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The Psalter tells a story. Its setting is earth, with occasional glimpses of heaven. When readers first look at Psalms, they may see religious poems with few repetitive themes bound together in no particular arrangement. Many may appear vague–tiny slices of time unattached to any backdrop of explanatory detail. Tone can change abruptly, often with no apparent transition. What to make of all this? Is there a key to unlock a secret code? The key is Christ, and the code is revealed through the eyes of faith. What at first may appear as a jumble of emotionally disparate poetic lines becomes a portrait of a man whose simple story is presented with a few bold strokes.
The dramatic setting of Psalms is a war of righteousness versus wickedness. The forward backdrop depicts earth, where most of the action occurs. God, who never appears in person, occasionally speaks from time to time. His invisible presence rules the entire drama. His curtain is the rear backdrop, heaven, which is nearly always hidden by the front curtain, earth. Just offstage from the front curtain stands the chorus, constantly ready to appear suddenly and perform at a brief moment’s notice, before disappearing again. The voice of an unnamed narrator sometimes interprets the action, interacts with the characters, or speaks to the audience. Named characters are few, but there are large, generic crowds, sometimes the righteous and sometimes the wicked enemies. A single tragically heroic character dominates the play, appearing in approximately half of the onstage speeches. Although he dies, he comes to life again, triumphant.
Scene One of the Psalter opens ordinarily enough, but a closer look reveals its surreal nature. Special lighting blends the front and rear backdrops, earth and heaven, such that the audience can see both heaven and earth simultaneously. As the audience listens to the orchestra play an overture of righteousness versus wickedness, a person dressed simply as, “The Man,” appears. He seems to be walking on earth, and yet, he also walks in heaven. This man is blessed by God and prospers, because he is righteous. He continuously remains onstage in God’s presence. The audience also sees large numbers of wicked characters crossing the stage from various directions. Their paths all disappear offstage into destruction. But what of Almighty God the Governor/Judge himself? Is he good? Is he kind? Is he loving? Each audience member must watch the play as it unfolds and decide the answers to those questions herself.
Scene 2, Psalm 2 presents the conflict between heaven and earth in greater detail. God in the heavens has an Anointed One, his Christ. They speak with one voice. As two mountains blend together in the distance, the Anointed One and God the Lord become difficult to distinguish with certainty (vv 4, 11, and 12). But it is the Anointed One who speaks, quoting what God had said to him at a prior time. He is the Lord God’s Son, who has been given all authority over earth. All earthly rulers are given a solemn warning to submit to the Lord. Psalm 2 speaks with the authority of Heaven.
But in Psalm 3, where is the Anointed King (1:6)? He seems to have disappeared. Psalm 3 is set squarely on earth, and the voice we hear is definitely a human voice, a voice of one besieged by enemies on all sides. The person who speaks remains unnamed (1). He is one who appears to have no strength in himself, but wholly relies upon the Lord his God for deliverance. He speaks for the Lord’s people, those who receive the blessings bequeathed in Psalm 1.
Psalm 4 contains strong echoes of Psalm 1. But it has the ring of school boys on a play-yard. Is this the powerful King speaking? Verse 3 indicates that indeed the speaker of Psalm 4 is the holy one of Psalm 2. In vs 6 we see the contempt of those who reject God’s way (cf 2 Peter 3:4). Verse 7, as in Psalm 1:1-2, provides the contrast of God given joy versus the purely carnal pleasures of earth. The assurance of Psalm 4:8 reflects the blessings to the righteous of Psalm 1:2-3 and 6a. Yet the King of Psalm 2 appears to be a man in Psalm 4.
Psalm 5 is the first extended prayer of the Psalter, and a good prayer model it is. Perhaps the reader has seen written instructions or attended group meetings where “Praying the Scripture” is taught. Psalm 5 is an example of that very concept. From start to finish, line by line, Psalm 5 prays Psalm 1. (I’ll let the reader work that out for herself.)
Verses 1 through 10 are prayed in first person singular; verse 11 switches to a group focus in third person plural; and finally, verse 12 closes with a first person plural, which is not uncommon in Psalms. This final verse could be spoken by the chorus stepping briefly onstage. Who are the characters suggested by these dramatic voices? If we were watching a performance, we would see costumes or face masks of some kind to indicate speaker identities. However, not having those, we the audience look for other clues. Although I usually choose to ignore the superscriptions, the superscription in the Septuagint for Psalm 5 is suggestively fascinating. It reads in English, “For the end, a Psalm of David, concerning her that inherits” (LXE, Brenton). Many of the psalms attributed to David have the Greek phrase, “εἰς τὸ τέλος,” for the end. However, the phrase, “concerning her that inherits,” (ὑπὲρ τῆς κληρονομούσης) occurs only here. Why is this interesting?
In Christian theology, who is “her that inherits?” Why, the church of course, which includes those saints who lived in Old Testament times. The Greek word for church does happen to have a feminine ending. For those who may be interested, Footnote 2 below gives a quotation from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon (See Thayer in Bibliography). The verb “inherit,” Thayer writes, was used extensively in the Old Testament to refer to the peaceful kingdom during Messiah’s reign and extended from that, “to partake of eternal salvation in the Messiah’s kingdom: Matt. 5:5 (4) (from Ps. 36:11 (Ps. 37:11))” (2).
Because the first person singular dominates, Psalm 5 can be read as the prayer of a single individual, and it can be read as the prayer of the church. Based upon the sequential development of the plot-line from Psalm 1 through Psalm 8 (3), the first person singular individual can be named as Christ, God’s appointed King of Psalm 2. He is the church’s head, its representative on earth and in heaven. Christ in his incarnation prays much of the Psalter, especially those psalms ascribed to David (4). He is the beleaguered man surrounded by enemies who pleads with the Lord for his own salvation and the salvation of the church, his body.
It’s important that we see Christ as the speaker representing the church in Psalm 5, so that when we come to Psalm 6, we will be able to understand the intercessory aspect of its penitential nature.
1 This retelling of Psalms ignores the superscripts, which are not part of Scripture, but rather editorial additions.
2 “… in Biblical Greek everywhere with the accusative of the thing; so very frequent in the O. T. in the phrase klhronomoun gh/n [to inherit the earth] and th,n gh/n [the land], of the occupation of the land of Canaan by the Israelites, as Lev. 20:24; Deut. 4:22,26; 6:1, etc. But as the Israelites after taking possession of the land were harassed almost perpetually by their hostile neighbors, and even driven out of the country for a considerable period, it came to pass that the phrase was transferred to denote the tranquil and stable possession of the holy land crowned with all divine blessings, an experience which pious Israelites were to expect under the Messiah: Ps. 24:13 (Ps. 25:13); Ps. 36:9,11,22,29,34 (Ps. 37:9,11,22,29, 34) Alexandrian LXX; Isa. 60:21; Tobit 4:12; evk deute,raj klhronomh,sousi th,n gh/n, Isa. 61:7; hence, it became a formula denoting to partake of eternal salvation in the Messiah’s kingdom: Matt. 5:5 (4) (from Ps. 36:11 (Ps. 37:11)), where see Bleek. zwh,n aivw,nion, Matt. 19:29; Mark 10:17; Luke 10:25; 18:18; th,n basilei,an, Matt. 25:34; basilei,an Qeou/, 1 Cor. 6:9f; 15:50; Gal. 5:21; swthri,an, Heb. 1:14; ta,j evpaggeli,aj, Heb. 6:12; avfqarsi,an, 1 Cor. 15:50; tau/ta (Rec. pa,nta), Rev. 21:7; o;noma, Heb. 1:4; th,n euvlogi,an, Heb. 12:17; 1 Pet. 3:9. (Compare: kata&klhronome,w.)*” (Thayer, Joseph. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Abridged and Revised Thayer Lexicon). Ontario, Canada: Online Bible Foundation, 1997. BibleWorks, v.9.)
3 Yes, the Psalter has a plot line, see opening statement and so forth, above.
4 I’ve added a new source in the Bibliography, Cameron, Michael. Christ Meets Me Everywhere: Augustine’s Early Figurative Exegesis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Cameron writes, “The apostles are portrayed preaching and teaching the Psalms as prophecies of the messianic age in general and of Messiah in particular (Acts 2:25-28; 4:25-26; 13:33-37; Rom. 15:8-11; Heb. 1:5-12). But Christians also read the Psalter as the Book of Christ in another way: not only as an ‘objective’ account of fulfilled prophecy but also as a spiritual revelation of his human soul, in fact as a virtual transcript of his inner life while accomplishing the work of redemption. Paul particularly taught Christians to read the Psalms as echoes of the voice of Christ. [Cameron cites Richard Hays: Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, and The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture, 101-118).] Second-century writers like Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus continued this Christological reading; so did Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen in the third century. In the fourth century, the Christ of the Psalms was important to Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Poitiers, Jerome, and Ambrose of Milan in the west.” (Cameron, 168)
Psalm 4 is a window into the struggle that is prayer.
1 Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
3 But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.
4 Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
6 There are many who say, “Who will show us some good? Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”
7 You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.
8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4 ESV)
This psalm is difficult, as it appears to lack a specific context or specific request to God. The several verses appear disjointed, moving along in a somewhat jumpy manner. What is clear is that the psalmist is struggling and he presents God with his state of urgency.
The prayer opens with intensity that is immediate. The psalmist seems to be in an excited emotional state. He demands of God, “Answer me when I call, O God … hear my prayer!”
The reader can imagine that the psalmist has already been praying repeatedly over time. Time is running out now. “Answer me … !” God has helped the psalmist in the past, and he asks God to help him again (1). And yet, the psalmist acknowledges that for God to hear would be grace on his part. Nevertheless, the psalmist insists, “… hear my prayer!” There is an intimacy with God implied by these insistent requests.
While the speaker is not named, the reader knows from verse 2 that the psalmist is a righteous person. In verse 2 the psalmist speaks of his long-abiding honor, or glory, which his apparent enemies from the human race are turning into shame. That is, they are taking the Lord’s pearls and trampling them underfoot. John Barclay observes the similarity between Psalm 4:2 and Proverbs 1:22, “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?” Such speech befits God alone and God’s Son, his representative on earth. And just as Proverbs 1:23 presents God’s offer of blessing were the scoffers to repent, Psalm 4 holds out an olive branch encouraging repentance in verses 4-5. What greater call to second chances and a rewritten ending than Christ’s cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them … “?
The stability of this seemingly disjointed prayer is God. God in his righteousness is the stability of all the Psalter’s prayers. Prayer is a battleground for the one praying. It’s where the suppliant/worshipper brings an often jumbled set of emotions, turmoil, confusion, hopes, and fear. When the petitioner comes before God in prayer, they open themselves to change. The one praying changes–God does not change. To effect change is the purpose for prayers of supplication. As often as not, it is the one praying who changes, apart from any change to circumstance.
God is the settler in a suppliant’s prayer. Verse 6 is key to understanding the marvelous transaction that occurs in a worshipper’s heart as she bends her knee to the grace of God in earnest prayer. It is God’s light that heals.
Verse 6b in the Septuagint, the Bible Jesus would have used, reads differently than the Masoretic, or Hebrew text, printed above. Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint reads, “the light of thy countenance, O Lord, has been manifested towards us.” Notice the change from the Masoretic’s imperative, or second person tense of request, to past tense. This change of tense turns the tide of the prayer from supplication to accomplished encouragement. The speaker’s heart has already been strengthened as he focuses on the light that God has already manifested.
The Orthodox Study Bible goes a step further in its translation of verse 6b (7b LXE), “O Lord, the light of Your face was stamped upon us.” The Greek word for “stamped” is the middle verb ἐσημειώθη, which is of the verb family rendered “sign” in English. The reader will recognize this word from Revelation 12:1 and other verses, “And a great sign appeared in heaven…” John in his Gospel calls the miracles that Jesus performed “signs,” while God calls the rainbow he gave Noah and the act of circumcision he gave Abraham “signs.”
The idea in the Orthodox translation is that the light from God’s face has already shined upon the believer’s face, leaving its indelible imprint, mark, or stamp there. The idea (though not the exact word) is the same as in Ephesians 1:13, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit.” God’s light changes people. We hear this thought again in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Much of this transformation occurs in prayer.
The believer goes to God in prayer, bringing everything that burdens his or her heart to the God who cares in order that God may shine his light upon both the person and upon the issue. God’s light is what effects change. God’s light transforms the darkness of the human condition into the glory that always accompanies his presence.
Verse 3 of this same psalm confirms the Greek Bible’s interpretation, just presented, “But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.“ The stamp, seal, imprint, sign, or manifestation of the believer’s having been set apart for God (verse 3) is the light of God’s face upon them (verse 6).
As already mentioned above, although the unbeliever assaults the psalmist in verse 2, verses 4-5 are a call to repentance, a welcoming entreaty to nonbelievers to join in as recipients of God’s manifest blessings. The blessings of verses 3 and 6 wrap themselves around the nonbelievers of verses 4-5. Christ came to save sinners, not to condemn them, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Verses 7 and 8 close out this short psalm on an entirely different note than its opening in verse 1, “7 You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. 8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” This prayer has accomplished its purpose. Although there are no indications that the psalmist’s circumstances have changed an iota, his heart has made a complete turnaround. God heard and answered the psalmist’s impassioned plea for his divine response. Joy, peace, and rest, both physical and emotional, replace the distress and urgency of the prayer’s opening. This is what coming into God’s presence accomplishes. Yet, prayer is a struggle. It is like wrestling the enemy within one’s own heart, but in the healing light of God’s presence. God’s presence changes everything.
They came to Jesus and woke Him up, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And He got up and rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they stopped, and it became calm. (Luke 8:24 NAU)
Blessings to you, as we move forward in this prayer study of Psalms together. (On a personal note, please do not think that it is easy for me to comprehend and dig out the treasures of Psalms. This psalm gave me extreme difficulty, as I wrestled with it all week long. And yes, I did pray over it.)
1 English language does not currently have a neuter pronoun in reference to people. At times it is necessary to use the pronoun “he.” I hope that all the women reading this know and understand that God loves women as much, or even more, if that were possible, than he loves men. The Lord Jesus is a man, but his church, his body, is comprised of men and women, both of whom God welcomes to pray this prayer in Christ’s footsteps. This blog’s author is a woman, who writes these words.