The familiar voice of the air traffic controller crackled through the cockpit headphones: Flight 407 cleared to descend to 10,000 feet. Check. Descending to 10,000 feet, replied the first officer as he twiddled a dial. A similar conversational exchange was repeated periodically as the plane gradually made its way down to the appointed runway. When he was only a few hundred feet off the ground, the captain switched off the autopilot and took over manual control. With a steady hand, borne of years of experience, he landed the big jumbo jet so gently that the passengers did not even feel a bump. (Scattered applause in the economy section.) The captain exited from the cockpit and while leaving the plane, accidentally stubbed his toe. A string of expletives streamed from his lips.
Question! What allowed that pilot to gain such mastery over a massive and complicated piece of technical equipment and yet did not help him control his own speech in an unguarded moment? We could multiply many such examples to illustrate a truth that is all too familiar: human beings have done an amazing job of understanding and controlling the world outside of themselves, but conquering inner space, the world inside, remains as formidable a challenge as ever.
The problem, however, is not only a modern one. It has been with humanity since time immemorial. Lets travel back three thousand years to a scene where a young shepherd boy is lying on a Middle Eastern hillside. His sheep are probably bedded down for the night. Looking up into the crystal-clear, starlit night, hes amazed by the order that he sees in Creation. He expresses his feelings in poetry: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge (Psalm 19:12). But then he looks inward, and this is what he writes: Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of the great transgression (vv. 1213). Even as he marvels at the order of the world outside of him, hes aware of the disorder inside, and he wants to set it right.
What is the secret to the ordering of his inner space? The psalmist tells us in the intervening verses: The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The commandments of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward (vv. 78; 1011). The same order that the psalmist finds in Creation, he finds to an even more marvellous degree in the law of God. It is Gods law alone that can create order from the chaos of inner space. And how will this come about? The psalmists concluding words tell us: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer (v. 14). The psalmists worship and prayer, fuelled by his meditation on the law of God, arises as an acceptable offering to God and in the process brings order to his inner space.
What was true and necessary for a young shepherd boy three thousand years ago remains desperately necessary for us today. Most of us are frantically trying to carve out little islands of peace in a chaotic and frazzled society largely by attempting to control our external circumstances, a project that is doomed either to total failure or to infinitesimal successes separated by long periods of time. Gods Word prescribes an entirely different route to peace peace in the middle of a chaotic world through the conquest of inner space through precisely the same route that Psalm 19 described so beautifully for us. A mind given to regular meditation on Gods Word lets that Word become fuel for acceptable worship and prayer, and this connects us to the only one who is in absolute and sovereign control over the circumstances of our lives.
How can this peace, rooted in Gods sovereignty, penetrate our disordered souls? One way is through corporate worship. American pastor and author Calvin Miller observes that even though we may not be aware of it, this is why many people really come to church. They do not come, he says, to find answers to questions. They come to be put in touch with another world that they know exists but from which they are disconnected the invisible world in which God reigns sovereignly through His lifegiving, ordering, and hence peace-bestowing Word.1
Certainly, this calls for a worship service, each of whose elements are carefully and prayerfully structured with this need in mind. I have, however, struggled throughout my ministry with the flip side of this issue. Is it possible for someone who has not met God all week long to suddenly get familiar with Him on Sunday? Its somewhat like being thrown into a room full of strangers and being told to hold a meaningful conversation with one or more of them. Its possible; but only by sheer accident would a significant interchange result. Whats far more likely is a strained or superficial conversation (or both). Of course, God is sovereign, and certainly His Spirit can meet us at our driest and thirstiest. How often the psalmists look back to great sanctuary moments when they participated in corporate worship that gladdened their hearts and magnified Gods greatness and power. But are we intended to count only on that? How much richer our corporate worship would be if we regularly came to it from a week of communion with God. That is why much of my ministry in the local church (which I have served for twenty-one years) has focused on helping people encounter God in personal, private communion both during and outside of formal worship. As I have attempted this through preaching, leading smaller corporate prayer meetings, spiritual direction in small groups, and one-on-one encounters, the key issues that needed to be addressed slowly crystallized.
A Problem with Words
When Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, He introduced the specifics with two general warnings: against the Pharisaic sin of hypocrisy and the Gentile sin of babbling. The more familiar King James Versions admonition against vain repetitions is a somewhat misleading way of describing babbling because it appears to warn against repetition, which is essential to perseverance in prayer. Babbling, on the other hand aimless wandering and verbal diarrhea is the real problem, not repetition. A classic example is our recurring use of a certain phrase whenever we pray for God to be with a specific individual. We say, Lord, be with them in a very real way. If we only paused to think for a moment, we would realize that we almost never speak that way to a human being whose presence is important to us. Imagine leaving your precious infant for the first time with a babysitter with these parting words: Now, Sandra, make sure that you are with the baby in a very real way. That message conveys nothing specific to Sandra about your expectations of her or your concern for the well-being of your child. You would more likely tell her something like this: Make sure to check her every thirty minutes, make sure the intercoms turned on at 9 p.m., and dont forget the bottle if she wakes up. Make sure to heat it for three minutes on low in the microwave before you give it to her, and if you have any problems, you can always call us at _________ . If God is a person and we are talking to Him about matters that concern us, why dont we speak to Him normally, the way we would to any other person (I mean, as far as language is concerned). Why do we resort to be with them in a very special way? John Stott calls it praying with our mouths disengaged from our minds.
The other side of babbling is silence. Because we do not want to babble, we say nothing. Now, there is a silence that concentrates and improves our speech, a silence that is essential to prayer. The silence I am referring to, however, sets the mind wandering so we are no longer drawing near to God with our hearts. To put it in the proverbial nutshell, the first practical problem that I wrestled with was this: How do we find the balance between silence that invites our mind to wander and babbling that is an affront to God?
Now, some people have resorted to prayer lists and denominational prayer manuals to solve this problem. We need to be thankful for these many mighty prayer warriors that God has raised up, who have daily, monthly, yearly, and even through decades ploughed through prayer manuals, battling on their knees for Christian workers and missionaries, tilting the balance of power in the warfare that is going on in the heavenly realms. This book is not for people like this, who pray very effectively with those tools. It is equally true, though, that for many people, lists and manuals become boring in very short order. They hang in there because of guilt and free-floating anxiety and because discipline is good for the soul. But as for delight, that seems an elusive, almost unachievable dream when it comes to prayer. Thats the second problem I grappled with: How do we bring delight into the discipline of prayer?
The answers to both problems, in my own experience, consisted of the same elements. We need to listen to God in His Word before we say anything and then speak out of a mind well furnished with the plans and purposes of God, aided by an imagination fuelled by the powerful metaphors and images that abound in Scripture. As I tried to share these answers in the various settings I mentioned earlier, I began to see a third problem.
Pastor, How Do I Do It?
Simply suggesting this approach to praying the Psalms seems to be enough for some people. They dont need anything else to kick-start or sustain them in their subsequent journey. Several such testimonies can be found at the end of Eugene H. Petersons book Answering God. One of these pray-ers, however, suggests that something more may be necessary for others and gives us a clue as to what that might be. He writes: I found that a background of study, such as from class, is especially helpful, as it takes off the blanket, making the Psalms become alive, meaningful and relational in my prayer. A balance of these two modes is essential for the authentication of each: prayer to become; study to illuminate the story.2 That has certainly been my experience as a pastor. Even when I have directed people to ready-made scriptural prayers like the Psalms, even when I have pointed out that the Holy Spirit directed the composition and collection of these Psalms with the express purpose of creating a worship and prayer manual that one could use with confidence, even when I have given them excellent books on the Psalms, explaining this specific function, they most often come back to me with this question: Great book, pastor. But now how do I do it? How do I pray through a Psalm? Something more is needed.
This book is a humble attempt at providing that something more, drawing upon the treasury of David, the Psalms. Why the Psalms? you might ask. What makes them particularly suited to this enterprise of learning to listen to God and exercising our imagination so we can find that balance between silence and babbling and bring delight into the discipline of prayer?
The simplest answer is that God has ordained it to be so, by causing the Psalms to be written and collated for that specific purpose. They are Israels worship manual. We would be unwise to look elsewhere, at least at the beginning of our pilgrimage in prayer.
They are also unique in that they represent human beings attempts to speak to God, whereas the rest of Scripture, by and large, is a record of God speaking to humans. And in speaking to God they reflect the full gamut of human emotions. The psalmists laugh, sing, weep, rail, they cry out in pain, fright, derision, joy and the sheer delight in life.3 Because of that, as author Leonard Griffith puts it, everyone can find themselves somewhere in the Old Testament Psalter.4 And because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit and are therefore not merely human folk songs reflecting the common experience of men, the Psalms also relate the wisdom and release that ensue when a hurt or a joy is laid at the feet of God.5 This is important in an era when human feelings have gained an unwarranted autonomy and dangerous ascendance in fashioning responses to life, even Christian responses in prayer.
A third critical function of praying the Psalms is described by Robert Johnston. In his brief commentary, he states, In an era when life has been wrongly divided into the sacred and secular, it is hard for us to realize the importance of worship in Israels life. Worship was widespread and related to the whole of lifes experiences. Thus when you planted a field you had a religious ceremony. When you harvested your crop you did likewise. When you were sick, you came to God for help along with Gods people. When you sinned, you sought forgiveness and restitution in worship. When your king was enthroned you first of all worshipped God.6 Praying the Psalms will serve to integrate life something we desperately need, because our lives bear the marks of the fragmentation and compartmentalization that characterize our society at large.
The final reason is one I have not come across in any of the books on the Psalms that I have read. There are seventy-eight references to the nations and another twenty-eight to the peoples in the Psalter. Both these words refer to the natives of nations other than Israel. A complete survey of all these references is beyond the scope and intent of this introduction, but this recurring reference to the nations in the Psalms would never let Israels worship degenerate into mere private enjoyment of Gods blessings: every time they gathered to worship God, they would be reminded that they had been chosen and blessed of God so that, through them, all nations of the earth would come to know and worship Israels God.
Psalm 47 is perhaps the quintessential representative in this regard: Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy. How awesome is the Lord Most High, the great King over all the earth! He subdued nations under us, peoples under our feet. He chose our inheritance for us, the pride of Jacob, whom he loved. God has ascended amid shouts of joy, the Lord amid the sounding of trumpets. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth; sing to him a psalm of praise. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on his holy throne. The nobles of the nations assemble as the people of the God of Abraham, for the kings of the earth belong to God; he is greatly exalted. The last verse paints a vivid picture of the day when the nobles of the nations will assemble as the people of the God of Abraham (the Hebrew root for assemble is apparently closest in meaning to the New Testament concept of the Church).
The nations are also featured in Psalm 2 (which, along with Psalm 1, serves as an introduction to the whole Psalter). Psalm 2 portrays the Father saying to Jesus, the Son, Ask of me and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. From the very beginning, Israels training in prayer included intercessory prayer for the nations, so that they would one day be gathered to the people of God. It is an emphasis we desperately need to recover. At last count, thousands of nations (or people groups) have yet to hear about Jesus Christ. We, no less than Israel, cannot be allowed to forget, in our private acts of contemplation and prayer, no matter how enjoyable, that Gods purposes embrace all the nations. As American pastor and author John Piper argues so convincingly, one of the main reasons prayer has malfunctioned is that we Christians have turned what was intended as a wartime walkie-talkie that enables us to stay in touch with command headquarters into a domestic intercom that makes life more comfortable in the den.7 Praying the Psalms will at least serve as a regular reminder of, and partial corrective to, religious myopia.
Where Are We Headed?
Part 1 contains two long chapters devoted to the two critical disciplines of listening to God and exercising the imagination. They are long because they are critical. If I fail to convince you here, the rest of the book is merely academic. In Part 2, I have included expositions of several Psalms. Since I first began preaching the Psalms in 1985 (about seventeen years ago), I have had the wonderful privilege of studying and expounding nearly thirty-five of them and praying through several others. Not surprisingly, therefore, it was a challenge to determine which ones to include in this book and which ones to leave for another day.
What criteria did I use for this selection? I finally settled on these: uniqueness, the practical relevance of the human emotions and predicaments addressed, and above all, their effectiveness as tools in training us to pray. While each chapter is intended as a stand-alone exposition, all are presented in a logical sequence. Psalm 84 begins our journey by describing the blessedness of those who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. This pilgrimage to Zion (the temple in Jerusalem) sets the scene for Psalm 48, which extols a Mount Zion that is beautiful in its loftiness. When the pilgrims reach Mount Zion, they worship with the gathered people of God, as we do every Sunday in church (our spiritual Mount Zion). That is why the next Psalm is Psalm 92, the only one titled A Song. For the Sabbath Day.
We are not on this pilgrimage alone, and we will eventually pass the baton to the generation coming after us. Psalm 127 describes this task exquisitely as launching our children as arrows so they can do battle at the city gates, the place where decisions are made. At those city gates, we and our children are called to mix religion and politics effectively, as described in Psalm 72. That Psalm, in turn, ends with an affirmation of the universal spread of Gods glory, thus setting the stage for our first medley of Psalms (2, 110, and 118), teaching us to advance the Kingdom of God on our knees against virulent opposition.
The pilgrimage begun in Psalm 84 ends with the worldwide acknowledgement of Gods glory. But as with the Hebrew pilgrims journey to the physical Zion, we encounter obstacles along the way to the spiritual Zion. In the next four chapters, we look into some of these challenges. Psalm 51 teaches us how to confess our sins, a second medley (Psalms 22, 129, and 139) guides us in handling sins committed against us, and Psalm 37 offers answers to tyrannical questions raised by the intellect, which cannot harmonize lifes harsh realities with pat theological assertions. Finally, Psalm 90 helps us tame time with a touch of eternity.
At the end of each expository section, interspersed throughout the book, I have included a Prayer Guide the something more that some pray-ers will want to use, in addition to being encouraged to pray the Psalms. Without these guides, I would have felt no justification for adding this book to the many commentaries on the Psalms that are already available. A few words on how they could be used might be helpful. (I am indebted to my daughter, Sheila, for agreeing to be a spiritual guinea pig. She was the first one to field-test a few of these guides by actually using them in her own prayer closet. Her feedback helped me tie up several loose ends and make the guides more user friendly.)
So here are the user instructions:
1. Read the Psalm. The NIV version of the Psalm has been included at the beginning of each chapter and at appropriate points in the exposition, for ready accessibility.
2. Read the expositions of the Psalm (in the main text of the chapter), skipping the Prayer Guides for the moment. This will give you the proverbial birds-eye view of the issues the psalmist is grappling with, the emotions engendered by these issues, and how he responds to God.
3. Read through the expositions again; only this time, stop whenever you come to a Prayer Guide which is also the point where the word Selah appears in the full Psalm at the beginning of the chapter. Scholars tell us that the precise meaning of this word is uncertain, but its most likely function in the Psalms is to say to us, Stop and reflect on what you have read. At any rate, thats the function I intend it to serve in my expositions. It says to you, Stop here and go through the Prayer Guide. At each Selah, or Prayer Guide, then, take some time to respond to God, using the suggestions in the guide to shape your prayers. When you feel you have finished responding, move on to the next Psalm exposition and continue until the next Prayer Guide. Then respond to that part of the Psalm, using the questions and suggestions in that guide. The number and position of the Prayer Guides are my attempt to provide a reasonable balance between a choppy exposition (where Prayer Guides would appear too frequently) and too much material between prayer times. Work your way through the entire Psalm in this way. It may take you more than one session of prayer to complete praying through one Psalm. Keep a journal handy to record any insights you gain about the meaning of the Scriptures you are praying, any specific relevance to your life situation, any persistent impressions, and any other reactions you have. It is this practice, more than anything else, that has awakened my ear to listen as one being taught and by which I have been the gracious recipient of an instructed tongue to know a word that sustains the weary (Isaiah 50:4).
4. Repeat the process with each Psalm until you become familiar with using the guides. Once you finish the entire book, it may be a good idea to go back and pray through the guides again until the ten Psalms/Psalm medleys become part of your prayer language.
5. Then try praying through other Psalms that I have not included in this book, but which command your attention for whatever reason. Develop your own Prayer Guides using the ones in this book as a starting point.
The process may appear somewhat stilted and formal at first. If you are not accustomed to letting Scripture shape your prayers at all, you may be able to do no more, in the initial stages, than repeat the very words of the psalmist. But shouldnt prayers be spontaneous and original? you might ask. At the time I was writing this chapter, I was also taking a course on prayer at Regent College. In a small-group discussion that followed each class, the leader asked each of us to share a bit about how we had started on our prayer journeys. I was struck by the number of people who said they had begun by mimicking others presumably more experienced Christians. Thats how they learned the lingo. (I suspect thats how so many of us learned to ask God to be with them in a very special way.) We can only learn to pray by mimicking exactly the way we learned our native tongues. The only question is this: Whom should we mimic? Since the Psalms were inspired by God and have been used by the Church for millennia as prayers, we could do worse than mimic them.
At any rate, reading the entire exposition of the Psalm first will allow you to pour more content into these expressions than you might otherwise have been able to do, even at the mimicry stage. Stay with it, and slowly but surely, you will find the psalmists language becoming your own. In fact, the guides will increasingly become launching pads for your own prayers. To borrow the words of the Swiss Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the aim of the guides is to become superfluous. Whenever the person at prayer feels he can leave this crutch aside, whenever his own wings bear him aloft, he can dispense with them without the slightest regret.8
Is it worth the effort? Eugene Petersons answer cant be bettered. Commenting on Jonahs prayer from deep inside the belly of the great fish, he notes that both the content and the form of Jonahs prayer were shaped by the Psalms. Then he gives us this application: If we want to pray our true condition, our total selves in responding to the living God, expressing our feelings is not enough. We need a long apprenticeship in prayer. And then we need graduate school. The Psalms are that school. Jonah in his prayer shows himself to have been a diligent student in the school of the Psalms. His prayer is kicked off by his plight but not reduced to it. His prayer took him into a world far larger than his immediate experience. This contrasts with the prevailing climate of prayer. Our culture presents us with forms of prayer that are mostly self expression pouring ourselves out before God Such prayer is dominated by a sense of self. But prayer, mature prayer [shaped by the Psalms] is dominated by a sense of God. [Such] prayer rescues us from a preoccupation with ourselves and pulls us into adoration of, and pilgrimage to, God [emphasis mine].9
The result: an increasingly ordered inner space. In recent years, we have known the conquest of outer space, because of the astounding technological breakthroughs of the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) space program and the COBE (COsmic Background Explorer) satellite. Compared to the conquest of inner space, however, these victories are totally irrelevant and impotent, no matter how effective they may have been in unlocking mysteries in the regions beyond this earth. No wonder the hymn writer cried out: