Dietrich Bonhoeffer noticed that in the Psalms, there are repeated requests for provision and protection. His conclusion of what this is, and how this leads us to Christ is startlingly relevant;
“It is striking to many earnest Christians as they pray the Psalms how frequently there occurs a petition for life and good fortune. When looking at the cross of Christ there arises in many the unhealthy thought that life and the visible earthly blessings of God are in themselves certainly a questionable good and in any case not to be desired. They then take the corresponding prayers of the Psalter as an early first stage of Old Testament piety that is overcome in the New Testament. But in doing so they want to be even more spiritual than God is.
As the petition for daily bread includes the entire sphere of the needs of bodily life, so the prayer that is directed to the God who is the creator and sustainer of this life necessarily includes the petition for life, health, and the visible evidence of God’s friendliness. Bodily life is not disdained. On the contrary, God has given us community in Jesus Christ precisely so that we can live in God’s presence in this life and then certainly also in the life to come. For this reason God gives us earthly prayers so that we can know, praise, and love God all the more. It is God’s will that it go well on earth for those who are devout (Ps. 37).15 This desire is not set aside by the cross of Jesus Christ, but is established all the more. And precisely at the point where in following Jesus people must take on many privations, they will answer the question of Jesus, “Did you lack anything?” as the disciples answered it: “No, not a thing.” (Luke 22:35).16 The assumption behind this is the teaching of the psalm: “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked” (Ps. 37:16).
We really ought not to have a bad conscience in praying with the Psalter for life, health, peace, and earthly good, if only like the psalm itself we recognize all these as evidences of God’s gracious community with us and thereby hold fast to the knowledge that God’s goodness is better than life (Ps. 63:4 , 73:25f.).
Psalm 103 teaches us to understand all the fullness of the gifts of God, from the preservation of life to the forgiveness of sins, as a great unity and to come before God with thanks and praise for it (cf. also Ps.65). For the sake of Jesus Christ, the Creator gives us life and sustains it. So God wants to make us ready, finally, through the loss of all earthly goods in death, to obtain eternal life. For the sake of Jesus Christ alone, and at his bidding, we may pray for the good things of life, and for the sake of Christ we should also do it with confidence. But when we receive what we need, then we should not stop thanking God from the heart for being so friendly to us for the sake of Jesus Christ."
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 5
We are called by the Psalms to dive in with a constant regularity, not because it is always what we want, but because it is precisely what we need. We need the words of the Psalms like we need water. Bonhoeffer writes,
“In many churches psalms are read or sung every Sunday, or even daily, according to a regular pattern. These churches have preserved for themselves a priceless treasure, for only with daily use does one become immersed in that divine prayerbook. With only occasional reading these prayers are too overwhelming for us in thought and power, so that we again and again turn to lighter fare. But whoever has begun to pray the Psalter earnestly and regularly will “soon take leave” of those other light and personal “little devotional prayers and say: Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter. Anything else tastes too cold and too hard” (Luther).8 Where we no longer pray the Psalms in our churches, we must take the Psalter that much more into our daily morning and evening worship. Every day we should read and pray several psalms, if possible with others, so that we read through this book repeatedly during the year and continue to delve into it ever more deeply. We also ought not to select psalms at our own discretion, exhibiting disrespect to the prayerbook of the Bible and thinking that we know better than even God does what we should pray. In the early church it was nothing unusual to know “the entire David” by heart. In one eastern church this was a prerequisite for an ecclesiastical office. The church father Jerome says that in his time one could hear the Psalms being sung in the fields and gardens.9 The Psalter filled the life of early Christianity. But more important than all of this is that Jesus died on the cross with words from the Psalms on his lips.10 Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.”
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 5 (Kindle Locations 3514-3529). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Is happiness the absence of suffering? Well, possibly not all suffering is bad, possibly there is a just type of suffering. In Psalm 32, David calls our attention to the blessed feeling of having your sin forgiven. There's a suffering which we inflict on ourselves that can, if left unchecked, confessed, literally eat us alive. It is this type of suffering that Psalm 32 addresses when David writes, "For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”
A heart which tries to live autonomously, apart from the goodness of God will experience this type of crushing weight. Luther wrote, “Where do you find more pitiful, miserable words of sadness than in the psalms of lamentation? There you see into the heart of all the saints as into death, even as into hell. How sad and dark it is there in every wretched corner of the wrath of God”
The way out from under this wrath is confession, to be absolved and have one’s sin forgiven. David concludes Psalm 32 with this striking contrast between the wicked and the righteous, or to put it more plainly, between those try to deal with sin on their own, and those who look to God for deliverance. He says, “Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the Lord. Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
Regarding praying this, and other Psalms, as personal confessions, Bonhoeffer offers us these deeply encouraging thoughts;
“But the question is not what possible motives stand behind a prayer, but whether the content of the prayer itself is true or false. Here it is clear that believing Christians have something to say not only about their guilt, but also something equally important about their innocence and righteousness. To have faith as a Christian means that, through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, the Christian has become entirely innocent and righteous in God’s eyes—that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). And to pray as a Christian means to hold fast to this innocence and righteousness in which Christians share, and for which they appeal to God’s Word and give God thanks. If in other respects we take God’s action toward us at all seriously, then we not only may, but plainly must, pray in all humility and certainty: “I was blameless before [God], and I kept myself from guilt” (Ps. 18:24 ); “If you test me, you will find no wickedness in me” (Ps. 17:3).24 With such a prayer we stand in the center of the New Testament, in the community of the cross of Jesus Christ. The assertion of innocence comes out with particular emphasis in the psalms that deal with oppression by godless enemies. The primary thought here is of the justice of God’s cause, which also, to be sure, vindicates the one who embraces it. The fact that we are persecuted for the sake of God’s cause really places us in the right over against the enemy of God. Alongside objective innocence, which can of course never be really objective because the fact of the grace of God likewise always meets us personally, there can then stand in such a psalm the personal confession of guilt (Pss. 41:5 , 69:6 ). This is again only a sign that I really embrace God’s cause. I can then ask even in the same breath: “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people” (Ps. 43:1). It is a thoroughly unbiblical and destructive idea that we can never suffer innocently as long as some kind of fault still remains in us. Neither the Old nor the New Testament makes such a judgment. If we are persecuted for the sake of God’s cause, then we suffer innocently, and that means we suffer with God. That we really are with God and, therefore, really innocent is demonstrated precisely in this, that we pray for the forgiveness of our sins. But we are innocent not only in relation to the enemies of God, but also before God, for we are now seen united with God’s cause, into which it is precisely God who has drawn us, and God forgives us our sins. So all the psalms of innocence join in the hymn: “O blood of Christ, O Lord of Righteousness / my Robe of Honor, my Adorning dress, / Before God’s throne I’ll be clothed with you / When in heavenly glory I’ll live anew.”
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 5 (Kindle Locations 3711-3735). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
What is prayer, what are the Psalms, what do these have to do with my spiritual life, and how can I possibly “pray the Psalms?” These are the questions we wrestle through in this week’s sermon.
I’ll let you listen to through it to get your bearings, but as a thought provoking guide to use in walking forward into deeper contemplation of the Psalms, I offer the words of pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his little book, Psalms, the Prayerbook of the Bible, Bonhoeffer points our attention resolutely toward Jesus Christ, the true author and truest subject of the Psalms. He writes;
“If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ. Thus it does not matter whether the Psalms express exactly what we feel in our heart at the moment we pray. Perhaps it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray rightly. It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray… It is important for us that even David prayed not only out of the personal raptures of his heart, but from the Christ dwelling in him. To be sure, the one who prays these psalms, David, remains himself; but Christ dwells in him and with him.”
In next weeks post, we will begin to look at some of the specific ways the various subject matter of the Psalms can be clearly seen in light of Jesus. Until then, happy Easter… HE IS RISEN!
Our Podcast can be found on: