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Praying the Psalms as a Spiritual Discipline

African American Man Praying with Hands on Top of the Bible
George Müller, one of the most prayerful and faith-filled men in Christian history, prayed the Psalms. The Lord Jesus Christ himself and the apostles of the early church prayed the Psalms. Why not you and your church?

My previous article, Pastors and the Spiritual Disciplines, Part 4, was about praying the Bible. I described praying your way through a passage of Scripture (especially a psalm), praying about whatever the text prompts. This practice, I claimed, was the simple, permanent, biblical solution to the common problem of saying the same old things about the same old things in prayer.

In that article, I wrote that if I had the space, I’d point out how the great man of prayer and faith—George Müller—prayed the Bible daily and how the early church in the Book of Acts and Jesus on the Cross prayed the Bible.

Well, I’ve been granted that space here. So the purpose of this article is to provide examples from Müller and the New Testament of praying the Bible (especially the Psalms) as further encouragement for you and your church to do the same.

The prayer life of George Müller

George Müller (1805-1898) is widely regarded as one of the most remarkable Christians in the church’s history. His “life of faith” and devotion to prayer have almost no rivals. His biography has inspired countless believers to greater heights of faith and more faithfulness in prayer. A.T. Pierson’s George Müller of Bristol (1899, with newer editions) dramatically affected me when I was in seminary. Now I require Roger Steer’s George Müller: Delighted in God (1981, with more recent editions) for my students.

Müller lived practically the entire nineteenth century, most of that in Bristol, England. Besides pastoring a large church, he led four far-reaching, influential ministries. Today, people know him best for one of those enterprises—his orphanage. In a time when most orphans in England lived in miserable workhouses or on the streets–like in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist–Müller would house, feed, clothe, and educate them. Müller cared for as many as 2,000 orphans at a time through this orphanage—more than 10,000 in his lifetime. Yet he never spoke of the needs of any of his ministries—even when asked—except to God in prayer. Only through his annual reports would people learn after the fact what the needs had been during the previous year and how the Lord had provided. 

Müller recorded over 50,000 specific answers to prayer in his journals, 30,000 of which he said God answered the same day or the same hour that he prayed them. That’s an average of 500 definite answers to prayer each year—more than one per day—every day for sixty years! God entrusted Müller with over half a billion dollars (in today’s dollars) in answer to prayer. 

How Müller prayed

How did George Müller pray? He said that for the first 10 years of what he called his “life of faith”—not when he is unknown, but after he had become famous for his remarkable answers to prayer—he often struggled to get into the spirit of prayer. In other words, like most of us, even George Müller often did not feel like praying. Until that is, he made one simple change in how he prayed. Here’s how he described it:

The difference, then, between my former practice and my present one is this: formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events I almost invariably began with prayer … But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour on my knees before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc.; and often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then really began to pray.

I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental [today we would say “experiential”] fellowship with God, I speak to my Father and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word. It often now astonishes me that I did not sooner see this point.

Müller sometimes floundered for half an hour to an hour trying to pray, fighting to focus his thoughts and kindle feelings for prayer in his heart. He finally entered a sense of communion with God after that long, determined struggle. But once he began conversing with God about what he found in the Word of God, he “scarcely ever” suffered with those problems in prayer again. 

Praying through a passage of Scripture as he went “walking about in the fields” was the uncomplicated method that transformed the daily experience of one of the most famous men of prayer in history. And it can transform your prayer life (and that of your people) just as easily.

Jesus himself prayed the Psalms

But far more important than the testimony of George Müller or anyone else is the example of Jesus Himself praying the Psalms. On the cross, Jesus said only seven brief things. The Roman soldiers had beaten Him until ribbons of skin flayed from His bloody back. He had barely been able to stagger to the place of crucifixion. He hung from the cross severely dehydrated. And with His entire body weight sagging on the three spikes that held Him to the wood, He had to push up on the spike in His feet to get enough breath into His diaphragm so He could speak. But to do so was so agonizing that He would speak only briefly before sinking back down. If the Romans wanted to hasten the death of those they crucified, they would break the prisoners’ legs so they couldn’t push up and would die of asphyxiation. They did this to the two thieves at Jesus’s side (see John 19:31-33).

Understandably, then, everything Jesus spoke from the cross was very brief. But the longest thing he said was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46), the first verse of Psalm 22, the most lengthy and explicit prophecy in the Old Testament about the crucifixion. Psalm 22 contains more details about the physical aspects of crucifixion than all four gospels combined.

For example, in 22:14a, the psalmist says, “I am poured out like water,” just as the apostle John reported of Jesus in John 19:34-35. In 14b, we read, “All my bones are out of joint,” describing how the victims, after their limbs were twisted somewhat to nail them to the beams, often had their bones jarred out of joint as their heavy cross was dropped into the ground. And the words of verse 15b, “My tongue sticks to my jaws,” were fulfilled in the cry of Jesus, “I thirst” (John 19:28). I could give many more examples of statements from Psalm 22 that were fulfilled during Jesus’ crucifixion.

The fulfillment of Psalm 22

So after Jesus heaves Himself upward on the spike in His feet and cries out Godward with the first verse of Psalm 22, I am convinced that as He sank back down, He continued to pray through the psalm. To some degree, that is speculation, but we know that He prayed the first verse. We also understand why He vocalized so little as He hung there. And since He was fulfilling Psalm 22 at that moment, I believe it’s more than reasonable to assume that after He prayed verse 1 aloud, Jesus sagged on the cross and silently continued to pray the rest of Psalm 22. Some commentators contend that Jesus started praying through the Psalter from the beginning of the crucifixion.

Then at the end, Jesus gathered the last ounce of His strength, strained upward up a final time, and cried, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46), praying the words of another psalm, namely 31:5

What’s the point? Jesus prayed the Psalms. The final act of His earthly life was to pray the words of a psalm.

The apostles also prayed the Psalms

Then in Acts 4, after Peter and John have been arrested and threatened by the Jewish authorities for preaching Christ, verse 23 says, “When they were released, they went to their friends [that is, the church] and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them. . .’” Some translations punctuate the last half of verse 24 to indicate that it is a quotation, for many scholars believe that the words prayed here are taken from Psalm 146:6

But whether they are or not, notice how verse 25 continues: “[the Lord],: who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain?’” The second half of that verse and the next are from Psalm 2:1-2. In other words, the early church prayed the Psalms. And this is the place where we are told, “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (verse 31).

These new Christians in Jerusalem, who had become believers on or soon after the day of Pentecost, prayed the Psalms. George Müller, one of the most prayerful and faith-filled men in Christian history, prayed the Psalms. The Lord Jesus Christ himself prayed the Psalms. Why not you and your church?

If you want to learn more about this method of prayer, see my little book, Praying the Bible (Crossway, 2016). Be sure to download the free leader’s guide for teaching to a group.

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