Immersing ourselves in the Psalms day after day show how raw and real prayer ought to be, gives us more glimpses into the character of God and lead to an ever-deeper worship of Jesus Christ, according to pastor and teacher Tim Keller.
Keller is founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. His latest book is “The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms,” which is a chronological reflection on the Psalms for every day of the year.
The Psalms are the longest book of the Bible, with 150 in total. Topics in the Psalms range from David’s despair and enduring hope in God while being hunted by King Saul to recognizing his sin after committing adultery with Bathsheba and ordering the murder of her husband in battle to rejoicing in the character and law of God. While David is prominently featured, there are numerous authors throughout the Psalms.
Keller said it was his own study of the Psalms that led him to use it as a teaching tool for how to pray.
“It came together because over the years I’ve been trying to teach people how to pray as a pastor,” Keller said. “I realized I mostly give them principles; I don’t actually give them examples. This is God’s divinely inspired devotional book. These are divinely inspired prayers. This is God’s way of showing us how to pray in every possible situation, whether angry or bitter or happy or sad.”
He said even a cursory reading of the Psalms shows believers that God wants us to unburden our hearts and not try to convince Him and those around us that we’ve got it all together.
“You know what’s great about the Psalms? Almost always, no matter how bleak and angry or upset the psalmist is, whether its David or whoever’s doing it, the Psalms are very emotionally honest,” Keller said. “They speak with candor. They express their emotions in ways most Americans would feel not free to do in prayer. They are really, really, candid.”
Yet one of the most encouraging aspects of the psalms is that the writers almost always find their way back to extolling the greatness of God, regardless of circumstances.
“In the end, they always circle back and say, ‘Here’s who you are, God. I’m remembering who you are.’ So they’re extremely honest about where they are, but then they are absolutely realistic about who God is,” he said. “They don’t just ventilate their emotions. They bring their emotions to God, to the real God.”
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But Keller is quick to point out a couple of exceptions. He said Psalm 39 and Psalm 88 conclude without reflection on God, which he believes is also instructive.
“The reason those Psalms are in the Bible is sometimes it takes a long time to land,” he said. “Sometimes you may actually be in darkness for a pretty good while.”
But when the rescue does come, Keller said it is a critical reminder for believers in Christ as well.
“The psalmist is always asking for some kind of rescue, some kind of help, some kind of deliverance. What is that? That’s some kind of salvation,” he said. “The ultimate fulfillment of any request for salvation is in Jesus Christ.”
Another feature of the Psalms Keller finds fascinating are the imprecatory prayers, in which the writer specifically prays for God to destroy his enemies. While some might see a contradiction in that request when compared to Jesus commanding his followers to love their enemies, Keller finds three critical lessons in those prayers.
“First, we shouldn’t be too quick to turn away from them because it does show that God cares about justice,” Keller said. “It’s too easy to forget that God is a God who will put everything right in the end. There will be a Judgment Day, and evil will not triumph. Those Psalms are reminding us of that so you can’t turn away from that.”
Second, Keller said getting an intimate look at the thoughts and emotions of a persecuted believer makes us more sensitive to those suffering for their faith in the world today.
“If I turn away from them, I’m forgetting that right now in the world, somewhere, there are people literally in that situation,” Keller said. “They are being oppressed. They are being persecuted. For me to just say ooh, this is kind of creepy, I’m forgetting that there’s people out there in the world that are experiencing this and this helps me. This keeps me from being sealed off from them. It reminds me of what they’re going through.”
The third benefit of the imprecatory Psalms, according to Keller, is that they give us a window into our own sinfulness.
“The psalmist could not foresee everything God was going to do in Jesus Christ, but what we can see is this: What our enemies deserve, we deserve too, and the things we deserve fell on Jesus. Knowing that makes it easier for me to forgive,” he said.
“But you’ve got to keep in mind is the psalmists always say, ‘God, you take vengeance.’ The psalmists do not say, ‘Lord, go help me take vengeance.'”
While the Psalms were written before the birth of Christ, there are several that specifically prophesy the coming of Christ and his ministry and death on the cross. And Keller said even the ones that are not prophetic still point to Jesus.
“The psalmist might be asking for forgiveness, but the ultimate forgiveness is in Christ. He might be asking for joy,” Keller said. “The ultimate joy is knowing we’re in Christ. So whatever the psalmist is asking for, a Christian can not only appreciate what he’s asking for, but we can also know that in Christ we have infinitely more than even what the psalmist is asking for.”