How to Pray the Psalms

Hallow App How to Pray with the Psalms

The Book of Psalms so beautifully encompasses the human experience on earth through song, poetry, and prayer. From psalms of praise, joy, and thanksgiving to psalms of lament, desperation, and longing, there truly is a psalm for every day and each season of our lives.

In Hallow’s new Summer with the Psalms prayer challenge, you’ll dive deep into all 150 psalms in 30 days alongside Bishop Robert Barron from Word on Fire. Join the challenge below, and continue reading to learn more about the Book of Psalms and how you can pray with the psalms, allowing the same words Jesus prayed with, and millions of Christians throughout history, to move through you in prayer. 

Table of Contents

Indeed the Psalms teach how to pray. In them, the word of God becomes a word of prayer — and they are the words of the inspired Psalmist — which also becomes the word of the person who prays the Psalms.

Pope Benedict XVI

Background: Authors and Themes of the Psalms

Who wrote the Psalms?

The Book of Psalms was written by a variety of authors, known and unknown, and composed and compiled over many centuries. In total, there are 150 psalms in this incredible work of Scripture, often referred to as “The Psalter.”  

Almost half of the Psalms are attributed to David, the anointed King of Israel whose line Jesus descended from – 73 of the total 150. Some Dead Sea Scroll scholars believe David composed 3,600 psalms as noted in the ancient text, though these writings are lost or perhaps undiscovered perhaps. Evidently, they’re not included in the modern Bible. 

The USCCB reports that “there is no sure way of dating any Psalm,” but all were written before 165 B.C., well over a century before the birth of Christ. Some of the Psalms were written before the exile of the Jews to Babylon in 597 B.C. (“pre-exilic”), while others were written after the Babylonian captivity, which ended in 538 B.C. (“post-exilic). 

Psalm 90 – “Lord, you have been our refuge through all generations” – is attributed to Moses, who lived around 1400 B.C. This attribution of the famous psalm has led historians to believe it is the oldest. 

We also know that Asaph, Korah, Solomon, Ethan, and Heman were psalmists in addition to David and Moses. 

The Types of Psalms 

While the Book of Psalms encompasses the infinitude of emotions which we hold in our hearts, theologians have identified many “types” among the 150 psalms in the Bible. Among the many types, scholars also often distinguish between communal and individual psalms as well. 

… the whole complexity of human life is distilled in the complexity of the different literary forms of the various Psalms: hymns, laments, individual entreaties and collective supplications, hymns of thanksgiving, penitential psalms, sapiential psalms and the other genres that are to be found in these poetic compositions.

Pope Benedict XVI

Not all scholars of the Psalter agree on a set list or nomenclature of the psalm types, though generally, we see 7 repeating types in researching the Psalms: 

  • Hymn: psalm-songs of praise (ex. Psalm 8)
  • Thanksgiving: psalms of gratitude for God’s assistance, mercy, or goodness (ex. Psalm 30)
  • Lament: psalm expressing struggle or distress of some kind, asking God for help (ex. Psalm 44)
  • Praise: psalms of exaltation (ex. Psalm 145)
  • Royal: psalms that address a pre-exilic Israelite king, often interpreted messianically (ex. Psalm 18)
  • Divine enthronement: psalms that affirm God is the true King (ex. Psalm 93)
  • Wisdom: psalms that teach us to live morally and toward an eternal life with God (ex. Psalm 37)

Why pray with the Psalms?

The Book of Psalms is arguably the most read and prayed book of the Bible. Beyond this, here are three reasons why we pray with the Psalms:

To pray with the same words that Jesus did. 

It’s so powerful to know that Jesus prayed with the Psalms. One of His last words before dying on the cross comes from Psalm 22. 

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Psalm 22:2

The Psalms teach us how to pray. 

And they have for centuries. Taking on the psalmist’s words, we pray alongside many other Christians seeking to know and love God better. As we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 

God tirelessly calls each person to this mysterious encounter with Himself. Prayer unfolds throughout the whole history of salvation as a reciprocal call between God and man.”

CCC 2591

Find solace in the shared human experience. 

Encompassing the wide range of human emotions, the Psalms help us to pray through the difficulties and the joys of life as so many others have before us and will do after us. While we do not all experience the same hills and valleys of life, it can be so comforting to know that our hearts hold the same longings as others. 

In the Psalms are expressed and interwoven with joy and suffering, the longing for God and the perception of our own unworthiness, happiness and the feeling of abandonment, trust in God and sorrowful loneliness, fullness of life and fear of death. The whole reality of the believer converges in these prayers. […]  Since the Psalms are prayers they are expressions of the heart and of faith with which everyone can identify and in which that experience of special closeness to God — to which every human being is called — is communicated.

Pope Benedict XVI

When to pray with the Psalms?

Because of the Psalms’ inherent thematic variety, you really can pray with them at any time. Many pray with the Psalms at the beginning of the day or right before bed. We also pray with the psalms during Mass with the Responsorial Psalm, read or sung between the first and second readings.

How to pray the Psalms

Time needed: 10 minutes

The steps below follow the traditional Lectio Divina “divine reading” method of prayer. 

  1. Lectio: carefully read the Psalm.

    With Hallow, listen carefully to the Psalm read aloud to you. 

  2. Meditatio: meditate on the Psalm.

    Notice what stands out to you in the psalm. Consider the emotion, mood, and tone of the poem-prayer. Is there an image, phrase, or word that stands out to you? Spend some time with that and consider what God might be showing you through the Psalm.

  3. Oratio: allow the Psalms to inspire you to pray.

    Ask God to guide you through the psalm. You might express your gratitude, ask forgiveness, or simply speak with Him about what the passage brought to your attention and heart. As Pope Benedict XVI said, the Psalms help us “find a language for the encounter with God” in prayer.

  4. Contemplatio: allow this time in prayer to lead you to rest and contemplate God’s presence in your life.

    Allow yourself to fully rest in God’s presence at this moment, and listen for His voice. 
    Conclude this time of reflection with an Our Father, Hail Mary, or Glory Be.

The Summer with Psalms challenge, as well as this article, was largely inspired by the General Audience of Pope Benedict XVI on June 22, 2011, on the catechesis on the Book of Psalms. Read the homily in its entirety here.

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