In his recent (2017) book Teaching Psalms – Volume One – from text to message – Christopher Ash develops a forthrightly Christocentric approach to reading, praying, and preaching from this part of Holy Scripture.
What follows is a summary, mainly in my own words. I have made no attempt to offer any critical comment.
Why we must pray the Psalms
- because we need to be taught to pray. Prayer does not come naturally or easily, even to the believer. Mature prayer is not simply offloading our thoughts and feelings to God. We must learn to pray according to God’s will (1 Jn 5:14) and in Jesus’ name (Jn 14:14; 16:23,26).
- because the Psalms teach us to pray. As they were the prayer-book of the Old Covenant, so they are also of the New Covenant (Eph 5:19). Generations of Christians have memorised the Psalms, and prayed them on a daily basis.
- because the Psalms teach us to pray ‘the whole counsel of God’. The Psalms have a comprehensiveness not found in any other book of the Bible.
- because the Psalms teach us to pray in all life’s circumstances. They reflect ‘the changing scenes of life’. They broaden our spiritual and emotional palette.
- because the Psalms mould our disordered desires and affections back into shape. No part of our human nature is untainted by sin. But the Psalms teach us to love what God loves and to hate what God hates. They teach us to avoid the opposite errors of unrestrained emotionalism and arid orthodoxy.
- because the Psalms can sweeten our sour emotions. Emotions arising from suffering and persecution may be bitter, but the Psalms help us to respond in ways that expression godly emotions in godly ways.
- because the Psalms correct our idiosyncratic or individualistic piety. When we pray the Psalms, we are praying what generations of believers have prayed, and are praying. They take us from ‘I’ to ‘we’.
- because the Psalms kindle warmth in our hearts towards God. By nature we are cold towards God. But the Psalms bring us into intimacy with him, and nurture holy friendship with him.
Why we can’t pray the Psalms
Paradoxically, praying the entire book of Psalms raises huge obstacles. When we merely pick and choose from our favourite bits, there is little difficulty. But if we try to pray everything, it’s quite a different matter.
- How can we pray the experience of intense suffering, in Psa 88:3,5,8,15, for example?
- How can we claim the extraordinary innocence of Psa 17:3.5? (Indeed, how could David himself claim it?) Or the ceaseless praise of Psa 146:2?.
- How can we pray for God’s judgement on the wicked, as in Psa 139:19-22?
We must, indeed, accept the book of Psalms in its entirety, but how can we pray it all?
We pray the Psalms in Christ
To be sure, the entire OT Scriptures ‘are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ’ (2 Tim 3:15). But how does that work in the case of the Psalms?
We pray the Psalms in Christ…
- because Christ is the King to whom king David points. Psa 2, for instance, points beyond anything that could be said of David to what can truly be said of Christ. David’s sufferings point to Christ’s sufferings, David’s extensive kingdom points to Christ’s worldwide kingdom.
- because Christ is the king who is truly and fully human. It is as a fully (albeit sinless) human that he owns the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the Psalms as his own. As a pious Jew, we may suppose that he knew the Psalms intimately, and prayed them frequently. It would have been entirely natural for him to address his Father in the words of the Psalms.
- because of the of the NT testimony about the Psalms and Christ. Consider: Psa 22:1/Mt 27:46; Psa 31:5/Lk 23:46; Psa 6:3/Jn 12:27; Psa 16:8-11/Acts 2:25-32; Psa 18:49/Rom 15:9; Psa 22:22/Heb 2:12′ Psa 40:6-8/Heb 10:5-7; Psa 69:9/Jn 2:17; Psa 69:21/Jn 19:28f.
- because of the work of the Spirit of Christ in inspiring the Psalms. David was anointed by the Holy Spirit (1 Sam 16:13ff), and became a ‘prophet’ (Acts 2:30). As a prophet, he spoke of the grace which was to come (see 1 Pet 1:10-12). Moreover David’s guild of song-writers were similarly inspired (1 Chron 25:1ff), and Mt 13:35 refers to the non-Davidic author of Psa 78 as ‘the prophet’. We can believe, then, that in the Psalms words that express the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the original singers also point forward to those of the Messiah whose Spirit inspired the Psalms.
- because of the nature of prayer. On the one hand, we are by nature incapable of praying as we ought. On the other hand, there is One to whom God always listens – Christ (Jn 9:31; 11:41f). Because of the Cross, we may pray in his name (Jn 16:23f; 1 Tim 2:5). The prayers of believers are heard, because believers are accepted and counted righteous in Christ.
- because we have Jesus’ Spirit to enable us to pray. The great gospel promises flow from the Cross: the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:10-14). So, when we pray, we are not merely off-loading our personal thoughts and feelings; rather we are offering ‘the outpourings of longings and praises put into our hearts by the Spirit of Jesus through the word of Jesus.’ See also Eph 2:18.
But are we really saying that the Psalms are, first and foremost, the prayers of Jesus, and not our own? By way of answer, we can reply with Bonhoeffer that Jesus Christ prays the Psalter ‘through the mouth of his congregation’, or with Augustine that when we sing the Psalms, we are doing so with Jesus as our songleader; we are members of his choir. This reflects the thinking of the OT itself, where it is the king who leads the congregation into worship, and it is the king’s own songs that the congregation sings.
So, although the Psalms do not serve a narrowly ‘me and my God’ spirituality, in Christ we may reclaim them for our own meditation and worship. We pray – individually and corporately – insofar as Christ prays within us. As Bonhoeffer says, we pray not from the natural desires of our own hearts, but on the basis of the holy desires of the man Jesus.
As Goldsworthy puts it, all the Psalms point to Christ, and, as a consequence, point us to who we are ‘in Christ’. Our use of the Psalms is both Christological and Ecclesiological.
What about the Psalms of penitence and confession, as as Psa 51? How can these be placed in the mouth of the spotless Son of God? The answer is Jesus so identifies with our sin that he ‘was made sin for us’ (2 Cor 5:21); he was ‘numbered with the transgressors’ (Isa 53:12). We do not suppose that when singing the Psalms in the synagogue, our Saviour remained silent during these expressions of penitence. On the contrary: he willingly became answerable for our guilt; he took personal responsibility for our sins.
Benefits of singing the Psalms in Christ
- We can join in expression of great suffering, in Christ.
- We can share in the cosmic significance of Christ. His battles and his victories, as reflected in the expansive language of the Psalms, are our battles and victories, in him. His resurrection is the assurance of our own. He exaltation is the guarantee that we will reign with him (2 Tim 2:12).
- We can enjoy our imputed righteousness, in Christ.
- We can even pray for God’s judgement, in Christ.
- We can make sense of the singulars and plurals of the Psalms, in Christ. The way in which many of the Psalms move between singular and plural shapes our worship and devotion, so that even when praying to God in private we never lose sight of our membership of God’s family.
Drawing the lines to Christ
We know in general that the OT Scriptures are fulfilled in Christ. But, in particular cases, it will work out in different ways.
A guiding principle is that we should ask, in each particular case: ‘How is this Psalm uniquely fulfilled in Christ?’ With Psalm 23, for example, we are not warranted to infer (based on Jn 10) that ‘my shepherd’ is Jesus. No: the Psalm makes much more sense if we understand Jesus to be the Davidic king who can say, ‘The Lord (that is, God the Father) is my Shepherd.’ We ourselves can sing the same words knowing that, in Christ, God the Father is our Shepherd too.
Turning to Psalm 99 (which is not a Davidic Psalm), we are similarly unwarranted in assuming that it is all about the Kingship of Jesus. No: it is about the sovereignty of God the Father, with Christ acting as Mediator in fulfilment of the roles of Moses, Aaron and Samuel (v6).
Not every voice in the Psalms is the voice of Jesus. According to Timothy Dudley-Smith, hymns and songs can be celebratory, declaratory, didactic, hortatory, narrative, meditative, or petitionary. This is true also of Psalms.
So, we may discern the following voices in the Psalms:-
- The Son of God (the King) speaks to God the Father. E.g. Psa 3.
- The Son of God (the King) leads the people in speaking to God the Father. E.g. Psa 68; 126.
- God the Father speaks to his Son, the King. E.g. Psa 2:7-9; 102:25-27; 110.
- God the Father speaks through his Son, the teacher, to his people and/or to the nations. E.g. Psa 4; 37:5f; 73; 78.
- The people of God speak about their King. E.g. 1 Sam 2:1-10; Psa 20.
- The people of God speak to the nations. E.g. Psa 66.
- The people of God speak to one another. E.g. Psa 121.
In summary, we may observe that most of the voices in the Psalms are ‘vertical’ – either upwards, addressed to God the Father, or downwards, where god the Father speaks to or through the Son. But there are ‘horizontal’ voices, too, with the people of God addressing one another or the rest of the world. But always the voices bear some relation to the King.