Thursday, February 17, 2011

Preface: Praying the Psalms

Orthodox Christians have a lot of standard prayers that we can use when we pray, and many of us use them. If we're not careful, we can let addressing God this way become something like a personalized but still impersonal prayer wheel, spinning off words yet feeling justified because we've ‘said our prayers.’ Having a relationship with the living God can be bypassed this way, exchanged for something like a business agreement with a heavenly accounting firm.

If I make this sound like written prayers are to be avoided, that's not my intent. Formal prayers are there to launch us into the life of prayer. If we stop and linger with them, then we have no one but ourselves to blame. What I want to share with you today is some reflections on the Psalms, God's own ‘prayer book’ which He has given us to teach us how to pray, what to pray for, when to pray, and by which He speaks back to us when we pray them faithfully.

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England established a very easy and consistent way to pray the Psalms. They arranged them in a 30 day cycle, dividing them up into morning and evening portions for each day. (I know some months have 31 days. See the note at the end of this post.) Rather than making things complicated by following the Lectionary or grouping psalms by content, they just started with Psalm 1 and divided them up as they come, ending with Psalm 150. No flipping back and forth of pages, that would only be a distraction. Just simple, Psalm 1, 2 and 3, and so on.

The first day of the month has eight psalms, but depending on length, some days have more or fewer. When you get to the longest psalm (and longest chapter of the Bible), we find that it takes two and a half days to pray it! But the first day has eight. Not too many, not too few.

To pray the Psalms, just make a point of going aside to a quiet and secluded place, your ‘prayer closet’ as the Lord says, and that can be anywhere. Just don't take anything with you into that place but your Bible. Open it reverently. Kiss the Book if you dare and then, open it to the first psalm of the day. Today is January 1st, so it's Psalm 1. Read this psalm, standing before the Father and in His presence. Though it may not seem like you're praying or asking the Lord for anything, in fact you are. Your very act of standing in His presence and reading His Word is the fact of prayer.
Go ahead, read it…

PSALM 1
Happy the man
who never follows the advice of the wicked,
or loiters on the way that sinners take,
or sits about with scoffers,
but finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh,
and murmurs his law day and night!
He is like a tree that is planted
by water streams,
yielding its fruit in season,
its leaves never fading;
success attends all he does.
It is nothing like this with the wicked, nothing like this!
No, these are like chaff
blown away by the wind.
The wicked will not stand firm when Judgment comes,
nor sinners when the virtuous assemble.
For Yahweh takes care of the way the virtuous go,
but the way of the wicked is doomed.


Then, just say ‘Amen!’ to seal the praying of this psalm with your will and testimony. And continue to the next one, Psalm 2. Read it the same way, clearly, and listening to the words with your heart as well as your inner ear. This too is a prayer. Do you sense His presence with you in the room? While you're reading, praying, don't pay attention to anything outside yourself or any mental distractions. Pause if you want to pause, reread a line if you want to reread it. Pray the psalm through more than once, if you need to, before going on to the next one. Most of all, don't rush, don't put a worry about finishing by a certain time on yourself. You're standing in His presence, you're in His kairós (acceptable time) and have, in act, left the world.

Go ahead, continue with Psalm 2…


PSALM 2
Why this uproar among the nations?
Why this impotent muttering of pagans—
kings on earth rising in revolt,
princes plotting against Yahweh and his Anointed,
‘Now let us break their fetters!
Now let us throw off their yoke!’
The One whose throne is in heaven
sits laughing, Yahweh derides them.
Then angrily he addresses them,
in a rage he strikes them with panic,
‘This is my king, installed by me
on Zion, my holy mountain.’
Let me proclaim Yahweh’s decree;
he has told me, ‘You are my son,
today I have become your father.
Ask and I will give you the nations for your heritage,
the ends of the earth for your domain.
With iron sceptre you will break them,
shatter them like potter’s ware.’
So now, you kings, learn wisdom,
earthly rulers be warned:
serve Yahweh, fear him,
tremble and kiss his feet,
or he will be angry and you will perish,
for his anger is very quick to blaze.
Happy all who take shelter in him.


Again, say ‘Amen!’ at the end of this psalm. You have only six more to go. By the time you get to Psalm 8, you'll not want to leave. Also, beginning with Psalm 3, you will find yourself standing in King David's place, sharing his prayer, noticing little by little how you can pray these words as coming from your very self! The first time this happens isn't the last. If you persevere in praying the Psalms, you will enter into the Biblical world, being taught how to address the living God, understanding more and more of His will for your life.

Soon enough, between reading each psalm, your personal prayers will begin lodging themselves, at first by words maybe, but then gradually by spiritual groanings (I can't find a better word, but I don't mean something negative by ‘groan’). It's impossible to explain, but as you faithfully pray the Psalms, not only does your personal prayer and dialog with the Lord become more real, more lasting, but soon, you will find that the Lord has been speaking to you more constantly and clearly than you had ever realized. This is what the Orthodox mean by practicing theology rather than studying it. This is where a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ becomes more than just an expression.

Praying the Psalms has been my main personal prayer life since I accepted the Lord at the age of 24. I have not been faithful or consistent with it, but it is the place I always return to whenever I notice I've been drifting. And why is this? Because the Lord is there, He's the faithful and the true, the only lover of mankind, the merciful Father, and I can always depend on Him to save me, and enfolded in His psalms I can come and stand before Him, with Jesus.


There are two thirty-day cycles. The one I have used most of my life is found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England. I have marked my Jerusalem Bible with the day numbers of that cycle. The other thirty-day cycle is found in the Hebrew Tehillim, the book of Psalms. As this blog is dedicated to praying the Psalms / Tehillim in both English and Hebrew, both systems are linked below, and you can follow which ever suits you best.

You can switch between the English in this blog, and the Hebrew in a parallel blog by clicking on Hebrew on the English page, and English on the Hebrew (for only a few psalms).



Thirty day months—a perfect match!

Thirty-one day months?—Two psalms taken from the Torah, the Song of victory (Exodus 15), and The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32). Or instead, pray the psalms for the day of the month you were born. Or again, if you're praying for someone in particular, offer the psalms for their birthday on that ‘extra’ day.

What to do with February?—I was afraid you'd ask that! Well, take it as it comes—on the last day of February either read just the psalms for that day, or just finish the book of Psalms right to the end, whatever you have strength for.

One other encouraging word. Don't fret yourself over not being able to pray all the psalms. Do your best with the time you have. Many days you won't finish them all, and you shouldn't have to. ‘It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life’ (John 6:63).

Monday, January 31, 2011

Day 31 — Deuteronomy 32:1-43

HEBREW
DEUTERONOMY 32
The song of Moses

Then in the hearing of Israel's full assembly Moses spoke the words of this song to the very end.
Deuteronomy 31:30

Listen, heavens, while I speak;
earth, hear the words that I am saying.
May my teaching fall like the rain,
may my word drop down like the dew,
like showers on fresh grass
and light rain on the turf.
For I proclaim the name of Yahweh.
Oh, tell the greatness of our God!

He is the Rock, His work is perfect,
for all His ways are Equity.
A God faithful, without unfairness,
Uprightness itself and Justice.
They have acted perversely,
those He begot without blemish,
a deceitful and underhand brood.

Is this the return you make to Yahweh?
O foolish, unwise people!
Is not this your Father, who gave you being,
who made you, by Whom you subsist?
Think back on the days of old,
think over the years, down the ages.

Ask of your father, let him teach you;
of your elders, let them enlighten you.
When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when He divided the sons of men,
He fixed their bounds
according to the number of the sons of God;
but Yahweh's portion was His people,
Jacob His share of inheritance.

In the waste lands He adopts him,
in the howling desert of the wilderness.
He protects him, rears him, guards him
as the pupil of His eye.
Like an eagle watching its nest,
hovering over its young,
He spreads out His wings to hold him,
He supports him on His pinions.

Yahweh alone is his guide,
with him is no alien god.
He gives him the heights of the land to ride,
He feeds him on the yield of the mountains,
He gives him honey from the rock to taste,
and oil from the flinty crag;
curds from the cattle, milk from the flock,
with rich food of the pastures,
rams of Bashan's breed, and goats,
rich food of the wheat's ear,
and blood of the fermenting grape for drink.

Jacob ate and had his fill,
Jeshurun grew fat, turned restive.
You grew fat, gross, bloated.
He disowned the God who made him,
dishonored the Rock, his salvation.
They roused Him to jealousy with alien gods,
with things detestable they angered Him.
They sacrificed to demons who are not God,
to gods they did not know,
newcomers of yesterday
whom their fathers had never feared.

You forget the Rock who begot you,
unmindful now of the God who fathered you.

Yahweh has seen this, and in His anger
cast off His sons and His daughters.
‘I shall hide My face from them,’ He says,
‘and see what becomes of them.

‘They have roused Me to jealousy with what is no god,
they have angered Me with their beings of nothing;
I, then, will rouse them to jealousy
with what is no people,
I will anger them with an empty-headed nation.

‘Yes, a fire has blazed from My anger,
it will burn to the depths of She’ol;
it will devout the earth and all its produce,
it will set fire to the foundations of the mountains.

‘I will hurl disasters on them,
and on them I will spend all My arrows.
For weapons I shall have barns of famine,
fever and consumption for poison.

‘I will send the sharp teeth of the wild beast,
and the venom of creeping things against them.
Outside the sword shall carry off their children,
and terror shall reign within.

‘Youth and maid alike shall perish,
suckling and graybeard both together.
I should crush them to the dust, I said,
I should wipe out their memory among men,

‘did I not fear the boasting of the enemy.
But let not their foes be mistaken!
Let them not say: Our own power wins the victory,
Yahweh plays no part in this.

‘What a nation of short sight it is;
in them there is no understanding.
Were they wise, they would succeed,
they would be able to read their destiny.

‘How else could one man rout a thousand,
how could two put ten thousand to flight,
were it not that their Rock has sold them,
that Yahweh has delivered them up?

‘But their rock is not like our Rock;
our enemies are no intercessors.
For their stock springs from the vinestock of Sodom
and from the groves of Gomorrah:

‘their grapes are poisonous grapes,
their clusters are envenomed;
their wine is the poison of serpents,
the vipers' cruel venom.

‘But he, is he not something precious to Me,
sealed inside My treasury?
Vengeance is Mine, and requital,
for the time when they make a false step.’

For it is close, the day of their ruin;
their doom comes at speed.’
For Yahweh will see His people righted,
He will take pity on His servants.

For He will see to it that their power fails,
that, serf or freeman, there is not one remaining.
Where are their gods? He will ask then,
the rock where they thought to take refuge,
who ate the fat of their sacrifices
and drank the wine of their oblations?

‘Let these arise and help you,
let these be the shelter above you!
See now that I, I am He,
and beside Me there is no other god.
It is I who deal death and life;
when I have struck
it is I who heal,
and none can deliver from My hand.

‘Yes, I lift up my hand to heaven,
and I say: As surely as I live for ever,
when I have whetted My flashing sword
I will take up the cause of Right,
I will give My foes as good again,
I will repay those who hate Me.

‘I will make My arrows drunk with blood,
and My sword shall feed on flesh:
the blood of wounded and captives,
the skulls of the enemy leaders.’

Heavens, rejoice with Him,
let the sons of God pay Him homage!
Nations, rejoice with His people,
let God's envoys tell of His power!

For He will avenge the blood of His servants,
He will give His foes as good again,
He will repay those who hate Him
and purify the land of His people.

Next… Day 1 — Psalm 1

Day 31 — Exodus 15:1-18, 21

HEBREW
EXODUS 15
Song of victory

It was then that Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song in honor of Yahweh.

Yahweh I sing: He has covered Himself in glory,
horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.

Yah is my strength, my song,
He is my salvation.
This is my God, I praise Him;
the God of my father, I extol Him.

Yahweh is a warrior;
Yahweh is His name.

The chariots and the army of Pharaoh
He has hurled into the sea;
the pick of his horsemen lie drowned in the Sea of Reeds.
The depths have closed over them;
they have sunk to the bottom like a stone.

Your right hand, Yahweh, shows majestic in power,
Your right hand, Yahweh, shatters the enemy.
So great Your splendor, You crush Your foes;
You unleash Your fury, and it devours them like stubble.
A blast from Your nostrils and the waters piled high;
the waves stood upright like a dike;
in the heart of the sea the deeps came together.

‘I will give chase and overtake,’ the enemy said.
‘I shall share out the spoil, my soul will feast on it;
I shall draw my sword, my hand will destroy them.’
One breath of Yours You blew, and the sea closed over them;
they sank like lead in the terrible waters.

Who among the gods is Your like, Yahweh?
Who is Your like, majestic in holiness,
terrible in deeds of prowess, worker of wonders?
You stretched Your right hand out, the earth swallowed them!
By Your grace You led the people You redeemed,
by Your strength You guided them to Your holy house.

Hearing of this, the peoples tremble;
pangs seize on the inhabitants of Philistia.
Edom's chieftains are now dismayed,
the princes of Mo’ab fall to trembling,
Canaan's inhabitants are all unmanned,
on them fall terror and dread;
through the power of Your arm they are still as stone
as Your people pass, Yahweh,
as the people pass whom You purchased.

You will bring them and plant them
on the mountain that is Your own,
the place You have made Your dwelling, Yahweh,
the sanctuary, Yahweh, prepared by Your own hands.

Yahweh will be King for ever and ever.

Sing of Yahweh: He has covered Himself in glory,
horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.

Next… Deuteronomy 32

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Day 30 — Psalm 150

HEBREW
PSALM 150
Final chorus of praise

Alleluia!

Praise God in His Temple on earth,
praise Him in His Temple in heaven,
praise Him for His mighty achievements,
praise Him for His transcendent greatness!

Praise Him with blasts of the trumpet,
praise Him with lyre and harp,
praise Him with drums and dancing,
praise Him with strings and reeds,
praise Him with clashing cymbals,
praise Him with clanging cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise Yahweh!

Alleluia!

Next… Day 1 — Psalm 1, or…
Day 31Exodus 15

Day 30 — Psalm 149

HEBREW
PSALM 149
Song of triumph

Alleluia!

Sing Yahweh a new song,
let the congregation of the faithful sing His praise!
Let Israel rejoice in his Maker,
and Zion's children exult in their King;
let them dance in praise of His name,
playing to Him on strings and drums!

For Yahweh has been kind to His people,
conferring victory on us who are weak;
the faithful exult in triumph,
prostrate before God they acclaim Him
with panegyrics on their lips,
and a two-edged sword in their hands

to exact vengeance on the pagans,
to inflict punishment on the heathen,
to shackle their kings with chains
and their nobles with fetters,
to execute the preordained sentence.
Thus gloriously are the faithful rewarded!

Next… Psalm 150

Day 30 — Psalm 148

HEBREW
PSALM 148
Cosmic hymn of praise

Alleluia!

Let heaven praise Yahweh:
praise Him, heavenly heights,
praise Him, all His angels,
praise Him, all His armies!

Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, shining stars,
praise Him, highest heavens,
and waters above the heavens!

Let them all praise the name of Yahweh,
at whose command they were created;
He has fixed them in their place for ever,
by an unalterable statute.

Let earth praise Yahweh:
sea monsters and all the deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
gales that obey His decree,

mountains and hills,
orchards and forests,
wild animals and farm animals,
snakes and birds,

all kings on earth and nations,
princes, all rulers in the world,
young men and girls,
old people, and children too!

Let them all praise the name of Yahweh,
for His name and no other is sublime,
transcending earth and heaven in majesty,
raising the fortunes of His people,
to the praises of the devout,
of Israel, the people dear to Him.

Next… Psalm 149

Day 30 — Psalm 147

HEBREW
PSALM 147
Hymn to the Almighty

Alleluia!

Praise Yahweh—it is good to sing
in honor of our God—sweet is His praise.

Yahweh, Restorer of Jerusalem!
He brought back Israel's exiles,
healing their broken hearts,
and binding up their wounds.

He decides the number of stars
and gives each of them a name;
our Lord is great, all-powerful,
of infinite understanding.

Yahweh, who lifts up the humble,
humbles the wicked to the ground.

Sing to Yahweh in gratitude,
play the lyre for our God:

who covers the heavens with clouds,
to provide the earth with rain,
to produce fresh grass on the hillsides
and the plants that are needed by man,
who gives their food to the cattle
and to the young ravens when they cry.

The strength of the war horse means nothing to Him,
it is not infantry that interests Him.
Yahweh is interested only in those who fear Him,
in those who rely on His love.

Praise Yahweh, Jerusalem,
Zion, praise Your God:

for strengthening the bars of your gates,
for blessing your citizens,
for granting you peace on your frontiers,
for feeding you on the finest wheat.

He gives an order;
His word flashes to earth:
to spread snow like a blanket,
to strew hoarfrost like ashes,

to drop ice like breadcrumbs,
and when the cold is unbearable,
He sends His word to bring the thaw
and warm wind to melt the snow.

He reveals His Word to Jacob,
His statutes and rulings to Israel:
He never does this for other nations,
He never reveals His rulings to them.

Next… Psalm 148