Historically, the Old Testament psalms have been the church’s prayer book. The medieval church so valued constant prayer that many people in the middle ages made substantial donations to monasteries so that monks and nuns, largely freed from manual labor, could become “professional” pray-ers on behalf of the rest of society. Many of them lived a life of prayer, praying day and night. Most Benedictine monks and nuns chanted all 150 psalms once a week in a cycle of seven daily “hours.” The first thing required of them was learning to read, if they did not already know how to. Next, they had to memorize the Psalms, which might take anywhere from six months to two years.
In the New Testament book of Acts, when the original apostles were put in a position to clarify what their most sacred obligations were, they decided that they must give their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4). The New Testament writers pray and quote the psalms more than any other book of the Old Testament.
The best introduction there is to the psalms is to begin praying them because the psalms teach us how to pray. The psalms are meant to be prayed and fully engrafted into the life of the believer. Learning the psalms means praying them, and praying them means praying them over and over again.
If you are not yet convinced why we ought to pray the psalms, let me offer some more reasons:
1. Through praying the psalms we learn the promises of God and how to pray relying on those promises. It is both appropriate and necessary to take God’s promises, remind God of them, and look for God to fulfill them.
2. We learn how to pray together as a community, and not just as individuals.
3. We discover that the heart cannot pray by itself because we often need to pray contrary to our hearts. I am a believer and an advocate of pouring out our hearts to God; yet doing that in and of itself does not teach us to pray. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor who was part of the resistance to Hitler in the last century said, “The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” The reason for this is because our hearts can be very deceitful, but if we can tether our hearts to God’s Word, we can pour out both our praise and lament according to biblical truth and not to things never promised to us.
What is more, if we make it a practice to always follow our hearts, we may find ourselves only praying when we feel like it. It is a common temptation of Satan to make us give up the reading of the Word and prayer when our enjoyment is gone; as if it were of no use to read the scriptures when we do not enjoy them, and as if it were no use to pray when we have no spirit of prayer. The truth is that, in order to enjoy the Word, we ought to continue to read it, and the way to obtain a spirit of prayer is to continue praying. The less we read the Word of God, the less we desire to read it, and the less we pray, the less we desire to pray.
4. Praying the psalms teaches us to speak to God with confidence and joy, just like a small child boldly asking for what she wants in wonderful anticipation of getting it.
5. Praying the psalms provides direction for our lives; it is the GPS for our souls.
6. When we pray the psalms we join a praise and prayer team that has been going on for thousands of years by believers across the ages in all kinds of cultures. They serve as a great cloud of witnesses testifying to the power of God to sustain and grow our faith, hope, and love.
7. And maybe most importantly, in praying the psalms we discover the heart of God and adopt his heart as our heart. When praying according to God’s Word and God’s Way, we get to know who God is and discover the prayers that he delights to answer.
In other words, we bring our own situations and experiences to the psalms and permit the psalms to reshape our thoughts and our prayers. This forms us into God’s people by re-directing our lives with God’s promises and plans. The psalms are meant to transform us. Repeated exposure to God’s Word and daily praying his Word through the psalms (even if it is small) will change the way we live our lives and will change the way the world works.