There are few books as cherished as the book of Psalms. Though originally penned for a Jewish audience this little book has come to comfort the hearts of Christians all over the globe. Whether we consider the majesty of Psalm 19 and the recognition that all of existence displays God’s glory, or the sweetness of His comfort in Psalm 23, the Psalms give words to the stirrings of our hearts. As such, the psalms have existed as the church’s original hymnal and prayer book for good reason.
How should we understand the psalms? The psalms are first and foremost the words of God. This can make them rather interesting because as the Word of God they are chiefly authored by God. But God the Holy Spirit used ordinary men, like David, to be His mouthpiece. So, in the psalms we find simultaneously the Word of God and the words of men. We find simultaneously the prayers and praises of men to God while recognizing they have their origin God. In addition, the psalms all serve a special function being categorized under various categories such as Thanksgiving & Praise, Royal, Wisdom, Imprecatory, Laments, and Messianic.
Each psalm exists as a unique color to help paint the portrait of the character of God and His relationship to His people. We learn about God’s immensity and justice. We learn how we ought to cry out to Him in the midst of tragedy and sinful failures on our part (Psalm 51). We learn how He speaks to us, in mercy and love (Psalm 136). We learn how He chastises us when we ignore His warning. We also learn of the coming of His only begotten Son (Psalm 2, 8, 110). This full range dynamism contained within these 150 psalms is why the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, referred to the book as a “Bible in miniature.”
One of the most interesting observations about the psalter is that God codifies His story in songs. If you and I were to memorialize an event, I imagine we would not write a song to pass down. But this is precisely what God does. He not only provides artistic, poetic language to reveal His character before humanity, but He even presents history for the good of His people (Psalm 78). We are reminded that music is as much a means of divine communication as a story. It is just as powerful to hear about God’s faithfulness in song as it is in history. Today, we often struggle to find the right words when we desire to pray. Perhaps one practical reason behind the psalter, beyond singing, is to teach us how to pray (Psalm 25). By the psalms or prayers of David we learn how to approach God in every season of life. We learn how to sing out to Him when we are joyful (Psalm 149), and how to hope in Him when life seems to be crashing around us (Psalm 88).
One way you can learn to use the psalms as a prayer book is to simply begin praying the words out loud. You can use a couple of verses to start your prayer and then continue on your own. You can also enhance your reading by asking these questions as you read: Have I ever felt like the psalmist feels? What can I learn about my own heart from the psalmist’s words? Where do I not believe these words to be true? How is God using these words to strengthen my faith or challenge my doubts? How can I grow in reflexively responding to God in the way the psalmist does? Where do I need God today?
We need to know how to approach God and how to raise our hearts unto Him. But the Psalms are most beautiful because they present to us the story of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus (Psalm 22). We can marvel at God’s wisdom in showing us the prayers of Christ and how His life would fulfill their promises. Now it is our task as believers to learn to see Christ and how each psalm finds its ultimate fulfillment in Him (cf. Luke 24:44).