By Bibianna Yeo and Joseph Tay, at the Fellowship Weekend 2016
Prayer is difficult even though we know we have to do it. We’re often too busy, too tired, and sometimes it’s too boring and we don’t know what to do. We find ourselves pressed for time and distracted when we sit down to pray, and sometimes we don’t know what to say in our prayers. Our bible reading and prayer life seem disconnected. What we read rarely translates and connects with what we feel and bring before God. Does this describe your struggle too? Praying through the psalms brings together bible reading and prayer. It is a helpful technique that helps us do something more – meet God and know Him more.
What are the Psalms?
The Psalms consists of 150 poems that express a variety of emotions. Many of us are familiar with the praise and thankfulness psalms, but there are also that cry out to God over sorrow for sin, expressing faith in dark times etc. These were also meant to be sung in a community. Therefore the Psalms are helpful for us in our Bible reading because they not only teach us how to express emotions “when sung in faith, they actually shape the emotions of the godly” (as the ESV Study Bible describes it).
The Psalms are a collection of songs and hymns that serve as examples of how the people of the OT prayed and worshipped God in song. The Psalms help us to turn our eyes away from ourselves and fix them on God and his nature. This gives us an approach to daily life: to face pain head-on and engage with how we feel without letting our emotions dictate our lives, as the Psalmists constantly move from pain to retelling and celebrating stories of God’s goodness and His promises to us. The Psalms honestly reflect life in a fallen world. This teaches us not to suppress our emotions, but to bring it all to God. It might come as a surprise to some, but the Psalms really cover a whole range of emotions:
- Praise to a praiseworthy majestic God (Ps 8)
- Praying commitment (Ps 16)
- Expressing despair (Ps 42)
- Repentance (Ps 51)
- Hopelessness (Ps 88)
- Love (Ps 116)
- Praise (Ps 150)
How do we read it devotionally?
What are two main themes that thread the book of Psalms? How do we move beyond just information on a page, and meditate on the words?
The biblical practice of praying Scripture
Let us turn to the Psalms themselves to get a picture The Psalms paints for us a picture of the one who does that! At numerous instances in the Bible, the one who meditates on the words of God is referred to as “blessed”.
- “Blessed is the man … but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his Law he meditates day and night” (Ps 1)
- “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7)
- “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight” (Ps 19:14)
- And Psalm 119, with 176 verses is a long love song about the preciousness and value of Scripture compared to everything else.
Elsewhere in the Bible, people in the OT and NT also pray Scripture. In Neh 9:17-18, the people of God look back in their past and quote Exodus 34:6. In Acts 4, they quote Ps 2:1-2. Jesus Himself also prayed Scripture. On the cross, he quoted Ps 22. This shows us simply that God knew Scripture, understood it and meditated on it, and it came out in His prayers!
The Psalms also show us Christ
Therefore, the book of Psalms teaches us that prayer is about reading and engaging with and meditating on the Word, while setting our eyes on the Word made flesh, Jesus. Our emotions and life do not stand apart from God and He is not separated from us. This is why the Psalms can be useful for devotional reading and prayer. The prayers in Psalms reveal a longing for and a constant waiting upon the deliverer and for things to be made right. The Psalms of repentance show us our need for a Savior. The Psalms speaking of evil and calling out for justice and a righteous King teach us to wait for the Return of the King. The Psalm that speak of the loveliness of the Law show us what it means to live under the authority of the King.
Meditating and praying through the psalms
So, how do we do it? Here, we offer some things that we’ve learnt from other people, and have tried and found to be helpful for our own prayer lives. Note that we are not perfect and we are still struggling. But we have also realized that while these are not magical techniques to guarantee immediate improvements, these are helpful disciplines that have helped in our own journey.
1. Pray through each line
This form of close reading makes us engage with what we do/do not know and helps us to not ‘skim’ the Psalm but instead ponder. This is something that our generation may find a bit difficult, because we’re use to scrolling and picking out key points.
Don Whitney has a helpful guide to praying through the Psalm. He says:
“Let the words of Scripture become the words of our prayers. … Simply go through the passage, line by line praying what you find in the text or what it brings to mind. If nothing comes to mind or you don’t understand the verse, go to the next one. … Keep doing this until you either (1) run out of time or (2) run out of Scripture.”
Other things that we can try out:
- Linking verses to qualities of God: as a Father, as the sacrificial lamb Jesus etc
- Linking verses to OTHER verses
- Linking verses to my personal struggles to gain new perspective/claim God's promises
- Linking verses to others that are on our hearts
- Linking verses to what's happening in the world
When we do this, we let Scripture guide our prayers and help us to pray beyond our needs and what we can see!
Don’t just think about them. Put these prayers down in a place where you can refer to them. Over time, it’s good to keep a record of these prayers and also how God has answered them.
3. Plan to do it, and fix a time of day
We can start it first thing in the day. It helps to tune our hearts and set our mind on things above. After all, in Ps 90:12 the psalmist prays that God will satisfy him in the morning with His steadfast love. This is a good prayer for us. Note that it doesn’t have to take long. The method above can be adapted easily for 5 minutes or 30 minutes. Are your mornings rushed? Perhaps consider using your commute to work or school as a time to read and pray through Scripture!
It could also be helpful to go back to it during lunch or in the day serves as a good reminder in the busyness of the day. It gives us a new perspective, a new outlook, a reminder to our hearts, constant chastisement for when pride and selfishness and anger rear their head. Random pockets of time in the day – toilet breaks, tea breaks, walking to classes, doing routine work in the lab/staff room– are great times to turn over the verses and pray again.
Coming back to God at the end of the day and reflecting on how His word has been our guide, is a good way to end the day. Going back to the Word and using it to help us confess our sins and thank Him for His faithfulness is important. We can also intercede for those around us and pray for our world.
4. Be creative
Consider other creative means. How about pairing with hymns and spiritual songs? How about doing it in a group. Whatever it is, start small! Start with 5 minutes, then do so for 10 minutes? Then, will you be able to consider doing it for 30 minutes?
These are just some suggestions, and there are more that we can each develop to suit our needs. But ultimately we know that this is not another magic formula. We cannot do it with our own strength, that's why we say pray "teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name" (Ps 86:11), because we know that "it is God who works in (us), both to will and to work for his good pleasure".
- How's your prayer and devotional life? What do you find the hardest?
- What is one practical step that you can take this week to read and pray through the psalms? Be as specific and intentional as possible, and let someone in your small group/your family know to keep you accountable.