The Book of Psalms (sometimes called the Psalter) was the prayer book of Jesus and the early Christians. Jesus often quoted from it in his ministry here on earth including two of his prayers on the cross:
- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)
- “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Psalm 31:5)
The Psalms are unique and I believe that each psalm needs to be experienced as much as it needs to be read and understood. There are two ways to approach a psalm that will help you do this.
Feeling the Psalms
The first thing I try to do is feel what the psalmist feels.
For me the best way to do this is to first try to identify the emotion that the psalmist is expressing. Try using this feelings wheel if you have trouble doing this. Then once I identify the emotion, I think about what it’s like to experience that emotion.
Am I currently experiencing this emotion or have I experienced it in the recent past? If not, at what point in my life did I experience this emotion the most?
Once I get into this emotional state, then I can better pray the words of the psalm because I know what it’s like to be in a similar position. I can reenter those emotions and can better resonate with what I am reading.
For example, Psalm 13:1-2 says,
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”
What emotion is the psalmist experiencing? The word “sorrow” is a big clue. The psalmist is probably experiencing depression. Loneliness, isolation, abandonment and grief are also things that come to mind.
For me, I experienced these emotions the most when three of my family members passed away over a few month’s time. I felt extremely hopeless. I tried many things to process my emotions but nothing seemed to work. It took months before I could re-calibrate my life.
If I reflect on this time in my life as I read Psalm 13, I have a deep connection with the text. I can ask the same questions. Why did it seem like God forgot me during those months? Why did He hide his face from me when I desperately needed to feel His Presence? Why does He allow the defeated enemy of Death to still have such a powerful sting?
Seeing the Psalms
The second thing I try to do is see what the psalmist sees. In other words, we must use our imaginations when the psalmist uses a word picture or an analogy to describe something.
For example, Psalm 1 compares a righteous person who meditates on God’s law to a tree planted near living water. When I read this, I picture a tree between two rivers, perhaps similar to one I have seen before. I notice the bright green leaves and the deep roots. I hear the sound of the streams and the birds chirping. This mental scene can be described in one word: PEACE.
After I see what the psalmist sees, it makes me want to be more like this tree! I want this kind of peace and strength in my life. And this desire motivates me to live a righteous life and meditate on God’s law.
Accept the Psalms As They Are
Perhaps the biggest hindrance to experiencing the psalms is our unnecessary urge to sanitize them. We can easily downplay their words, emotions and experiences. But we must let the authors mean what they say and wrestle with the implications. We shouldn’t try to make them fit into the mold of what we think a “good Christian prayer” is supposed to sound like.
I encourage you to receive the psalms as they are, with all of their messiness and emotion, because they accurately describe the daily Christian life.
The Psalms should not only impact our intellects; we must allow them to reach our souls.