Desert Wisdom: Psalms and Prayer

We look at a third pairing of terms—this time, psalms and prayers.

Today, we often speak of “praying the psalms,” or we refer to the psalms as “the prayer book of the Bible.”  But the early Christians did not blend the two to this extent.

For them, the psalms were seen as a kind of summary of the rest of the Old Testament, long portions of which are not prayers at all.  Evagrius called them a manifestation of “the manifold wisdom of God.”  The psalmists are more nearly prophets (who speak the word of God to the people) than they are worship leaders (who guide the people in praying to God).

Prayer, strictly speaking then, is the speaking (outloud or in silence) we do to God in relation to and response to the revelation of wisdom.

In the largest sense, however, we may unite the psalms and prayer when we think of praying as both God speaking to us, and us speaking to God.

This may seem like pointless “hair-splitting,” but it keeps us from feeling like we are doing something wrong when we struggle to pray every verse in the psalter.  By keeping the psalms and prayer separate we are free to be in a receptive mode in some parts of the psalter and a responsive mode in other parts.

The psalms thus ultimately serve as a word from God to the people, and prayer ultimately serves as a word from the people to God.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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