How to Read the Psalms

How can we begin to consider the majesty and beauty contained in the Psalms? No book in human history has ever matched the emotional depth, wisdom, clarity, winsomeness and majesty as contained in these 150 psalms. The Book of Psalms is the original prayerbook, the original hymnal, and the original model for how we ought to cry out to God. What is it about the psalms that make them so special? What is it about them that enables our hearts to be laid bare before our very eyes? Some theologians have simply summed up the matter with an acclamation as simple as this: “The Psalms are wonderful.”

We might understand their excellence more if we considered their crucial place in the life of God’s people. In the days of Christ, they would regularly be sung in ordinary worship. They would also be sung as Jewish pilgrims traveled to the city of Jerusalem during the days of Passover. The psalms were so important that the devil himself saw fit to utilize them in the temptation of the Lord.

In the early and medieval church, the psalms were the lifeblood of daily prayer for the people of God. During the Protestant Reformation the psalms continued to be essential for the people of God. The German Reformer, Martin Luther, came out of the monastic tradition, and held the psalms to be essential to the Christian life. He continued to work through all 150 psalms nearly every two weeks. The book of Psalms was essential to his entire ministry.

England’s first Protestant Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, reformed the monastic system from eight times of prayer to two; morning and evening prayer. Cranmer set up the English Book of Common Prayer to be a reading guide for God’s people. This guide set up a reading schedule so that God’s people could read through the entire book of Psalms in a single month. He also ensured that the psalms had a place of prominence in the spoken and sung liturgy. The English and Scottish Presbyterian churches came to love singing the psalms as well and continue to do so even today. Our congregation is part of that tradition, and it is one of my favorites. Simply put, the Psalms are read and sung by churches all over the world. But the psalms are not only to be sung. They are to be preached.

Most of the psalms were penned by King David (c. 1000 BC). The oldest one is written by Moses himself (c. 1450 BC). When Christians handle this book, they are interacting with poetry that at its oldest is roughly 3500 years old. So how should Christians approach this book? Should we read them as if they were merely penned for a Jewish audience? Should we see them as being immediately fulfilled in the life of Christ? Should we merely see them as devotional reading with its central application being in how the words impact us today? Is there a place for the proper combination of these methods?

One of the great things that you will notice about the psalms is that they are like a fine steak dinner. The meal begins with the eyes. But to be enjoyed it has to be chewed, devoured, and digested. To pull the veil of symbolism back, it must be read slowly (and I recommend aloud), reflected upon, and received in our memories, and in our hearts. We are dealing with matters of love even when we wander through the gates of lament. The psalms teach us that we can express our lament to God because we know that He loves us.

When we come to the Scriptures we ought to also recognize that we are not the first ones to encounter it. We sit in the greater tradition of the family of God. Thus, when we are dealing with our family history, we do well to consider the wisdom of our elders.

One of the great treasures for us are the sermons of St. Augustine who lived in the fourth century. Augustine gave this practical wisdom to his congregation then, and it is as useful for us today. Augustine wrote, “If the Psalm breathes the spirit of prayer, are you praying; if it is filled with groanings, groan also yourself; if it is full of gladness, do you also rejoice; if it encourages hope, then you also hope in God; if it calls for godly fear, then tremble yourself before the majesty of God…Let the heart do what the words signify.” In other words, for the psalms to be enjoyed, they must be lived.