In Acts 4, Jesus’ fledgling group of followers, the Church, is just beginning to be persecuted. Two leaders, Peter & John, were arrested for healing & preaching in the name of Jesus. After their release they go tell their friends what happened. In light of this, a prayer meeting breaks out.
With the fearful threat of persecution, where does the church find language to pray? The Psalms! While praying, they quote from Psalm 2: “Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.”
Psalm 2 gives them confidence that they are allied with “the Lord and his Anointed.” This brings some important questions to mind:
Why did the pressure of persecution prompt them to “lift their voices together” with the words of Psalm 2?
Why was it the knee-jerk reaction of Jesus’ first followers to pour out their hearts through the Psalms?
When the early church was persecuted, why did they turn to the Psalter for support?
The Psalter is the collection of 150 prayers & praises appropriately located at the heart of our Bible. I am convinced that the Psalter is the most important book in the Old Testament (OT).
In the 260 chapters of the NT, the Psalms are used over 400 times!
Why? Because the Psalms show up in the New Testament (NT) more than any other book from the OT. In the 260 chapters of the NT, the Psalms are used over 400 times!
You can hardly read a page of the NT without encountering the Psalms. Which raises more questions:
In writing the New Testament, why did the Apostles use the Psalms more than any other book to bear witness to Jesus?
Why was it the apostolic impulse to articulate who Jesus is & what he did from the Psalms?
Who prayed the Psalms?
In order to answer the question, “Why the Psalms?” we have to see who prayed the Psalms. For starters, the Jewish people had been praying psalms for more than a millennium before Jesus.
We all know about Jonah getting swallowed by the big fish. While he’s in the belly of the fish, Jonah cries out to God to save him. Did you know his prayer, recorded in Jonah 2, is basically a patchwork of psalms?
Out of the depths, Jonah cried out with the Psalms. Because to be Jewish meant you prayed the Psalms!
But more importantly, let’s look at the final week of the most psalm-soaked man that ever lived. I want you to see that Jesus Himself was saturated in the Psalms:
- As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the Jewish crowd shouted in the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
- A few days later, Jesus is eating the Passover meal with his disciples, “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30). First of all, Jesus sang hymns! But what hymn? Most scholars agree that they would have sung the customary hymn for celebrating the Passover, Psalms 113–118, called “The Hallel.” Don’t miss this: In his last moments with his closest friends before his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, Jesus chose to sing Psalms with his disciples!
- Jesus then leads his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane where he prays to his Father: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).In the Psalms, this cup is a metaphor for God’s holy anger toward sin: “For in the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (Psalm 75:8).Jesus knows what this cup is & that he does not deserve to drink God’s wrath for sin. If there’s anyone who has the right to let this cup pass it’s him. Jesus knows that it’s not his cup to drink but ours. But, in love, he will drink it down to the dregs, every last drop.
- Finally, Judas shows up with soldiers to betray Jesus who is falsely condemned, beaten, and crucified. As Psalm 41:9 said about this moment, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.”
- While hanging on the cross, gasping & grasping for words to express his agony, Jesus cries out, in the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Amazing! When the God-Man was enduring the curse of the cross he recited psalms.
- With his dying breath Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” Only when we see that Jesus was praying Psalm 31 do we realize what he’s saying here…“Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God” (Psalm 31:5). Jesus’ last words are confident that death will NOT have the last word. He trusted that his Father would raise him from the dead, because death could not hold him.
In his darkest hours, Jesus was sustained & strengthened by the Psalms. Why? Because Jesus knew that the Psalms were full of allusions to his life, death, & resurrection.
Not only was Jesus saturated with the Psalms but the Psalms are saturated with Jesus. After the Father raised Jesus from the dead, we see Jesus teaching his disciples, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44).
Jesus was saturated with the Psalms and the Psalms are saturated with Jesus.
Why was it second-nature for the early church to pray the Psalms? Jesus was saturated with the Psalms and the Psalms are saturated with Jesus.
That’s why when the day of Pentecost comes & the Holy Spirit floods the church, Peter stands up to preach his first sermon using Psalms 16 & 110 for two of his texts.
After Peter’s sermon it says that 3,000 people were added to the church & in the very next verse we read: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Notice it does not say they devoted themselves to prayer but to THE prayers. I sincerely believe that “the prayers” were the Psalms, the God-given prayerbook of the church.
The NT church devoted themselves to praying the Psalms together. Which is why only two chapters later, in Acts 4:24–31, we see them doing just that.
In both the New Testament and the Old, in both the lives of Old Testament believers and in the life of Christ and the early church, we see that the Psalms serve a key role in the prayers of God’s people.
I believe that the Psalms are at the heart of the Scriptures because they are at the heart of learning to live & love like Jesus, the most psalm-soaked person who ever lived. I encourage you to make reading, singing, and praying the Psalms a regular part of your personal worship.
This is a guest post from Benjamin Kandt. Listen to our conversation with Benjamin on the podcast episode below:
Interested in praying the Psalms but don’t know where to start? Here are some great books that can help!