers of the suffering Messiah,” then, find their fullest meaning when read in a biblical-theological context as “prayers of the Messiah” Jesus Christ. So can we pray the prayers as Christians? Yes we can—in the same sense that we are enabled by Jesus to share in his prayers to his Father, his death others) become the prayers of Israel and then the prayers of Christ. They are now the prayers of all God’s people. And every prayer will eventually arrive at the “Hallelujah” chorus of Psalms 145–150 as we gather with the saints around the glorious throne of Jesus Christ.
For Further Study:
Anderson, Bernhard W. Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1974.
Ash, Christopher. “How to Pray the Psalms.” Desiring God (blog), February 15, 2020, accessed at https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-to-pray-the-psalms.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Eberhard Bethge. Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1970.
Brueggeman, Walter. Praying the Psalms: Engaging the Scripture and the Life of the Spirit. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007.
Jaki, Stanley L. Praying the Psalms: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.
Juliani, Barbara Miller, and Patric Knaak. Psalms: Real Prayers for Real Life. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2021.
Keller, Tim. “Prayer in the Psalms: Discovering How to Pray.” The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference (2016), accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QgwzuFG5LCk.
Langley, Ken. “Praying Poetry.” Journal of Biblical Counseling 21:2 (2003), 28–36.
Laurence, Trevor. Cursing with God: The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2022.
Smith, Ryan Whitaker, and Dan Wilt. Sheltering Mercy: Prayers Inspired by the Psalms. Ada, MI: Brazos Press, 2022.
Wenham, Gordon J. The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. Whitney, Donald S. Praying the Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015.
Tom Sugimura pastors New Life Church in Woodland Hills, CA. He trains church planters, international pastors, and biblical counselors. He has also authored two books, Hope for New Dads and God’s Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions. He and his wife, Amanda, are busy raising four rambunctious children.