Using Psalms to help us to Pray

    Using Psalms to help us to Pray

Taken from notes given out by Ruth Chia in her lecture at St Johns-St Margaret Church, Singapore

When Praying

  • What to say?
  • Where to start?
  • How to express our praise, gratitude, thanks and adoration?
  • What about our doubts, shame, regrets, distress or desire?
  • Can we express our anger, cursing or calling God to take vengeance on our enemies?

Turn to the Psalms for help

     The Psalms cover all our emotions, hopes, desires and feelings. There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious of that is not represented in the Psalms. The Psalms give us a clear understanding of how to approach God in our prayer. According to Athanasius, “Most Scripture speaks to us, while the Psalms speak for us.” The Psalms bring our speech of anger, rage, sorrow, hopes, dreams, praise, gratitude, revenge, etc to God. The Psalms teach us to accept ourselves before God, “warts and all” (Cromwell) as the Lord accepts us. The Psalms give us the words, phrases or expressions to pray to God in our hurt, anger, sorrow and joy. Herbert Lockyer says, “There is hardly any experience of religious life that the psalmists do not touch upon. In the language of their lyrics, our deep yearnings for God, our contrition for sin, and our joy of sins forgiven find an echo” (God’s Book of Poetry, 13-14).

     Since we believe that the Bible is inspired by God, He is showing us that we can use the expressions in the Psalms to say what we want to say to HimWe can be honest with God. We don’t have to hide anything in our heart from God. We don’t have to pretend to be who we are not. As David says, “But You desire honesty from the heart, so You can teach me to be wise in my inmost being” (Psalm 51:6 NLT).

How to read the Psalms1

         It all begins with reading. But, before we read the Psalms, pray that God will speak to us through His Word.

         The sequence is this:

1. reading, rereading, then reading again—and again

      2. clarifying the text, gaining an understanding of each of the words or phrases that seem puzzling

3. analyzing the structures in the psalm: (a) rational structure, i.e., the flow of ideas; (b) emotional structure, i.e., the flow of emotions evoked in and by the psalm; (c) rhetorical structure

      4. achieving a sense of the psalmist’s own often complex and changing relationship to God (e.g., calm, joyous, disturbed, turbulent, angry, depressed)

      5. making the answering speech of the psalmist one’s own, by repeating his words as one’s own, adapting his words to one’s own situation or doing some of both

              The first stage, reading, is the most important. Only when we have grasped the psalm so deeply that we think its thoughts and feel its emotions are we ready to make it our own answering speech. The process puts strong emphasis on the initial, almost prerational act of reading the text, because this is the only way we can avoid second-guessing the meaning of the psalm. If we skip to analysis before absorbing the psalm, we are likely to be writing our own psalm—not just “our” psalm but one that is counter to that of the psalmist. Good readers yield to the text well before they become its analysts and critics.

               Disciplined reading and rereading is a simple act of intensive looking—a looking to see what is actually there. Louis Agassiz, a Harvard zoologist of a hundred years ago, was famous for the way he introduced new students to laboratory work. He would begin by “handing them a deadfish, or some other specimen, and requiring them to produce a complete and accurate description of it before he allowed them to proceed. To meet Agassiz’s standards, this sometimes took weeks, and left the students with a badly decomposed fish on their hands.” Of course, it is unlikely that any of us will come to know as much about any psalm we read as the students came to know about their fish. But that is not the goal. The goal is for each of us to know the psalm as well as we can. In the end we will not be left with a decomposed psalm; rather the psalm will have worked its way with us, attaining a clarity of meaning that brings us joy.

         Stages two and three, clarifying and analyzing, lead to stage four and then quite naturally to stage five. Little has changed in human nature since the psalms were written. We readily see ourselves in the psalmists. In most cases their answering speech readily becomes our own.

         There is, however, one set of psalms that often cause difficulty for followers of ChristThese are the so-called imprecatory (cursing) psalms, in which the psalmist calls down God’s vengeance on his enemiesI have chosen to face this difficulty head on in chapter eight, dealing with Psalm 1376. Even where we find the psalmist’s words horrifying, I think as we pray through them with care we will find that they ring true. This psalm will test our willingness to grapple with our own anger.

Main Types of Psalms

TypesPsalms Nos.
Adoration113-118, 146-150 From Donald Williams “Master the Old Testament” pp. 1930,32,41,100,116 and others
Confession6,32,38,51,102,130,143 From Donald Williams “Master the Old Testament” pp 362
ComplaintIndividual— Ps 3,5,6,7,17,22,25,26,28,35,39,41,42-43, 51,54,55,56,57,59,61,63,64,69,71,86,88,102,109,130,140,141 and 143;Communal—60,74,79,80,83,85,90,124,126,137 and 144. From A.A. Anderson, The book of Psalms, vol. 1 of the New Century Bible Commentary; ed Ronald E. Clements and Matthew Black pp 38-39.Also quoted in Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Hearts’ True Home pp 257
Cursing5,7,9,10,13,16,21,23,28,31,35,36,40,41,44,52,54,55,58,59,68,69,70,71,109,137, and others. From James W. Sire, Learning to Pray through the Psalms, pp 149

Adoration   : Praise, Adoration, Thanksgiving, Worship for what God has done for us. We glorfy God for His beauty, power or honour. God’s glory is also attributed to His majesty, greatness, authority, splendour, awesome works, great deeds (Ps 145:1-7) love and faithfulness (Ps 115:1)

Confession   : Admission of fault and guilt. There are seven penitential Psalms. Penitence without making excuses such as through weakness, through negligence or through our own deliberate fault. Asking for forgiveness with heartfelt desire to amend and atone. Contrition in that we are truly sorry and repent of all our sins.

Complaint    : Lament—Words of anguish, frustration and disappointment. When adversity strikes, God seems to have abandoned us. So there are lots of frustration and questioning as to where God is. The Lament (Complaint) Psalms teach us how to pray our inner conflicts and anguish.

Cursing      : Imprecatory Psalms are Psalms that call down God’s vengeance on evildoers. There is large number of these cursing Psalms and they are disturbing when we read them.       When we hurl curses at our enemies to God, we hear the echo return to us over and over until we recant of them, only to shout them out again. They are private not communal Psalms.

                   Slowly, we will be transformed by the Holy Spirit, when we patiently wait on God and listen to His replies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘love your friends, hate your enemies’. But now I tell you; love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may become the children of your Father in heaven. . . You must be perfect–just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48 TEV) “Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God.”(1 John 4:7 TEV) “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”(1 John 4:8 TEV). “If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are My disciples.”(John 13:35 TEV)”Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 TEV)

As the Psalms mention enemies often, so Who are our enemies now?

  • Satan
  • People who attack us
  • Our own emotional wounds
  • Our hardened heart
  • The hurt that still imprisons us to the past
  • Our unforgiveness
  • Our arrogrance

Structure of the Psalms2

           The Psalms are a collection, an anthology, a hymnal, a book of poems and songs. The classification or arrangement of the 150 psalms into groups forms an interesting aspect of study. From ancient times the collection has been held to have five sections, or books. This very old Jewish statement expresses it: “Moses gave the Israelites the five books of the Law; and corresponding with these David gave them the five books of the Psalms.” The whole collection, then, can be looked upon as forming a poetical Pentateuch:

Book One—Psalms 1-41. Corresponds with Genesis.

             Subject: Man—His state of blessedness, fall, and recovery.

Book Two—Psalms 42-72. Corresponds with Exodus.

             Subject: Israel’s Ruin (42-49), Redeemer (50-60), Redemption (61-72).

Book Three—Psalms 73-89. Corresponds with Leviticus.

             Subject: The Sanctuary.

Book Four—Psalms 90-106. Corresponds with Numbers.

             Subject: The Earth.

Book Five—Psalms 107-150. Corresponds with Deuteronomy

             Subject: The Word of God.

           The Hebrew word psalms means “praises.” The five books all end with praise:

Book One—Psalms 1-41. Ends with a doxology and a double Amen.

Book Two—Psalms 42-72. Ends with a doxology and a double Amen, with the addition, “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.”

Book Three—Psalms 73-89. Ends with a different kind of doxology and a double Amen.

Book Four—Psalms 90-106. Ends with a doxology, Amen, and Hallelujah (“Praise ye the Lord’).

Book Five—Psalms 107-150. Ends with repeated Hallelujahs (“Praise ye the Lord“).

We praise God because:3

1.          He ordained praise (Ps 8:2)

2.          He is great and worthy of praise (Ps 18:3, 48:1)

3.          He is our Rock, Deliverer, Shield and the Horn of our salvation (Ps 18:1-2)

4.          He is strong and mighty (Ps 21: 13)

5.          Our praise enthrones Him as the Holy One (Ps 22:3)

6.          The Kingdom is His and He rules over all the nations and all will bow before Him (Ps 22:28-29)

7.          It is fitting for the upright or righteous to praise Him (Ps 33:1)

8.          His right hand is filled with righteousness (Ps 48:10). Righteousness and justice are the foundations of His throne (Ps 89:13)

9.          He is our strength, refuge and fortress (Ps 50:16-17, 91:2)

10.     Praise glorifies God (Ps 50:23)  

11.     Praise delights Him (Ps 149:1-4)

12.     In Him our souls find rest and salvation comes from Him alone (Ps 62:1-2)

13.     His love is better than life and in praising Him our souls will be satisfied as with the richest of foods (Ps 63:3-5)

14.     He is father to the fatherless and defender of widows (Ps 68:5)

15.     He split the sea by His power, established the sun and moon, set all the boundaries of the earth and made both summer and winter (Ps 74:13-17). The heavens are His and also the earth. He founded the world and all that is in it (Ps 89:11)

16.     In Him, love and faithfulness meet, righteousness and peace kiss (Ps 85:10-11)

17.     He is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness (Ps 86:15, 145:8)

18.     From everlasting to everlasting, He is God (Ps 90:2)

19.     He reigns and is robed in majesty (Ps 93:1)  

20.     He knows the thoughts of man (Ps 94:11)

21.     His right hand and His holy arm have worked salvation (Ps 98:1)

22.     He is our Maker (Ps 24:1, 95:6) and the Maker of heaven and earth (Ps 121:2)

23.     He alone has the power to take us into glory. Without Him we have no one in heaven. He is the strength of our heart and our portion forever (Ps 73:24-26) 

24.     He is merciful (Ps 123:2)  

25.     His understanding has no limit (Ps 147:5) 

26.     We are His, the sheep of His pasture.(Ps 100:3)

27.     He is good, His love endures forever, His faithfulness continues through all generations (Ps 100:5)

28.     In Him there is freedom and hope (Ps 119:43, 45)

29.     His Word is eternal. It is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps 119:89, 105) 

30.     He alone has the power to forgive us our sins (Ps 130:4)

31.     It is good to sing praises to our God (Ps 147:1)

32.     He is greater than all gods (Ps 135:5) yet He sustains the humble (Ps 147:6)

33.     With the high praises of God in our mouths and a double-edged sword in our hands, we can face the enemy to “carry out the sentence written against them” (Ps 149:6-9) 

34.          Life itself—comes from Him (Ps 150:6).

We Offer Thanksgiving to God because:3

1.          He has been so good to us (Ps 13:6)

2.          He counsels us (Ps 16:7)

3.          He subdues nations, saves us from our enemies and exalts us above our foes (Ps 18:46-48)

4.          He is our Protector, Deliverer and Provider (Ps 34:7,10)

5.          He is our guide to the end (Ps 67:4)

6.          When we cling to Him His right hand upholds us (Ps 63:8)

7.          He “daily bears our burdens” (Ps 68:19)

8.          He gives power and strength to His people (Ps 68:35)

9.          He alone does marvelous deeds (Ps 74:18-19)

10.     No good thing does He withhold from those whose walk is blameless (Ps 84:11) 

11.     It is good to give thanks to Him (Ps 92:1)

12.     He will never reject His people nor will He forsake His inheritance (Ps 94:14)

13.     He will not let our foot slip, as He watches over our lives, our coming and going, both now and forevermore (Ps 121:3,7-8) Though we walk in the midst of trouble He preserves our lives (Ps 138:7)

14.     Blessed are all who fear the Lord (Ps 128) 

15.     Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord (Ps 144:15)

We express praise and thanksgiving to God by:3

1. Singing and clapping (Ps 9:2, 47:1)

2. Lifting up our hands and (Ps 134:2) and blessing His Name continually (Ps 34:1, 71:8)

3. Telling of all His marvelous works/wonders and rejoicing in Him (Ps 9:1) 

4. Bowing and kneeling (Ps 95:6)

5. Dancing and using musical instruments in our worship (Ps150:3-5)

6. in short, with all that is within us (Ps 103:1)

Psalms that support our Prayers:3

·         For forgiveness—release from shame and guilt (Ps 19:12, 25:11, 51: 1-4);

·         For openness and transparency before God (Ps 26:2, 139:23-24);

·         For freedom from fear (Ps 46:1-3, 118:5-6);

·         For joy, peace of mind, happiness, contentment (Ps 3:5-6, 4:8, 9:9, 16:5-11, 68:3, 94:17-19, 138:7-8);

·         For help in trouble, danger, distress or weakness (Ps 5:1-3, 10:14, 30:10, 18:6, 29, 46:1, 54:4, 102:1);

·         For protection and safety (Ps 4:8, 27:4-8, 91:1-16, 121:1-8);

·         For healing of the sick or fight against depression(Ps 6:2, 42:5, 1143:5)

·         For every kind of provision—grain, livestock (Ps 65:9-13, 68:9-10, 81:16, 104:10-15, 144:13-14);

·         For spiritual strength of soul (Ps 138:3);

·                      For wisdom, guidance, instruction (godly/ungodly behaviour or lifestyle) (Ps 15: 7, 27:1, 14, 32:8, 34:12, 37:16, 51:6, 78:1, 84:11, 118:8-9);

·           For success and harmony within the family/old age (Ps 128, 144:12);

·           For a pure heart, cleansing (Ps 51: 2, 7, 119:9-16);

·           For justice/vindication (Ps 26:1, 35: 23-24 0;

·           For salvation (own or another’s) (Ps 18:2, 35:3, 51:12, 62:1, 69:13, 119:174)

·           For restraint/self-control when tempted to strike back (Ps 1:1-2, 19:13, 37:7-9, 141:3­4);

·           For safeguarding a nation (Ps 46:4-11);

·           For life and fortunes to be restored, divine favour (Ps 4:6, 71:20-21, 126:4);

·           For Israel to be restored (Ps 122:6-9, 85:1-2)

Things that hinder our Prayers from being heard:3

•  pride, arrogance, boastfulness (Ps 5:5, 25:9, 52:1, 131:2);

•  unrepentant heart (Ps 4:4, 7:3-5, 18:20-24, 26:6, 126:5-6);

•  lack of trust in God (Ps 4:5, 8:10, 17:6, 20:7, 26:1, 28:7, 31:14, 49:13, 143:8);

•  lack of need (Ps 15:2, 63:1-2, 143:6);

•  lack of faith (Ps 18:25, 33:20-22);

•  lack of self-control (Ps 39:1);

•  no expectation (Ps 5:3, 123:2;

•  no hope (Ps 25:3, 5);

•  no fear of God (Ps 25:14, 34:9, 76:7);

•  deviousness (Ps 9:16, 18:26)  

·      deceit (Ps 17:1, 52:2-4);

•  unbelief (Ps 14:1);

•  running after other gods/divided heart (Ps 15:4, 24:4, 86:11);

•  impatience (Ps 27:14, 37:7, 40:1, 55:16-17, 75:2, 90:4);

•  failure to credit God for what is due Him (Ps 29:1-2, 30:1-3, 50:14, 77:11-12);

•  refusal/inability to submit to the plans of God (Ps 33:10-11);

•  selfishness/disregard for the welfare of others (Ps 37:25-27, 41:1-3);

•  anger (Ps 37:8);

•  failure to obey/respond/listen (Ps 40:6-8, 50:17, 78:56, 81:11-13, 95:8);

•  clinging to material possessions (Ps 49:6);

•  failure to grasp the extent of God’s holiness, compassion, mercy, righteousness, justice, faithfulness (Ps 77:13, 86:15-16, 91:4, 103:8-10, 111:1-10, 145-8-9, 13b, 17);

•  failure to appreciate what God has done/given in the past (Ps 136:1-26).

Who wrote the Psalms?4

·        David     : David’s Psalms are customarily identified in several collections: Ps 3-41, 61-70, 138-145, plus a smaller group, 108-110, and those that stand alone. All in seventy-three Psalms are ascribed to David.

·        Solomon   : Ps 72,127

·        Moses     : Ps 90

·        Ethan the Ezrahite : Ps 89

·        Asaph the Levite musician    : Ps 73-83, 50

·        Sons of Kohath     : Ps 42-49, 84-88 (except 43 and 86)

·        Hezekiah      :Ten Psalms

·        Anonymous     : RemainingForty Psalms


          Prayer is, of course, a spiritual discipline, however it is practiced. That is, it is a means God uses to grow and intensify our relationship with him. Moreover, prayer is closely related to other spiritual disciplines, especially the disciplines of silence and solitude. Each chapter in this book assumes that each reader is alone or at least undistracted by other people. You will be encouraged to be silent or to wait—that is, to stop the running inner dialogue we have with ourselves throughout any normal day.

          To be silent means to refrain from talking, to refrain from paying attention to the sounds around us, to turn off the TV, the radio, the CD player, and to seek a quiet place for paying attention solely to God and to what he may send into our mind. This is not a normal habit for most of us in the Western world. We are a wordy people, and we seek the sounds of the marketplace and not the sounds of silence. But only as we make ourselves available to God through reading his Word and waiting for him to cast our attention his way will we mature in the practice of the spiritual disciplines and in the character of our spiritual life.

          The difference between talking about silence and practicing it is like the difference between learning about prayer and praying. Only the practice contributes to spiritual growth. I trust God will use the Psalms to transform your character and bring you closer to him.

Hymns related to the Psalms5

All people that on earth do dwell (Kethe) –         Pss. 100 

As pants the hart (Tare/Brady) –                    Ps. 42 

Before Jehovah’s awful throne (Watts) –             Ps. 100 

Fill your hearts with joy and gladness(Dudley-Smith)Ps. 147 

From all that dwell below the skies (Watts) –       Ps. 117 

Give to our God immortal praise (Watts) –           Ps. 136 

God of mercy, God of grace (Lyre) –                 Ps. 67

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed (Montgomery) –        &nbbsp; Ps. 72 

How pleased and blest was I (Watts) –               Ps. 122 

How weak the thoughts and vain (Wesley) –           Ps. 49

I lift my eyes to the quiet hills (Dudley-Smith) –  Ps. 121 

I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath (Watts) –    Ps. 146

I love you, 0 Lord, you alone (Idle) –              Ps. 18 

Jesu, lover of my soul (Wesley) –                   Ps. 32 

Jesus shall reign (Watts) –                         Ps. 72 

Joy to the world (Watts) –                          Ps. 98 

Let us with a gladsome mind (Milton) –              Ps. 136 

Lift up your heads (Montgomery) –                   Ps. 24 

Lord of the worlds above (Watts) –                  Ps. 84 

Not to us be glory given (Dudley-Smith) –           Ps. 115 

O God, our help in ages past (Watts) –              Ps. 90 

O praise ye the Lord (Baker) –                      Ps. 150 

O worship the King (Grant) –                        Ps. 104 

Pleasant are thy courts above (Lyre) –              Ps. 84 

Praise him, praise him, praise him (Perry)   –      Ps. 148 

Praise my soul the King of heaven (Lyre) –        &nbbsp; Ps. 103 

Praise the Lord of heaven (Browne) –                Ps. 148 

Praise the Lord of heaven (Dudley-Smith) –        &nbbsp; Ps. 148 

Praise the Lord, ye heavens, adore him (anon) –     Ps. 148 

Safe in the shadow of the Lord (Dudley-Smith) –     Ps. 91 

Shine, mighty God (Watts) –                         Ps. 67 

Sweet is the work (Watts) –                         Ps. 92 

The God of love my shepherd is (Herbert) –        &nbbsp; Ps. 23 

The heavens declare thy glory, Lord (Watts) –       Ps. 19 

The King of love my shepherd is (Baker) –           Ps. 23 

The Lord is King (fonder) –                         Ps. 96 

The Lord my pasture shall prepare (Addison) –       Ps. 23 

The Lord’s my shepherd (Scottish Psalter) –         Pss. 23 

The spacious firmament on high (Addison) –        &nbbsp; Ps. 19 

There is a safe and secret place (Lyre) –           Ps. 91 

This earth belongs to God (Idle) –                  Ps. 24 

Through all the changing scenes (Tare/Brady) –      Ps. 34 

Unto the hills around (Campbell) –                  Ps. 121 

We love the place, 0 Lord (Bullock/Baker) –         Pss. 26 

When all thy mercies (Addison) –                    Ps. 71 

When Israel out of Egypt came (Wesley) –            Ps. 114


1.  James W. Sire, Learning to Pray through the Psalms, pp 13-14

2.      Herbert Lockyer, “God’s Book of Poetry” pp 11, 12

3.  Taken from notes given out by Ruth Chia in her lecture at St Johns-St Margaret Church, Singapore

4.  Donald Williams “Master the Old Testament” pp. 19

Herbert Lockyer, “God’s Book of Poetry” pp 11

  5. Michael Wilcock, “The Message of Psalms” pp 16-17

  6. Read James W. Sire’s write-up on “Praying the cursing Psalm 137” in my website

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