Secret of the Psalter, by Bonhoeffer

This is a section from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work called “Life Together”. The book is about Christian fellowship. Bonhoeffer was a pastor in Germany during WWII. It’s a classic and a must read. If you don’t know anything about Bonhoeffer, it is important to know that after his incarceration in April, 1943, in Tegel the guards there were friendly to him and secretly took Bonhoeffer to cells of prisoners to minister to them. These guards did preserve his papers, essays and other works and they established a network to take his works outside of the camps to his family and friends. This stopped after he was transferred to the Gestapo prisons and all contact with the outside was stopped. Bonhoeffer was hung on April 9, 1945 the day after he conducted a service for fellow inmates.

This kind of makes you recognize that we have it made and maybe that is not so good because our zeal is not as high as Bonhoeffer’s. It’s just a fact. How many of us would gather under the threat of arrest? How many of us would still write sermons and spiritual instruction while incarcerated by a regime contrary to our beliefs and values? Just something to stew on.

Anyway, I’m going to reproduce for you a section on common worship for the community of Christians from the Psalms. The section’s title is “The Secret of the Psalter”. This section will transform how you read the Psalms and worship with them. Maybe you’ll be intrigued to read the whole book.

I’m going to reproduce it as is with the version of Scripture he used (a German translation) and the roughness of words and grammar translated from German to English.

Here is goes!

The Secret of the Psalter

“The New Testament laid emphasis upon “speaking to yourselves in psalms” (Eph 5:19) and “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms” (Col 3:16). From ancient times in the church a special significance has been attached to the common use of psalms. In many churches to this day the Psalter constitutes the beginning of every service of common worship. The custom as been largely lost and we must fund our way back to is prayers. The Psalter occupies a unique lace in the Holy Scriptures. It is God’s work and, with a  few exceptions, the payer of men as well. How are we to understand this? How can God’s Word be at the same time prayer to God?

This question brings with it an observation that is made by everybody who begins to use the psalms as prayers. First he tries to repeat the psalms personally as his own prayer. But soon he comes upon passages that he feels he cannot utter as his own personal petitions. We recall, for example, the psalms of innocence, the bitter, the imprecatory psalms, and also in part the psalms of the Passion. And yet these prayers are words of Holy Scripture, which a believing Christian cannot simply dismiss as outworn and obsolete, as “early stages of religion.” One may have no desire to carp at the Word of the Scriptures and yet he knows that he cannot pray these words. He can read and hear them as the prayer of another person, wonder about them, be offended by them, but he can neither pray them himself nor discard them from the Bible.

The practical expedient would be to say that any person in this situation should first stick to the psalms he can understand and repeat, and in the case of the other psalms he should learn quite simply to let stand what is incomprehensible and difficult and turn back again and again to what is simple and understandable. Actually, however, this difficulty indicates the point at which we get our first glimpse of the secret of the Psalter. A psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; that the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. He it is who is praying here, and not only here but in the whole Psalter.

This insight New Testament and the church have always recognized and declared. The Man Jesus Christ, to whom no affliction, no ill, no suffering is alien and who yet was the wholly innocent and righteous one, is praying in the Psalter through the mouth of his Church. The Psalter is the prayer-book of Jesus Christ in the truest sense of the word. He prayed the Psalter and now it has become his prayer for all time. Now do we understand how the Psalter can be prayer to God and yet God’s own Word, precisely because here we encounter the praying Christ? Jesus Christ prays through the Psalter in his congregation. His congregation prays too, the individual prays. But here he prays, in so far as Christ prays within him, not in his own name, but in the Name of Jesus Christ. He prays, not from the natural desires of his own heart; he prays out of the manhood put on by Christ; he prays on the basis of the prayer of the Man Jesus Christ. But when he so acts, his prayer falls within the promise that it will be heard. Because Christ prays the prayer of the psalms with the individual and the congregation before the heavenly throne of God, or rather because those who pray the psalms are joining in with the prayer of Jesus Christ, their prayer reaches the ears of God. Christ has become their intercessor.”

Think on this and see if it changes how you read, pray and worship with the Psalms.


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