Praying with the Psalms

“The more deeply we grow in the psalms, and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich our prayer will become.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

“Not without reason, it is my custom to call this book [Psalms] ‘ And Anatomy of All the Parts of the Soul’ since there is no emotion anyone will experience whose image is not reflected in this mirror.”

– John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms

The Psalms have always held a central place in the prayer life of God’s people.They form the collection of the prayers and songs of praise of ancient Israel, which have also become the prayers and songs of the Christian Church from its earliest days. Together they model an open and authentic way of relating to God, and form a tremendous resource for those who want to learn how to pray.

The Psalms allow us to speak to God, yet because they are sacred Scripture they also allow God to speak to us. They are full of raw emotion, calm reflection and deep wisdom. The Psalms can teach us to pray and provide us with words when we are unable to express ourselves to God. Most importantly the Psalms allow us to come to God just as we are – there is no self-censorship in the Psalms.

You can choose to work through all 150 Psalms in order or approach them thematically. There are a number of different ways to categorize the Psalms (and there is some overlap), but below I have used six commonly used themes.

Psalms of Praise (Devotion, Adoration)

8, 19, 33, 65, 100, 103, 104, 111, 113-115, 117, 134-136, 145-150

Psalms of Confession (Admitting Guilt, Asking for Forgiveness)

14, 32, 38, 42, 51

Psalms of Petition (Request)

3, 4, 13,  25, 26, 55-57

Psalms of Lament (Pain, Complaint, Anger)

12, 22, 44, 58, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 90, 106, 123, 137

Psalms of Intercession (Help)

12, 27, 44, 58

Psalms of Thanksgiving

30, 32, 34, 41, 65-67, 92, 105, 116, 124, 138

Find a place and a time where you can take 5 or 10 minutes to yourself. Take a few deep breaths to calm yourself and clear your thoughts. Ask for God’s help to make the words of the psalm a prayer for you. Read the psalm through once (either aloud or silently). Take a minute of silence to let it sink in. Consider what in the psalm spoke to you or to your needs today. Consider also what didn’t speak to you, or seemed foreign. Remember that the Psalms are the prayers of real human beings, and express real emotions, even ones that are sometimes uncomfortable. Thank God for what spoke to you and for what challenged you or made you uncomfortable. Take another moment of silence and go on with your day keeping in mind what you have taken from the psalm.