I am enjoying a long love affair with the Psalms. I try to pray from them each morning as a part of my personal devotional bible reading. And I often preach them. Why?
The short answer to the “why preach them?” question is, “so that we all learn to pray them”. Unlike other parts of scripture, I take it that the primary reason we hear sermons on them is not simply to listen to the word of God (although we do that) but that we may learn to speak to God. So the question, “why preach them?” resolves into the question, “why pray them?”
I think there are at least six reasons.
The Psalms teach us to pray
You and I need to pray. Prayer is our life-blood. Not simply at the start of the Christian life, but every day until we die or Jesus returns. Prayer is an urgent and ever-present necessity.
What is more, we need to be taught to pray. When I first trusted Christ I remember the joy of learning that through Jesus we have access to the Father by the Spirit and can pray with freedom (Ephesians 2:18). Later I learned also that we need to be taught to pray according to God’s will (1 John 5:14). Jesus taught the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer when his disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). The Psalms are like a grand expanded version of the Lord’s Prayer. Indeed, it is likely that, as he grew in his fully human nature, the source from which Jesus himself learned to pray was primarily the Psalms, and that he encapsulated the essence of the Psalms in the Lord’s Prayer.
We are taught in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 that the Psalms are to be a core ingredient in what we say and sing to one another. Mainstream Christian history has followed in this tradition. Until very recently, the Psalms were the dominant voice in the mainstream of Christian prayer and praise. We live in an age of radical abnormality in which the Psalms have been largely lost from our regular corporate praise and prayer.
The Psalms train us to respond to the riches of Bible truth
Early in the fourth-century, Athanasius wrote a wonderful letter to Marcellinus, a friend who had been ill and used his illness ‘to study the whole body of the Holy Scriptures and especially the Psalms’ (what a wonderful way to use an illness!). Athanasius writes to help him with the Psalms. He describes each book of the Bible as ‘like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit’ and then says that, ‘by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also those of all the rest.’ In the Psalms we learn to speak back to God in the light of all that God has spoken to us. They train us in the rich fullness of bible truth. Luther wrote that the Psalter, ‘might well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.’
In the fourth Century, Ambrose wrote that, ‘Although all Scripture breathes the grace of God, yet sweet beyond all others is the Book of the Psalms. History instructs, the Law teaches, Prophecy announces, rebukes, chastens, Morality persuades; but in the Book of Psalms we have the fruit of these, and a kind of medicine for the salvation of men.’
So, when learning to teach and to pray the Psalms, we have a rich treat in store.
The Psalms shape well-rounded human beings to pray in all of human life
The Psalms express every facet of human experience and arise from every circumstance of human life. A former bible student of mine commented to me that the Psalms are causing him to have a richer and broader palette of emotional colours with which to describe his own, and others’, experience. ‘It is my view,’ wrote the church father Athanasius, ‘that in the words of this book [the Psalter] the whole human life, its basic spiritual conduct and as well its occasional movements and thoughts, is comprehended and contained. Nothing to be found in human life is omitted.’
The Psalms reshape disordered human affections into God’s good order
The task of a minister of the gospel is deeper than reforming the actions and words of the men and women entrusted to our care; it is to see changed hearts. Only God can change the human heart; but he does it through the ministry of the gospel word with prayer. The Psalms have a significant role to play in this work.
The Psalms are necessary because we are totally depraved. This does not mean we are as evil as we could possibly be (for then we would be demons); it means that every part of our humanness is spoiled by sin. This includes our affections, our desires, and our emotions. We do not want what we ought to want and we do not run away from what we ought to hate. The Psalms gradually reshape our affections and desires so that we love what we ought to love and hate what we ought to hate.
The Psalms are a corrective against idiosyncratic or individualistic piety
Another blessing is that the Psalms express a healthy corporate solidarity with the people of Christ all over the world and in every age. We relate to God, not as isolated individualists, but as members of a great multi-generational, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-national people whose history goes on for century after century. The Psalms are a God-given safeguard against isolation in prayer and idiosyncratic ways of relating to God (“I like to relate to God like this…”). Praying them helps us, for example, to identify with the persecuted church, whose sufferings are so vividly portrayed.
The Psalms arouse us to warmth in our relationship with God
By nature we are cold towards God. Another blessing of the Psalms is to warm our cold hearts. In 1537 Calvin drew up the articles for the conduct of worship in Geneva. In them he wrote:
‘Furthermore it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some Psalms in the form of public prayers by which one prays to God or sings His praises so that the hearts of all may be aroused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love.
‘Certainly at present the prayers of the faithful are so cold that we should be greatly ashamed and confused. The Psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardour in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of His name.’
As we join in the Psalms, our hearts begin to feel and to respond as they did.
We would do well to make praying the Psalms a lifelong project. Those of us who are preachers will serve our people well if we include in our preaching a deliberate program of helping us all to pray the Psalms.
This article is an adapted and abbreviated extract from Teaching Psalms (volume one).