My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The great Athanasius said, “Most Scriptures speak to us; the Psalms speak for us.” (Letter to Marcellinus) Thus, the Psalms have so much to teach us about prayer, about how to talk to God. They give us words for expressing our feelings and thoughts to Him. The Psalms were, as well, Israel’s prayer book, Jesus’ prayer book, and the Church’s through the centuries. Jesus found in the Psalms the words He wanted to pray on the cross (Matthew 27:46 quoting Psalm 22:1; Luke 23:46 quoting Psalm 31:5). The first Christians also found the Psalms speaking for them and learned to turn to them in times of trouble. Eugene Peterson looks at the many instances of God’s people praying the Psalms and concludes:
The consensus on this, throughout the church’s praying life is impressive. If we wish to develop in the life of faith, to mature in our humanity, and to glorify God with our entire heart, mind, soul, and strength, the Psalms are necessary. We cannot bypass the Psalms. They are God’s gift to train us in prayer that is comprehensive and honest…If we dismiss the Psalms, preferring a more up-to-date and less demanding school of prayer, we will not be without grace, but we will miss the center where Christ worked on His praying. (Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer)
And how those first Christians worked on their praying the Psalms! When authorities warned them not to speak of Jesus or His resurrection, they called a prayer meeting. In that prayer meeting they instinctively turned to the Psalms to speak for them; they offered up a prayer shaped around the second Psalm, a psalm of David:
When they heard it, they raised their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand, and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah’” (Acts 4:24-26 quoting from Psalm 2:1-3).
When other Christians faced the seizure of possessions, and suffering and prison, they naturally turned to the Psalms: “So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6 quoting Psalm 118:6)
The Bible teaches us that any psalm has a three-fold application in speaking first for the psalmist; second for Jesus; and third for the reader. The Psalms truly do speak for us! Luther wrote:
The Christian can learn how to pray in the Psalter, for here he can hear how the saints talked to God. The number of moods which are expressed here, joy and suffering, hope and care, make it possible for every Christian to find himself in it, and to pray with the psalms. (Luther’s Works, Volume 35)
Often when I don’t know how to pray, or my prayers are feeling stale, I like to pick up the Psalms and read a psalm or two to God. I have little trouble finding a psalm suited to my particular mood. I have found Athanasius to be right; the Psalms do truly speak for us as we pray!
- First, select one of the following psalms to be your prayer today:
- When you want to praise God for who He is and His character: Psalm 145:1-13
- When you want to express love to God for His gracious care: Psalm 116:1-7
- When you feel that God has forgotten you: Psalm 13
- When you want to praise God for His care for you throughout life: Psalm 139:1-12
- When you want to praise God for the wonder of His creation and the wonder of you: Psalm 8
- When you want to praise God for His forgiveness: Psalm 32
- When you feel depressed: Psalm 42
- When you envy evil people: Psalm 73
- When you feel no one cares: Psalm 142
- After choosing a psalm, read it aloud with feeling.
- Read the psalm a second time, silently, looking for a phrase or word that stands out to you.
- Spend a few moments meditating on that phrase or word.
- Talk to God about that phrase or word.
- Finally, take a few moments to be still in God’s presence, concluding by praying The Lord’s Prayer
“Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Prayer Book of the Bible