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Our Primary Prayer Book: The Psalms

  • PETER KREEFT

Psalms is the most popular book in the world.


kreeftycubThe Bible is the world's most popular book, but it is not one book but a whole library of books.  In this library, Psalms is the most popular and most widely used book.  Thus Psalms is the most popular book in the world.

Psalms spans the ages.  When we pray the Psalms we pray in union with David and the other ancestral composers of these prayers; in union with Christ and the apostles, who used them, as all Jews did and still do, as their favorite prayer-book and songbook; and in union with Jews and Christians in every age and place.

Psalms bridges the gap between Jews and Christians better than any other book can, for Psalms is not just Scripture, but also liturgy.  Though Jews and Christians worship in different temples, they pray the same prayers to the same God.  No theological cleverness, compromising, or negotiating is needed to bring us together: we are side by side as we pray these words.

Christians love the Psalms no less than Jews, from whom we inherited the book But Christians add a messianic level of meaning to many of the psalms.  A Christian sees Jesus' face in these words, as in the whole of the Jewish Scriptures.

Yet this deeper, Christocentric level does not lessen or remove the other levels of meaning.

How the Psalms Are Meant to Be Used 

Psalms are songs as well as prayers.  They are meant to be used, not just read.  Prayer and singing are actions.  The Psalms are more like instructions in a laboratory manual than like sentences in a textbook.  We must perform them.  They are more like sheet music than like a tape or CD: we must play them on our own spiritual instruments. 

Prayer was often chanted by ancient Jews and Christians, and still is by many peoples throughout the world.  We should try this old, "tried and true" method of praying by chanting, I think, both in private and in public, using either chants that are given to us or those we improvise ourselves.  Even chanting a psalm in a monotone gives an effect that merely speaking it does not.  Further, speaking it aloud gives an effect that reading it silently does not.  It is like an echo; different walls of the soul add to the sound.

Most of us do not, and many of us can not, attend Mass daily.  But everyone can pray a few psalms daily.  And this is liturgy.  Many of the psalms were and are used as part of the Jewish temple liturgy.  The early Church's liturgy was heavy with them, from the time of Christ and the apostles to the present day.

Today their role has shrunken, unfortunately, both in liturgy and in private devotions.  In the liturgy, they are largely confined to the "responsorial psalm", which I think I have never, in attending about five thousand Masses, heard the congregation sing robustly.

The Psalms should be the foundation stone of every Christian's daily prayers.  For to pray them regularly, to become familiar with them so that their phrases spring to mind spontaneously, is to shape our minds and hearts according to God's mind and heart.  Here is the prayerbook God Himself inspired for us to use.  Next to the "Our Father", they are the closest that human words will ever get to God's own answer to anyone who asks Him, "Teach us to pray."

The Psalms were written from the widest possible range of feelings and situations, and for the widest possible range of feelings and situations.  The Psalms are like the sabbath: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath" (Mk 2:27).  We find here a world as wide as we find in our own souls and lives: we find joy and despair, praise and complaint, certainty and doubt, defeat and success, suffering and liberation.  We should become familiar enough with them to be able to go to the one that is appropriate to the present occasion and need.  At least we should make a list or an index so that we know to use the one that fits.  The locks of our hearts and lives are constantly changing, but the Psalms provide keys to fit all the locks.  We just need to know where the keys are; we need to classify them.  Simply "going through" them from beginning to end, while good, is not the best way to use them.

We will develop favorites that we come back to dozens of times, more often than we use other, less favorite ones.  This too is good.  It is like choosing personal friends.

Since the Psalms are poetry, the translation matters more here, I think, than in most of the books of the Bible.  Our prayers need to be strong and clear and simple and intelligible.  But they also need to be moving and beautiful.  I heartily discourage the use of flat, pedestrian, colloquial translations without a sense of height, awe, reverence, and holiness.

In the original, the Psalms are stylized and poetic, not prosaic.  The old Douay or King James versions were more accurate and more literal than most modern ones.  The original (not New) Revised Standard Version is a good blend of modern clarity and ancient beauty.

Though the Psalms span the range of a multitude of human attitudes, one stands out as their primary theme, the one they keep coming back to: praise, worship, adoration.  If our prayers are not largely praise, they fail to conform to God's prayer pattern.  Praise is our rehearsal for heaven.  Praise is tremendous therapy for self-absorbed, worried, and self-pitying souls, for praise is self-forgetful — one of the things we need the most.  Praise looks at God, not at self.  We praise God simply because He is God, because He is praiseworthy.  Nothing else can free us from the terrible slavery to the thousand little tyrants of the modern world — our cares, worries, worldly responsibilities, and diversions — as perfectly as self-forgetful praise of God.  It need not be accompanied or motivated by emotion; merely doing it works healing within. 

The Divisions in the Psalter 

The Psalms are divided into five books, each ending with a psalm of pure praise (41, 72, 89, 106, 150).  They can also be divided into psalms for each of the four main purposes of prayer: (1) adoration, (2) thanksgiving, (3) repentance, and (4) petition.  Or they can be further divided as follows: 

1. psalms of praise (e.g., 18, 100, 103);
2. liturgical psalms (e.g., 120, 135); 
3. psalms for pilgrimage, sung by pilgrims traveling up to Jerusalem (120-134 inclusive);
4. royal psalms, for the reign of the King of Kings (2, 20, 21, 28, 45, 72, 89, 101, 132, 144); 
5. psalms of repentance (e.g., 32, 51, 130); 
6. didactic, or moral teaching psalms (e.g., 1, 37, 119);
7. psalms for personal use (e.g., 23, 27, 34); 
8. cursing psalms (7, 35, 40, 55, 58, 59, 69, 79, 109); and
9. messianic psalms (e.g., 2, 22, 45, 110). 

The cursing passages cannot, of course, be used by Christians unless we interpret them spiritually and remember that "we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12).  We must hate sin, as these psalms and psalmists do; but we must not hate sinners, even if the psalmists did, failing to distinguish the two.  Everything in Scripture is for our instruction, but not everything if for our imitation.

Many passages in the Psalms, as well as whole psalms, are messianic.  If we had none of the rest of the Old Testament but only the Psalms, we would still be able to "check it out" and we that Christ fulfilled the Old Testament patterns and predictions.  For instance, compare:

1. Psalm 2:7 with Matthew 3:17; 
2. Psalm 8:6 with Hebrews 2:8; 
3. Psalm 16:10 with Mark 16:6-7; 
4. Psalm 22:1 with Matthew 27:46; 
5. Psalm 22:7-8 with Luke 23:35; 
6. Psalm 22:16 with John 20:25, 27; 
7. Psalm 22:18 with Matthew 27:35-36; 
8. Psalm 34:20 with John 19:32-36; 
9. Psalm 35:11 with Mark 14:57;
10. Psalm 35:19 with John 15:25; 
11. Psalm 40:7-8 with Hebrews 10:7; 
12. Psalm 41:9 with Luke 22:47;
13. Psalm 45:6 with Hebrews 1:8; 
14. Psalm 68:18 with Mark 16:19; 
15. Psalm 69:9 with John 2:17; 
16. Psalm 69:21 with Matthew 27:34; 
17. Psalm 109:4 with Luke 23:34; 
18. Psalm 109:8 with Acts 1:20; 
19. Psalm 110:I with Matthew 22:44; 
20. Psalm 110:4 with Hebrews 5:6; 
21. Psalm 118:22 with Matthew 21:42; and 
22. Psalm 118:26 with Matthew 21:9. 

(This list was compiled by Dr. Kenneth D. Boa.) 

The Psalms are like an ocean fed by many rivers, many writers.  They are for wading in, bathing in, swimming in, surfing in, boating on, and even drowning in (for the mystics have loved and used them too).  Their authors include David (about half), Moses (90), Ezra (119), Solomon (72 and 127), Asaph, and many others.  They were written during a period of perhaps a thousand years, from the time of Moses, about 1400 B.C., to the return from exile about 430 B.C.  They will last forever.

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Acknowledgement

kreeftPeter Kreeft. "Our Primary Prayer Book: The Psalms." chapter fourteen from You Can Understand the Bible (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1990): 86-91.

Reprinted by permission of Peter Kreeft.

The Author

kreeft1kreeftPeter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: You Can Understand the Bible, How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint, Fundamentals of the Faith, The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, Prayer for Beginnersand Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1990 Peter Kreeft
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