Practically since their first creation, the Psalms have been used as a prayerbook and hymnal – first, for the Jewish people, and then, from the earliest days of the Church, for Christians. Christ Himself was born into this tradition of psalm use. He knew the Psalms intimately. The Church, following Christ, adopted the Psalter as her own prayerbook. Today, the Psalms continue to enjoy widespread use by Christians, in personal prayer, in communal prayers such as the Divine Office, and in the very Mass itself.
Needless to say, they come highly recommended as a timeless school of prayer!
However – the minute you actually open up the Psalms and settle down to seriously using them in personal prayer, there comes an uncomfortable realization. Even from the first few psalms, it becomes evident. Contrary to popular belief, the Psalms are not a mere collection of pious, sentimental words of praise. They get right down to nitty-gritty reality, and include some very strange and unexpected things such as:
- Curses at enemies
- Complaints at God’s distance
- Demands for God’s attention and for favor on behalf of one’s own righteousness
- Life or death situations with graphically agonizing demands for God’s help
These passages can go anywhere from appearing whiny or self-righteous, to seeming morally questionable. Be they scandalous on the one hand, or just uncomfortably unrelatable on the other hand, they can be difficult for your typical well-intending Christian to honestly pray through.
The easiest thing for the average reader of the Psalms to do in this situation is – to skip right over these sketchy bits. To ignore them. And – to then justify this behaviour by assuring themselves that these passages must simply be a historical artifact of the tumultuous Israelite history, perhaps left in as a warning, but certainly not left in as devotional material.
However, this watered-down reading would make the reader miss out on some major truths that the Psalms were actually intended to bring home. And besides that, it would cause the reader to skip a pretty significant chunk of the Psalms!
There’s no getting around the rough stuff. Nearly every psalm has at least an element of these uncomfortable things.
So, given that, how are we supposed to pray them?
1. By reading them historically, we are brought right into some firsthand experiences of Salvation History. We are privy to the very real joys and struggles of the people of God, our fathers in faith, as they interacted with God and experienced His saving work. As we are given their words, we enter into these real historical experiences of encountering and relating with God. We are therefore given an opportunity both to see God’s plan working out in history – and to have the example of the faith of those who responded to Him.
2. By reading them Christologically, we see the words of the Psalms being fulfilled in the person of Christ. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI points out, in Christ, the Psalter of the Old Testament now becomes “the new song” of the new covenant – “which Christians, of course, now pray together with Christ.” 1 Well-representing this perspective:
Augustine tends to see Christ as the primary subject of the Psalms, as the fulfillment of David’s office, the one to whom many Psalms are attributed. Sometimes the Psalms are seen to prophesy Christ; other times Christ is seen as the speaker of the Psalms, either as a representative of humanity or as the head of the Church. 2
With this new insight, a lot of the puzzle pieces begin to fit. Christ is the only one who could speak to the Father confident in His innocence and righteousness. He is the only one given the authority to judge the wicked. And He has suffered the agony that some of the Psalms describe in detail – yet always, as with the Psalms, remaining trusting and deferential to the Father. Reading the Psalms in this way, we pray alongside Christ – and learn so much heart-knowledge about Him in the process!
3. Finally, by reading them as the words of the Church, we learn from Tradition of the Church and from the saints all across the millennia about how to then make the words of the Psalms our own in prayer. There is so much written by the saints about the Psalms that it would take a whole library to contain it; here, I’ll just cover one specific example. With the early Church, we learn about reading the Psalms in an allegorical manner. In other words, following the Church Fathers, we can read the Psalms in the context of the Christian journey of faith, and the spiritual battle of which we’re all part. In this way, we become able to pray along even with the curses as we harshly condemn our true enemies – the World, the Flesh, and the Devil – all the while remaining consistent with Christ’s commandment of loving our earthly enemies. An excellent example of this can be found in the Rule of St. Benedict, dating back to the 6th century, where he takes that harshest of passages in Psalm 137 – the call to dash the Babylonian children against the rock – and applies it rather to the destruction of our newly born evil desires, describing the righteous as one who “hath taken his evil thoughts whilst they were yet weak and hath dashed them against Christ (cf Ps 14:4; Ps 136:9).” 3
Well – that’s a lot of background, but I hope it’s been helpful to you readers, and sets you well on your way to prayerfully reading the psalms! May they be opened to you in their richness as you continue to encounter them. And as the next couple weeks fly by, keep your eye out for the following post, where I’ll conclude by exploring a few particular pearls of wisdom that the Psalms have in store to us.
Links from series:
- Pope Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy. (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 200), p.140.
- Billings, J. Todd, The Word Of God For The People of God. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdsmans Pub. Co., 2010), p.190.
- St. Benedict of Nursia, The Holy Rule of St. Benedict. http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0480-0547,_Benedictus_Nursinus,_Regola,_EN.pdf, p.2
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