“We can and we should pray the psalms of suffering…because all this suffering was genuine and real in Jesus Christ…What happened to us on the cross of Christ, the death of our old self, and what actually does happen and should happen to us since our baptism in the dying of our flesh, is what gives us the right to pray these prayers…these psalms have been granted to his body on earth as prayers that issue from his heart.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 30.
One can hear the echo of Paul in Bonhoeffer’s words, “We cannot elaborate on this theme here.” He wants to say more but can’t, he has gone as far as he can within the confines of the treatise; but Bonhoeffer offers the hope that “we can only grow into the Psalter gradually.” Those who cultivate a relationship with the Psalter, those who enter into the prayers of Christ again and again, those who make a seldom-trod path a well-worn way, they will dwell in the secret place of the Most High, they will learn to abide in the shadow of the Almighty. Perhaps Paul knew something of this when he wrote, “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church,” (Colossians 1:24). Perhaps Paul’s yearning to know the “fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10) and to be conformed to His death was born, in part, out of Paul’s fellowship with Christ in Psalms.
Dying with Christ we are identified with Christ, on the Cross, in the grave, in the resurrection, in the ascension; identified with Christ we pray with and in Christ – we pray as His people, His flock; we pray the words of our Good Shepherd. In our life together we learn to pray as His people, our united prayer ascends and as it ascends to the throne of God it also covers the new creation, the Israel of God; we make intercession for one another, we make intercession for the world – we are a body of intercessions – praying and living for the sake of others. As the Father sent the Firstborn into the world, so the Firstborn sends us into the world – the Incarnation continues and will continue until the consummation of the age.
So we pray not as men and women of the natural, but as those who have received the Spirit of adoption that causes us to cry, “Abba Father!” We do not approach the Psalter as “mere men” (1 Corinthians 3:3), but rather as those who have been called into the fellowship of the sufferings of the Son of God.
Bonhoeffer writes (pages 30 – 31), “The body of Christ is praying, and I as an individual recognize that my prayer is only a tiny fraction of the whole prayer of the church. I learn to join the body of Christ in its prayer. That lifts me above my personal concerns and allows me to pray selflessly.”
As we learn to pray the Psalter we enter into the intercession of Jesus Christ, who “ever lives to make intercession for us,” (Hebrews 7:25), and in doing so we participate in His priesthood, for we are a nation of priests (1 Peter 2:4- 10). Many of the psalms echo the groanings of prayer and intercession which cannot be uttered (Romans 8:26 – 27), many of them, while having words, lead us to places too deep for words, lead us to places where we are at a loss for words, lead us to places where all we can do is to allow the Holy Spirit to pray through us – we can do no more. If the Psalter is the prayer of Jesus Christ then this is what we expect; if the Psalter is the prayer of the Body of Christ transcending time and space and yet touching the most intimate elements of time and space in all of their joy and sorrow, heartache and glory, hope and despair – then this is what we expect. To enter the Psalter is to enter the cathedral of the New Jerusalem, to approach the throne of God, to live in the Presence of the True and Living God in our life together.