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Psalm 23 is probably the best known of all the psalms. With its images of rest, refreshment, and peace, it encourages us to trust our heavenly Father in all situations. It also points us in a very moving way to Jesus, the Good Shepherd who restores our souls and protects us in times of trouble.
Meditating on this psalm in prayer can help us believe that Jesus has a plan for our lives—a plan to lead us, restore us, and comfort us throughout our lives. Even when we find ourselves traveling through the darkest of valleys, this psalm can encourage us to stay close to the Lord. It can remind us that even though we cannot control everything in this world, our Good Shepherd is always at our side, working to bring us to his home, where we can live in peace forever.
Yet as powerful and comforting as Psalm 23 is, it is but one example of the way the Holy Spirit can lift us up as we pray and meditate on the psalms.
Psalms of Praise and Thanksgiving. About half of the psalms in the Bible focus on praising God, while the other half focus on lamentation or petition. If we were to examine the psalms of praise, we would find that some of them begin and end with the word “Alleluia,” which is Hebrew for “Praise the Lord!” Many of these psalms were chanted as part of Israel’s celebration of the great feast days of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.
One grouping of psalms—the “Songs of Ascent”—were sung by Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for these feasts (Psalms 120-134). They were meant to be sung as the pilgrims “ascended” Mount Zion, and their goal was to help the people lift up their hearts and minds as they approached the Temple. Singing them now, we too can be filled with gratitude and praise to God for everything—for his wonderful creation, for the way he loves and cares for us, for who he is, and for the way his Son came to deliver us from sin and death. In fact, we shouldn’t be surprised to find our words of praise spilling over to focus on Jesus just as much as they focus on the Father. After all, he is the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams, the prayers and petitions that make up these psalms!
Other psalms of praise are focused on overcoming some kind of challenge. For example, Psalm 103 praises the Lord, who “pardons all your sins, heals all your ills, delivers your life from the pit, surrounds you with love and compassion,” and renews your youth “like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:3-5). Psalm 18, too, praises the Lord for victory and deliverance from evil. In this psalm, David is depicted as rejoicing in the Lord, “my rock, my fortress, my deliverer . . . my stronghold!” (Psalm 18:3). He rejoices that he called upon the Lord, and that God rescues him from his enemies (18:5-20).
Psalms like these can have the same double effect on us that Psalm 23 does: They can give us confidence in our heavenly Father’s love and care for us, and they can give us new insights into Jesus and the power and victory of his cross in our lives. They can encourage us to hold fast to Jesus so that we can stand firm against every temptation that comes our way.
Psalms of Lamentation. We all know, however, that our lives aren’t always a series of victories and triumphs over evil. After all, we live in an imperfect world marked by division and sin. Even in our own hearts, we can find a combination of light and darkness. So it should not surprise us that the Book of Psalms includes some very moving prayers that reflect the challenge of honoring God in a fallen environment. These psalms are lamentations about life’s struggles—both everyday temptations and major setbacks and failings. Some of these prayers are lamentations over a psalmist’s own sin; others lament events that happen simply as a result of living in a darkened world.
Psalm 88 is probably the saddest of all the psalms. The psalmist is very sick—near death, in fact. He prays to God every day, but God does not seem to hear him (Psalm 88:15). His predicament is so dire that he ends up concluding that darkness is his only friend (88:19). We all know what it is like to feel devastated and alone at one point or other. Perhaps we have lost a loved one or have ourselves been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. Even though this psalm conveys next to no sense of hope, the bigger picture contained in the entire Book of Psalms tells us that God is with us, even in our darkest hours. We may feel as if we are all alone, but by faith, we can still place our lives in his hands and trust in his promises to be with us. Even if we can’t see him, we can still believe.
Other psalms also deal with sickness and deep sadness, but end on a more hopeful note than Psalm 88. Psalm 13, for instance, asks “how long” before God comes to his rescue, but concludes his prayer by saying, “I trust in your faithfulness” (Psalm 13:6). Prayers like this tell us that it is okay to present our needs and fears to the Lord, but to hold on to our faith in God’s goodness and wisdom.
Some psalms don’t lament physical illness but inner turmoil instead: In Psalm 31, the psalmist prays: “To all my foes I am a thing of scorn, to my neighbors, a dreaded sight, a horror to my friends. When they see me in the street, they quickly shy away” (Psalm 31:12). He then goes on to confess: “But I trust in you, Lord. . . . My times are in your hands” (31:15,16). Likewise, in Psalm 41, the psalmist prays: “My enemies say the worst of me: ‘When will that one die and be forgotten?’ . . . But you, Lord, have mercy and raise me up” (41:6,11).
Brothers and sisters, our heavenly Father hears the cries of our hearts (Psalm 10:17). He listens intently, with love and compassion, whenever we pour out our souls to him. Just as these psalmists did, we too can bring our own sorrows and needs before the throne of God. We may not understand all that we are experiencing, but that is exactly where faith comes in.
Psalms of Forgiveness. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son—all with one clear message: Our Father in heaven rejoices every time someone who is “lost” in sin is “found” and reunited with him. We may think that Jesus was the first to preach this message to Israel, but many psalms said the same things centuries earlier. Psalm 32, for example, describes a person weighed down by the “heavy hand” of God’s judgment against his disobedience. But the psalmist says that once he repented, God took away all his guilt (Psalm 32:4-5).
Other psalms also speak of God’s great mercy. Psalm 86, in fact, repeats one of the most ancient descriptions of God—dating all the way back to the time of Moses: “You, Lord, are a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, most loving and true” (Psalm 86:15; Exodus 34:6). But perhaps the most moving example is Psalm 51. This psalm depicts King David as lamenting his own sins—and they are no ordinary transgressions! David is asking forgiveness for committing adultery with Bathsheba and plotting to have Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed in battle.
In the first part of the psalm, David confesses his sinfulness and asks God to wash him clean of all impurity. Then in the second part, he asks for a deeper work of the Holy Spirit to protect him against further sins—for a more willing, docile heart and for the grace to know God’s saving love afresh. The psalm then ends with a confident prayer that God will not only forgive him but will restore all of Jerusalem and bring all his people into a new era of salvation.
Heartfelt prayers like Psalm 51 can help convince us that God really is merciful and forgiving. They can help inspire us to embrace the Sacrament of Reconciliation, knowing that God will never turn his back on us. We can be just like David and ask him to wash us clean. We can be just like Moses and experience God’s deep compassion for us. We can be just like every saint in the church: sinners who have been touched by the transforming mercy of God.
Pray the Psalms Each Day. St. Athanasius once said that the psalms reflect the different movements of our own souls. These prayers—though thousands of years old and coming from a very different culture—still have the power to speak to our lives. Because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, they can help us all sing a new song to the Lord, even as they guide us, correct us, and encourage us in our faith.
Whether we are in a season of joy, a time of lamentation, or a period of repentance, the psalms can help lift us up to the Lord and teach us that “everything that has breath”—including each of us—was created to praise the Lord!