Praying the Psalms with the body of Christ
by Jonathan Kraemer
“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (Psalm 130:1-2). As soon as the words left my mouth I remember thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m not in the depths! Today is actually a great day!”
I was a teenager and our pastor had recently introduced praying the Psalms at Sunday service. I had prayed Psalm 130 before, but it had been when I was, well, feeling like I was “in the depths.” It had expressed exactly what I was feeling; it gave me words to pray to God when anguish extinguished all words of my own. But here in public, in worship on a bright Sunday morning, it seemed so wrong, so out of place. It did not feel like my prayer at all.
What I experienced in worship that day is a pretty common feeling for those who are assigned Psalms to pray, whether it is in a lectionary or in daily devotions like Portals of Prayer or the Treasury of Daily Prayer. Sometimes a Psalm is recommended because it has a theme similar to that of the devotion, or of the readings for that Sunday. Other times there is just a schedule for reading through the Psalms, and it may not relate to the other readings at all. Whatever the logic behind the choice of the Psalm, the point is that sometimes we pray Psalms we did not choose, Psalms that have us lamenting when we feel like praising, and praising when we feel like lamenting.
This feels so strange for us because God’s people have been taught to use the Psalms for centuries as their personal prayers. For example, Athanasius, the 4th century church father for whom the Athanasian Creed is named, wrote in his Letter to Marcellinus that “it is possible for us, therefore, to find in the Psalter not only the reflection of our own soul’s state, together with precept and example for all possible conditions, but also a fit form of words wherewith to please the Lord on each of life’s occasions….” That ancient advice is still taught today, which is why we seek out just the right psalm to fit our circumstances.
Not only do we have the advice of Athanasius and others, but we also have the example of Jesus himself. From the cross Jesus prayed short portions of two Psalms to express both the anguish He was going through (Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) and His absolute trust in His Father (Psalm 31:5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit”). Jesus’ example is all the encouragement we need to take the Psalms to our lips for our own prayers.
There are great blessings that come from praying Psalms that do not fit the way we feel, when they seem like someone else’s prayer.
As wonderful it is to have the Psalms that express in words what we feel so deeply, there are also great blessings that come from praying Psalms that do not fit the way we feel, when they seem like someone else’s prayer. It is at these moments when we are reminded that they actually are not our prayers—at least, not ours alone. Of course they are the prayers of David and of others, written by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so many centuries ago. But more than that, these are the prayers of Christians everywhere, and have been down through the ages. They are the prayers of the body of Christ.
Praying each other’s prayers
Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the situation of praying each other’s Psalms in his book Life Together. There he writes that, when we pray prayers that don’t fit our own personal situation, it is a reminder “this prayer belongs not to the individual member, but to the whole body of Christ.” “Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer,” he continues, “it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth.” As a result, the Psalms help us not just to focus on ourselves, but also on fellow members of the body of Christ.
In those times when we are on top of the world, but are praying a psalm like Psalm 13 (“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”), we are praying the prayer of a fellow Christian who is using that very Psalm for herself. It might be someone in our own congregation, or it might be someone a world away whom we will never meet. But when we pray their prayer, we pray with them.
We may feel we have no reason at all to sing “halleluiah” when grief is making it difficult to look beyond the pain. Nevertheless, we may be called on to pray Psalm 107 (“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, whom he has redeemed from trouble”). As difficult as it may be to make those words our own, we can pray with others whom God has blessed and maybe even celebrate with them and hope for the day when we too can pray that prayer for ourselves.
Praying the Psalms in this way keeps us from being too self-centered when we make use of them. It moves us beyond our own very deeply felt concerns to think of others and to pray with them, even as we pray the Psalms in private. We go into our daily lives then with eyes and ears and hearts opened to the celebrations of others, the thanksgivings for prayers answered, the loneliness of suffering, and the confidence in God’s faithfulness. We go encouraged to pray with and for others. Praying the Psalms help us to do what St. Paul urges in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
The Church prays with us
A wonderful thing happens when we begin to pray the Psalms with the Body of Christ. The next time we do seek out a Psalm to express the cries of our own hearts, we know that others around the world are praying with us. Martin Luther, in his Preface to the Psalter, noted that when we pray the Psalms we are not alone in our prayers: “When these words please a man and fit his case, he becomes sure that he is in the communion of saints, and that it has gone with all the saints as it goes with him, since they all sing with him one little song.” The Psalms which sustained Athanasius and Luther and Bonhoeffer, which sustain our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world today, now sustain us too. The saints with whom we have prayed also pray with us and for us.
Not only does the Body of Christ pray with us, but Christ Himself prays with us too. He “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). Not only does He make supplication on our behalf, but because the Psalms are His prayers too, when we pray them we join our voice with His, and His with ours.
Not only does the Body of Christ pray with us, Christ Himself prays with us too.
The next time you are assigned to read a Psalm and it does not seem to fit you at all, think of whom it does fit and pray with them and for them. When your own words fail you, pray the Psalms and remember that others are remembering you and praying with you and for you too—even Christ himself. That is the blessing of praying with the saints!
Rev. Jonathan Kraemer is Professor of Old Testament Exegetical Theology at Concordia Lutheran Seminary in Edmonton.