Dr. Scott Powell dives deep on the Psalms and invites us to reflect and pray them more often, especially in this season of Lent.
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Printable Study Guide PDF
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Reflective Study Guide Questions
“[T]he law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night.”Ps. 1:2
- The first two Books of the Psalms treat largely of King David. Though David did many great things and brought glory to the Kingdom of Israel, he also sinned grievously. Many of the Davidic Psalms are about David’s repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness. How can you identify with these Psalms that seek God’s mercy in your life?
- Book 3 of the Psalms reflect on the Exile of Israel, which were a time of great darkness. In what aspects of your life can you enter into these Psalms that recall the darkness of Israel’s Exile?
- Book 4 of the Psalms deals with the theme of God as King, because Israel has lost everything and is faced with the fact that they must rely on God alone. Like these Psalms, how can you work on seeking God alone when things feel desolate?
- Book 5 of the Psalms is about the restoration of Israel after the Exile. As Israel tries to rebuild their broken home, they must look at where they are and where God is for them. What aspects of your life can you bring to praying these Psalms about restoration in God?
Text: Praying with the Psalms
Well, hello everybody. My name is Scott Powell, and I want to welcome you to the Pray More Lenten Retreat. Today we’re going to be talking about the Psalms, what they are, and kind of how to use them, and how to integrate them maybe a little bit more into your own prayer life. So, before we dive into all that, let’s open in a prayer.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Lord Jesus, we come to you today with praise and thanksgiving. We thank you for the gift of this retreat, we thank you for all of the people who have organized this and all the hard work that’s gone into this. We thank you, especially for all of the retreatants, all of the attendees watching or listening from all over the world. And we pray that you would use the tools of these videos and these reflections to help us enter more deeply in the preparation for Easter, and the preparation for remembering your passion, for entering into what that means in our lives.
We thank you for the gift of the Psalms. We pray that you would open our eyes, our minds, our ears, and our hearts to what you have to teach us through them. Help me to speak your truth and not say anything outside of your will. And we pray for the inner session of your mother and all of your saints as we pray these things in Christ, our Lord. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Story of Salvation History in Song
Good. Well, I want to talk about the Psalms today. Maybe some of you pray the Psalms regularly or pray with the Psalms regularly, and maybe some of you don’t. Maybe it’s sort of seemed like an intimidating part of the Bible that you haven’t really delved into. Honestly, I see kind of a paradox when it comes to the Psalms. And the paradox is this. For a lot of us, the Psalms kind of seem accessible. They seem like they’re kind of bite sized. If you’re intimidated by the Bible, perhaps, or you don’t understand how it all works, the Psalms seem like kind of an easy go-to because they’re bite sized. I can kind of open up my Bible, I can pick out a Psalm or two, I can read them, reflect a little bit, and I can call it a day. It doesn’t require that much commitment from us, right? It’s not like one of St Paul’s letters that are theological and complex and nuanced. It’s not like the book of Leviticus which is complicated and confusing, and I don’t know what’s going on, or Deuteronomy or Revelation, right? They just seem like they require a little bit less of us, and they’re a little more accessible, a little more bite sized, right? And that’s true.
But the flip side of that, maybe the downside to that point of view is that because they seem like you can just grab a Psalm, kind of read it and move on, is that I think a lot of us forget that there’s actually a context for the Psalms. They actually do have a home and a place within not only the Bible but the liturgical life of the people of God. And if we lose that, we actually lose something of what the Psalms are. It hinders our ability to plumb the depths so to speak, of this wonderful book of the Bible. And I just called it a book, which is true. But the Psalter, which is the term that we call all the Psalms together. The Psalter really does have a context. And it’s an important context. And the context, if we see it, I think will help us to enter a little more deeply into what these things are doing. And the context is this, the Psalms were always seen traditionally. And I think they probably would’ve been seen by Jesus this way. They were seen as the Israel’s whole story, the story of salvation history in song. The story of salvation history in hymn form. The word Psalm, Psalmo in Greek, literally means song.
So, it’s the book of songs, which is kind of cool because these songs are teaching us where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going as the people of God. And they are in a very real way recounting in a way that’s meant to kind of get stuck in your head and stuck in your memory, they’re recalling the whole story of what God has done for His people.
The New Torah as a Song
If you open your Bibles and if you start kind of perusing through the Psalms, one of the things that you might notice is that the Psalms in our Bibles divide themselves or they are divided into five books, five books. So, there’s a chunk of Psalms that are book one, a chunk of Psalms book two, a chunk book three, a chunk book four, and a chunk book five.
Now, if you’re an ancient Israelite, you saw five of something. I think the automatic association for most ancient Jews was the Torah, the Torah. Now sometimes we use the word Torah to simply mean the whole Old Testament. And it can mean that sometimes. But more properly speaking, the Torah, which is also called the Pentateuch, is the first five books of the Bible. So, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, which the ancient Jews saw as the foundation of the whole Bible, the foundation of all of salvation history.
So, in a certain sense, the Psalms are presenting themselves to us as a new Torah or as a reflection back on these things. They take the form of both poetry and praise. Poetry, song praise. And the reason for this is quite frankly, because songs and poetry are easier to understand, are easier to remember than mere pros.
So, think about if you’ve studied American history, right? It’s easier, I think to remember than national anthem than it is to remember the preamble to the constitution. Why? Because one’s a song that’s meant to get stuck in your head. It’s designed to keep you humming it throughout the day. That’s what the Psalms are supposed to do. And if you’ve ever had an experience of leaving mass and you get the responsorial Psalms stuck in your head and you’re kind of singing it while you’re doing dishes or humming it while you’re driving your car, then it has done its job. That is what it’s supposed to do by design.
St. Basil the Great, one of the great saints in the Catholic tradition talks about how by design there was meant to be a sweetness to the Psalms. It’s meant to kind of be an ear worm that get stuck in your head and you can’t get it out. Because again, it’s easier to remember and call back to memory and then use in our lives, our spiritual lives, our prayer, things that are sung than things that are just written. So that’s what the Psalms are doing.
Look Into the Border Pieces of the Psalms
Now as they’re kind of divided into those five books, those five books are all in a very real way telling the story of all of salvation history. And they do it in a fairly methodical way that’s very beautiful. Now there’s lots of different ways to read the Psalms. And there’s lots of different ways in which these Psalms find themselves sort of organized. But this is a real one and a very important one. It’s not the only one, but it is one I want to kind of suggest to you. Now, the way the Psalms are sort of divided. I want to mention to you the border of Psalms, so to speak. I don’t know if any of you have done a jigsaw puzzle. I kind of like jigsaw puzzles but I don’t get to do them very often because I have little kids and pieces will run off.
But in a jigsaw puzzle, the way to approach a jigsaw puzzle is normally to do the end pieces first, right? The corners and the borders. And so, I think one of the greatest ways to enter into the Psalms, which are big, they’re daunting, there’s a lot of Psalms. But I think a great way to enter in is to look at the border pieces, so to speak.
So, what are the border pieces? Well, what in your Bibles is called book one is Psalm number two to 41. Psalm 1 is kind of an introduction. It’s a prologue that kind of gets us into the story. But from Psalm 2 through Psalm 41, it’s book one, then Psalm 42 through 72 is book two, Psalm 73 through 89 is book three, Psalm 90 through 106 is book four, and Psalm 107 through 150 is book five.
David in the Psalms
Now I’m not just rattling off numbers to you. There’s actually a deep meaning behind these. One of the things you’ll notice if you start to kind of enter into the Psalms, book one and two, so really Psalms 2 through 72, they’re really heavy on a person called David, King David. This great figure in the Old Testament who is understood to be one of Israel’s greatest figures, their greatest heroes. This wonderful king, who from his point on the entire kingdom, the dynasty is named after him. It’s called the Davidic kingdom. And David, maybe you remember the story of David and Goliath or this little shepherd who used to fight with the lions and the bears to protect his flock. All of these ways in which God used David to be his greatest king.
But David also had a downfall. He committed a profound sin. He was unfaithful, he committed murder, he committed coverup. There was a darkness to David’s life. And it’s believed that many of the Psalms actually come out of that period of his life as well. When David is confronted with his own sin, when he realizes the darkness that he has fallen into, and he begs God for his forgiveness and his pardon. So, you see a lot of Psalms of David or Psalms in the memory of David, or the spirit of David are written and by David in those first two chunks. Part of the reason for that is that it’s recalling the greatest period in Israel’s history. Everybody looked back at the Davidic dynasty and even to some degree, the reign of Solomon, his son, is this great moment in the history of the people of Israel. When they were blessed, they had a kingdom, they had land, they were blessing nations around us, they had influence. This is kind of the heyday, right?
The Exile in the Psalms
But at the end of this section, the Psalms start to get a little bit darker. And the name David begins to fade away because it’s understood that book three, so Psalms 73 through 89, are in a certain sense reflecting on what is called the exile. Because there was a moment when Israel had that great kingdom taken away from her because of her own sin, because she had fallen far from God and turned her back on his commandments. They were taken over by a foreign power, by a pagan empire and they lost their kingdom, they lost their land, they lost their status. And they went off into slavery, they went off into exile.
And so, a lot of those Psalms are recalling the darkness of those times, wondering where God is. Why have you abandoned us? Why have you turned your back on us? Why have things been lost and are so dark in this moment?
God is King
Which leads us into book four, which is Psalm 90 through 106. And the theme of this section of Psalms is God is king. So, the early Psalms are all about David and his greatness and his fights and the battles that he fought. And sometimes people were out to get him, but God was still faithful to him. And there was all these, it’s a great narrative. But by the time you get to Psalm, book four rather, everything has been taken away from Israel. The people of God have gone off into exile. They’ve lost their city, they’ve lost their temple, they’ve lost their king. And they’re forced to reckon with the fact that when we’ve lost everything, what do we rely on? Only God alone. That’s all that we can actually trustworthy, that we can trust in. Not our status, not our things, not our houses, not the people that we align ourselves with politically or anything else. Only God alone. And so the Psalms then start to look at what we have when all else is taken away.
These are actually a set of Psalms that are heavy on creation, and they look and say, well, if we can’t see God in the temple and can’t see God in the king, and we can’t see God in Jerusalem, we can still see him in the way the sun moves from the rising in the East to the setting in the West. We can see Him in the grandeur of the mountains, we can see Him in the power of the oceans, we can see Him in creation when everything else has been taken out of our sight. Beautiful set of Psalms.
Restoration in the Psalms
Which takes us to book number five, Psalm 107 through 150, which are about restoration. And all of a sudden in this section of Psalms, you see Psalms about David come back. But they’re not talking about the old David, they’re talking about a new David. And someday God’s going to restore our kingdom and God’s going to restore our fortunes, but in a way that we never imagined in a way that’s greater than everything that came before.
Now, the songs were written over a broad period of time. I think David wrote some of them, Solomon probably wrote some, many authors wrote many songs over a wide period of time. But they come together as a whole and they come together as a book or five books after the exile. When Israelites come back home to a home that’s pretty broken and a lot of them have been lost to death or starvation or slavery or murder, and they come back to the beaten down broken old city where they begin to rebuild and try to pull things up from the ashes and they say, how did we get here and how do we move forward? Where have we come from? Where are we? And where is God in this moment? And how do we move forward? Where do we go from here?
Which is a great reflection. This is a weird time in history where many of you maybe have been tempted to ask God where are you right now? There’s confusion out there, there’s political confusion, there’s confusion in the church, there’s a lot of different voices saying a lot of different things, a lot of people fighting with each other. Where’s the truth? Who do I trust? Who do I believe? Who do I turn to? And the Psalms would remind us, ultimately only God.
Psalms in the Liturgy
The Psalms ultimately were never primarily designed to be read by ourselves in our room, in our personal prayer. They actually had a deeper home than that. And their home, their primary home, and this still is the case, their primary home is in the liturgy. In an ancient Israel, that was where the Psalms found their most honored place. Was in the liturgical celebration, the gathering of the people of God. And same thing today, in the church, the most honored place of the Psalms is in the mass. This is why usually we sing the response or the Psalm. The Psalms are meant to be sung and they’re meant to be sung in a context in their liturgical setting with all of us gathered together, praising and worshiping God. They can be prayed by ourselves. We can take our Bible into our room, close our door and pray with them individually too. but we also need to remember that they also need that prayer, that life, that reflection needs to be taken back into the liturgy, back to the mass, back to our community back to our brothers and sisters of Christ to be lived out together. That’s the proper place of the Psalms.
Put Your Whole Self in the Psalms
But to close us, I want to give you one final reflection, one more kind of hint I think on how to do this, how to read and reflect on the Psalms in the way that is most true to their design. And I want to read you just a couple lines from Psalm number one.
Psalm 1:1, it says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the council of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord. And on his law, his Torah, he meditates day and night.”
On his Torah he meditates day and night. The word meditates, when you hear the word meditate, what do you think of? I think for a lot of us, when we hear the word meditate what we think of is thinking about. If you’re meditating on something, you’re thinking deeply about it. And a lot of us associate that with prayer, but meditation, I think for a lot of us is a mental exercise. We’re doing it internally. But the word in Hebrew that showed up originally in the original text is the word Hagar. And Hagar doesn’t merely mean to think about something, It’s not a mental exercise. Hagar is an action verb, Hagar is visceral, it’s vocal, an entire bodily experience. It’s the sense when if I told you about the seven layered chocolate cake, I ate last night maybe some of you just went, “Hmm, that sounds good.” Right? That’s Hagar. That’s the experience we’re supposed to have.
Which means that when you go and you enter into these Psalms and you yourself try to Hagar these things that God has given us, it’s okay to cry the Psalms, it’s okay to sing the Psalms, it’s okay to laugh the Psalms, it’s okay to yell at the Psalms. Sometimes they can make us angry or evoke emotion of frustration. God, why do you allow these horrible things to happen? Why are things so hard? It’s okay to yell the Psalms, it’s okay to sing the Psalms, it’s okay to weep the Psalms, it’s okay to laugh the Psalms, it’s okay to smile the Psalms. It’s okay to do those things and in fact that is their proper place. And we know this because again, they come to us from the liturgy and the liturgy is the place where we’re meant to engage all of our senses, all of us, where we stand, we sit, we kneel, we smell things, we taste things, we touch our hand into holy water and we enter into this liturgical worship together. That’s meant to come home with us, it’s meant to accompany us.
The mass, the liturgy, the Psalms are not designed to stay in one place. Their proper home, their most honored place is in the liturgy, but they’re meant to come with us and engage with us in everything else we do.
So, pray them in your room, but then take them with you to work, go with them to school, reflect on them, turn them over in your head, weep with them, laugh with them, mourn with them, have joy with them, enter into them. Don’t just take a bite and then move on and put it in the fridge for later, feast on the Psalms. And you can do it with one Psalm at a time, that’s perfectly fine. But if you, do it and when you do it, put your whole self into it. That’s how they’re given to us and that’s how they’re meant to bring the most fruit in all of our lives. You guys, thanks so much for listening and will see you next time.
About Dr. Scott Powell
Dr. Scott Powell is a teacher, theologian and author. Currently, he teaches at the St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver and is an affiliate of the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization, Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Scott and his wife, Annie, founded and direct Camp Wojtyla, a Catholic outdoor adventure program for youth based in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. He holds a doctorate in Catholic Studies from Liverpool Hope University in England, and has authored a number of books, articles and book chapters on topics of theology, the Bible, religion, as well asCatholic culture and its relationship to the modern world. Scott has also appeared in numerous Catholic productions, including “Symbolon,” “Beloved,”“Reborn,” “YDisciple” and the “Opening the Word” series. He has been featured on EWTN, “Catholic Answers Live” and several other outlets. Scott and his wife live near Boulder, Colorado with their three children: Lily Avila, Samuel Isaac and Evelyn Luca.