Some years ago a friend and I admitted to each other that we’d been struggling to pray. We decided to meet up regularly to pray together, using the psalms as a launchpad. For the first few times this went well, but then we got to Psalm 15, where we’re told that the one who can dwell on God’s hill “walks blamelessly and does what it right” (Ps. 15:2). That wasn’t us. Come to think of it, it wasn’t David either. These weren’t words we felt we could pray with integrity, so we skipped them, which felt also wrong. Our joint effort in psalm-praying ground to a halt.
For anyone who has ever gotten stuck on a psalm, help is at hand. Christopher Ash has been a pastor and trained pastors for many years. He’s also one of the UK’s most respected Christian writers (see his extraordinary book on Job [interview | praise]). In recent years he has turned his attention to the Book of Psalms, and this summer he released a helpful guide for how Christians should use them. I asked him a few questions about this new resource, Teaching Psalms.
Many of us instinctively feel the psalms are meant to aid us in praying, but quickly feel out of our depth in many of them. Why? What are some of the mistakes we make when approaching the psalms?
Yes, you’re right. The simplest strategy is just to cherry pick the nice verses with which we resonate and put them—as it were—on our devotional calendars. But if we’re honest, we know that lacks integrity. I’ve addressed some of the problems at the start of my new book, Teaching Psalms. Even when we get past the imagery that seems to come from long ago and far away, we have all sorts of problems. We find ourselves claiming a rightness of behavior that doesn’t fit the realities of our lives. Or we say words of incredibly deep suffering, and it just feels too strong for our own experience. How can we pray for God to judge the wicked, when we ourselves are sinful? And so on.
It’s a sobering exercise to go through a psalm noting which bits don’t fit with me as an individual. But, having done that, we mustn’t give up. All the psalms find their fulfillment in some way in Jesus Christ. Not always the same way, but always in some way. The question “What would it have meant for the man Jesus of Nazareth to pray this psalm?” often unlocks the Christ-centered fulfillment of the psalm. And then we can think—as Augustine put it—of the church of Christ in every age as the choir singing the psalms, with Jesus as our lead singer. We sing every psalm in some way in Christ.
You write and teach quite a lot on the Psalms. What do you hope to achieve?
Yes, I do. It’s becoming a long love affair! I’ve published volume 1 of Teaching Psalms, which is really a handbook for anyone who wants to learn how to pray the Psalms, whether or not they teach them. I’m working on volume 2, which is intended to be a brief Christian introduction to each psalm, showing us how we can pray it in Christ. I have another publishing contract on Psalms awaiting the writing, and there may be more, if God gives strength for the task.
The convention in Old Testament scholarship has been to read the Old Testament on its own terms and not allow the actual meaning to spill over into fulfillment in Christ. This has had a dire effect on writers and preachers and has had a knock-on effect even in evangelical circles. Although some Christian commentators have bucked the trend and made perceptive observations about fulfillment in Christ, few, if any, have done this thoroughly and comprehensively for all the psalms. I would love to make a little progress in this direction.
I want to share the treasures of praying the psalms with integrity in Christ, because I believe this is the true and authentic way to pray them. I would love to see the psalms come back into the mainstream of evangelical church life, so that we sing and pray them corporately, with a deep understanding of what this means in Christ. And I cherish the longing that, more and more, our personal devotional lives will be shaped by the psalms, so that we pray and praise with the words God has given us by the Spirit of Christ.
Do you have a favorite psalm at the moment?
Ah, yes! My current “top psalm” is Psalm 108, which I was working on last week and wrote about in our latest letter to our prayer supporters. King David asks about the famously impregnable mountain fastness of Edom (like Helms Deep in The Lord of the Rings), “Who will bring me”—as conqueror—“to the fortified city?” Humanly speaking, there’s no hope of conquest. But he answers, “With God we shall gain the victory.” Like Edom’s mountain stronghold, the human heart everywhere is a stronghold, bolted and barred against God’s King.
I can’t storm such strongholds, no matter how much I long to, when I see the sadness and evil of sin in the lives of others. I can’t even storm the stronghold of my own heart. But our King can, and he leads his church in daily dependence on God the Father by the Spirit to storm such strongholds, as Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 10:4–5. Like so many of us, my wife and I are grieved by the misery caused by sin, in our own lives and others dear to us. I’ve been taking great comfort from singing this psalm, led by Jesus our King, as part of his choir.