Reflections on the Book of Psalms

Friday September 07, 2018 Written by Published in Church Talk
Reflections on the Book of Psalms

It was not too long ago that it was common for pastors to be portrayed with a Bible under their arms, whereas a priest would be depicted carrying his prayer book.


This prayer book had the day divided into four with a set of prayers used to make different parts of the day holy: Morning prayer; midday prayer; evening prayer and night prayer. All these prayers to a large extent centred around praying the Psalms.

In the Catholic tradition this practice is still expected of the priest and others involved in ministry. Over four weeks one prays all 150 Psalms. What has changed today is that most of us use an “e-reader” instead of a prayer book.

Why then do we give such importance to the Book of Psalms? After all the Psalms are originally Jewish prayers originating in pre-Christian times, and in some Psalms there are images of violence, retribution, anger and the occasional curse.

We might say these images could lead us to unholy and worldly thoughts! Such images should make us uncomfortable, given our Christian emphasis is on forgiveness, compassion, mercy and peace. Yet there is no doubt that the Psalms have a great spiritual insight and express a desire for a deep communion with God within them.

Fortunately, we have the authority of the risen Jesus to pray the Psalms. He told his crestfallen disciples after his resurrection that they would find him and the meaning of his life in the book of Psalms.

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the Prophets and the Psalms would be fulfilled.” Luke 24: 44

The Psalms are given a prominent place in our celebration of the Eucharist. When we listen to a reading it is our practice to follow it with a Psalm. By using the Psalm in this way we are making it a prayer response to the reading we have listened to. By praying the Psalm, the words of the Psalm become the language of our prayer. They give us the words for our conversation with God.

The Psalms in the life of the boy Jesus.

As a young boy growing up in Nazareth, Jesus would have studied and prayed the Psalms both in the synagogue and at home with his parents. As parents today teach their children prayers such as the Our Father, grace before and after meals, prayers for the sick, Mary and Joseph would also have taught Jesus their favourite Psalms. Jesus would have committed many of these Psalms to memory. We know this to be so as the writers of the Gospel frequently reported Jesus quoting the Psalms when he was called upon to explain his identity and how he related to God,.

An example of this would be Psalm 118 vs 22 – 23 quoted in Matthew 21: 42, telling of God’s vindication of him, when speaking of the resurrection from the dead.

“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done, a marvel in our eyes.”

Later, in Mathew 23:39, the evangelist places on the lips of Jesus another text from the same Psalm. As Jesus condemns the Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy, he also laments over the impending destruction of Jerusalem and announces that at the appointed time he will return with divine judgment. To support this Jesus turns to Psalm 118:26: “Blest is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

On the cross, as death approaches, Jesus recites a Psalm. In Matthew 27; 45 – 46 the cry of the Psalm comes from the imposing background of nature’s darkness covering the whole land. Here Matthew gives expression to the manner of Jesus words: “And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice… ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Matt. 27:46) Psalm 22.

We can be certain that Jesus would have known, studied, prayed and internalised such passages from the Psalms because as we read through the Gospels, we witness the action of Jesus, mirroring concern for the poor, needy and oppressed. This is the way we see how the written word becomes the living word in Jesus Christ.

Psalms as a source for our prayer

The Bible as we have it, is made up of both the Old Testament and New Testament. Our roots are Judeo-Christian and grounded in both the Hebrew and Christian Scripture. We pray from both these rich traditions today.

The Book of Psalms is a valuable source of material to enrich our prayer. It is a prophetic book (Acts 2:30); it is a book of songs and a book of prayer. It is raw and emotional. It contains the deepest expression of pain, hopelessness and despair and the highest expressions of praise. No matter where a Psalm begins the Psalms end with a profound sense of hope and confidence in God’s faithfulness.

The challenge when using the words written by others in prayer is to be able to make the words apply to yourself personally.

Virtually every Psalm can be made personal and applied to the reader. If this was not so the Psalms would not have lasted until our day. We don’t use something in prayer that is irrelevant. The Psalms were always intended to be used by people as tools to express their heart to God.

So if you are using the Psalms in prayer don’t start with Psalm 1 and then move onto Psalm 2 until you reach Psalm 150.

If you are in a joyful mood, use a Psalm of praise or thanksgiving. If you are sad turn to one that is praying out of a sense of despair or lament. You should be aided in your selection by glancing at the title of the Psalm. In my Bible, Psalm 85 is prayer for peace. Psalm 88 a lament. Psalm 89 a hymn and a prayer to God’s faithfulness. Your present experience and mood should fit the message of the Psalm you are praying.

When we pray the Psalms, the risen Christ prays for and with us. While the Psalms were written well before Christ, when praying them try to see the New Testament perspective in them. Many of the Psalms are prophetic. For example, Psalm 22, attributed to King David, can be referring to a man who is suffering tremendously. Yet it can just as easily be applied to the time Jesus was being crucified.

“My God, my God why have you deserted me?

How far from saving me, the words I groan!

I call all day my God, but you never answer,

All night long and I cannot rest.”

Or in Psalm 18:6

“In my distress I called upon the Lord;

to my God I cried for help.

From the temple he heard my voice,

and my cry to him reached his ears.

Then the earth reeled and rocked;

the foundations also of the mountains tremble and quaked

because he was angry.”

In writing this article it is my hope that the Psalms will come to life in us in their varied and wondrous ways. And that we realise the great richness that the Psalms contain in our desire to relate with God. The relationship between God and the one praying, is the stuff out of which prayer is made.

Note: Resourced from The Bible Today.


            Bishop Paul Donoghue

            (Catholic Church.)

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