This is part nine of sixteen in a series, “The Bible Is…“
Throughout the pages of the Bible, there are many texts and passages that describe, teach about, or simply model how to worship God. While the Bible is not, nor contains, a complete handbook of Christian worship, there is much to be gleaned from it. The rites and ceremonies of Old Covenant worship, especially described in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, are insightful for shedding light on the nature of New Covenant worship. The theological discourse on the high priesthood of Christ Jesus that dominates much of the Epistle to the Hebrews has significant implications for Christian worship. Many moments in the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles directly apply to the subject of worship. And, of course, there are hundreds of prayers and songs throughout the Bible from which we can learn a great deal about prayer and worship, both private and corporate. Although some of the most significant canticles, or song-prayers, in the Bible are found in the Gospel of Luke and the book of Isaiah, there is no book in Scripture that comes close to the worshipful content of the Book of Psalms. There, one finds a full 150 song-prayers collected, simultaneously being the Word of God and words to God.
Many different moods and categorizations have been applied to the Psalms – lament, praise, thanksgiving, historical recollection, imprecation (or cursing of enemies), proclamations of royalty, celebration of God’s words. Regular and thoughtful engagement with the psalms as prayers brings a wide range of emotion and circumstance before the reader: expressions of anger, betrayal, abandonment, guilt, sadness, loss, gain, innocence, joy, thankfulness – all directed toward God in often brutally honest prayer. There is much to be gained from studying the Psalms from such angles, noting the emotional content and how they balance out. We can learn much about how we can, or ought to, worship from this.
Another layer of interaction with the Psalms can be found in identifying various “voices” within. While several of the psalms have specific authors and circumstances attached to them, coloring their original composition, they are all collected there because they are timeless and universal – any Christian can take them up and pray them him- or herself. But not every psalm will resonate with every individual at every time; sometimes a protestation of innocence (such as in Psalm 35) does not ring true for us; sometimes we don’t feel the anger of Psalm 137 or the joy of Psalm 150. Thus we learn from these psalms to pray with other voices: I may not be innocent, but Jesus is. I may not feel betrayed and angry, but Jesus was and is betrayed constantly. To pray the psalms with the voice of Christ is very instructive for us, as it teaches and shows us how we are called to be in him. His praying of Psalm 22 while on the Cross is a clear demonstration that these were his own prayers, not just ours, so we do well to learn to pray them as he does. Other times, the voice of the Church, or of martyrs or other particular groups of people in the past better fit the psalm: I may not feel like praising God with every ounce of breath, but the Church as a Body does. There are even a few times when the wicked are quoted (such as in Psalm 14), and we repeat their words of unbelief. Again, this teaches us how to pray beyond ourselves, not just expressing our own thoughts and feelings but joining ourselves to the greater body of worship and prayer of the whole Church, centered in the perfect prayer of Jesus himself.
The Book of Psalms is a unique book of the Bible in the Christian tradition for this very reason. It is never read as a Scripture reading, according to the historic liturgies of the Church; rather, it is prayed. In the tradition of daily prayers, all the Psalms are prayed every week in monasteries across the globe, or every four weeks by Roman Catholic clergymen, or every month in the Anglican Prayer Brook tradition. This is critical for the right understanding of this book of the Bible; it is not meant merely to be read and studied, but ultimately to be sung and prayed. Thus we learn the true lessons of prayer, worship, and spirituality from the Book of Psalms.