Psalms and Christian Prayer
By Elizabeth Huwiler
A study guide for congregations
Why pray the psalms? Wouldn't it be better to use specifically Christian resources for specifically Christian prayer?
In fact, reasons abound for keeping the psalms at the heart of Christian prayer life. Among these reasons is precedent: Jesus and the early church prayed them. Martin Luther lectured and preached on the psalms and found them to be a treasure. Christians throughout the ages have found them to be the most accessible part of the Old Testament, almost an honorary part of the New Testament: perhaps you once owned or have seen a copy of the New Testament and Psalms.
Even more basic than this, the psalms are the prayerbook of the Bible. They are extraordinarily honest in their expression and wide-ranging in approach. Because they are part of the biblical canon, they can allow us to speak to God in ways that may seem daring, and in situations in which we do not know what to say. Thus they can expand a prayer life when it seems boring or irrelevant.
About the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth F. Huwiler
Dr. Elizabeth F. Huwiler teaches Old Testament and Hebrew at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where she is a full professor. Her research emphasis is in the area of biblical authority, especially in an ecumenical and interfaith context. She's also interested in women and the Bible (both women in biblical texts and women's interpretation of the Bible). Biblical poetry and wisdom are long-standing areas of study. A particular focus on Song of Songs has led her to explore the Bible and human sexuality.
Having once taught as a Lutheran pastor at Lancaster Theological Seminary, a school of the United Church of Christ, Dr. Huwiler feels personally invested in the ecumenical agreements involving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, especially the understandings with the Reformed denominations. Judaism is another area of intersst. And she is exploring ways that Christians can learn from Jewish spirituality and worship.
Dr. Huwiler earned her B.A. from Caroll College in 1973, and was awarded her M.Div. from The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg in 1980. She holds a Ph.D. from Duke University (1988), and served a pastorate in Illinois in the early 1980s before embarking on a teaching career.
The psalms fall into various categories, appropriate for various times of life. Celebrations of creation and hymns of praise express the goodness of life as God's creatures. Laments and complaints help us give voice to experiences of pain, loss and disappointment. Thanksgivings enable us to come to God in gratitude when our well-being has been restored.
1. The psalms focus on God, using a magnificent variety of expressions and images. If you always approach God with the same language, or imagining the same kind of relationship, enter into the psalms--you will find God as shield, deliverer, listener, destroyer, teacher, refuge, healer, savior, judge, sovereign,king, stronghold, gracious one, one who remembers the oppressed, shepherd, rock, eagle--and on and on. Let the psalms speak to your imagination and expand your ways of thinking about God.
For meditation or discussion: Read any ten psalms--they may be your favorites or a random selection. Write down and discuss the different ways they address or imagine God. Could you imagine incorporating similar terms or images into your own prayers? What terms could you envision coming from a contemporary writer of psalms?
2. Psalms are individual and corporate. Some psalms are spoken by an individual ("I"), while others have corporate speaker ("we"). But even in the most personal psalms, the tone may shift from an intimate conversation between the speaker and God to a call or witness to the whole community. Christians, too, are always in some sense praying in community, even when we are alone. (It is significant that the prayer Jesus taught us begins "Our Father," not "My Father.")
As you pray the psalms, think of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds and upholds you. Write them down and discuss who they are with others in your class. How are your witnesses the same or different from those of other students?
For meditation or discussion: Read Psalm 131, noting the shift between direct address to God in verses 1-2 and all to the community in verse
3. How does your relationship with God enable your witness within and beyond your community? What are your rules for prayer? Are some concerns off limits? Are there concerns in your heart that you think you cannot bring to God? Do you think you have to come to the Holy One in your Sunday best Attitude, the same way people used to come to church wearing their Sunday best clothes?
The psalms come to God with every emotion in the human heart. They Come to God, as you might expect, honoring the majesty of the Holy One -- and we marvel at the loftiness of "O Lord our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Psalm 8:1). As you might also expect, psalms express the neediness of their speakers for a sense of the divine presence: "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Psalm 42:1). But then they surprise us, even offend us with their vengeance and pettiness. The words of Psalm 10:14 may be a wonderful comfort: But you do see! Indeed you note the trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you: you have been the helper of the orphan.
How disconcerting, then, to continue on to verse 15, where the psalmist continues, "Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers." It might help to know the mindset behind the prayers for divine judgment. The Israelites understood creation as a delicate balance. Those who opposed the will of God threatened the balance and could even allow the re-entry of the forces of chaos into the world. The speakers in the psalms are praying not just for their own selfish vengeance but for the will of God in the world. For the most part, the psalmists also turn their desire for vengeance over to God rather than urging human action on it.
As Christians, we do experience the existence of forces opposed to God's will for our lives and our world. It is appropriate to pray for the End of such forces.
For meditation or discussion: How is an awareness of evil in the world expressed in your prayers? You might explore the following possibilities:
a. Pray to God for the overthrow of evil, or that you may escape it--and let God decide what that implies for evildoers.
4. Keep praying the psalms. Familiarity with the psalms makes them available for you at the times when you most need them. It is helpful simply to pray through the book; and when you have reached the end, start over and pray through it again.
For individual, family or group devotions: Pray the psalms, in community or individually. Start at the beginning of the book and pray several psalms every day. After your reading, take some quiet time to reflect and continue praying. When you reach the end of the book, start over again. And see how through the psalms, prayer can shape your life.
For further reading
A wealth of material is available on the psalms. Particularbooks that you might find helpful include:
Anderson, Bernhard W. with Steven Bishop. Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. Third edition. (Westminster/Knox, 2000). A fine introduction for those who would like to study the psalms.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalm: A Theological Commentary. (Augsburg, 1984). Brueggemann sets up a pattern of orientation - disorientation - new orientation. He is a sensitive and gospel-oriented reader.
Peterson, Eugene. Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. (HarperCollins, 1989). A powerful treatment of the psalms in Christian spiritual life.
Reid, Stephen Breck. Listening In: A Multicultural Reading of the Psalms. (Abingdon, 1997).
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