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The Psalms have become a part of our Christian life, so much so that we the people of the New Testament sometimes tend to forget that the Psalter is also an Old Testament book. The Apostles mention the use of Psalms during the prayer meetings of the first Christians (1 Cor. 14:26). They called on believers to edify themselves with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Already by the beginning of the 4th Century the use of the Psalter in private homes was widespread.
How can we explain this widespread use of the Psalms in Christian times, when the Church already had new prayers inspired by the Gospel teaching and compiled with regard for the fundamentally new relationship between God and man a relationship made possible through the act of salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ? Did not St. Paul say, the old has passed away, behold, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17)? Why do so many of the Holy Fathers, themselves authors of outstanding prayers, speak with such feeling about the ancient prayers of the Psalter?
It is known that Christ sometimes used the Psalms in prayer and some scholars consider that He and His disciples sang Psalms after the Last Supper. But even these Gospel references do not fully explain the widespread use of the Psalter.
The popularity and widespread use of the Psalter are due, first of all, to its special spiritual inspiration, poetic expressiveness and theological depth. As St. Basil the Great wrote, the Book of Psalms embraces everything contained in the other Holy Books. It prophesies about the future, and recalls the past, and stipulates laws for life and rules for action. The Psalteris sometimes called, rightfully so, The Little Bible, for it speaks in the tongue of prayer about the creation of the world and man, and traces in detail the thousands-year-old paths and fortunes of nations. It describes the struggle between Good and Evil and the psychology of sin and virtue with unusual depth.
The theme of most of the Psalms is the providential paths of God and in the course of these paths God is revealed to the Psalmist in all His might, holiness, wisdom, love, righteousness and mercy. The Psalms are filled with deep reflections about God’s Law and spiritual and ethical admonitions. The many Messianic prophecies to be found in the Psalter are especially astounding in their historical accuracy.
The Psalter is first and foremost, however, a book of prayer. The Psalmist prays, opening his heart to God. The prayer of the Psalmist is often so emotional and spontaneous that he does not pay attention to its outward form and one feels that the Psalms were born in the process of prayer.
In the Psalter are many Psalms of a contemplative nature. Contemplating the beauty and grandeur of the world and reflecting on God’s acts as described in the other books of the Old Testament, the Psalmist recalls times long past and bygone years, and tries to grasp the significance and aim of human life. The language of such Psalms becomes particularly profound and rhythmically expressive. Every word is weighed, and the author strives to endow the Psalms with the stern beauty of an epic literary form.
But even in these instances the Psalmist does not aim to systematize the Biblical teachings upon which he meditates, for Psalms of a contemplative nature are also prayers. Above all, these contemplative Psalms are the prayers of the author himself, who sets the Lord always before him (Ps. 16:8). By spiritually reliving the events of the Bible he learns to perceive God and seek Him. For the Psalmist nothing is accidental and insignificant. He interprets both crucial episodes in biblical history and ‘everyday human affairs and aspirations. The Psalmist does not merely write what he has heard from his fathers in order to convey the facts to posterity (Ps. 44:1); he is more concerned with the spiritual comprehension and evaluation of the events enriching his wisdom and helping him to perceive the right hand of the Lord leading His people.
The Psalmist’s prayers express concern for the future of his people and the coming generations. These words contain a call not to repeat the mistakes of the past, not to be a people who err in heart (Ps. 95:10), grieving and trying the patience of God. Most often the Psalmist turns to the theme of the Exodus and the Israelites’ forty-year wandering in the desert (Ps. 95; 106; 135; 136, etc.). The Psalmist prays for his people and offers his Psalms for the edification of posterity.
The worth and authority of the Psalms are explained by their authors’ great experience of prayer. The Psalms contain frequent reminders of how this experience is gained. The Psalmist loves to pray; his soul seeks and thirsts after God (Ps. 27:8; 63:1) as a hart longs for flowing streams (Ps. 42:1); seven times a day he praises Him (Ps. 119:164); he loves the splendor of the temple and the place where [God’s] glory dwells (Ps. 26:8). Fervent is his morning prayers (Ps. 63:1) and even the night hours are given over to God (Ps. 63:6; 119:55,62). At night he shed tears in his bed as he recalls the years he has lived, his failings and the errors he has made (Ps. 6:6). However, even his daytime prayer is full of sorrow and weeping, too (Ps. 42:3), accompanied by fasting and sackcloth (Ps. 35:13).
The prayers of the Psalmist are always full of confidence because they are born in a pure heart that knows how to pray and is constantly ready to meet God (Ps. 57:7). God, for him, is his strength and fortress, his shield, his high tower and deliverer, and the horn of [his] salvation (Ps. 18:1–2). The Psalmist lovingly refers to God as his Shepherd, Who makes His people to He down in green pastures and leads them besides still waters (Ps. 23:1–2), and he refers to himself as the sheep of His pasture (Ps. 100:3).
The Psalmist gives thanks for the bestowal of God’s help, even before he receives what he has asked for and he also offers up thanks without asking for anything. Always and everywhere the Psalmist finds occasion to glorify God, for God is vested in honor and majesty, He is clothed with light as with a garment; His herald is flaming fire; He walks upon the wings of the wind (Ps. 104:1–4).
Turning to the earth, the Psalmist is filled with wonder at God’s numerous works of wisdom (Ps. 104:24). Life, man, the beauty and harmony of the world, are an eternal miracle to him. For all this from the rising of the sun until its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised (Ps. 113:3). Praise and thanks are offered up to the Lord in joy (Ps. 92:1–5) and grief (Ps. 109:30–31), for deliverance from danger (Ps. 56:13) and trials encountered (Ps. 119:71), for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever (Ps. 136:1).
The action and power of the prayer of the Psalms extend to every worshiper and the Psalms help one to achieve the constancy and peaceful disposition of spirit so necessary in prayer. The Psalm is silence of the soul, writes St. Basil the Great, the giver of peace, for it calms turbulent and troubled thoughts, soothes irritation of the soul…and man is filled with quiet delight.…
While implacably struggling against evil and demanding the triumph of justice, the author of the Psalms shows exceptional compassion for the poor, the persecuted, widows, orphans and the unfortunate. He well realizes that the reasons for the victims’ woeful plight are often to be found in the wickedness and greed of evildoers. The Psalmist intercedes in his prayers for the deprived (Ps. 10:2,12,17–18). He knows that all victims of injustice are dear to God (Ps. 86:14–17), that God is the helper of orphans and the poor (Ps. 10:14) and that one of the deeds of the Messiah will be to defend the rights of the needy and the poor (Ps. 72:12).
Thus, the Psalms have such indisputable merits, especially in prayer, that they have been accepted wholeheartedly by the Christian Church and are used, not only for private devotion, but in the Divine Services themselves. It should also be noted that the Church accepted the Psalms as prayer without changing the words, but their meanings were enhanced, for the New Testament Revelation helped to reveal more fully the meaning of the Old Testament images and prophecies contained in the Psalter, and made it possible for all the Psalms to be sung not in the antiquity of the letter but in the renewal of the spirit.