PSALMS: Who Prays The Psalms, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Prayer Book of the Bible

Who Prays The Psalms Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Of the 150 Psalms, 73 are attributed to King David, 12 to the songmaster Asaph, who was appointed by David, 12 to the Levitical family of the children of Korah working under David, two to King Solomon, one of the music masters Herman and Ethan, probably employed by David and Solomon.  Thus it is understandable that the name of David has been connected with the Psalter in special ways.

It is reported that after David’s secret anointing as king, he was called to play the harp for King Saul, who was abandoned by God and plagued by an evil spirit.  And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. (1 Samuel 16:23)  That may have been the beginning of the writing of the Psalms by David.  In the power of the spirit of God, which had come upon him at the time of his anointing, he drove away the evil spirit through his song.  No Psalm has been transmitted to us from the time prior to the anointing.  The songs which later were accepted into the canon of the Holy Scriptures were first prayed by the one called to be the messianic king, from whom the promised king, Jesus Christ, was to descend.

According to the witness of the Bible, David is, as the anointed king of the chosen people of God, a prototype of Jesus Christ.  What happens to him happens to him for the sake of the one who is in him and who is said to proceed from him, namely Jesus Christ.  And he is not unaware of this, but being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants upon his throne, he foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ. (Acts 2:30 f.)  David was a witness to Christ in his office, in his life, and in his words.  The New Testament says even more.  In the Psalms of David the promised Christ himself already speaks, or, as may also be indicated, the Holy Spirit.  These same words which David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke through him.  The prayers of David were prayed also by Christ.  Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David.

This short comment on the New Testament sheds significant light on the entire Psalter.  It relates the Psalter to Christ.  How that is to be understood in detail we still have to consider.  But it is important to note that even David did not pray out of the personal exuberance of his heart, but out of the Christ who dwelled in him.  To be sure, the one who prays his Psalms remains himself.  But in him and through him it is Christ who prays.  The last words of old David express the same thing in a hidden way: The oracle of David, the son of Jesse, the oracle of the man who was raised on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, the sweet psalmist of Israel: “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me, his word is upon my tongue”; and then follows a final prophecy about the coming king of righteousness, Jesus Christ. (2 Samuel 23:1 f.)

Therefore we are once again led to the realization which we affirmed earlier.  Certainly not all the Psalms are by David, and there is no word of the New Testament which places the entire Psalter in the mouth of Christ.  Nevertheless, the intimations already alluded to must be sufficiently important to us to point to the entire Psalter, which is decisively bound up with the name of David.  And Jesus himself says about the Psalms in general that they announced his death and his resurrection and the preaching of the Gospel.

How is it possible for a man and Jesus Christ to pray the Psalter together?  It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne every human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God and who stands in our place and prays for us.  He has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we.  Therefore, it is the prayer of the human nature assumed by him which comes here before God.  It is really our prayer, but since he knows us better than we know ourselves and since he himself was true man for our sakes, it is also really his prayer, and it can become our prayer only because it was his prayer.

Who prays the Psalms?  David (Solomon, Asaph, etc.) prays, Christ prays, we pray.  We – that is, first of all the entire community in which alone the vast richness of the Psalter can be prayed, but also finally every individual insofar as he participates in Christ and his community and prays their prayer.  David, Christ, the church, I, myself, and wherever we consider all of this together we recognize the wonderful way in which God teaches us to pray.

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