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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Ancient Testimonies of the Psalms

While God speaks through the entirety of the Scriptures, the Psalms have played a unique and special role in the life of the church. They have been sung in worship services from all traditions, some of which sing the Psalms exclusively, and have been used in the personal prayer lives of countless Christians and Jews over the millennia. One example, Cory Wilson, writes, "The psalms have played a vital role in shaping my faith in my long journey with God. They have invited me to take God at his word, embrace his grace, and call out to him from where I am—in joy, or sin, or suffering, or even anger. Again and again I find that the shocking and unsettling honesty of the psalms calls forth honesty within me—honesty about deep things like desires, fears, and hurts." [1]

His words, written in the twenty-first century, echo ancient understandings of the Psalms. In the fourth century, St. Athanasius said, "Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Savior’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, it ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill." [2]

In the Psalms, God has provided humanity with the language to wrestle with him, to bring sin before him in contrition, to voice doubt in the face of tribulation, and to praise him for the greatness of his salvation. The Psalter provides such a rich vocabulary for prayer that St. Benedict encouraged its regular use in the monastic life. In his Rule, he listed what Psalms ought to be used during each of the monastic prayer hours [3]. He also gave guidance on how to approach praying the Psalms: “Let us consider, then, how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels, and let us stand to sing the Psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices.” [4] Furthermore, "How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion. We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words." [5] The Psalms are not to be merely recited or sung, but must engage the entirety of the person saying or singing them. The mind and the heart must be engaged in the act of praying the Psalms.

St. Benedict placed such an importance on public prayer using the Psalms that he included procedures for dealing with a monk who made a mistake while reciting the oratory during the hours of prayer: "Should anyone make a mistake in a psalm, responsory, refrain, or reading, he must make satisfaction there before all. If he does not use this occasion to humble himself, he will be subjected to more severe punishment for failing to correct by humility the wrong committed through negligence." [6] Reciting the Psalms in prayer is not “cheating” in prayer or a lesser form of prayer when compared to extemporaneous prayer, as is often assumed by the modern church. For St. Benedict, reciting the Psalms is such a profound spiritual expression that a mistake in reciting them must be repented of or punished for.

According to St. Athanasius, in the Psalms, the chaotic movements of the soul are stilled: "For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil….nor desiring evil though unable to achieve it….or, for that matter, as does any man who abstains from one sin and yet desires another every bit as bad." [7]

In the Psalms, God has provided a rich resource to guide the prayers of his people and remake them in the image of Christ. All that must be done is to open them and pray them in humility.

[1] Cory Wilson, “How Theology Can Ruin Your Prayer Life,” Reformed Worship, Issue 104, p. 46.

[2] St. Athanasius of Alexandria, “Letter to Marcellinus”,, accessed 29 November 2016.

[3] St. Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St. Benedict, 18.

[4] Ibid. 19:6-7.

[5] Ibid. 20:2-3

[6] Ibid. 45:1-2

[7] St. Athanasius of Alexandria, “Letter to Marcellinus”,, accessed 29 November 2016.

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