Learning to Pray the Psalms

“I know I should pray, but I don’t know what I should pray for.” This is, perhaps, one of the most common complaints I hear when it comes to prayer. And I get it. Man, do I get it. Many times I have sat down to pray and within no time at all my mind has wandered, my mouth has emptied, and I’ve uttered a quick ‘thank you and amen’ before moving on with my day.

But it needn’t be this way. God has given us an entire book of the Bible (and it’s the third longest book in the Bible!) to give form, shape, and content to our prayers. Of course, I’m talking about the book of Psalms. In his commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin wrote, “The design of the Holy Spirit [was] … to deliver the church a common form of prayer.”

Benjamin Kandt, who has undertaken to memorise the book of Psalms before his fiftieth birthday (see praypsalms.org), helps us understand what it might look like to pray the psalms.

He writes: “Here’s a simple how-to guide to assist you in praying the Psalms:

Begin at the beginning. Start with Psalm 1 and pray it in the morning, afternoon, and evening (Ps. 55:17). Then move to Psalm 2 the next day. Use your ribbon to pray through all 150 psalms, then start over. Don’t mind if you miss a day just pick up where you left off. This way your prayer life will be nourished by a full diet of psalms.

Make the psalm’s words your words. Augustine of Hippo said, “If the psalm prays, you pray. If the psalm laments, you lament. If the psalm exalts, you rejoice. If it hopes, you hope. If it fears, you fear. Everything written here is a mirror for us.” As you pray the Psalms, you will learn how to pray in every season, whether rejoicing with those who rejoice or mourning with those who mourn.

Meditate on the Psalms. By meditating before we pray, we are following in the way of the psalmists themselves (Ps. 1, 19:14, 63:6, 77:12, 119, 143:5 145:5). If anything in the psalm sticks out to you: pause, ask the Spirit to shine His light on it, then mull it over in your mind until it begins to ignite your heart. Without a doubt, the warmth of the Psalms is due to the kindling of meditation.

Memorize the Psalms. Nothing has been more fruitful in my prayer life than memorizing the Psalms. I always have words to give voice to my soul even when I’m speechless. Jesus modelled this by praying the Psalms from the cross (Matthew 27:46).

Pray the psalm like an apple tree or a Christmas tree. You can either take the pleas and praises of the Psalms as your own, picking them like apples. Or you can decorate the psalm like a Christmas tree, hanging your pleas and praises on it. Use its words to respond to God, who has already initiated the conversation.

Pray the psalm through Jesus & with Jesus. Jesus is both the one through whom we pray to the Father and the one who prays these psalms to the Father (Hebrews 2:12). As you’re praying the psalm, imagine what the words would mean coming out of Jesus’ lips as both a human and God, in His suffering and in His glory. He said that all the Psalms are about Him (Luke 24:44).”

With you on the journey,