The Secret of the Psalms
Recently, I’ve been processing the meaning and nature of prayer after teaching a Sunday school lesson on the intercession of Moses (Exodus 32). What does it mean to be an intercessor? What does it mean that Jesus is our intercessor? What does it mean to pray in the Spirit? What does it mean that “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26)?
Naturally, then, I was struck by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s section in Life Together about praying the Psalms. He writes that the “secret of the Psalter” is that “Jesus Christ prays through the Psalter in his congregation” (46). Thus, “in the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s prayer. The Psalter is the great school of prayer” (47). Although I have often heard exhortations to pray through the Psalms, I have never heard it put this way — that Christ prays through us as we pray the Psalms.
Bonhoeffer recognizes the difficulty of praying many of the Psalms, which don’t seem to fit our experience (passionate cries of suffering or pleas of innocence). However, he argues that we can pray all of these prayers, not identifying ourselves as the subject, but knowing that the subject is Christ.
“A Psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer… is a hint to us 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.” (Bonhoeffer 45)
Not only do we learn what kind of prayers we should pray, we also learn the meaning of prayer. Bonhoeffer writes that Christian prayer must be completely based on the Word of God and Christ. “This is what the Scripture means when it says that the Holy Spirit prays in and for us, that Christ prays for us, that we can pray aright to God only in the name of Jesus Christ” (47).
Bonhoeffer’s understanding of prayer, then, was an “ecclesial participation in the prayer of Christ, rather than some independent religious activity of our own” (Worthen 5). Bonhoeffer suggests that “the mediation of Christ in relationships protects and preserves the unique humanity of each person while also uniting us in profound and unbreakable communion” (Worthen 5). Thus, as we pray the prayers of David, and of Christ, through the Psalms, we are gathered into the body of Christ in a profound way. I think that my church tradition has shied away from any liturgical expressions of prayer, and so we rarely even pray the Psalms. However, there is so much depth to be had in our prayers as we pray the Psalms and allow Christ to pray the Psalms through us.
“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” (Bonhoeffer 50).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. 1954. Fortress Press. 2015.
Worthen, Jeremy. “Praying the Psalms and the Challenges of Christian–Jewish Relations: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas Merton.” Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations. 2014.