The Psalms Speak for Us

A couple of years ago I wrote about my need for prayer guides. For most of my life I had this ideal picture of what it means to be a prayerful person as someone who sits and talks to God for long periods. But that picture has never really manifested itself in my life. I have found great help in podcasts that lead people to pray, praying with others, and books of prayers. I wrote Delivered from All My Fears: Devotional Readings on Psalm 34 to be one of those aids to help people pray.

Years ago I was challenged by Eugene Peterson’s book, Working the Angles to look to the Psalms to learn to pray. Peterson argues that until the 19th century the people of God learned to pray through the Psalms. They were the original prayer guides, and are still the best, covering virtually all human emotions and expressing all types of speech to God. Peterson reiterates an oft-cited paraphrase of the 4th century theologian, Athanasius: “most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us.” (55)

A fuller quotation from Athanasius is worth considering. The notion of the Psalms speaking for us comes from his Letter to Marcellinus, which is the first known Christian writing on the Psalms. Note, the language might sound a bit archaic, but the ideas are wonderful and beautifully expressed.

And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed and, seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn. about yourself You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill….

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and any one who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.