The “great school of prayer”

In my previous post on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, we saw how Bonhoeffer places the praying of the psalms at the heart of our prayer together as Christians. In this post I’ll look in more detail at his observations on the psalms.

“The Psalter occupies a unique place in the Holy Scriptures”, Bonhoeffer writes, by being both God’s Word and the prayer of human beings. However, when we come to pray the psalms for ourselves, we will quickly find passages that we feel unable to make our own: “the psalms of innocence, the bitter, the imprecatory psalms, and also in part the psalms of the Passion”.

The answer is not to skip the “difficult” psalms, but to recognise that “this difficulty indicates the point at which we get our first glimpse of the secret of the Psalter”: namely, that “here Someone else is praying, not we”:

that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. It is he who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter.

So when we sing or pray the psalms, we are united with the prayer of Christ himself. The Church, as the Body of Christ on earth, “continues to pray his prayer to the end of time”:

Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true Man Jesus Christ and his Body on the earth.

And as such, the Psalter teaches us how to pray:

In the Psalter we learn to pray on the basis of Christ’s prayer. The Psalter is the great school of prayer.

It teaches us “what prayer means”, namely “praying according to the Word of God, on the basis of promises”. It teaches us “what we should pray”, namely “the whole prayer of Christ, the prayer of him who was true Man and who alone possesses the full range of experiences expressed in this prayer”. And it teaches us to pray “as a fellowship”, acknowledging that our own individual prayer “is only a minute fragment of the whole prayer of the Church”.

(Incidentally, I wonder if that last point is a way to understand texts such as Mark 11:24: “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”. Should this perhaps be seen as a promise to the church as a whole rather than to us as individuals? Perhaps some roving exegete could comment on this: for example, is the “you” in that verse plural?)

The psalms encompass the full breadth of prayer, just as the Lord’s Prayer does:

Oetinger, in his exposition of the Psalms, brought out a profound truth when he arranged the whole Psalter according to the Lord’s Prayer. What he had discerned was that the whole sweep of the Book of Psalms was concerned with nothing more nor less than the brief petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

Only the prayer of Jesus Christ “has the promise of fulfilment and frees us from the vain repetitions of the heathen”:

The more deeply we grow into the psalms and the more often we pray them as our own, the more simple and rich will our prayer become.

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8 Responses to The “great school of prayer”

  1. Captain Thin says:

    Bonhoeffer’s concept of the psalms as Christ’s prayers first and our prayers second is truly thought-provoking. As he writes in a short book on the Psalms (The Prayer Book of the Bible), “All prayers of the Bible are such prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.”

    I know for myself, this realization fundamentally changed how I read the imprecatory psalms. The recognition that, in praying for God’s wrath to be poured out against enemies, the enemies in question are not our enemies so much as they are God’s enemies is profound. And yet, in calling for this vengeance, we further recognize that it is Christ who has borne in his own flesh that very wrath. “Jesus Christ bore the wrath of God, for the execution of which the psalm prays,” Bonhoeffer writes. What a remarkable discovery! In praying for the wrath of God, we together with Jesus pray for the very suffering he already has received – the very suffering that makes mercy possible for the enemies of God. Even in praying for judgment against God’s enemies, we must recognize the grace he offers to them.

    [Oh, and as to your question about whether the second person pronoun (“you”) is in the plural, a quick look at the Greek confirms that they are. Likewise, all the verbs associated with the prayer (“ask”, “believe”, “receive”) are also in the second person plural. So your interpretation is certainly possible.]

  2. ‘Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.’

  3. Conway Todhunter says:

    I am currently reading Life Together. Actually Richard Foster said this book should be devoured and digested, and that is what I am trying to do. Bonhoeffer is very challenging to a “Bible Belt” Christian. Also, I was intrigued to find out about this work that Oetinger did with the psalms. I’m trying to find an English translation of this work. Do you know where I can find such?
    Thanks.

  4. Bruce Finfrock says:

    Where can I find Oetinger’s Exposition on the Psalms that is mentioned in Bonhoeffer’s Life Together?

  5. Susie Pike says:

    I, too, am reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together with the view in mind to share with our church’s Adult Sunday School classes. I also found his statements concerning Oetinger’s Exposition of the Psalms very intriguing. I am a member of the Lutheran Church and our congregation has enjoyed reading Bonhoeffer’s works. Two years ago our Fall SS series started with a study of Bonhoeffer’s life and times during which two of our teachers, one an former elder and the other a retired Lutheran pastor, led SS class on his prison letters. Last year during Lent, I led a series on The Cost of Discipleship and would like to follow up this year with Life Together. I would appreciate finding an English version of Oetinger’s Exposition of the Psalms as well. Any luck finding one?

  6. Marlo says:

    John H thanks for sharing the link to the psalms arranged by the Lord’s Prayer petitions. Our church book club is currently reading Life Together. We also developed 9 prayer stations for the Lord’s Prayer as part of our liturgical arts initiative to add to our Holy Week faith nurturing opportunities. I am looking forward to adding this piece to the prayer journal for members to pray the Psalms as part of the Lord’s Prayer stations. Thanks be to God as He continues to blow my mind with his timely Word.

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