The Psalms—Prayer Book of Jesus, Prayer Book of the Church, and Our Prayer Book

by Deacon Walter Sweeney   “Each day our liturgical prayer is heavy with the psalms…”

….  It is the Scripture but, unlike most of Scripture, it is not so much about God and His revelation as prayer directly to our creator and savior. As people so involved daily in the psalms and actually praying them as personal prayer and as a community we deacons should have some deeper insights into what they are, how they came into existence, who wrote them and when and why. What are they saying about God and about the Israelite experience of God? At least I thought so and felt a need to know more to enhance my prayer life and keep the regular reading of psalms from tending toward mindless repetitive reading and challenge me to speak to God in the words of the psalmists and hear the Lord’s response.  If you have a similar sense you might join me in this study.

I thought that I could read some books and even participate in an on-line class about the Psalms and every month or so write up for the deacon community some things that seemed insightful and helpful for our prayer life and for our ministries. And I, at least, would appreciate hearing what any of our brother deacons may know or discover in similar searching, study of or meditating on the Psalms.

To give some general background, These 150 Psalms are made up of various smaller collections of poetic prayers, usually set to music in their original settings and are formed into 5 Books.

Book 1, Psalm 1 – 41, an early collection of Davidic hymns.

Book 2, Psalm 42 -72, a Northern collection of hymns.

Book 3, Psalm 73-89, a collection from temple singers.

Book 4, Psalms 90 -106, psalms from a royal collection, perhaps for New Year’s.

Book 5, Psalms 107-150, a second and expanded Davidic royal collection.

Each division is marked at its end by a prayer and blessing similar to “Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel for all eternity and forever. Amen, amen.” (Ps 41:14)

There is no central theme to the collections but a variety of types of psalms originating from both personal piety and liturgical occasions. We and Jesus have and do experience and pray them in both ways. You can explore this further in Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament, from Paulist Press, 1984, from which I lifted the divisions and learned a great deal besides.

To introduce the types of psalms let me quote another author I found with a lot to say about these “prayers sung to God.”  “(T)he psalms reveal, at the deepest possible level, the Israelites’ personal and communal relationship with God under every conceivable circumstance: times of intimacy and times of estrangement, times of health and times of sickness, times of victory and times of defeat, times when thanks and praise are overflowing and times when despair and accusation are bursting forth….(W)hen we read, study and pray the psalms, we not only find words for our deepest spiritual experiences, but we find ourselves being comforted, challenged, and even formed by the prayers of our ancestors in the faith. How is it that we have inherited such a treasure.”

So we have Laments, “O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses.” (Ps 60:1). These laments include Penitential psalms. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;…blot out my transgressions…. (A)nd cleanse me from my sin.” (Ps 51:1-2)

There are psalms of Praise and of Thanksgiving. A hymn of Praise is Psalm 117, the shortest psalm.

Praise the Lord, all you nations!

Extol Him, all you peoples!

For great is His steadfast love toward us,

And the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

Praise the Lord.


You can look up all the things we traditionally praise Him for in the Psalter, and also the quote above, by reading Margaret Ralph’s The Spirituality of the Psalms: Prayers for all Times, 2015. And also the things the psalms thank Him for in the psalms of Thankgiving. “O Lord, I am your servant…I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice…” (Ps 116: 16-17)

And then there are Wisdom psalms. These are usually addressed to the people in instruction rather to God in prayer, like the other psalms. The first psalm is a wisdom psalm. “Happy are those/who do not follow the advice of the wicked…” (Ps 1:1) And these teach a lot about righteousness, look it up.

Many psalms are Entrance hymns, teaching what is needed to prepare oneself for worship and going up into the temple. “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (Ps 15: 1)

Then there are other psalms also in their worship setting: songs of ascent, psalms of Zion, psalms of trust, and royal psalms. These are psalms in their cultic settings and integral to temple worship at a certain period of Israelite history. (See Ralph, Spirituality…)

I hope to go into all these types, one at a time, in future articles. Or some of you might put in your take on them instead.

I think I should stop here for fear of boring more of you than is reasonable. I was going to include a few words about the theological themes found in the Psalter but I can do that at another time, if there is interest in the topic enough to go on. And what I was going to say was to come from The Jerome Biblical Commentary, pages 575/6 (the 1968 edition). So if you are really eager you can read it and if really zealous you can comment on it on deaconden. I do hope some of you jump in and start a discussion on these prayers/hymns/poems so much a part of our clerical life and our spirituality.

PS: There are two other books I have found that will be helpful in analyzing individual psalms. They are Psalms 1-72 and Psalms 73=150 by Dianne Bergant, C.S.A. both published by Liturgical Press as part of their “New Collegeville Bible Commentary”, 2013.

Deacon Walter Sweeney


2 Responses to “The Psalms—Prayer Book of Jesus, Prayer Book of the Church, and Our Prayer Book”

  1. Deacon Richard Borda

    Deacon Walter, Thank You for your thoughts on the Psalms. I look forward to reading more from your Theological and Spiritual research. Keep going with the same length articles. I want to learn from your Wisdom.
    There is one other book you might consider referencing. It’s called, “The School of Prayer – An Introduction to The Divine Office,” by John Brook. It follows the four week cycle, delving into various aspects of the psalms and the canticles.
    Again, keep going! I look forward to reading more from you.
    God Bless
    Deacon Richard

  2. Deacon George Thierjung

    I’m in an looking forward to your next article.
    More of Him; less of me
    Deacon George T.

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