Praying the Psalms

Prayer has always been a difficult thing for me… not that I struggled to see the importance of it or anything, but I struggled to actually come up with things to pray about! Prayer isn’t really that complicated. It’s simply talking to God. There’s praise, thanksgiving, and supplication, and we don’t have to try to make it complex. The problem for me has always been that I pray for the same things in the same way.

Now, I actually don’t think that simply any hint of repetition is necessarily bad. I think evangelical Christians often search too intently for fresh, spontaneous, authentic, raw… in every area of their Christian life—especially prayer. And because of the modern evangelical worship of authenticity, we’ve learned to despise tradition, custom, liturgy, habit, and to downplay their significance in spiritual growth. And I think that’s unfortunate. However, it does get discouraging if there is no variety whatsoever in your prayers, and it’s always the same thing in the same order, with the same wording.

I hope to return to the topic of prayer several more times, because there is so much to talk about, and it’s liberating and exciting to study the topic for both your own spiritual edification as well as to give helpful counsel to others. Today though, I simply want to share a rubric for praying through the Psalms that I learned from Donald S. Whitney in his book, Praying the Bible.

In his book, Whitney recommends a practical method of guiding your thoughts in prayer, so as to call to mind angles you may not think of yourself, and also to season your prayers with the language of Scripture. The book of Psalms served to teach the people how to worship Yahweh, and Whitney recommends (and I highly commend the practice to you as well) that you often turn to the Psalms as the actual outline or rubric for your prayers. This isn’t the same as lectio divina or anything mystical. It’s also not directly for the purpose of learning the context and intent of the original author as such. It’s a way to allow the Psalmists to teach you how to pray, and direct your thoughts in prayer. This is actually a pretty old way to direct one’s thoughts in prayer. Martin Luther recommended this same method while using the Lord’s Prayer as the outline.

It’s hard to explain, so let me just give you a simple example. Take Psalm 23. To use Psalm 23 as a rubric for your prayer, you simply read the first sentence, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Remember, think of it simply as the first point on the outline to direct your prayer. So now you praise and thank the Lord for the realty that He is a good shepherd, that He has provided for you in the past. Thank Him for specific needs He has met that day, that week, that year… Ask Him to provide for your needs in any specific upcoming situations that are causing you concern. Ask Him to enable you to continue to trust in His goodness and sovereignty as you face the uncertainties of the future. When you’ve exhausted that point on the outline, move on to the next sentence: “He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside still waters; He restores my soul.” Pray about your weariness, ask for peace and rest in specific situations in your life, ask the Lord to help you consistently look to Him and rely on Him for rest and security, etc. When you’re done with that point, move forward in the Psalm.

This method of praying, simply using the Psalms as a rubric—an outline—to direct your thoughts, and the language of the Psalms to season your words in prayer, has been a monumental encouragement in my own prayer life, and hope it might be of help to you as well. That being said, the other issue in using the Psalms in your prayer life is the matter of picking which Psalm to use when. The book of Psalms is organized in an intentional way, and it’s a fascinating study. But it does make it less conducive to this practice of prayer if you plan to simply read through the Psalms. Sometimes you’ll be reading Psalms of lament for day on end, then you’ll be in imprecatory Psalms, then it will be all Psalms of praise.

So, to avoid that and add a little more variety and balance to it, Whitney suggests the following plan for going through the Psalms in prayer. If you count by 30s, such that you pray through Psalm 1, then jump to Psalm 31, then 61, etc., it will give you a good spread of Psalms of lament and of praise, so that you’re not in Psalms of all one theme for a while, and then all another theme for a while, but rather are touching on all the different kinds of Psalms each time. Sometimes I’ll only go through one Psalm in a few minutes, sometimes I’ll spend some time in two or three. So, I leave you with this rubric, and an encouragement to simply try it out one day. I think you’ll find it simple, encouraging, and engaging.

  1, 31, 61,   91,  121
  2, 32, 63,  92,  122
  3, 33, 63,  93,  123
  4, 34, 64,  94,  124
  5, 35, 65,  95,  125
  6, 36, 66,  96,  126
  7, 37,  67,  97,  127
  8, 38, 68,  98,  128
  9, 39, 69,  99,  129
10, 40, 70, 100, 130
11, 41,  71,  101, 131
12, 42, 72, 102, 132
13, 43, 73, 103, 133
14, 44, 74, 104, 134
15, 45, 75, 105, 135
16, 46, 76, 106, 136
17, 47,  77,  107, 137
18, 48, 78, 108, 138
19, 49, 79, 109, 139
20, 50, 80, 110, 140
21,  51, 81,  111, 141
22, 52, 82, 112, 142
23, 53, 83, 113, 143
24, 54, 84, 114, 144
25, 55, 85, 115, 145
26, 56, 86, 116, 146
27, 57,  87, 117, 147
28, 58, 88, 118, 148
29, 59, 89,  119, 149
30, 60, 90, 120, 150
31, 119

A few other passages to pray through: Matt. 6:9–13; Eph. 1:15–23; 3:14–21; Phil. 1:9–11


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