Psalms and the Lord's Prayer

Wed, 24/09/2008 - 15:41 -- James Oakley

How do we pray the Psalms as new covenant Christians? What difference does it make that they have been prayed before — now not just by king David but by king Jesus?

Is there any mileage in seeing the Lord's Prayer as a key part of this answer?

The first observation concerns the purpose of the Psalms and of the Lord's Prayer. When we ask the Bible, as a whole, to teach us to pray, God gives us the Psalms to read. He doesn't answer us by giving us 24 abstract lessons in how to pray; he gives us 150 things that we might say to God. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he doesn't give them some principles to follow (although there are parables to bear in mind). Instead, he gives them a prayer that they might use. The Lord's Prayer is Jesus doing for us what the Psalms as a whole do.

The second observation is longer, and concerns the interplay between Psalm 1 and the Sermon on the Mount. Psalm 1 begins “Blessed is the man who …”. The Sermon on the Mount begins in the same fashion, albeit with plural forms.

Psalm 1 ends by discussing: (i) the two ways in which one might live, the two roads on which one might walk; (ii) the tree-and-fruit method that will show when someone is basing their life on God's instruction; (iii) the need to build our lives on the torah, the instruction of God our Father.

The Sermon on the Mount ends by discussing (i) the two roads, one leading to life and one to destruction; (ii) the warning that false prophets, who only say “Lord, Lord” can be told by their fruit like fruit on a tree; (iii) the need to build our lives on the foundation of Jesus' teaching, like a house built on rock.

  • “Blessed is the man who” (Psalm 1:1) … “Blessed are those who”(Matthew 5:3-12)
  • “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:6) … “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction … For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
  • “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season and whose leaf does not whither” (Psalm 1:3) … “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17)
  • “But his delight is in the torah of the Lord” (Psalm 1:2) … “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like …” (Matthew 7:24)

So I tentatively suggest that the whole Sermon on the Mount is an elaboration / meditation on Psalm 1. At the heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the Lord's Prayer

And sure enough

  • “Our Father in heaven” … And the Psalms have lots to say about God being the one who is in heaven, starting with Psalm 2:4. Calling him "Father" is more what we get from the one who came to fulfil the law and the prophets.
  • “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” … The establishment of the Messianic kingdom is a theme that is not a stranger to the Psalms.
  • “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” … Led by the so-called torah Psalms, there is much concern in the Psalter with God's ways being seen in Israel and among the nations.
  • “Give us this day our daily bread” … More in books 4 and 5, but dotted throughout, are the concerns that God is the creator who provides the needs of his whole creation.
  • “And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors” … Before we are too quick to say that Psalm 51 is the one Psalm Jesus couldn't pray, we should note that he still teaches us to pray it. As for forgiving our debtors, I need to think about that one. Is this one of the facets of the Psalms that is transformed in its new covenant fulfilment, or is that thought there in the Psalms themselves in seminal form. Certainly it was a strong feature of the David we read of in the books of Samuel.
  • “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” … Psalm 23 comes to mind, but also Psalms like 88.

It's a bit sketchy, because this is a blog post not a well-researched essay, but I think there may be something here. Sufficiently so that I'll keep it in mind as I read through the Psalms and see if it sheds any further light, or helps me / us in our own praying of the Psalms.

Any thoughts anyone?

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James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

I missed a bit out.

Having shown that the Sermon on the Mount is a reflection / expansion on Psalm 1, the next thing to add is that Psalm 1 (together with Psalm 2) form a deliberate introduction to the Psalter. Psalms 1 and 2 tell the gathered people of God how to read, pray and sing the 148 Psalms that follow.

So Psalm 1, the gateway to the Psalms, can be expanded upon by the Sermon on the Mount. At the heart of that Sermon lies the Lord's Prayer. And so, when Psalm 1 answers the question "teach us to pray" the answer, depending on whether you read the executive summary in Psalms or the full version in Matthew, is: both

  1. Pray Psalms 3-150
  2. Pray “Our Father in Heaven…”

Marc Lloyd's picture
Submitted by Marc Lloyd on

I happened to listen to Matthew Mason's sermon 3 on the Lord's Prayer (Praying For Our Needs) today where (as I remember it!) he quoted Luther as saying: "The Psalms give us the whole Bible in one book. The Lord's Prayer gives us the Psalms in a few words".

matthew's picture
Submitted by matthew on

I love your comments on the connections between Psalm 1 and the Sermon on the Mount. It's so obvious now you've pointed it out. And, on calling God Father - you get a hint towards that in Ps 2:7. And at least you get from that that the Psalms [of David], like the Sermon on the Mount, are the s/Son of God teaching (New) Israel (the son of God!) how to pray.

Thanks for this James.


Richard's picture
Submitted by Richard on

I think there is far more to it than simply a link between Ps. 1 and the Lord's Prayer. Pss. 1 & 2 together form a coronation liturgy with Ps. 1 describing the ideal king (cf. Deut 17) and Ps. 2 describing the coronation of the king.

Owing to discoveries in ANE material, especially the Ugarit and Babylonian enthronement festivals, we can construct a festival at the feast of Tabernacles. Here Yahweh, speaking as the Covenant-Lord, proclaims the Law. Likewise Jesus, speaking as the Covenant-Lord, proclaims the Law of his nation, the new Israel of God.

You may wish to check out this.

James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

There are avenues there that I've never explored! I'm grateful for the link, and the chance to carry on discovering the psalms.

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