In my previous post on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, we saw how Bonhoeffer places the praying of the psalms at the heart of our prayer together as Christians. In this post I’ll look in more detail at his observations on the psalms.
“The Psalter occupies a unique place in the Holy Scriptures”, Bonhoeffer writes, by being both God’s Word and the prayer of human beings. However, when we come to pray the psalms for ourselves, we will quickly find passages that we feel unable to make our own: “the psalms of innocence, the bitter, the imprecatory psalms, and also in part the psalms of the Passion”.
The answer is not to skip the “difficult” psalms, but to recognise that “this difficulty indicates the point at which we get our first glimpse of the secret of the Psalter”: namely, that “here Someone else is praying, not we”:
that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. It is he who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter.
So when we sing or pray the psalms, we are united with the prayer of Christ himself. The Church, as the Body of Christ on earth, “continues to pray his prayer to the end of time”:
Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on the earth.
And as such, the Psalter teaches us how to pray:
In the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s prayer. The Psalter is the great school of prayer.
It teaches us “what prayer means”, namely “praying according to the Word of God, on the basis of promises”. It teaches us “what we should pray”, namely “the whole prayer of Christ, the prayer of him who was true Man and who alone possesses the full range of experiences expressed in this prayer”. And it teaches us to pray “as a fellowship”, acknowledging that our own individual prayer “is only a minute fragment of the whole prayer of the Church”.
(Incidentally, I wonder if that last point is a way to understand texts such as Mark 11:24: “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”. Should this perhaps be seen as a promise to the church as a whole rather than to us as individuals? Perhaps some roving exegete could comment on this: for example, is the “you” in that verse plural?)
The psalms encompass the full breadth of prayer, just as the Lord’s Prayer does:
Oetinger, in his exposition of the Psalms, brought out a profound truth when he arranged the whole Psalter according to the Lord’s Prayer. What he had discerned was that the whole sweep of the Book of Psalms was concerned with nothing more nor less than the brief petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
Only the prayer of Jesus Christ “has the promise of fulfilment and frees us from the vain repetitions of the heathen”:
The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become.