How to “pray through” a psalm
A brief tutorial and a sample prayer through Psalm 103
After making the case that Israel’s divinely inspired hymnbook (i.e. the Psalms) is an excellent “instrument for theological instruction,” Tim Keller goes further in his book entitled The Songs of Jesus to describe them as something to be experienced. He says, ‘Psalms, then, are not just a matchless primer of teaching but a medicine chest for the heart and the best possible guide for practical living. In calling psalms “medicine” I am trying to do justice to what makes them somewhat different from other parts of the Bible. They are written to be prayed, recited, and sung — to be done, not merely to be read. Theologian Gordon Wenham concludes that using them repeatedly is a “performative act” that “alters one’s relationship [with God] in a way mere listening does not.” We are, in a sense, to put them inside our own prayers, or perhaps to put our prayers inside them, and approach God in that way. In doing this the psalms involve the speaker directly in new attitudes, commitments, promises, and even emotions.’
As a way to “put our prayers inside them”, we can do something known as “praying through” a psalm, which basically means reading through a psalm and interjecting our responses in the form of a prayer. There’s really no right way to do it, but the key is to be honest. Speak with words you’re comfortable with, not with religious words that sound nice but you don’t understand. If you don’t understand something, tell God that. If you don’t believe something, tell him that too. The idea is to interact with the hymns.
To illustrate, I’ve included parts of Psalm 103 below (verses 1–6 and 10–18 from the English Standard Version to be exact) with my responses interjected in bold. I hope reading through them can be beneficial to you and can encourage you to try the exercise for yourself.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit,
Lord, you forgive, heal, and redeem.
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Lord, you satisfy me.
The LORD works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.
Lord, please keep your word.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
Lord, why are you so gracious?
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
Lord, your love is so great.
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
Lord, you are a wonderful father.
For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
Lord, you know me.
But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
Lord, help us remember.