the following is excerpted from a teaching given at a meeting of the People of Praise as a part of a series on learning how to pray the Psalms
I’ve got to tell you, when I began this teaching on the Psalms, I was really frustrated when I went to the Psalms of thanksgiving. I couldn’t find what I was looking for. I wanted something that I could apply in certain way to my life so that I could stand up here and say something that could help you pray the Psalms and apply them to your life.
I wanted to find a couple of Psalms that I could pray in the evening that would help me be thankful for the grace that God had poured out and me and on my family. And honestly, I couldn’t find them. I found some things I might be able to stretch a little bit. I found a couple sections I could have pulled out of context. But I could not find a consistent, sustained “Thank you God for the blessings of this day, for live and for health. Thank you for giving me a job that I love and helping me to provide for my family. Thank you for the way you continue to save me.”
It was a real frustration to the nice three point outline I had already formulated in my head under the pressure of a deadline.
But as often happens with the scriptures, when I stopped looking for what I wanted them to say and started listening to what they were saying, I actually found something much richer.
When you read the Psalms, what you find most often is the Psalmists thanking the Lord for victory in battle, for rescue from the plots of evil men and nations, for deliverance from oppressors, and for freedom from slavery in Egypt.
The Psalms of thanksgiving are almost all celebrations of the ways in which God acted for his people Israel. Over and over again, the Psalmists say, “We recount your wondrous deeds” or “we praise you for your marvelous works.”
What initially frustrated me was that these Psalms weren't about me. What was I supposed to get out of these Psalms? How was I supposed to pray them?
But in reading them again and again, trying hard to listen for what the Lord was saying, what I came to delight in was precisely the thing that had so frustrated me – that these Psalms aren’t about me. They are about us.
This was how the people of Israel thought. Therefore this is how their songwriters wrote. To think of themselves as one people with one identity was the air they breathed.
One of the creeds that the people of Israel recited when the brought their first fruits before the Lord is recorded for us in Deuteronomy:
5 And you shall make response before the Lord your God, A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. 7 Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. 9 And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.
Hundreds of years after their deliverance, the people of Israel still came to the Lord saying, “A wandering Aramean was my father,” “the Egyptians treated us harshly,” “but God brought us into this land, a land flowing of milk and honey.” Hundreds of years later, they wanted to think of the slavery in Egypt as if they had been enslaved; they wanted to remember the great Exodus as if they had walked out with their own feet and tasted with their own mouths the milk and honey that flowed in the promised land.
This is the same thing that is going on in most of the Psalms of thanksgiving. In them, we find the Jewish people renewing their identification with the history of God’s faithfulness to them. It was not just that God had been kind to Abraham, their great, great, great, great, great grandfather, but that God had been kind to them at that same moment.
So what are we as Christians supposed to get out of these Psalms? How can we pray them?
Well, for at least three reasons, I think we can take the Psalms and pray them exactly as Israel prayed them.
First of all, the history of Israel is our history.
Knowing I was working on a teaching on the Psalms, my wife passed this on to me. It’s from a book by Ben Patterson called God's Prayer Book: The Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms. He writes:
“It took a while for me to appreciate what Paul meant when he said we Gentiles, by the grace of God, have been grafted into the vine of Israel. But when the lights came on, I was stunned and delighted to realize that their story is my story, too. It's our story. What happened to Israel at the Red Sea and Sinai and Meribah is as much about me as it is about them. I began to see my name written into the whole biblical story. I started reading and praying the Psalms like a child learning how to read, learning a new "vocabulary, a grammar, and a plot line"—discovering a family tree I didn't know I had.”
So praying the Psalms is an education of our mind, heart and spirit, an education that changes our perspective and broadens our vision. For me to say, “I thank the Lord that he brought us out of Egypt,” brings me into a huge story of God’s powerful work. And as we learn to pray them more and more, that larger story stretching back to creation becomes more and more a part of who we are, and we become more and more a part of it.
The second reason we can take these Psalms just as they are and pray them to God is this. Just as the history of the house of Israel is the history of God’s past faithfulness to us, so we are the ones who carry that same story forward.
At the end of the famous “role call of faith,” the author of Hebrews writes:
32 And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets” 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated 38 of whom the world was not worthy wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. 39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
When we own the Psalms that recount God’s faithfulness, when we pray them for ourselves, we recognize and honor the ongoing story of what all those faithful men and women worked for. Our work for the past 2000 years and our work in the people of Praise for the last 30 plus years our work and our life honors their labor. Our work and our life take up the work of 6000 years of faithfulness. And just as their work reaches out to us, so our work continues and will bring to completion theirs.
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
A final reason why we can and should pray the Psalms this way ties back to our last teaching on the Psalms of distress. One of the things I noticed going over those Psalms is how often they begin in isolation. The Psalmist feels cut off, abandoned, alone. Like Elijah in the wilderness, the Psalmists cry out: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
This sense of being alone and abandoned, or something like it, is a feeling that many of us know and are familiar with.
But when we pray the great Psalms of Thanksgiving, God says to us, “You are not alone. You are not abandoned. Nor will you ever be. In your loneliness, I am the same God who called Abraham out of Ur. I am the same God who rescued Joseph. I am the same God who fed Elijah. And there are not only 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal, but millions who make up my faithful people. I have been faithful to them. I will be faithful to them. And I will be faithful to you.