When I am asked where a good place is to start reading the Bible, I often refer people to the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John), Paul’s letters known as Ephesians or Galatians, or the book of Exodus. Inevitably, however, I always encourage people to spend time in the book of Psalms. In fact, I have come to believe that the Psalms are essential for spiritual growth.
In the psalms, we learn how to connect with God through important spiritual practices of Scripture reading and prayer. The psalms are first of all part of God’s inspired word and, thus, reveal to us the character of God. As we read the psalms, we understand who God is and what it looks like to relate to Him. But the psalms are also the prayerbook of the Bible, teaching us how to hear God and respond to Him in prayer. The psalms bring together these two powerful resources—Scripture and prayer—like two wings that help us fly toward God in the spiritual life.
In the psalms, we also learn how to bring our whole selves to God. When you read the psalms, you will see both intellectual and emotional aspects of life brought into God’s presence. The thoughtful reflection upon the significance of God’s revelation in Psalm 119 sits right alongside the deep emotional heart-cries of Psalms 22 and 69. Not only that, but the entire range of human experience is captured in the psalms, from the heights of joy to the depths of despair. The psalmists are not afraid to bring fear, delight, shame, exuberance, repentance, and restoration into prayer with God. As we read and pray the psalms we learn that we, too, can bring our whole selves to God.
While there are many ways to read and pray the psalms, I would encourage two different approaches that I have found helpful. The first method is to read one psalm per day, while sometimes breaking up longer psalms into two or more days. After, or even while, reading the psalm, one can pray back to God all or portions of the psalm to God. If there is a verse that sticks out to you, stick with it in prayer. If the whole psalm captures you, then pray it all back to God. For example, the beloved Psalm 23 is an easy psalm to either pray verse by verse back to God, or to rest in prayer within one phrase, such as “he refreshes my soul.”
A second method for approaching the psalms is to read through the entire psalter over the course of a month, praying certain psalms in the morning and others in the evening. This is a common practice in many church traditions, perhaps most known through the daily psalm readings in the Book of Common Prayer. While this may seem like a lot to move through in a day, book-ending the day with the psalms helps us begin and end our day with God in prayer and Scripture. Many Christians recommend this approach to engaging with God in the psalms.
While there is much more that could be said, let me refer you to some of my other posts on the Psalms:
- “God’s Multifaceted Word: reflecting on Psalm 119”
- “Ascend: a series on the Psalms of Ascent”
- “Jesus Praying the Psalms of Ascent”
- “Songs of the Savior: Psalms for Advent”
- “Finding Peace with God: praying Psalm 131”
- “Waiting on the Lord: Living with Hope in the Land Between”
- “Comprehensive Praise: some reflections on worship from Psalm 150”
- “Joining Jesus in Prayer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms”