In the Biblical context, what is involved when people pray to God? Recall that, “worshippers’ central beliefs are expressed in their prayers” (Wenham 2005: 177). What then are some central beliefs that are involved when believers truly pray?
Firstly, they assume that God is all-present, otherwise He may not be able to hear their prayer. Secondly, they assume that God is all-powerful, otherwise He may not be able to answer their prayer. Thirdly, they assume that God is all-loving, otherwise He may not want to answer their prayer. Can they really believe, to the point of assuming, that God is all-powerful, all-present and all-loving, and yet not recognize that He reigns over everything and cares for everyone? Can they then be consistent if they do not commit themselves to seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33)?
Hence in the Biblical context genuine prayers require believers to have an attitude or intention that is implicitly a commitment to recognize God’s reign in their life. Now this is already the case in the very act of praying, even when beliefs about God that implicitly require believers to recognize God’s reign are only assumed and not (yet) verbalized. What more when they prayerfully sing or recite words from the psalms that directly or indirectly express the encompassing theme that “the LORD reigns”?
Since God rules through His Law as summarized in the Ten Commandments, this commitment to recognize God’s reign leads to righteous living. Conversely, as a rule, implicit in a denial of God is an attitude or intention that is contrary or even hostile to the Ten Commandments. This is affirmed in Psalm 14: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; there is no one who does good” (verse 1). The claim that immorality does lead to unbelief has been documented and explained (see Spiegel 2010).
Since the encompassing theme of the book of Psalms is God’s kingdom, it is not surprising that God’s Law and a commitment to obey it is prominently highlighted in the book (Psalms 1, 19 and 119). The Hebrew word for “law” is torah, and it basically means instruction or teaching. And God’s torah or teaching is found throughout Scripture, including the Psalms. In fact torah can refer to any portion of Scripture, especially Genesis-Deuteronomy, or to the Scripture as a whole. So God’s Law means much more than the Mosaic Law, which is only the formalized expression of God’s Law.
To appreciate how central and encompassing God’s Law is in the life of believers, we will consider it in the context of the Mosaic Covenant as embodied in the psalms.
The Mosaic Covenant, which God made with Israel at Mount Sinai, was an application of the Creation Mandate at the national level. Israel was thus called to build a national civilization that is in fellowship with God and is consistent with God’s will. And both prongs of the calling are inseparable. For the nation could not dwell with God and be in fellowship with Him without being consistent with God’s will. We now consider how this would work out in the life of faithful Israelites.
Psalms 15 and 24 complements each other in describing the kind of person who can dwell with the holy God, that is, live in fellowship with “the King of glory” (24:7-9). Basically one must “have clean hands and a pure heart” (24:4), which means being consistent with God’s will not only in terms of action but also attitude and intention. Thus one has to be pure in thinking, feeling, willing and acting, that is, one who “walks with integrity and works righteousness” as well as “speaks truth in his heart” (15:2). He “honors those who fear the LORD” and “keeps his word [including what he sings or recites from the psalms] even when it hurts” (15:4). So believers cannot sincerely sing or recite Psalms 15 or 24 without an attitude or intention that is implicitly a commitment to be God-fearing.
How then does one even begin to dwell with God? One has to know God. Psalm 19, which is about how one should respond to God’s revelation of Himself through creation (verses 1-6) as well as through His Law (verses 7-10), “teaches that the Creator can be known about through creation, but the torah is the only way that one can know the personal God of Israel. And once one knows this God through torah, one can pray to God in a relational way” (DeClaissé-Walford, Jacobson and Tanner 2014: 204). The relational prayer (in verses 11-14) highlights the psalmist’s fear of deliberately or unknowingly violating God’s Law, which he regards as “more desirable than gold” and “sweeter than honey.”
This brings us to Psalm 1, which presents a poetic vision of how “blessed” or happy is the one who, having come to know God through His Law, keeps his heart pure and his hands clean. Because he delights in God’s Law and so “meditates in it day and night,” he does not yield to ungodly peer-pressure (“counsel of the wicked”). This keeps him from living a life that is contrary to God’s Law (“way of sinners”) and then joining the “fool” of Psalm 14 by becoming one who is hostile towards God (“seat of scoffers”).
The Hebrew word translated “meditate” in Psalm 1:2, also translated as the “plotting” of the nations in Psalm 2:1, does not mean “silent activities” but “speaking out loud”; meditating in the torah day and night here means habitually “singing or reciting the psalm[s] from memory” (Wenham 2012: 81-82). We have been seeing how necessary it is for believers to be singing or reciting the psalms. The first psalm thus sets the stage for all the psalms. However in our literate culture where printed Bibles are easily available meditation need not be limited to singing or reciting from memory. And it should not be limited to the book of Psalms (see Joshua 1:8).
Psalm 119, the longest psalm, is an elaboration on Psalms 1 and 19 combined. It also balances up the teaching of Psalm 1 by affirming that, though as a rule those who love and keep God’s Law would prosper in every area of life, one does experience exceptions to this rule. But even in the face of undeserved adversities the psalmist would continue to love God’s Law and seek to observe it (see for instance, verses 153-160).
Throughout Psalm 119 the psalmist makes commitments to keep God’s Law, even saying, “I have promised to keep Your words” (57). And he pleads with God to enable him to do so. For he repeatedly asks God to teach him God’s Law (12,26,33,64,68,108,124,135). In one stanza of the poem he begins with, “Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes, so that I will observe it to the end” (33). He wants God’s Law to be taught to him in such a way that he will not violate it. So he asks God to, “give me understanding so that I will observe Your Law … with all my heart” (34). The understanding he asks for is one that will “make me walk in the path of Your commandments” (35), for it will “incline my heart to Your testimonies and not to selfish gain” (36) and “turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways” (37). He then asks God to work in his life in such a way that it will cause him to fear Him and honor His Law (38-39). He concludes by affirming his longing for God’s Law and to be revived in God’s ways (40).
The psalm thus expresses a deep and uncompromising desire to live according to God’s Law. We have so far only noted how praying the psalms requires believers to have an attitude or intention that is an implicit commitment to recognize God’s reign. What we have just seen in Psalm 119 is an attitude or intention that is an explicit commitment to recognize God’s reign, and to do so even in the face of adversity (see for instance 145-152).
There are believers who are not yet ready to sing or recite words that explicitly obligate them to obey God unconditionally. This is not just because the words do not yet represent their attitude or intention, but also because they still resist making such a commitment. So when a psalm like Psalm 119 is used in congregational worship they may, out of integrity, abstain from singing or reciting it. But even then they would experience a godly peer-pressure that could shape their thinking and feeling. For what they abstain from singing or reciting is Scripture, which the conscience of believers would not argue against or reject.
Hence genuine worship through words inevitably leads to genuine worship through attitude, intention and action. Only then can one dwell with God. What then is it like to dwell with God?
Psalm 23, an all-time favorite, guides our imagination to experience the security a believer enjoys when God is his shepherd. To help us feel how secure he is, the psalmist stretches the metaphor of the shepherd and turns him into a generous host who prepares a feast for his sheep in the very presence of its enemies. Imagine securely enjoying a feast while those who want to harm us can only helplessly stand and watch. This is just one picture of what it means to dwell with God; there are others (such as Psalm 34). So the psalmist wants to “dwell in the house of the LORD forever” (23:6).
This does not mean that everything will be smooth-sailing once a person has come to know God as his shepherd. Even King David, who wrote Psalm 23, suffered a major spiritual crisis when he sinned against God by committing adultery and then murder. Before he repented and confessed his sins, “my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Psalm 32:3). When he confessed his sins, he recognized that it was not just the specific transgressions but also his very sinful nature that needed forgiveness and cleansing (Psalm 51:4-7). With a broken spirit and a contrite heart, he pleaded with God to “create in me a clean heart” and “do not cast me from Your presence” (51:10-11). Having been restored to God and thus to the joy of His salvation David proclaimed how “blessed” it was to be forgiven by God (32:1-2). It is a blessedness that makes one eager to share it by teaching others how to experience it (32:8-11; 51:13).
Hence kingdom spirituality recognizes the need for repentance and confession of sin to continue dwelling with God. Psalms 32 and 51 are there to remind and guide believers. This is not limited to kingdom spirituality under the Mosaic Covenant, but applies also to kingdom spirituality under the New Covenant (see 1 John 1:5-10).
However sin is not the only cause of spiritual crises. Psalm 73 recounts the experience of a God-fearing believer who found himself envying ungodly people. For they seemed to prosper in their ungodliness, while "I have been stricken all day long." So he felt that he had kept his heart pure and his hands clean for nothing. He could not even talk about it as this would stumble others. He found no relief until he went into the Temple and began to see things from God’s perspective (cf. Psalm 48:9). Psalm 37, which exhorts believers to “be not envious toward wrongdoers … [but] delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart” (37:1,4), elaborates on how to look at it from God’s perspective and respond accordingly. Recognizing his earlier senselessness and ignorance, the psalmist in Psalm 73 confesses, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (73:25). Though the situation did not change he thus again enjoyed “the nearness of God” (73:28).
However there are times of adversity that even Psalm 73 would be inadequate to guide believers through them; resources available through other psalms are needed. We begin with Psalm 103.
This is a poem praising God, who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in unfailing love” (103:8). The focus is on God’s compassion toward “those who fear Him” (11,13,17): “Just as a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him” (13). This means those who fear God can confidently expect to experience God’s compassion. However people who are God-fearing (conscientious), but do not know God through the Scripture, may not realize this truth and thus do not relate to Him accordingly. We now look at how believers who fear God can relate to God during times of extreme adversity.
In Psalm 44, a psalm of lament, the psalmist questions God for allowing suffering to come upon him and his nation. He begins by praising God for His faithfulness to Israel in the past (1-3) and petitioning Him to give victory to Israel, affirming that he still trusts in God (4-8). He then questions God for rejecting them, with the result that they were defeated by enemies and some of them were even taken captives to foreign lands (9-16). This is not referring to the Exile because he confesses that the disaster happened even though they had not violated God’s covenant (17-22). So he tells God how he really feels toward Him (23-26): “Arouse Yourself, why are You sleeping O LORD? Wake up, do not reject us forever!” (23).
There are times when God-fearing believers find themselves in adversities so painful that they cannot help but become impatient or even angry with God. When this has happened, it is not more spiritual for believers to hide their true feelings. In fact they can no longer have true fellowship with God. And hiding their true feelings amounts to denying who God is. For God knows our true feelings; hiding them amounts to denying that God is all-knowing. The psalmist feels this way toward God only because he believes that God reigns—He could have prevented the disaster, but He did not. By telling God how disappointed he is with Him, the psalmist is actually acknowledging that God is all-powerful. And by being daring to be this honest with Him, the psalmist is also acknowledging that God is all-loving. This accords with the teaching of Psalm 103 that God is compassionate toward those who fear Him like a father to his children. Being dishonest with God means not believing what Scripture says of Him.
There are also times of extreme adversity when God-fearing believers cannot help but feel bitter toward the people who caused them the suffering. The “imprecatory psalms” are there to guide them in expressing their bitter feelings to God (and not to the perpetrators). An “imprecation” is defined as “an invocation of judgment, calamity, or curse uttered against one’s enemies, or the enemies of God” (Laney 1981: 35; cited in DeClaissé-Walford 2011: 78). Take for instance a sample from Psalm 109: “Let his days be few; let another take over his position. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his children wander as beggars; let them search for food far from their ruined homes” (verses 8-10).
Should God-fearing believers “curse” their enemies in their prayers? Since they are to love their neighbors (and even their enemies) as themselves they need to forgive even those who have harmed them severely. But in cases where they are already overwhelmed by bitter feelings toward the perpetrators, they cannot forgive them from the heart. And they could not pray to God even if they would (cf. DeClaissé-Walford 2011: 83, 88-89). Sooner or later those feelings will cause them to take revenge in one way or another. To avoid that, out of the fear of God, they need to let the feelings out by telling God how they really feel toward the perpetrators. In asking God to punish the perpetrators they are recognizing that God reigns and vengeance belongs to Him alone. In the process they are handing their bitterness, including any urge for revenge, over to God and thus leaving the matter entirely to Him. They will thus experience healing and a closure that sets them free to love and forgive the perpetrators (cf. Fee and Stuart 2003: 220-222; McCann 1993:112-115).
It is significant that imprecation is not limited to the Psalms. It is also found in other parts of Scripture uttered by God-fearing believers: Moses (Numbers 10:35); Deborah (Judges 5:31); Jeremiah (Jeremiah 18:21-23); Nehemiah (Nehemiah 4:4-5); Paul (Galatians 1:8-9). Imprecatory prayers clearly has a place in the life of God-fearing believers (see further Wenham 2012: 167-179; DeClaissé-Walford 2011: 84-92).
The imprecatory prayer in Psalm 137 is different from that of Psalm 109 in that it is in response to a remembrance of a past atrocity (Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem). Clinton McCann (1996: 1228) comments in reference to this psalm (cited in Sadler 2014: 449):
In the face of monstrous evil, the worst possible response is to feel nothing. What must be felt—by the victims and on behalf of the victims—are grief, rage, and outrage. In the absence of these feelings, evil becomes an acceptable commonplace. In other words, to forget is to submit to evil, to wither and die; to remember is to resist, to be faithful, and to live again.
Thus imprecatory prayer can emerge from an abhorrence of evil coupled with the belief that God reigns and upholds justice. And abhorrence toward evil is basic to being human, what more being God-fearing. Hence God-fearing believers who have not personally experienced atrocity can still utter an imprecatory prayer like that in Psalm 137 by witnessing or remembering atrocities like the Holocaust and so feel the grief, rage and outrage that the psalmist feels. This experience is particularly formative and transformative because “if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same” (Wenham 2012: 57), which will then cause us to want to have a pure heart and clean hands.
This is reflected in Psalm 139, a poem about God being all-knowing because He is all-present, which can be comforting or discomforting depending on one’s current attitude and intention. After uttering an imprecatory prayer that ends with “I hate them [God’s enemies, the wicked] with the utmost hate; they have become my enemies” (19-22), the psalmist wants to ensure that he himself is and will not be guilty of the same thing. So he prays, “search me, O God and know my heart … and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way” (23-24). Hence this psalm also teaches that one may not be innocent just because one could say with sincerity, “my conscience is clear” (see 1 Corinthians 4:4).
To sum up, “the Psalms are for those who walk the joyful paths of life and need a word that will release their tongue and unbind their spirit to praise the God of life. The Psalms are for those who pace the corridors of suffering and sorrow and need a word to unleash their spirit which despair threatens to suffocate” (Bullock 2001: 50).
In our exposition on kingdom worship we emphasized praise because this is what we usually associate with worship. In our exposition here on kingdom spirituality we emphasize despair because the test of one’s spirituality is how one responds during such times. But kingdom worship and kingdom spirituality are both sides of the same coin.
In the context of congregational worship believers need to be able to pray either a psalm expressing praise or sorrow. When we are joyful it is not too difficult to identify with those who are sorrowful and prayerfully sing or recite a psalm of lament. However when we are sorrowful we may not be able to identify with those who are joyful and prayerfully sing or recite a psalm of praise. This is when we need to turn to the psalms in private worship for emotional healing.
Investigative reporter David Chagall (1996: 3-4) recounts an unusual psychiatric treatment at Pennsylvania’s Coatesville Hospital. A patient, Pete, had tried to kill himself and others but was unresponsive to various forms of conventional treatment. He was brought to music therapist Adam Knieste. As soon as the aides left Pete turned violent. Adam played a very loud piece of music. “Pete froze. The music was wild, just like Pete’s emotions, and that got his attention. From there I gradually moved the mood, tempo, and intensity to calmer sounds until, after forty-five minutes, I was into some harpsichord things.” That was when Pete, who had not spoken one rational word in over eight months, walked over to Adam, asked for a cigarette and sat down to talk.
Adam explains that the worst thing to do is for depressed people to listen to happy music. “To benefit from mood changes, you have to start right where that person is and establish musical rapport. Depressed people need depressing music. Angry people need angry music. You tell me what kind of music a person listens to and I’ll tell you that person’s state of mind.”
It is well recognized that every human emotion is represented in the Psalms. So in view of Pete’s amazing recovery, we can imagine the healing powers of the psalms. Hence a believer may even begin with an imprecatory psalm and gradually end with Psalm 150, which praises God in every line of the poem.
We have so far considered the formative, transformative and even healing powers of the psalms in the context of the Mosaic Covenant. In the context of the New Covenant, with the regenerative power and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, all the more “in praying the psalms, one is actively committing oneself to following the God-approved life” (Wenham 2012: 76), and in a way that surely leads to joyfully living out such a life.