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Reflections on Memorizing Psalms at Providence: A Mid-Year Encouragement

psalmsAt Providence Classical Christian Academy we want to raise up students who are shaped by Christian Scriptures in mind, heart, and deed. “How can a young man cleanse his way?” asks the writer of Psalm 119. We take to heart his answer: “By taking heed according to Your Word.” For this purpose, we engage students in an ambitious K–12 program of Bible memory in which the Psalms are especially prominent.

Why The Prominence of Psalms in Providence’s Life Together?

Other Scriptures are also memorized and reviewed over the years—32 key Bible verses, all of Colossians and 2 Timothy, and large portions of Genesis 3, Isaiah 11, Matthew 2, Luke 2, and John 1. But in the midst of all of these precious texts, we give the book of Psalms particular focus.

During the grammar school years, students learn and recite psalms in the classroom, in homework, and each morning during the school opening. By the sixth grade, Providence children give a public recitation of 15 complete psalms by heart. In the years that follow, they add two more psalms, and all 17 psalms continue to be prayed on a regular basis during the morning assembly.

Why so much time with the Psalms? What is so special about this portion of Scripture?

Bonhoeffer’s Reflections
on Recovering “The Prayerbook of the Bible”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian martyred under the Nazis, offers this reflection on the treasured place of the Psalms in the Christian church, in Christian hearts, and on Christian lips:

[quote source=”Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970), 25–26″]In many churches the Psalms are read or sung every Sunday, or even daily, in succession. These churches have preserved a priceless treasure, for only with daily use does one appropriate this divine prayerbook. When read only occasionally, these prayers are too overwhelming in design and power and tend to turn us back to more palatable fare. But whoever has begun to pray the Psalter seriously and regularly will soon give a vacation to other little devotional prayers and say: ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter. It tastes too cold and too hard’ (Luther). Therefore, wherever we no longer pray the Psalms in our churches, we must take up the Psalter that much more in our daily morning and evening prayers, reading and praying together at least several Psalms every day so that we succeed in reading through this book a number of times each year, getting into it deeper and deeper. We also ought not to select Psalms at our own discretion, thinking that we know better what we ought to pray than does God himself. To do that is to dishonor the prayerbook of the Bible. In the ancient church it was not unusual to memorize ‘the entire David.’ In one of the eastern churches this was a prerequisite for the pastoral office. The church father St. Jerome says that one heard the Psalms being sung in the fields and gardens in his time. The Psalter impregnated the life of early Christianity. Yet more important than all of this is the fact that Jesus died on the cross with the words of the Psalter on his lips. Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”[/quote]

Luther and Calvin’s Reflections
on Finding the Psalms Full of Both Old Testament Truths and the Person of Christ

Luther and Calvin both noted that in the book of Psalms we have a kind of summary of the whole Old Testament. At the same time, they also recognized the Psalter as a book which is full of Jesus Christ. In places, the Psalms look ahead and prophesy about Jesus and His saving work (see Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 2:25ff). There is also a sense in which when we hear the voice of David praying in the Psalms, we can hear the voice of David’s greater Son, Jesus, praying with us and for us, even as we, in turn, pray the Psalter of David with Christ. Bonhoeffer asks:[quote source=”Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayerbook, 21″]Who prays the Psalms? David (Solomon, Asaph, etc.) prays, Christ prays, we pray. We—that is, first of all the entire community in which alone the vast richness of the Psalter can be prayed, but also finally every individual insofar as he participates in Christ and his community and prays their prayer.” [/quote]

The Psalms are a treasure then because they open our eyes to the whole Old Testament, to the dear face of Jesus Christ, our Savior, and to the company of our fellow believers.

The Church Fathers’ Reflections
on Finding in the Psalms a Mirror and a Light for All Human Experience

The Psalms have also been beloved by Christians through the ages because they provide what has been described as a “mirror” for our own lives. The Psalms give us words of faith and prayer for all the varied experiences we face in our sin-broken world. The church father Athanasius (4th century) describes this mirror-function of the Psalms:

[quote source=” St. Athanasius on the Psalms: A Letter to a Friend (London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1949)”]So then, my son, let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need. For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.”[/quote]

Not only do the Psalms illumine every situation in life, they also apply to people in every station and season of life. An early Christian bishop, Nicetas of Remesiana, writes: [quote source=”cited by John D. Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 9″]What do you fail to find in the psalms of David that works toward the benefit, edification and consolation of the human species of whatever class, sex or age? The infant has here what he can suckle, the boy what he can cheer, the adolescent that by which he can mend his ways, the young man what he can follow and the old man material for prayer. A woman learns modesty, orphans find a father, widows a judge, the poor a protector and strangers a guide. Kings and judges hear what they should fear. A psalm consoles the sad, restrains the joyful, tempers the angry, refreshes the poor and chides the rich man to know himself. To absolutely all who will take it, the psalm offers an appropriate medicine; nor does it despise the sinner, but presses upon him the wholesome remedy of penitential tears….For whatever the Law, the Prophets and even the Gospels teach is contained as a remedy in the sweetness of these songs.” [/quote]

Our Lifelong Hopes for the Psalms in the Lives of Our Students

All of this is why our students spend so much time with the Psalms. Only God knows what our children will face in the years ahead. But whatever their paths, no matter how dark the valleys, the faith-filled words of the Psalms will comfort, sustain, and guide them. These Psalms will lift their eyes again and again to the Savior God “from whence comes their help” (Ps 121:1).  And so we keep learning and praying the Psalms at Providence!

Rev. Thomas Egger, Member, Providence Board and Curriculum Committee