Can You Pray with the Psalms?
What kind of prayer does God hear?
MANY have marveled at how the voices of astronauts on the moon were transmitted across hundreds of thousands of miles and were heard in all parts of the earth within a very short interval. This feat was made possible by the functioning of radio waves.
These dramatic developments in space travel and sound transmission suggest to unprejudiced minds that it is by no means impossible for human creatures to communicate with the One who created the moon and all the stars spread across the immensity of space. Yes, prayer directed to the Creator should appear all the more credible and desirable.
But how to pray for best results is the vital question. Men have always felt the need to pour out their troubles into the ear of a powerful listener, one who can help them overcome their problems. Thus it is that peoples of all religions—Buddhists, Hindus, worshipers of Allah, members of Christendom’s religions—engage in prayer. Some address themselves directly to the god they worship. Others pray through various intermediaries, such as “saints,” images and relics.
However, there is no book of religion that has so much that is sensible and instructive to say about prayer as the Holy Bible. From beginning to end it tells how men of former times, men who had faith in the one true God, prayed. It tells what they said in their prayers and the attitude in which they approached the Great Hearer of prayers. (Ps. 65:2) It tells what they prayed about and why.
Many persons in Christendom, as, for example, in some Caribbean lands, indulge in superstitious prayer, perhaps unwittingly. In what way? Some seem to think that just because a certain prayer is in the Bible it has great weight with God. It becomes to them a sort of magic formula.
One portion of the Bible that comes in for special attention along this line is the book of Psalms. It contains many prayers uttered by King David and other faithful men under a great variety of circumstances. But what is often overlooked is that these are much more than personal prayers of individuals. In fact, many of them are clearly prophetic and have to do with Jesus Christ and his role in God’s purposes. Note, for example, that the apostle Paul applies Psalm 40 to the Lord Jesus Christ.—Heb. 10:5-10.
But superstitious persons believe that they can use each specific Psalm to meet some particular problem in their lives. One particular Psalm is said to promote success in business, another to drive away evil spirits, another to obtain a job, and still another to ensure success in fishing. You may even hear some such person inquiring: “Which Psalm do you advise me to use in such and such a situation?” There are even specialists to consult if one is in doubt.
Are you out of work? They will tell you to stand at a crossroads and recite Psalms 21 and 22. Are you having trouble with your marriage mate? Then, say they, all you have to do is recite Psalms 1 to 9 during nine days; Psalm 1 the first day, Psalms 1 and 2 the second day, and so forth, until all nine are recited on the ninth day. You are not having much success in business? Then Psalm 25 is recommended.
Psalm 109 is said to have the power, when recited, to protect against enemies, to remove them or even destroy them forever. It is supposed to be said while facing the rising sun and holding a lighted candle in one’s hand. People will even leave the Bible on their bed or other piece of furniture, the pages open, perhaps even with a lighted candle set on this particular page! It is thought that wicked spirits can thus be kept at bay or prevented from entering the house.
Alas! All those superstitious uses of the Psalms have not solved unemployment or the many other problems. Enemies are not reduced. Wicked spirits still appear to haunt the lives of the superstitious. Misery and poverty are still afflicting the very lands where these Psalms are recited for relief.
What then? Is this the kind of confidence that people should put in the Bible? Is this the proper way to approach God in prayer? Is it to be expected that God will hear any of such prayers?
God’s Word Counsels
The Bible itself furnishes God’s answer to those questions. Not only does it contain many samples of prayer, but it also has instruction for worshipers as to how they should pray. Prayer occupied an important place in the life and ministry of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. He taught his followers to imitate his example and he taught them how to pray. Said he, at Matthew 7:7, 8: “Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone asking receives, and everyone seeking finds, and to everyone knocking it will be opened.”
However, did Jesus mean by those words that anything we asked would be granted? Not at all, for his disciple James writes of those who do not obtain answers to their prayers ‘because they ask for a wrong purpose.’ (Jas. 4:3) And Jesus himself dramatically pointed to the danger of praying for something not agreeable to God’s will, for, as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, he said: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me. Yet, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt. 26:39) One cannot pray as at Psalm 25:4, “Make me know your own ways, O Jehovah; teach me your own paths,” while making no effort to study God’s written Word, the Bible, to find out more about God’s will.
Then, there is the matter of praying for disaster to our enemies. Should a Christian do that? Jesus Christ taught his followers: “Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you; that you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens.”—Matt. 5:44, 45.
Is it impossible for humans to follow that principle? Jesus himself held to it at the crucial point of his execution, for he cried out as he was being impaled: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) And Stephen, while being stoned to death by the Jews, prayed, saying: “Jehovah, do not charge this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) Christians should not allow hatred or ideas of personal revenge to influence them. Vengeance belongs to God.—Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19.
It is quite evident that one cannot properly pray to God for mercy while at the same time denying mercy to personal enemies. (Matt. 6:12) Then what about Psalm 109 and Psalm 83? Do they not reveal a vindictive spirit? No, not if we understand them for what they are. They are completely in harmony with God’s purpose to punish and destroy the incorrigibly wicked, those who are willfully wicked, those who are really God’s enemies. (Ps. 83:2) And it should be noted that the first of those Psalms is a prophetic prayer that involved circumstances connected with the life of Jesus Christ. It is so applied by the apostles. (Acts 1:20) Those prayers primarily expressed the desire for God’s name to be treated with respect as a result of his acts in connection with his people.—Ps. 83:16, 18; 109:21, 27.
Right Use of the Psalms
The Psalms are part of the Holy Scriptures about which the apostle Paul wrote: “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) Thus it is good to study the Psalms together with all the rest of the Scriptures so as to draw out of them those just principles of God by which to discipline our lives. If our thoughts and our deeds are in harmony with those principles, then Jehovah will grant our earnest prayers. But if someone is using the Psalms in a superstitious manner while ignoring the rest of the Scriptures, possibly living in fornication or adultery, what then? Proverbs 28:9 answers: “He that is turning his ear away from hearing the law—even his prayer is something detestable.”
One who leans upon the prayers in the book of Psalms exclusively, while failing to take into account the teaching of God’s Son in the matter of prayer, cannot be favorably heard by God. One must accept and apply the instructions and principles given by Christ Jesus, namely, to refrain from prayer that is engaged in just to be seen by men, to refrain from repetitious prayers, to offer prayers in the name of Christ Jesus. (Matt. 6:5-8; John 14:13) As Jesus himself testified: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father [even in prayer] except through me.”—John 14:6.
The prayers that are agreeable to God are not memorized ones, or prayers written by someone else in advance. Rather they are those that are spontaneous, not necessarily expressed in perfect grammar, not necessarily spoken fluently, but issuing from the heart. One Bible psalmist said: “I have called with my whole heart. Answer me, O Jehovah.” (Ps. 119:145) Could he have said that if he had just read some written prayer? Surely not.
The one whose prayers are a delight to God is the one who has studied to know God and his will and his principles of righteousness, and whose heart has thereby been filled with appreciation and gratitude to the Creator. Then the prayers of such a one are not merely petitions for something from God, but include praise and thanksgiving to the Great Giver of “every good gift and every perfect present.”—Jas. 1:17.
Jehovah’s witnesses are a people who have full faith in God and who fully value prayer as an avenue of approach to God. They accept the Holy Scriptures, including the Psalms, as the Word of the only true God. However, they do not attribute to the Psalms any supernatural, magic power. They were written, as were all the Scriptures, for our comfort and to build up our hope. (Rom. 15:4) Many of those Psalms in the Bible contain prophecies about God’s kingdom under Christ. That kingdom, about which Jesus taught his followers to pray, saying, “Let your kingdom come,” is the kingdom that Jehovah’s witnesses are proclaiming in all the world as the hope for all who would enjoy God’s gift of life.—Matt. 6:9, 10.