Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
You might compare this booklet to a short visit to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing in the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll drive through the book of Psalms, making half a dozen stops along the way. At those points we’ll proceed on foot, taking a leisurely walk through the selected passages. The readings have been chosen to give a representative sample of the various kinds of prayers contained in the book of Psalms. These passages will bring us to the heart of the psalmists’ relationship with God. After each discussion we’ll get back in the car and take the highway to the next stop.
This guide provides everything you need to explore the book of Psalms in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your investigation of the psalms. The weekly sections feature two psalms, with explanations that highlight what these prayers mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you both to explore the psalms for yourself and to learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in and with the church. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the meaning of the psalms. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with the psalms and make them part of your own prayer life. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into these ancient prayers and examine them carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what the psalms mean for your relationship with God here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that launches you into praying the psalms with deeper meaning. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you the impact the book of Psalms has had and is having on other people—so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of the discussions if you read the weekly material in advance of each meeting. But if participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “Guide to the Reading” section aloud to the group at the points where it occurs in the weekly material.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished biblical amateurs, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to be facilitators, and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” before beginning (page 76).
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. It contains the psalms that are discussed, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussion. (See page 80.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 76) and individuals (page 79).
Psalms: An Invitation to Prayer
From the moment of our conception, an unseen Person has accompanied us through our life. He was at the bedside when we were first placed in our mother’s arms.* [* God, of course, is neither male nor female. I am using the traditional masculine personal pronouns for God to avoid the impersonal tone produced by rigorously avoiding the use of personal pronouns in reference to God. While the Bible often uses masculine metaphors for God, it also uses feminine ones—as in this image from Psalm 131 that compares God to a mother gazing down at her baby.] On every playground where we played, by every classroom desk we sat in, at every table where we ate, he has been with us. He has been there as we worked, as we loved, as we shopped. He has been with us in the moments when we were kind and caring to others—and no less present when we treated others shabbily and unfairly. At all times he has gazed into the murky depths of our heart and has seen our intentions as clearly as brightly colored fish darting before the eyes of a snorkeler in transparent Caribbean waters.
Our divine Companion wants us to know him as intimately as he knows us. God’s hope is that, when we reach the end of our earthly life and are thrust by death into eternity, we will see him gazing at us with tender love, as we saw our mother gazing down at us in the hour we were born. The hours of our life—varied jewels strung on a thread stretching between birth and death—are a series of opportunities to become aware of him. Whether we feel him to be near or far, whether his voice resounds or seems to have fallen silent, each hour is a chance to turn our attention to him, to grip his unseen hand and step forward on the path that will bring us to his face.
The Companion of our life is always listening. Depending on the phase of our life’s journey, God invites us to celebrate his love, ask his help, seek his forgiveness, or declare our trust in him. God waits to hear the expression of our heart.
But, speaking for myself, there is a problem here. My life is a jumble. I do not always know my own heart. Often I do not notice my blessings or recognize my deepest needs. Even when I do, I fumble for words. Most days I am too distracted to say much to my Companion. Besides, my mental picture of him is, I constantly discover, woefully inadequate. For many reasons, I need help to pray.
People have long felt this need. The oldest writings in the world—those of the ancient Near East—contain many prayers. These prayers were written down to show people how to pray. But not all help is helpful. Inscriptions addressed to the ancient gods Marduk, Ishtar, and Enlil are interesting but not usable. We need prayers that help us speak to our life Companion as he really is.
We would be most helped if our Companion offered suggestions for our prayers on the basis of his unimpaired knowledge of himself and us. Happily, this is just what he has done. More than three thousand years ago God brought a Near Eastern people called Israel into a special relationship with him. Over time, he rescued them from many evils and instructed them in how to live well. Guided by God to hear his voice and discern his hand in their lives, the people of Israel discovered him to be merciful, faithful, and just. In response, they learned to talk with their Lord trustingly about the whole range of their experience. As they passed through the lights and shadows of life, they praised their mysterious Companion and appealed to him. They spoke to him heart to heart.
At temple festivals, in smaller groups, and in solitude, the Israelites sang their prayers to God. The song-prayers were written, rewritten, sifted, collected. At the conclusion of the process, 150 prayers of the people of Israel filled a book, which was then shelved in the library Christians call the Old Testament. That book of prayers is the book of Psalms—Israel’s collection of prayers for singing to God.
Shaped in the dialogue between the people of Israel and their divine Companion, the psalms communicate a vision of God as the Companion of our life. Indeed, the opening paragraphs of this introduction basically restate the outlook of the book of Psalms (compare Psalms 17:15; 63:5–8; 121; 131; 139). The psalms are a God-given resource for prayer—God’s invitation to us to speak with him. They express the whole span of human experience in the presence of God: joy and pain, love and hate, peace and dread, exultation and desperation. It has even been said that there is a psalm for every situation. In a general way that is true, although there is no specific psalm to pray while driving to your wedding or after completing the deck on your house.
But a question arises. Are Old Testament prayers still usable, now that God has shown himself in his Son? We want to pray to God as he has fully revealed himself. The Old Testament bears witness to God’s dealings with his chosen people before Jesus of Nazareth. Once we have recognized that our life’s Companion has most fully revealed himself in Jesus, can we still pray the psalms?
Jesus, of course, is the best person to deal with this question. And while the Gospels do not quote him on this precise question, they show us the answer. On one occasion Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. He obliged them by giving them the Our Father, or Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4). But the Our Father is a single prayer, not an entire prayer book; it is a model for prayer, not a replacement of all other prayers. Significantly, Jesus continued to pray the psalms. At the end of the Last Supper he sang the traditional psalms for the Passover meal with his disciples (Mark 14:26). On the cross he cried out to his Father in the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). Apparently Jesus intended his followers to go on using the psalms. Judging from references in the New Testament, that is what the early Christians did (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
Thus Jesus pointed us toward both the book of Psalms and the Our Father. We may use the Our Father as Jesus’ way of showing us where to put the emphasis when we pray the psalms. To put it another way, the Our Father gives us Jesus’ agenda for prayer, while the psalms provide us with material for carrying it out.
In this booklet, then, the prayer that Jesus taught us will provide the plan for our exploration of the book of Psalms. Our discussions will follow this sequence:
♦ “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” We will begin with psalms that acclaim God’s reign (Week 1).
♦ “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We will move on to psalms that call on God to restore his people and bring justice to the world (Week 2).
♦ “Give us this day our daily bread.” We will turn to psalms that present our individual needs to God (Week 3).
♦ “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Next come psalms asking God to forgive us and enable us to be faithful to him (Week 4).
♦ The Lord’s Prayer does not explicitly give thanks. But when God shows us his mercy and kindness, it is natural to thank him. So we will read psalms of thanksgiving (Week 5).
♦ We will conclude by returning to the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father.” These words of deepest trust point us to psalms that express confidence and hope in our Companion (Week 6).
The psalms can sustain and deepen our relationship with our Companion—just as they sustained Jesus’ relationship with God from his boyhood in Nazareth to his final moments on Golgotha.
The psalms are a kind of quarry from which we can extract prayers that put into words what we wish to say to God. But there is another side to the psalms. Some of the material in the psalms is different from what we might wish to say to God. Parts of the psalms are difficult to understand; parts are even disturbing.
This should not be surprising. The men and women who first prayed the psalms lived long ago in a world quite different from ours. They never turned a key in the ignition of a car or clicked the mouse of a computer. They lived in small stone houses, tended sheep and goats, and raised barley and olives. When the sun went down, they stopped working and slept under a majestic night sky unobscured by electric lights. Of course, in their basic humanity they were just like us. They related to the same divine Companion we do. But culturally they were a million miles from us. We can’t expect their prayers to be exactly like ours.
Moreover, the composers of the psalms lived in an earlier phase of God’s revelation than we do. There were many things they did not have the advantage of knowing. That sickness is not usually a symptom of sin, that there will be a resurrection of the dead and reward and punishment in a life to come, that God wishes to save not only Israel but also the whole human race—these realities had hardly begun to dawn on the psalm writers.
Thus while many lines in the psalms are easily accessible to us, others strike us as foreign. Consequently, effort is required to read the psalms with understanding. Not everything is clear at first. Not everything is clear even after much study.
So how should we proceed? Here are two suggestions: First, begin to pray the parts of the psalms that are easy to understand and that fit your needs. Second, be open to learning from what is unfamiliar.
Beginning with the familiar means locating the parts of the psalms that, without further study, make it easier for us to express ourselves to God. For example, when we are inclined to praise God, the exuberance of Psalm 96, which imagines forests of trees singing to God, might help put our mood into words (96:12–13). The psalmist’s description of grief in Psalm 6 leaps the centuries to describe our own experience: “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears” (6:6). Without further ado Psalm 51:9 expresses our plea that God would forgive and forget the times we have turned from him: “Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” We may easily resonate to lines like these. Let us weave them into our conversation with God.
Being open to learning means expecting that what is strange may convey wisdom. The psalmists, for example, try to persuade God to act—an approach that may seem odd to us. But if we probe their arguments, we will discover that the psalmists model a deep trust in God. If we explore the parts of the psalms that are uncomfortable to us, we will find elements of prayer and faith that may enlarge and reshape our own relationship with God. In a sense, the psalms are a workshop that trains us in prayer, and often the aspects of the psalms that strike us as different contain the training.
The more we explore and ponder the psalms, the more they will deepen our relationship with God. The psalms were the prayers of Israel in dialogue with God in the centuries before Jesus. They were the prayers of Jesus. They have always been the chief prayers of the Church. In the view of the early teachers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, the psalms remain the prayers of the glorified Jesus because he continues to pray them through us, the human members of his body. Indeed, with mysterious, multilayered meanings, the psalms speak prophetically of Jesus (Luke 24:44).
Let us, then, explore the book of Psalms, so that we may speak more intimately with our Companion.
Hallowed Be Thy Name
Questions to Begin
Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 What is your favorite prayer? Why?
2 What is your favorite style of prayer?
? Being silent in God’s presence
? Having a private conversation with God
?Praying informally with friends
? Celebrating the liturgy with contemporary songs
?Celebrating the liturgy with some Latin and traditional hymns
?Keeping a journal
?Praying with Scripture
Opening the Bible
Read the psalms aloud. Let individuals pray successive verses,
or divide into two groups and pray the verses alternately.
* The translators use an uppercase L and small capital letters for the rest of the word to indicate that the Hebrew text uses not the Hebrew word for lord but the proper name of God (“Yahweh”).
The First Priority
“Hallowed be thy name.” Behind these obsolete English words lies an up-to-date meaning: “May you, God, act so that people will acknowledge you as the great, merciful, wise, trustworthy God that you are!” Jesus summons us to begin our prayer by focusing on God rather than on ourselves, to recognize God’s agenda before presenting our own. So we begin with two psalms of praise.
Psalm 96: Hey, Everybody, Acknowledge God!
1 O sing to the Lord* a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.
4 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be revered above all gods.
5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
6 Honor and majesty are before him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in holy splendor;
tremble before him, all the earth.
10 Say among the nations, “The Lord is king!
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
He will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord; for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.
Psalm 111: Remember What God Has Done
1 Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2 Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
3 Full of honor and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures forever.
4 He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
5 He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6 He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7 The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
8 They are established forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9 He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever.
Questions for Careful Reading
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 What clues can you find to indicate who is praying in these psalms and where they might be praying?
2 In each psalm, who is being spoken to?
3 What is the main point the psalmist is trying to express in each of these psalms?
4 How would you describe the psalmist’s mood, his attitude toward his situation?
5 What reasons does the psalmist give for praising God? (Look for statements that begin with words such as because, for, since, so that, or therefore.)
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
The Israelites sang Psalm 96 in the liturgy of the Jerusalem temple (notice 96:8). This psalm resounds with the people’s amazement at God’s grandeur and their awe at his presence with them (96:8–9). Sure, other nations have their gods (96:4), but those gods are nothings, nobodies (96:5). Israel’s God is the real God, for he made the earth (96:10) and the rest of the universe too (96:5). His people in the temple courtyard, the rest of the human race, and even hills and forests should sing his praises. And let the seas accompany the chorus with thundering surf (96:11). Hallowed, hallowed be his name!
Psalm 111 suggests the more subdued atmosphere of an author’s study or a teacher’s classroom. The lines begin with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet—a project that must have kept the author working quietly at his desk for quite some time. Ronald Knox’s translation conveys the effect:
All my heart goes out to the Lord in praise,
before the assembly where the just are gathered.
Chant we the Lord’s wondrous doings. . . .
Verse 10 sounds like a teacher’s instruction, which is a reason for thinking that this psalm was designed for a school of some sort. Of course, depending on the mix of personalities, classrooms can be pretty noisy too!
Loudly or softly, both psalms praise God—and lead us to reflect on what praising God means.
Praise itself is no mystery. It is our natural response to excellence. What football crowd sits in silence when a quarterback throws a touchdown pass? To praise God is ultimately to become lost in wonder at God’s excellence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that praise of God honors God not just for what he does for us but also “for his own sake . . . simply because he is” (section 2639). Obviously, though, we reach this exalted amazement at who God is through the good things God does for us. It is when we experience God helping us, guiding us, rescuing us, forgiving us, healing us, and giving us peace that we discover how wise, powerful, and kind he is. We climb up to a state of wonder-filled praise of God on the rungs of a ladder that consists of his acts of kindness and mercy toward us.
But if we are to mount up to perfect praise of God, it is crucial for us to recognize and remember the ways that God helps us, guides us, and so on. If we do not notice what God does, or if we forget, then our inclination to praise him withers.
On this point, the psalms set a tremendous example, for the psalmists are constantly remembering the good things God has done. Psalm 96 speaks of God’s “marvelous works” (96:3), that is, his creation of the earth and the heavens (96:5, 10). Psalm 111 reminds us of the miracles by which God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (“his wonderful deeds”—111:4), his supplying their needs during their desert journey (111:5), his settling them in Canaan (111:6). (God’s great works in 111:2 made St. Jerome, the fourth-century biblical scholar, think of the creation of elephants and camels!) The psalmists are like sports announcers who impress us with the quarterback’s record-breaking statistics as we watch the team lining up for a play. Because the psalmists are constantly remembering God’s deeds, they are constantly praising him.
In fact, for the psalmists, God’s actions are both the reason for praising him and the content of the praise. Psalm 96 gives God’s mighty actions as the motivation for praise: “Sing to the Lord . . . for . . . the Lord made the heavens” (96:2–5, italics mine). But both Psalms 96 and 111 praise God simply by reciting what God has done for his people. God’s deeds provide both the motive for singing to him and the lyrics of the song.
The early Christians continued to praise God by recalling what he has done. They “composed hymns and canticles in light of the unheard-of event that God accomplished in his Son: his incarnation, his death which conquered death, his resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of the Father” (Catechism, section 2641). So we pray Psalm 96 to celebrate God’s reign through Jesus, rejoicing in the coming of the Lord who reigns already and looking forward to his final coming, when he will bring God’s kingdom to completion (96:10–13).
Questions for Application
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Where is the balance between praising God and asking God for what we need?
2 What part does praising God have in your prayer? How could you make praising God a higher priority?
3 What one or two events in your life have most clearly shown you God’s mercy and love? How often do you remember these actions of God when you pray? What could you do to recall these moments of particular grace and to praise God for them?
4 Psalm 96 suggests that we praise God not only by recalling his actions when we are gathered in the liturgy but also by telling other people about him. In what ways do you let the people you live with and work with know about what God has done for you? about what he has done for everyone in the coming of his Son? How could you praise God more in this way?
5 Does God gain anything from our praise? Do we?
6 What line from either of these psalms would you like to make a part of your own prayer? Why?
“During the meeting a candle could be lighted to remind us that when we are reading the Bible, Christ is present in our midst and God our Father is speaking to us.”
James Rauner, The Young Church in Action
Approach to Prayer
Use this approach—or create your own!
♦ Read aloud Philippians 2:5–11; Colossians 1:15–20; and Titus 3:4–7, pausing for a minute of silent reflection after each reading. Then pray together Psalm 96 in praise of God for the coming of his kingdom.
End with the Our Father.
Saints in the Making
Giving God Quality Time
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
I discovered that I was giving a higher priority to good works than to prayer.” That statement could be made by many Christians. In this case it was made by Joseph Bernardin, who at the time was the Catholic archbishop of Cincinnati. “It was not that I lacked the desire to pray or that I had suddenly decided prayer was not important. Rather, I was very busy, and I fell into the trap of thinking that my good works were more important than prayer.”
One evening at dinner Cardinal Bernardin spoke with some younger priests about his lack of prayer. “In very direct—even blunt terms—they helped me realize that I was urging a spirituality on others that I was not fully practicing myself. These priests helped me understand that you have to give what they called ‘quality time’ to prayer. It can’t be done ‘on the run.’ You have to put aside good, quality time. After all, if we believe that the Lord Jesus is the Son of God, then of all persons to whom we give ourselves, we should give him the best we have.”
Bernardin resolved to spend the first hour of each day in prayer. “I said, ‘Lord, I know that I spend a certain amount of that morning hour of prayer daydreaming, problem-solving, and I’m not sure that I can cut that out. I’ll try, but the important thing is, I’m not going to give that time to anybody else. So even though it may not unite me as much with you as it should, nobody else is going to get that time.’”
As part of his prayer, Bernardin would pray the Liturgy of the Hours, a traditional Catholic format for daily prayer. “A major portion of the prayers are from the Psalms. I have found the Psalms to be very special because they relate in a very direct, human way the joys and sorrows of life, the virtues, the sins. They convey the message that good ultimately wins out. And as you see the people who are mentioned in the Psalms struggling to be united with the Lord, it gives you encouragement.”
Cardinal Bernardin, who served as archbishop of Chicago, died in 1996.