I was excited to read this book, and even more excited when I got it for Christmas, along with several others that I have been wanting to read. I have loved Eugene Peterson’s writing for years, especially when it comes to the Psalms. He is a master of the Psalms.
I have long said that it is no accident that the Psalms are in the exact middle of our Bible. Peterson explains how the Psalms were the “prayer book” of the ancient Hebrews, as well as the early Church. In modern-day churches, that practice is pretty much lost. And in this book, written almost thirty years ago, he writes about how the Psalms are the best set of tools for prayer that exist.
But, he says, they don’t begin with prayer. Psalms 1 and 2 “pave the way” for prayer. These two Psalms set our feet on a path “that goes from the nonpraying world in which we are habitually distracted and intimidated, into the praying world where we come to attention and practice adoration.”
Peterson shows us how the Psalms teach us the language of prayer, language that has all but been forgotten, over the years, as we modern Christians try to impress God with our flowery speech.
He shows us how our prayers should be wrapped up in our “story,” just as a number of the Psalms were. Psalm 3, for example, was prayed in the middle of David’s story, as he was fleeing from his own son, Absalom. “Story is to prayer what the body is to the soul, the circumstances in which it takes place.”
My favorite part of the book was chapter 5, “Rhythm,” in which Peterson demonstrates the rhythm of prayer as it coincides with the rhythm of our lives. He first shows us Psalm 4, which is an evening prayer, prayed right before going to sleep. “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah.” (v 4) ” In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” (v 8) Then he shows us Psalm 5, which is a morning prayer, to be prayed immediately after waking up. “O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch.” (v 3)
It is no accident that these prayers are in this order. One thing that we frequently forget is that the Hebrew “day” began at sundown. Our “day” technically begins at 12:00 AM, but we usually consider that the day doesn’t begin until we wake up in the morning. This is backwards to the Hebrew’s way of thinking. We begin the day by resting! And this fits in with my favorite teaching of our Huddle groups, that we work out of our rest, not rest from our work. Rhythm is very important in our lives.
Peterson goes on to describe how the Psalms contain metaphor, teach us liturgy, express our concern and attitude about enemies, and bring up memories. Most importantly, the ending point of Psalms, just as the ending point of all prayer, should be praise. The Psalms begin and end with praise. We don’t usually see the beginning, as it is the Hebrew title of the prayer book is “Book of Praises.” And the final verb in Psalm 150 is “halel,” the verb “praise.”
Psalm 145 begins this final path of praise by giving us an acrostic, 22 verses, each beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. (The N is omitted in the Hebrew text, but included in the Septuagint, the Greek translations. Some of our modern translations will include it, others will not. The “e-Sword” that I have on my computer does not. My Reformation Study Bible ESV does not. But the ESV on my Kindle does.) Then Psalms 146-150 continue down a path of exuberant praise, with Psalm 150 being the most vibrant.
My only complaint about this book (and it is a mild one) is that I feel that there wasn’t quite enough practical suggestion in it. I love all of the concepts that Peterson introduces here, but how do I go about incorporating them into my own prayer life? Perhaps that is left up to me to work out.