Catherine Gregg, Praying the Psalms

Catherine Gregg, Christian Formation and Direction Ministries

Praying the Psalms (Rather than Trying to be Holy Without Being Human First) 

The Psalms, as is true of the other wisdom books, are pre-Christian literature. The Psalms are not the full revelation of God, yet the spirituality that they represent is included in the canon of scripture for our benefit and blessing. To superimpose Christian belief onto the Psalms may lead to misinterpretation if one does not understand the original intent of the writers. The writers of the Psalms did not think in terms of the Holy Spirit in the way that the Christian church does; also significantly different is the understanding of heaven and hell. Although the use of the Psalms in this paper is towards the goal of devotion rather than to establish doctrine, it is still important to read, interpret and apply the truth of the scriptures in a way that takes into account the ancient culture in which they were written.

Even given the differences that time and culture bring to a reading of the Psalms, they fundamentally reflect human nature in response to God. There is a timelessness about their ability to give voice to the deepest longings of our hearts, the bitterness of our despair, and the ecstasy of our union with God. The wisdom of the Psalms is rooted in humanity: they defeat our tendency to try to be holy without being human first.

The writers of the Psalms did not give in to a theology—nor practice a spirituality—of pretense before God. Rather, the Psalms are an expression of life experiences with God as they are happening. Although some translations “dress up” the Psalms in flowery language, in the original Hebrew these song-prayers were written in stark, strong, everyday language. They were written to communicate raw feelings and deep thoughts in ways that were quickly understood in the community.

The Psalms were written to help men and women relate to God in all the realities of human life: grim realities and good realities. While the Psalms can be categorized in a number of ways (e.g., thanksgiving songs, hymns, laments, royal psalms, etc.), another kind of differentiation may be more helpful in accessing the Psalms for use in our own prayer life. These divisions reflect the varying seasons of life and our experience of God in those changing seasons.

Walter Brueggemann differentiates these seasons as “Orientation,” “Disorientation,” and “Reorientation.” Orientation may be likened to one sailing on the sea on a bright, sunny day. The sea is a bit restless, there are a few choppy waves from time to time, but life is basically okay. One knows where one is, where one is going, and how one is going to get there. Orientation is the season of life where most of us live most of the time. But there are also times of disorientation in all of our lives when crisis comes crashing in: life-changing, life-threatening crisis, when the boat capsizes and when salvation, in all of its forms, is needed. When and if we survive and climb back to a normal life, we are experiencing a new orientation or reorientation.

Of the 150 Psalms, Brueggemann classifies roughly half as songs of orientation. Approximately 65 reflect crisis prayers (disorientation). Ten are thanksgiving psalms of reorientation. This means that half of the Psalter is given over to the issue of crisis, living through it and emerging on the other side. Whichever season of life we are in, there is something in the Psalms that matches our needs.

It is important to note that in all of the Psalms, God is the subject of most of the sentences. God is at work in human life in all three seasons. The Psalms give us a vocabulary for praising God, for blaming God, for seeking God, and everything in between.

The crisis prayers in the Psalms represent a spirituality of protest. The crisis prayers are essentially a series of arguments mixed with cries for help. They contain praise, but that constitutes part of the argument. The assumption is that God is who God says that God is, and that God’s nature is what God has said God’s nature is. It is on this basis that the appeal is made: “Come on God! You’re powerful! Come and help me! It would be no big deal for you!” Crisis prayers express human emotions very freely: “I’m hurting, God, and I can’t take it anymore… I’m scorned by others and despised by you… All who see me mock me.”

The laments also express bewilderment: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me? Why are you so far from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1) The crisis prayers often blame God for the crisis. While some laments admit that human sin is the cause of the crisis and that the suffering is deserved, most of them have a strong sense of divine providence, a providence that seems to be going wrong. Appeal is made to God to “wake up!” and pay attention! Many of the disorientation Psalms even provide motivations to give God reason to act. Some of this, as Brueggemann notes, is less than noble, and often comes peculiarly close to bargaining, bribing or intimidating. The five most common motivations that humans use to encourage God include:

  1. The speaker is innocent and so is entitled to help.
  2. The speaker is guilty, but seeks forgiveness and restoration.
  3. The speaker recalls God’s goodness to an earlier generation, which serves as a precedent for God’s goodness now. God should do once again what was done in the past.
  4. God values those who praise God; if the speaker is permitted to die, the speaker will cease to praise, and the loss will be Yahweh’s.
  5. The speaker finally goes beyond self and appeals to Yahweh to consider God’s own power, prestige and reputation. Finally, the loss in death will not be to the speaker, but to Yahweh who will be perceived as unable to care for his own. The appeal is “for Thy name’s sake,” which means for the sake of God’s reputation (cf. Ezekiel 36:22-23).

The laments, by their very nature, assume that God’s back is broad and that God can handle all of the pain, bewilderment and anger that is brought to him.