The psalms are unique in the Bible in that they show humans speaking to God. In the rest of the Old and New Testaments, God is speaking to humanity, revealing power but especially gentleness, kindness and ever-faithful love.
The psalms are the prayers and hymns of the Hebrews, Jesus' people and we hear Jesus praying the psalms, even on the cross. As a result, they are ours too. In early Christianity and throughout the ages, the Church sang and prayed the psalms.
The Church has always prayed the psalms in public worship and in private prayer. In every Mass, a psalm is sung or recited, reinforcing powerfully in verse form the theme presented in the Scripture readings.
Next to the Mass as official prayer of the Church is the Prayer of the Hours or the Divine Office. The whole Psalter of 150 psalms was prayed weekly at various hours throughout the day and even during night hours by monastic communities. In this way, the whole day was sanctified.
Revision has simplified these hours into Morning and Evening Prayer.
Many of the psalms were composed for liturgical settings, often for festival celebrations. Others were for celebration of the ascent to the throne of the king whom God had given them to care for them. Still others were laments or complaints of individuals or groups for things going wrong.
When we read of their trials in the rest of the Old Testament, we feel they had plenty to make them weary and to wonder where God was in all this.
But you'll notice that even when they complained that God had abandoned them or when they expressed the desire for violence being done to their enemies, they always ended with faith and trust in God's goodness and faithfulness.
The psalms were expressions of the worshipping community that created and sustained faith and religious experience. They praised God for creation and for the Law which God gave the Hebrews.
They frequently reminded God and themselves of God's covenant with them. They remembered the great things God bestowed on their ancestors in the past, especially the Exodus. They spoke of their desire to dwell always with God in the Temple and they bemoaned God's absence when they were in exile. As they suffer, they looked forward to the coming of a saviour.
Why did Christians adopt the Psalms as their own? They depict fundamental attitudes toward God and life that are valid at all times. Some of these are: self-awareness of one's weakness and need of healing and strength, demands for justice, experience of loneliness and neediness.
Others are: trust and hope in God, God's care and protection, praise and thanksgiving in response to God's goodness, celebration and joy.
They pray for us when we cannot pray, when we cannot put into words what we feel. They are sublime expressions of sorrow and anguish, of anger and hatred but also of praise and gratitude, of faith and hope, of love and confidence. These are emotions experienced by all humans.
The psalms describe beautifully the personal relationship between God and the psalmist. For our modern world which, in general, has lost a sense of God's presence in and around it, the psalms when frequently prayed can bring God's presence into lives once again.
Are we to pray the psalms with Jesus or to Jesus? No one ever prayed the psalms as Jesus did and when he prayed, he brought us, the whole Body of Christ, into his prayers. So by praying the psalms with Jesus, we adopt Jesus' way of praying.
But we also pray the psalms to Jesus for what the psalms say of God applies to Jesus, according to Jesus' own words: "everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled" (Luke 24:44); "you search the Scriptures, . . . they bear witness to me" (John 5:39).
The psalms reach a high-point in the expression of religious experience, of praise and of prayer.
They are full of images which speak to the mind and heart.
They are God-centred prayers. They are poetry, set to music, which touch the soul.
(Questions? E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Return to December 14, 2009 column