Perhaps the first thing to remember when reading the Psalms is that, in addition to being musical poetry, the Psalms are prayers. As prayer they are both public and personal. Keep in mind that personal does not equal private. While many of the Psalms were prayed and written as the result of individual experiences they became a part of the corporate prayer book of Israel and the church. First and foremost the Psalms are prayers prayed by the individual as part of the community.
As we read them we can approach them from one of two positions: 1) we can read them as if we are looking over the shoulder of the Psalmist, listening through their closet door as they pray; or 2) we can read them as if they are our own prayers, as they are, and join in with that great group of God’s people who have prayed them before.
It will become obvious that I think #2 is the best option. We should read in the hope of understanding. This is good but the psalmist’s experience in prayer is at least as important as understanding what he was getting at. Prayer is experiential. The Psalms are not merely to be understood but to be experienced.
“There is a moment between intending to pray and actually praying that is as dark and silent as any moment in our lives. It is the split second between thinking about prayer and really praying.” – Emilie Griffin, Clinging: The Experience of Prayer
Emilie Griffin’s little book Clinging is an excellent and thought-provoking volume on prayer. Her opening words above echo the experience of us all. We sometimes give up on prayer because we don’t see its effectiveness or relevance and, as a result, we wonder if we are praying at all. Sometimes we simply don’t pray because we can’t push through that thin barrier between intention and action. Other times we don’t know the difference.
The first step in praying the Psalms is reading them. As you read recognize that these words written down are for us. Most of the time we will read/pray the Psalms by ourselves. But as we pray the Psalms we are never by ourselves in the praying but we are joining in a great chorus of voices singing praises to God, expressing frustration to God, and seeking God’s presence. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
I hope that praying the Psalms (or trying to pray them) might reduce that gap between thinking about prayer and praying. In addition, I think it might be a means of keeping us at prayer. Prayer can be intimidating. The company of long silent voices still singing might gently pull us back to a place of regular prayer.
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If you’re starting out on your own I encourage you to begin with one of the following Psalms. Read them making the ancient words of the Psalmist your own.
Psalm 23, the Shepherd Psalm, is both proclamation and prayer.
Psalm 27 is another good place to begin. It emphasizes the LORD’s presence, protection and deliverance and ends with that great phrase, “Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.” It is also part of the Celtic Daily Prayer so it may be familiar to some.
Psalm 30 is also included in the Celtic Daily Prayer’s Evening Prayer. It begins with the great words, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD”.
Psalm 19 is a both a hymn of praise and a request for God’s guidance and protection from ourselves.
Finally, you may want to purchase a Psalter. There are several available but the most accessible and easy to use that I have found is published by Paraclete Press. The Psalms are arranged in an order suited for prayer and arranged for four different times of prayer throughout the day. I also like it because it uses the NIV translation. This is an uncommon choice for a book of this nature. You can get it online or find it at 8th Day Books. There’s a PDF sample of portions from the Paraclete Psalter below.
The Paraclete Psalter at Paraclete Press