Friday, February 08, 2008

Prayer in the Psalter

"Lord, teach us to pray..." (Luke 11:1)

In answer to this request Jesus gave a model and then a philosophy of prayer (11:4-13). I find it interesting that many commentators insist that the disciple was not asking how to pray, but when they get into expositing the prayer they show that it does, in fact, teach us how to pray. Really, I think that there is a bit of both aspects involved here. Prayer was not a foreign practice to the disciples, but who can boast of understanding all of the

mystery bound up in prayer? Even the most seasoned prayer-warrior senses his inadequacy for the task. Along with that, it is true that the greatest trouble is more often motivation than it is know-how. Whatever it was exactly that this disciple had in mind when he made the request to Jesus, I find it fascinating that Jesus decided to answer his request by providing a short, model prayer.

I was taught this prayer as a child and it proved helpful to me as I learned how to speak with God. I remember being taught that it was merely a model and that I should learn to construct my prayers in a similar fashion. In the end, I was taught to pray using my own words. In the tradition in which I was reared we never used a prayer book or any other source of prescribed prayers. When men in the church prayed, their prayers were always impromptu, and often very simple and repetitive.

I've since had the privilege of visiting other churches and participating in worship services with a more obvious and intentional liturgy. I remember sitting in a conference at a Presbyterian seminary and wondering in amazement at the majesty and grandeur of the prayers prayed by the ministers. They were more deliberate, premeditated, and Scripture-saturated than I had ever heard before. I recently became aware of The Valley of Vision: a collection of puritan prayers and found this little book to be very helpful not only in my own prayer life, but also as I began to look into the Psalter to consider the model prayers it supplies. I've come to realize how beneficial a model prayer can be, and that impromptu praying can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. All in all, I believe that Jesus' answer to this disciple began by showing him that prayer ought to be deliberate, not haphazard and sloppy. Prayer is a great privilege and addressed to the God of the universe, the Savior of our souls. Our God is ready and willing to listen to our cry at any time, in any situation, and by means of a very liberal range of words, but as you will see as you look into the prayers contained in the Psalter, even the most immediate and hasty prayers where based upon a very deliberate structure.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the major genres of psalms is that of lament. A lament is a form of speech that is full of mourning, grief, and sorrow. It is the speech of one who is in trouble or great distress. As the psalmists found themselves in great distress they presented their situations to God, asked for relief, and stated their confidence that he was able to do for them what they could not do for themselves. This is a form of prayer, but this is not the only form of prayer. There are also prayers of intercession, thanksgiving, and praise.

In the Psalter all of these types of prayers can be found, and there is a basic structure that underlies them all. Granted, the structure is flexible in that the elements may not always appear in the same order, and sometimes elements may not appear in a prayer at all. Some psalms combine aspects of laments and praise which make it difficult to label the psalm as one or the other. Most commentators just call them mixed psalms.

Beyond these characteristics, the reader ought to recognize when a prayer is given as that of an individual or of the community. Prayers of the individual employ the first person singular (I, me, my) style of direct address to God. Prayers of the community (I call them corporate prayers) employ the first person plural (we, us, our) style of address to God.

Basic Elements of Prayer Psalms -

So, what are the basic elements of Prayer Psalms? The following is a simplified list.

  1. Invocation – Prayer psalms frequently open with the vocative “O Lord”.
  2. Description of Trouble – Trouble in terms of a relation to God, to others, or to self.
  3. Petition – The basic component of prayer psalms is a request to be heard and/or helped.
  4. Motivation – Here the psalmist offers reasons why the petition should be heard. You will notice that the psalmists appeal to the character of God, the petitioners relation to God, and the dimensions and implications of the petitioner’s predicament.
  5. Statement of Confidence (Assurance) – The psalmists frequently confess their complete trust in the LORD.
  6. Vow to Praise - If the psalmist doesn't conclude with words of praise, he often concludes with a vow to praise. This often refers to the psalmists desire to tell others of what God has done, either in the sanctuary or among the nations.

(NOTE: I would highly recommend the ESV Literary Study Bible to you for many reasons and here specifically. Before each psalm is an introductory paragraph in which the editors identify the genre of the psalm and outline the basic elements that appear in it. This is and INVALUABLE resource which is especially helpful when studying the Book of Psalms!)

Prayer Psalms -

The following is a list of the Prayer psalms.

  • Individual Lament – 3-7, 13, 17, 22, 25, 26, 28, 35, 38, 43, 51, 52, 54-57, 59, 61, 62, 64, 69, 70, 71, 77, 86, 88, 89, 102, 109, 120:2, 123, 126, 130, 139-144
  • Individual or Communal Lament – 10, 12
  • Communal Lament – 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90
  • Penitential Psalms – 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143 (see also 39)
  • Simple Prayer - 131
  • Prayer of Praise – 16, 21, 63, 67, 89
  • Prayer Psalms that feature extensive confidence – 4, 16, 23, 27, 56, 62
  • Intercessory Prayers – 20, 61, 72, 84:8-9
  • Significant mix of Lament and Praise – 25, 31, 36, 40, 71, 77, 89, 126
  • Imprecatory Psalms – 35, 58, 69, 104:35, 109, 137, 139:19-22

Problems of Interpretation -

Noting the pronouns is crucial to identifying whether or not the psalm is constructed from the vantage point of the individual or the community. That's obvious. But it is also important to note the pronouns in order to properly understand how to interpret the various elements (listed above).

  • Who is the "I" in the psalms?
    • The psalmists do not identify themselves. However, the superscriptions and the descriptions of trouble provide clues to the psalmists identity.
    • We don't normally pray in third person, so we shouldn't expect a name to be stated.
    • The anonymity of the speakers allow these prayers to be more accessible adaptable to successive generations of worshipers.
      • While you not the first person singular "I", notice also the corresponding pronouns, me, my, and mine.
      • Notice also the nouns and adjectives used to describe the "I", such as your servant.
      • Notice also the groups with which the "I" identifies, such as the righteous, the faithful, the lowly, and the poor and needy.
  • Who is the "You" in the psalms?
    • This is the One to whom the psalmists cry.
    • This is the One in whom they take refuge.
    • This is the One whom they long to see.
    • This is the One whom they love.
    • This is Yahweh, the self-existent, eternal God, full of mercy, grace, longsuffering, loyal love, faithfulness, and forgiveness.
  • Who is the "They" in the psalms?
    • Similarly to the "I", the "they" is normally described, but unnamed.
    • "They" are the adversaries of the LORD and his servants.
    • "They" are the ones who oppress the poor and lowly, who mock the righteous, who slander the truthful, who plot against the faithful, who seek to destroy the godly.
    • Although the identity of the adversary remains ambiguous, the identity of our Helper is clearly proclaimed. The LORD is able to deliver his saints from every form of evil.

In summary, the identity of the psalmist is assumed by the one who prays the prayer, the source of trouble is a common foe come in various forms, and the Deliverer remains to same yesterday, today, and forever!

The Language of the Petitions -

One final issue that must be considered is the language of the petitions. The psalmists form their petitions and the statements of motivation in light of The LORD's self-revelation. How has the LORD revealed himself to mankind. In many ways, but propositionally in the Law, and then in a very intimate way to his servant Moses. To Moses the LORD proclaimed who he is and what he delights to do and this is recorded for us in Exodus 34:6-7.

6 The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (ESV)

If you will keep this self-revelation, this primitive creed, in mind as you read and study the prayer psalms you will notice that the petitions and motivations for God to hear and act are based explicitly upon this proclamation. Jesus gave to his disciples a fresh model of prayer fashioned according to the who God is and what he delights in. This is exactly what the psalmists provide for us; prayers constructed and offered up according to the character and desires of the one to whom they are addressed. (See an excellent example in the short Psalm 117.)

In closing, let's look at a couple of psalm and identify some of their basic elements. First, consider Psalm 13. This psalm contains all of the basic elements.

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.

1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? [VOCATIVE & PETITION TO HEAR]

How long will you hide your face from me? [DESCRIPTION OF TROUBLE]

2 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?

3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; [PETITION TO ACT]

light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” [STATEMENT OF MOTIVATION]

lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; [STATEMENT OF CONFIDENCE (Notice the reference to the character of God.)]

my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

6 I will sing to the Lord, [VOW TO PRAISE]

because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Finally, consider Psalm 61. This is a petitionary psalm which includes intercession for the king.

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. Of David.

1 Hear my cry, O God, [VOCATIVE & PETITION TO HEAR]

listen to my prayer;

2 from the end of the earth I call to you [DESCRIPTION OF TROUBLE]

when my heart is faint.

Lead me to the rock [PETITION TO ACT]

that is higher than I,

3 for you have been my refuge, [MOTIVATION/STATEMENT OF CONFIDENCE]

a strong tower against the enemy.

4 Let me dwell in your tent forever! [PETITION TO ACT]

Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings! Selah [PETITION]

5 For you, O God, have heard my vows; [MOTIVATION]

you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.

6 Prolong the life of the king; [INTERCESSION]

may his years endure to all generations!

7 May he be enthroned forever before God;

appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him! [Notice the attributes of God. The same is desired or the king.]

8 So will I ever sing praises to your name, [VOW TO PRAISE]

as I perform my vows day after day.

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