Who prays the Psalms? David (Solomon, Asaph, etc.) prays, Christ prays, we pray.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible
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The psalms are the prayers of Christ. This is the conclusion to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer came. When we pray them Bonhoeffer says, we enter into the prayers of our Lord, the One “who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God and who stands in our place and prays for us.”
How is it that we can call these human prayers, composed and used in Temple worship long before Jesus walked the earth, the “prayers of Christ?”
Let us trace a line of thinking that I think justifies this conclusion.
First of all, let us note that most of the psalms are the prayers of David the King and other representatives from those appointed to lead the Temple worship in Jerusalem. David may or may not have composed all of the psalms associated with his name (though other texts do testify that he wrote many — 2Sam. 23:1), but those that bear the designation “Of David” were marked that way because those who put the Book of Psalms together saw David in them and wanted readers to think of David when meditating upon them.
Second, David is presented in the Book of Psalms as the suffering King. The vast majority of the “David” psalms are found in the first two books or sections of the Psalms, and most of them are laments. David is portrayed as the righteous one who is persecuted by his enemies, and who finds consolation and deliverance through trusting in God. The stories about David in Samuel fill in the imaginative background when we read these prayers. We see him fleeing King Saul, hiding in the rocks and caves, seeking a smooth and straight path for his feet, fighting against other enemies and waiting for the time when he would take the throne. We see him later in his life, exiled from that throne, betrayed and opposed by members of his own household. Most of David’s life was a life in danger, under threat, a life on the edge, either threatened by or in exile.
Third, the people who put the Book of Psalms together were the exiles in Babylon. They themselves had seen the overthrow of their kingdom and had been cast into exile, subject to their enemies, without Temple, land, or king. In the midst of this sad setting, they found solace in remembering King David and how God brought him through his trials. It sparked a growing hope in their hearts that another King might arise to lead them, that their kingdom would be restored, that they would return home and once more establish their lives, their Temple worship, their future. David was the model for this King. The King to come would share their sufferings, model trust in God, and lead them to victory over their enemies.
Finally, Christians have come to believe that Jesus is this King. The Gospels and other NT books designate him the “Son of David,” the suffering Savior who trusted God and overcame death, being exalted to his throne through his resurrection and ascension. He both prayed and embodied the psalms in his life and ministry.
When we pray the psalms, therefore, we enter the story of Jesus our King and pray with him as he endures the attacks and reproaches of his enemies, as he prays for God to be his rock, his refuge, his deliverer.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer affirms: “To be sure, the one who prays his Psalms remains himself. But in him and through him it is Christ who prays.” Praying the psalms is, therefore, one of the most excellent ways God has given us to “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).