If a Christian really wants to learn to pray, it would be wise to be immersed in the Psalms. In the Psalms, the Church has a collection of 150 prayers that were inspired by the Holy Spirit. To know how God is pleased and honored in prayer, study the Psalms. Beyond that, pray the Psalms. Make them personal. They are inspired. The Book of Psalms is one of the greatest treasures of the Christian Church. Charles Spurgeon called his massive commentary on the Psalms, The Treasury of David.
It has been noted by Church historians that in those periods of Christian history where spiritual renewal, revival, and personal awakening took place, there was a strong focus on the Psalms in the life of the people of God, especially in worship. Martin Luther called the Psalms, “The Little Bible”, because all of the great doctrinal themes of Scripture are contained in them. The themes of the New Testament are anticipated in them including the death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah. The book of Psalms is the most quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. It is exceeding rich in its context of variety and themes.
Because the book of Psalms sets forth the prayers of the saints, a helpful acrostic is to remember the word, ACTS. This little word reminds the believer of the essential elements of prayer when the heart comes before the Father, and for good reason. We as Christians spend an inordinate amount of our time in prayer in supplication. While it is not wrong to spend our time in supplication before God, there is more to prayer than personal petitions. There are weightier matters in prayer. The acrostic ACTS is a good reminder of the other facets of prayer, beginning with A for Adoration.
When the Psalms are analyzed as a whole, there are several groupings of Psalms that can be identified.
Because the heart of the believer is immersed in adoration for God, there is a natural desire for confession. The C in the acrostic ACTS stands for confession. The T stands for Thanksgiving, and the S stands for Supplications. But notice, we are to make our supplications with thanksgiving. “Be careful for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” (Phil. 4:6) A grateful heart is integral to the response of God’s people when they pray.
When a Psalm is read carefully, and thoughtfully, the distant voice of the one who first uttered the prayer can be faintly heard. We listen and hear an ancient saint having a personal conversation with God. There is a deep sense of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. But then we remember something else. There was a corporate purpose for the Psalms, especially the spiritual life of Israel. The book of Psalms was the hymnal of Israel. It was the Prayer Book of the Covenant for the Hebrew nation.
Consider then the various types of Psalms that are designated. There are the Psalms of Praise. “O come, let us sing unto the LORD: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” (Psalms 95:1) In the OT the central point of worship was to provide a sacrifice to God. But the chief sacrifice God wanted was the sacrifice of prayer, for it reflected the heart of the worshipper. God was constantly pleading with His people saying, “My son, give me thine heart, and let thine eyes observe my ways.” (Prov. 23:26) If a Christian wants to learn to praise God with awe and adoration, they need to be immersed in the Psalms. Psalm 8 begins with the lovely expression of adoration, “O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! Who hast set thy glory above the heavens.” This thought leads the raptured soul to say, “I will praise thee with my whole heart.” (Psalms 138:1) “Let everything that hath breath praise the LORD. Praise ye the LORD.” (Psalms 150:6) God is worthy of such praise, honor, and glory.
As there are Praise Psalms, so there are Wisdom Psalms. This is a second classification to be noticed in conjunction with Poetic Literature. The Psalms are filled with wisdom and poetry. There are Psalms that instruct us in the ways of wisdom, and do so with great eloquence. A lesson is learned. The Word of God is designed to be beautiful to our ears, and helpful to our hearts. There are many messages that grate upon the soul. Our ears do not want to hear what is being said. Not only is the tone harsh, but the message is not helpful. It is filled with anger, bitterness, jealousy, or vindictiveness. It is easier to receive words of wisdom when they are presented in a pleasing manner.
A leading example of Wisdom Literature presented in poetic language is the first Psalm. The wise man is a blessed man. “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. 2 But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.” (Psalms 1:1-2) It is said of the wise man that, “he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” (Psalms 1:3)
The ungodly, in contrast, which is a common technique used in Old Testament wisdom literature, are not like the wise but “are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.” (Psalms 1:4) The ungodly have no roots. There is no stability and so the wicked are driven first one way, and then another. The Psalter begins with instruction for those who want to be blessed and wise. They are to meditate day and night in the Word of God.
As there is Wisdom Literature in the Psalms, and Poetical Literature, so there are Psalms which set for the deeply felt pain of individuals. There is pain which is derived from persecution, illness, and grief. This pain is articulated in the Lamenting Psalms. The prophet Jeremiah wrote the Book of Lamentations. There is nothing unspiritual in voicing grief, or lament. The Psalms invite Christians to be honest to God in their pain and suffering. Jesus Himself is called a man of sorrows. He was acquainted with grief. His own sorrow was faithfully recorded in the gospels. Hear Him lament, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matt. 23:37)
In the Old Testament book of Psalms, the saints pour out their hearts, weeping before God. David said, “I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.” (Psalms 6:6) Psalms 102 offers another example of a lamenting prayer of the afflicted. The saint is overwhelmed, and pours out his heart before the Lord pleading for God to hear him. “Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come unto thee.” (Psalms 102:1) The reason why the saint wants the Lord to hear him is because his days are “consumed like smoke” and his “bones are burned as an hearth.” His heart is heavy. He is “like a pelican of the wilderness.” He is like “an owl of the desert,” living in solitude, feeling melancholy while moping among the ruins, hooting discordantly. (Psalms 102:3, 4, 6) When people sense that their relationship with the Lord is not right, they feel a sense of being cut off. They are lonely. “O LORD, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear!” (Hab. 1:2)
On the night before his fateful meeting before the Emperor of the Holy Romans Empire, Charles V, and the prelates of the Church at the Diet of Worms, Luther felt isolated and cut off from God. He prayed for long hours. On his face before the Lord, Luther cried out, “Oh God, where are you!” Luther needed the Lord as he went through that dark night of the soul. In matchless grace the Lord came to comfort Luther, so that on April 18, 1521, at 4:00 pm he was able to give an answer to the Imperial Court concerning his writings which were in dispute. Refreshed in his spirit, encouraged in his faith, Luther said to the august body before he stood to be judged, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.”
Another type of psalms is the Messianic Psalms. Some are associated with the Royal Psalms, or the Enthronement Psalms. Much of the worship of the Israelites focused on the celebration of the Messiah who would go up to Zion and manifest the reign of God over His people. Whenever a king was enthroned in Israel’s history, it was a religious celebration, and a symbol of the Messiah who was to come and reign as King of kings, and Lord of lords. Jesus, of course, is that One who was to come. Jesus is the Messiah. The words of Psalms 110:1 are attributed to Jesus. “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.” (Psalms 110:1) Royal authority was given to David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ, who was also David’s Lord. (Matt. 22:41-46)
In Psalms 2, we read of the international conspiracy against the Lord. “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? 2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed.” (Psalms 2:1-2) The opposition is to no avail. “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. 5 Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure. 6 Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. 7 I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” (Psalms 2:4-6)
Psalms 22 is one of the most remarkable Psalms in Scripture. The words of Psalms 22:1 are uttered by Jesus at Calvary. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus was consciously aware that He was taking on the curse of the Old Covenant for His people. Jesus was exposing Himself to being forsaken by God in order to redeem His people from their sins.
The details of Psalms 22 were experienced by Jesus. “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. 7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head saying, 8 He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him….12 Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. 13 They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion. 14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. 15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. 17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. 18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” (Psalms 22:6-8, 12-18)
Another type of Psalms is the Penitential Psalms. If a Christian would know how to thoroughly repent, let the Penitential Psalms be studied. Psalm 51 offers a classic example of heart felt repentance. After being confronted by the prophet Nathan for his transgressions with Bathsheba, David bowed himself before God and pleaded for mercy and forgiveness. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.” (Psalms 51:1-3) David pled for God to deal with him on the basis of mercy. The Lord was gracious and extended to David divine mercy. Many times, the sorrow a believer professes is not authentic, for sin is returned to like a dog returns to his vomit. (2 Peter 2:22)
Of all the various Psalms, the Imprecatory Psalms present a challenge to New Testament believers. These are difficult Psalms to read, for they call down curses on their enemies, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. But there is a place in prayer for the Imprecatory Psalms. When David speaks of God’s enemies and says, “I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies”, he is manifesting a righteous anger. His anger mirrors the hatred of God towards evil, and those who work evil. The Christian is told to be angry, and sin not. (Eph. 4:26) So David continues to pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: 24 And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalms 139:23-24)
Today, the Church needs to engage in Imprecatory Prayers against those who slaughter the unborn and sell their little body parts. There should be a perfect hatred of those who molest our innocent children and lead them into homosexual activities, and put drugs into their bodies. The people of God who suffered under the German Fuher Adolf Hitler, the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, the Cuban leader Fidel Castro, the Ugandan general Idi Amin, or the liberal president Barack Hussein Obama have every right to go to God and pray for the scourge to be removed from power and office.
Many of the psalms are Thanksgiving Psalms which extol the beauty, majesty, and loving kindness of God. Psalm 119, the longest of the psalms, celebrates the sweetness of the Law of God. The psalmist, with a grateful heart says, “O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.” (Psalms 119:97) Prayer is a two way form of communication, God speaks through His Word, while the believer speaks to God from his heart. Therefore, let every Christian read God’s Word, be influenced by the text of Scripture, and pray the psalms by embracing them as a personal expression of their own.