October 25, 2020

Who Prays the Psalms?

David flees Jerusalem after Absalom's conspiracy

David flees Jerusalem after Absalom’s conspiracy

Who prays the Psalms? David (Solomon, Asaph, etc.) prays, Christ prays, we pray.

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible

* * *

The psalms are the prayers of Christ. This is the conclusion to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer came. When we pray them Bonhoeffer says, we enter into the prayers of our Lord, the One “who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God and who stands in our place and prays for us.”

How is it that we can call these human prayers, composed and used in Temple worship long before Jesus walked the earth, the “prayers of Christ?”

Let us trace a line of thinking that I think justifies this conclusion.

First of all, let us note that most of the psalms are the prayers of David the King and other representatives from those appointed to lead the Temple worship in Jerusalem. David may or may not have composed all of the psalms associated with his name (though other texts do testify that he wrote many — 2Sam. 23:1), but those that bear the designation “Of David” were marked that way because those who put the Book of Psalms together saw David in them and wanted readers to think of David when meditating upon them.

Second, David is presented in the Book of Psalms as the suffering King. The vast majority of the “David” psalms are found in the first two books or sections of the Psalms, and most of them are laments.  David is portrayed as the righteous one who is persecuted by his enemies, and who finds consolation and deliverance through trusting in God. The stories about David in Samuel fill in the imaginative background when we read these prayers. We see him fleeing King Saul, hiding in the rocks and caves, seeking a smooth and straight path for his feet, fighting against other enemies and waiting for the time when he would take the throne. We see him later in his life, exiled from that throne, betrayed and opposed by members of his own household. Most of David’s life was a life in danger, under threat, a life on the edge, either threatened by or in exile.

king_davidThird, the people who put the Book of Psalms together were the exiles in Babylon. They themselves had seen the overthrow of their kingdom and had been cast into exile, subject to their enemies, without Temple, land, or king. In the midst of this sad setting, they found solace in remembering King David and how God brought him through his trials. It sparked a growing hope in their hearts that another King might arise to lead them, that their kingdom would be restored, that they would return home and once more establish their lives, their Temple worship, their future. David was the model for this King. The King to come would share their sufferings, model trust in God, and lead them to victory over their enemies.

Finally, Christians have come to believe that Jesus is this King. The Gospels and other NT books designate him the “Son of David,” the suffering Savior who trusted God and overcame death, being exalted to his throne through his resurrection and ascension. He both prayed and embodied the psalms in his life and ministry.

When we pray the psalms, therefore, we enter the story of Jesus our King and pray with him as he endures the attacks and reproaches of his enemies, as he prays for God to be his rock, his refuge, his deliverer.

For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

(Psalm 16:10-11)

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer affirms: “To be sure, the one who prays his Psalms remains himself. But in him and through him it is Christ who prays.” Praying the psalms is, therefore, one of the most excellent ways God has given us to “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).


  1. Yes, Bonhoeffer had a high view of the Psalms as the prayer of Jesus. As an Episcopalian who practices the daily office, I share his understanding of the Psalms and their importance in personal prayer and the formation of the Christian’s inner life. We should not, however, forget that Bonhoeffer also practiced completely extemporaneous prayer, and believed that Christians should be on such an intimate basis with their Father that they could speak freely and sincerely their own words when praying. Bonhoeffer believed that balance in prayer was essential.

    • Bonhoeffer did indeed believe in the value of extemporaneous prayer. I particularly love his morning prayer from Christmas of 1943, which I believe he wrote while imprisoned…

      “God, to you I call early in the morning.
      Help me pray
      And gather my thoughts to yourself
      I cannot do it alone.
      In me it is dark,
      But with you is the light;
      I am lonely, but you forsake me not;
      I am faint-hearted, but with you is help;
      I am restless, but with you is peace;
      In me is bitterness, but with you is patience;
      I do not understand my way, but
      You know the way for me…”

      Of course, the prayer goes on much farther. It’s a beautiful prayer, with more than a hint of Psalms found within.

      Having been a pastor in the Evangelical world, and often hearing brothers and sisters denounce the use of the Lord’s Prayer, saying “It was only a pattern for prayer, not meant to be actually prayed, individually or corporately.”, and seeing them reject the use of ancient prayers of say, Church Fathers, or from our great works of liturgy (BCP, etc.), I believe now that it is balance that is vital. Some feel that reading the prayers of others is vain repetition, or insincere. God knows the sincerity in my heart when I pray the Lorica; the prayer of confession from the Book of Common Prayer; the O Antiphons; or my prayers that are spontaneous and off the cuff.

      I wouldn’t dare risk judging those who pray set prayers every Sunday, or during private devotions, anymore than I would judge the well meaning deacon who prays the exact same “spontaneous” prayer before the collection plate is passed each week…We all know the one, in the baritone voice…”Lord, just be with us today, and Lord, just be with our pastor today as he brings your word, and Lord, just bless this offering now…” And so on….As much as I might poke fun at “that guy” sometimes, I have to believe that his heart is likely in it just as much as mine…Then I pray Psalm 51, and beg forgiveness for my haughtiness.

      Now, to plug a resource…I love the Glenstal Book of Prayer (http://www.amazon.com/The-Glenstal-Book-Prayer-Benedictine/dp/0814627676/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1360934146&sr=8-1&keywords=glenstal+book+of+prayer) . I use it for private devotions, and have found many of the prayers inside to be beneficial in other circumstances.

      Good comments from yourself and Allen so far this morning.

    • On the balance: Personally, I find praying these ancient prayers very helpful. Besides the fact that they bring me into communion with (MANY) generations before, it saves me from the tyranny of having always to come up with with something good to say extemporaneously. Frankly, I’m often devoid of the right words or thoughts; why not, then, find a voice with the help of the Psalms and learn again to pray?

      In a way, I think that the expectation to be extemporaneous at all times in a way reflects, or at least jives with, evangelicalism’s belief in always overcoming and yet not never being broken. Somehow, I’m supposed to be broken, yet I’m supposed to be able to express myself properly to God at the same time, unassisted, with my great spiritual acumen.

      If I’m broken, give me something to lean on!

      • “If I’m broken, give me something to lean on!”

        Yes! Prayer is a spiritual discipline, and those ancient prayers are tools made available to us by that great communion of saints we are a part of.

        • My own extemporaneous prayer often arises out of the daily office, as the branches and leaves arise out of root and trunk.

  2. I noticed something missing in the evangelical world, we completely abandoned the Psalms. When I recently started a Sunday small group on the Psalms, all said they never heard of studying the Psalms. I would have never endured suffering without the Psalms.

    • Good for you, Allen. I facilitate an adult Sunday school class at the church I attend, and a couple years ago I began reading a Psalm at the beginning of every class. I have no idea why I started doing it (well, that’s not exactly true – I felt led by the Spirit to do so). I think everyone really enjoys it. I find it a really great way to set the stage for reading and studying the Word, and entering into prayer for each other.

      This is just confirmation for me to keep doing it!

  3. “The psalms are the prayers of Christ. This is the conclusion to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer came.”

    Wonderful. I remember having an inkling of this awhile back. Good to know Bonhoeffer came to this before me.

  4. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    I tend to do my personal devotions from the Daily Office services of the old 1928 American edition of the Book of Common Prayer. In its lectionaries, it has two methods for reading the Psalms as part of the services: the older “monastic” version that goes through them once a month and the newer “cathedral” version that has only one or two psalms per service (you end up praying through them two or three times a year, I think). I really like the monastic version. The real key to me was learning how to 1) see them as Christ’s prayers, 2) sometimes learn to pray “I” instead of “we” and pray “we” instead of “I.” 3) see myself as part of Israel and thus a partaker in their heritage. I LOVE the Psalms now. I recently bought the St. Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter which has plainchant settings for all of the Psalms and much of the Daily Office liturgy. It takes twice as long to do my devotions with it, but it’s very good, nonetheless.

    • The major difficulty to seeing the Psalms as the prayer of Christ is what to do with the imprecatory and confessional passages. It seems wrong for Jesus to wish harm on his enemies or confess his sin. But there are very important truths hidden there behind this seeming inconsistency. For point 3: This is what I say when my Jews for Jesus friends acuse me of “replacement theology.”

  5. Yes! I’ve always loved the Psalms.

    Now, with little kids, I’m hoping/trying to pass on that love to them. Our first memory verse last year was Psalm 86.11: “Teach me your way, Lord, so that I can walk in your truth. Make my heart focused only on honoring your name” (Common English Bible).

    Seeing them as the prayers of Jesus only intensifies my appreciation for them!

  6. I’m in agreement with all the other posts so far today; but there’s one additional aspect to this, equally significant:

    “Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible” was Bonhoeffer’s last published book, done in the thick of wartime while he was under constant Nazi surveillance and after his underground seminary had been closed. The Nazis were at that point attempting to coerce the German Evangelical Church into suppressing the “Jewish” scriptures (we call them the OT) in favor of the words of a supposedly Arian, blond, blue-eyed Christ figure.

    By identifying the Psalms as the prayers “of Christ”, Bonhoeffer was directly opposing that heresy. The price he paid was being forbidden to ever publish again. His imprisonment and martyrdom followed soon thereafter.

    • That book is really a glorified pamphlet, but it is truly worth its weight in gold. I didn’t realize the background info on it, though. Time to read it again!