Praying the Ancient Psalms as Christian Prayer

The ancient Hebrew psalms become more meaningful to us as we interpret them in light of the revelation of the new covenant.

Praying the Ancient Psalms as Christian Prayer

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Our Jewish forefathers gave expression to their faith in God through the psalms and were gripped by a profound awareness of what it means to stand as mere creatures before the presence of God.

As Christians, we have made their words our own, praying the psalms unchanged, for we have the same joy in the Lord, the same hope of deliverance, the same confidence in appealing to his mercy. However, we pray the psalms with an added richness because of our awareness of their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. They become more meaningful to us as we interpret them in light of the revelation of the new covenant.

The New Testament is the fulfillment of what is foreshadowed and prefigured in the Jewish Scriptures, known to Christians as the Old Testament. Recognizing this helps us to more easily understand and interpret both parts of the Bible. Many of the realities of the Old Testament are “types” of greater realities that are only fully revealed in the New Testament. The people, events, and institutions of the Old Testament have meaning in themselves, as parts of the unfolding of God’s plan. But these same people, events, and institutions are also foreshadowings of people, events, and institutions that constitute the final unveiling of God’s plan, his new covenant. In particular, many elements of the old covenant point the way to Jesus Christ, who is the new covenant.

The better we understand the old covenant and are able to interpret its types or shadows, the better we will be able to understand the new covenant. The psalms are one of the primary places in the Old Testament where we are able to see and understand the types in their original or immediate context and yet at the same time move beyond this immediate meaning to the greater spiritual reality they foreshadow.

A brief overview of God’s action throughout salvation history helps clarify this and bring it into perspective. From the beginning, God’s constant desire for mankind has been to unite us to himself as his sons and daughters. After the fall of Adam, God continued to work toward this purpose. He called Abraham to follow him and made Abraham the father of faith. God established a people and blessed them with a land of their own and a covenant, after delivering them by the leadership of Moses. God made them a priestly people who offered sacrifice to him, lived under the kingship of David, and awaited the day of the Lord and the coming of the Messiah. The psalms were written within the context of this salvation history and are full of references to all that identified Israel as a distinct people with a culture and heritage of their own—land, army, king, enemies, temple worship, sacrifice, covenant, priesthood. These elements not only have meaning in themselves, but are also types of what was to come in the revelation brought by Jesus Christ. They foreshadowed greater truths. They are elements that make up the psalms, but also elements that point beyond themselves.

With the Incarnation of Jesus, his first coming to us as the Word-made-flesh, we see the fulfillment of all that was foreshadowed in the Israel of old. Jesus is the new Adam. He is also the new Moses, the great high priest, and the anointed king or Messiah. Instead of having territorial land as in the era of the psalms, we, the new people of God, know our heritage as sons and daughters of God, and we know God’s reign over the earth. Instead of fighting with physical armies against enemies, as on the battlefield of Israel, we victoriously pray the warrior’s psalm (Psalm 144) as we engage in warfare against Satan and his hosts who are out to destroy God’s people. The Temple is now present in the body of Christ, and Jesus is both high priest and holocaust. He has offered the greatest and perfect sacrifice for us on the cross. Ancient Zion foreshadowed the city of God, the New Jerusalem to come down from heaven. So it is with profound joy and anticipation that we exclaim, “I was glad when they said to me, / ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’ / Our feet are standing / within your gates, O Jerusalem!” (Psalm 122:1-2). It is there that we see Jesus, descended from David, enthroned as king forever (Psalm 110).

Thus, all the ancient types or prefigurements, full of meaning as they were in their original setting, are fully realized in the Incarnation of Jesus and will be finally accomplished with his second coming. Interpreting the psalms with this awareness—grasping their prophetic content and the significance of the typology presented in them—makes it possible for us as Christians to pray them wholly unaltered from their original Hebrew form but with a new depth of meaning. Our voices repeat the words of the Israelites before us, yet the words now resound with a fullness that has come to us by our redemption in Jesus Christ.

Making the Psalms Our Own By this Christian interpretation, we make the psalms our own and join with Christ in his own prayer. When we pray the psalms, whether alone or with fellow Christians, we participate in the prayer of the Church, God’s people. We share the psalms in common as members of the body of Christ—in some of them, speaking the same prayers Christ himself offered to the Father; in others, hearing the Father’s words addressed to us about his Son and acknowledging Jesus as our Lord.

Whether we pray the responsorial psalm in the daily Mass readings, pray the Divine Office, select a psalm randomly, or use some other format for incorporating them into our time of prayer, we should try to pray all the psalms over a period of time. The repeated praying of psalms, whether or not it suits our mood or frame of mind at the moment, is what teaches us how to pray. The psalms give us a concrete experience of offering to God daily worship and praise. Just as the priestly people of Israel offered a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in the courts of the Lord (for example, Psalms 5:3; 66:13-15; 116:17-19; 118:19, 26), we, too, are servants of God offering this same sort of service of worship and sacrifice. And the psalms, inspired as they are by the Spirit of God and prayed by Jesus himself, can shape our own prayer and form our attitudes in practical Christian living.

For example, praying the penitential psalms can deepen our recognition of our human frailty and inclination to sin and, in addition, form our minds in the proper attitude to take before the Lord in repentance. An understanding of how to repent is instilled in us and is a great aid in times when we need to turn away from specific sins. Similarly, we can learn from the psalms responses of joy, praise, and gratitude to God for his constant goodness without relying on an emotional high to express them.

More important, however, than a proper technique or method with which to pray the palms, is to simply give ourselves over to them, making them our own prayer that rises spontaneously and repeatedly to our lips and allows them to take hold of our hearts. When we do so, we will discover that, as the well-known Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “God will give Himself to us through the Psalter if we give ourselves to Him without reserve, in our recitation of the Psalms.” And, as Merton explained, this only requires “a pure faith and an intense desire of love and above all a firm hope of finding God hidden in His revealed word.”

Excerpted from The Psalms: Gateway to Prayer by Jeanne Kun (The Word Among Us Press, 2013). Available at wau.org/books

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