Do good, O Lord, to those who are good,
and to those who are upright in their hearts!
Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
To you I lift up my eyes,
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
Behold, as the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maidservant
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
till he has mercy upon us.
I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
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As for the Psalms, it is noteworthy that they have been used for Jewish cultic worship. They serve a liturgical purpose, and they also provide both Jews and Christians with a collection of prayers that show how to pray to God. It is filled with models or examples that teach us about praising or making requests to God. But if the Psalms were inspired by God, then it is fair to say, in this sense, that God has indeed given us prayers to pray back to him. However, these prayers are not requirements; rather, they are examples or guidelines to follow. Therefore, we will go through the Psalms and examine what each of them show us about prayer.
Psalms: Book 1 (Pss 1-41)
In Ps 1, an introduction to the book of Psalms is given. It provides us with the two ways: righteousness and wickedness. It tells us that the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.
In Ps 2, an introduction to the first book (Book 1 = Pss 1-41) in the Psalms is given. (It is possible also that Ps 2 functions as the introduction not only to book one, but also to book two, Pss 42-72.) This psalm discusses how the nations seek to destroy the king, the anointed one, but God laughs at them, for he has placed the king, his son, on the throne. It calls the kings of the earth to serve the Lord.
In Ps 3, which is attributed to David, we have a prayer. The psalmist, regardless if it was David who actually penned this psalm (herein we will only reference the author of an individual psalm as “the psalmist”), declares to the Lord that he has many foes. Yet, the Lord is his shield. (While we do not know if the psalmist was male or female, for the sake of simplicity, we will default to masculine vocabulary, but it is at least possible that female authors could have been involved in composing individual psalms, although no female was ever attributed to any of the psalms.) He understands that the Lord answers his cries. He understands that the Lord sustains him. What does he ask for? The psalmist asks for deliverance from his foes. Promptly on the heals of this request, the psalmist makes a declarative statement: deliverance belongs to God. Here we see that prayer can be at once both a request and a declarative praise. But the psalm ends with a request, for the psalmist asks for the Lord’s blessing to be on his people.
In Ps 4, the psalmist begins and ends the prayer with a direct statement to God. First, the psalmist asks for God to answer him when he calls. Last, he declares to the Lord that it is He alone who makes him to lie down in safety. In the middle of the prayer, he speaks as though it were to the people. Yet, he says, prior to his last declarative statement, that the Lord has put gladness on his heart. Here we see that prayer can be at once both communication with God while also communication with others.
In Ps 5, the psalmist requests for God to hear him on the basis that He does not delight in wickedness. The psalmist is crying out to God because of his enemies. He requests for guidance. He requests further that his enemies will bear the result of their transgressions. He requests also, in the end, for the Lord to provide divine protection. The psalm ends with another declaration, that the Lord covers the righteous. It is interesting, however, that in Ps 5 the protection is in the house of the Lord. It is a temple psalm. The wicked will not be allowed to enter the house of the Lord, whereas the psalmist will be able to, and as a result will be under the Lord’s protection. Again, we see that prayer can be a mixture of request and declaration. As far as requests are concerned, seeking protection and divine retribution are valid.
In Ps 6, the psalmist is clearly grief-stricken and is pleading to the Lord for relief. He requests that the Lord not rebuke him in anger and he asks for grace. The psalmist is asking for healing. He asks for deliverance and that his life would be spared. Furthermore, he commands the wicked ones to leave him alone on the basis that the Lord has heard his cries. He understands that the Lord has heard him and accepted his prayer. As a result, the psalmist declares that his enemies will be put to shame. Here we have an instance where prayer involves grief. Requests are made for healing. But there is an understanding at work: the Lord hears the prayer. Those who are of the Lord, meaning, those who belong to the Lord and are his, that is, the righteous, can rest assured that the Lord hears their prayers.
In Ps 7, the psalmist declares at the outset that he takes refuge in Him. Also, he asks for deliverance from his pursuers, lest they tear him apart. He makes an odd request: if he has sinned by harming his allies or his foes without warrant, let him be repaid by being harmed by his enemies. He must assume that he has not, for in the next section of the psalm, he asks the Lord to rise up and judge his enemies and asks for himself to be judged according to his righteousness. He asks for the wickedness of the evil come to an end; he asks for the righteous to be established. He declares that God is his saving shield and righteous judge. He realizes that God is mighty and will punish those who do not repent of their wickedness. But he ends the prayer with thanksgiving and praise, for the Lord is righteousness. Again, we see that prayer can be a combination of request, declaration, and here also praise and thanksgiving. Prayer is multifaceted.
In Ps 8, the psalmist praises God for his majestic creation. In conclusion, after contemplating God’s creation, he declares that the Lord is sovereign. Here we see an pure example of prayer as praise.
In Ps 9, the psalmist declares that he will give thanks to the Lord and declare his wonderful deeds, that he would give praise to His name. Why? Because the Lord has overcome the psalmist’s enemies and has judged and avenged. Then the psalmist asks for grace. He declares that he is suffering. He declares that the nations have dug their own pit into which they have fallen, and the psalmist asks of the Lord to put the nations in their place: they are the created ones and are not the judge. Here we have a mixture of praise and thanksgiving with request and declaration.
In Ps 10, the psalmist utilizes blunt speech. He asks the Lord point blank, “Why are you stand-offish?” Then he asks the Lord to catch the wicked in their evil doing. Here is an instance in which the prosperity of the wickedness is recognized, for the psalmist declares that the wicked prosper at all times. It is true that the wicked do not always fail, and many times they prosper. But the psalmist asks God to free the oppressed and force the wicked to account for their ways. He declares that the Lord is king forever, so that the nations will not outlast Him. In the end, the psalmist declares that the Lord will hear the meek and listen to them, and he will strengthen them. He declares further that he will do justice for the orphan and the oppressed. The psalmist is relying on God’s justice. He prays with the understanding that God is indeed just and His justice will prevail. Here we see that prayer can be blunt—open, honest, and frank. Prayer can involve asking questions of God. It is not all about requests or praise. It can be contemplation as well.
In Ps 11, it seems as though this psalm has nothing to say of prayer, for the Lord is not directly addressed. However, it seems to be a declarative contemplation, for the psalmist announces that it is in the Lord he takes refuge, and therefore, he will not flee. The Lord is ever watchful. He will protect the righteous by pursuing the wicked. If Ps 11 is to be understood as a prayer, then it is in the sense that the psalmist is contemplating about the Lord, he is declaring certain truths to be true and evident, and he is claiming them to take effect in his own life. Prayer can be indirect appeals, for the psalmist here is indirectly requesting the Lord’s protection and justice.
In Ps 12, the psalmist simply asks for help of the Lord. The faithful have seemingly disbanded. The psalmist hears insincere words, and he desires for the Lord to stop such speech as well as that which boasts. The psalmist then claims what the Lord says in response, that he sees the need of the poor, he will rise up, and he will give them safety. The psalmist then declares that the promises of the Lord are pure and complete. He understands, then, that the Lord will guard and protect them from the wicked. In prayer, one can rest assured that God will stay true to his word.
In Ps 13, the psalmist gives more frank speech. He asks the Lord how long He will hide from him and forget him? The psalmist asks the Lord to answer him and to give light to him. In the end, he declares his trust is in the Lord’s steadfast love, so he will rejoice in the Lord’s salvation, and he will sing to the Lord, because He has blessed him. It is acceptable in prayer to blend contemplation with praise. It is important to be open and honest before the Lord in prayer, as we see here.
In Ps 14, the psalmist declares on more than one occasion that there is no one who does good. He declares further that the Lord has sided with the righteous, and while the wicked would seek to keep the poor from succeeding, the Lord is the refuge for the poor. The psalmist then makes a statement in which hope for Israel is expressed, hope for deliverance and restoration. Not only may one contemplate the Lord, but here we see an example of contemplating the wicked in prayer. This contemplation concludes with a hope in the Lord’s restoration despite the wicked.
In Ps 15, the psalmist contemplates those who are able to dwell in the Lord’s tent. He determines that it is the blameless and upright, those who speak truthfully and do not slander, those who do not do evil to their friends or reproach their neighbors, those who despise the wicked and honor the righteous, those who stand by their oaths and do not lend money with interest or take a bribe against the innocent. Such people shall never be moved concludes the psalmist. Such people are those who may be in the presence of the Lord. The Lord is directly questioned, but the psalmist supplies the answer. It is a prayer of contemplation on what it means to be righteous. Prayer can simply involve thinking about what it means to be righteous.
In Ps 16, the psalmist asks for protection and refuge. Then he declares that the Lord is his lot and his portion. Indeed, the Lord has blessed him. So, he blesses the Lord. He declares that he keeps the Lord before him because he is there with him at his right hand. Therefore, he declares he is glad, for the Lord grants him life. Here we see a thankfulness for the Lord’s protection after a request for protection. Prayer can ask for but also assume something to be granted, which, in this case, is protection.
In Ps 17, the psalmist asks for the Lord to hear him. He declares that he is innocent, and he urges God to listen to him. He asks God to show his steadfast love. He asks for the God to guard and protect him from the wicked. He asks the Lord to rise up and confront his enemies. In the end, the psalmist declares that he will behold the face of the Lord in righteousness and he will be satisfied. He assumes, then, that the Lord will hear his cries and declare him to be innocent.
In Ps 18, the psalmist expresses much thanks, gratitude, and love to God. He declares, “I love you, O Lord.” He declares that the Lord is his rock, fortress, deliverer, and shield, and he is worthy to be praised. He declares that he was in great distress, but he called upon the Lord and He delivered him. He declares that the Lord recompensed him in accordance with his righteousness. In the end, the psalmist blessed the Lord who lives, for He is his rock. Here we see a prayer of thanksgiving, for he was hard pressed by his enemies, but the Lord delivered him and made him to be victorious.
In Ps 19, the psalmist contemplates about creation and the Lord’s torah. He declares that the heavens testify to God’s glory. He declares that the Lord’s torah is perfect, refreshing, sure, right, clear, enlightening, and pure. He asks, in the end, for the Lord to be pleased with his words and his meditation. Here we see an interesting request: Lord, may these words be acceptable to you.
In Ps 20, the psalmist asks for victory for the king, the Lord’s anointed. He hopes that the Lord will answer the king while in distress and protect him. He hopes that the Lord will help and support the king. He hopes that the kings desires, plans, and petitions will all be fulfilled and granted. The psalmist then declares that he knows the Lord will aid the king, for his pride is in the Lord. The psalmist ends the prayer with a request for the Lord to grant victory and to answer them when they call. Again, prayer can be a blend of request and declaration, as it is here.
In Ps 21, the psalmist praises God and thanks him for granting victory to the king. The king’s desire was granted, and the psalmist give credit to the Lord for making the king successful. Prayer is here seen in connection with Ps 20, so that while the requests were made earlier, those requests were answered and granted, and here in Ps 21 prayer is in response to that answer.
In Ps 22, the psalmist laments before the Lord. He asks God, “Why have you forsaken me?” He sees his plight: God does not hear his cries, which is altogether different than his ancestors, for the Lord listened to their pleas. The psalmist declares that he is lower than human, one who is utterly despised. He is not being rescued from his troubles; those who mock him emphasize that the Lord does not delight in him, otherwise he would be rescued from his plight. But the psalmist recognizes that he is the created one of the Creator. The Creator has been with him since the womb, so that the psalmist asks the Lord not to be far from him during this time of trouble. He declares that he is stretched thin, for he is beset by his enemies. Again, he appeals to the Lord, asking him not to be far away. He asks plainly for deliverance. Then he speaks of what the Lord has done indeed: he has rescued him. He then calls himself and all else who fear the Lord to praise him for this very reason, that he did in fact hear his cry. He declares that all the earth will remember and turn to the Lord in worship, for he alone is sovereign. All who have died, all who live, and all who will live will bow down to the Lord because of the deliverance he has provided. Prayer is here a blend of lament and praise. We have seen plenty of prayers filled with thanksgiving and praise. It is here we see something more: a righteous sufferer beset by his enemies wading in his distress before the Lord. Prayer may involve open, honest, frank speech.
In Ps 23, the psalmist declares the Lord to be his shepherd. As a result, he will not have want. The Shepherd leads him to green pastures and still waters through right paths. The Shepherd protects him even in dark places. Furthermore, he sees the Lord as a hospitable host. The Host prepares a table for him, anointing him, providing goodness and mercy. The psalmist ends, concluding that he will live in the house of the Lord forever. Here we have prayer as a declaration of trust. The psalmist is declaring that he trust in the Lord as his shepherd and host. The Lord provides him with all that he needs, both food and protection, in addition to good guidance. Prayer need not be a request, but it can be a declaration of trust.
In Ps 24, the psalmist declares that all of creation belongs to the Lord. It is a psalm of praise, declaring God to be glorious. And yet, it asserts that only those with clean hands and pure hearts, those who do not swear deceitfully, can approach the Lord. It is not a declaration negating the prayers of those who are not pure in heart, but it describes those whom can be in the presence of the Lord. Those who are pure in heart will be blessed by the Lord and will be vindicated by God. What does this psalm teach us about prayer? If anything, it teaches us that prayer can be declarative, which we have already seen.
In Ps 25, the psalmist asks for the Lord to life up his soul. He declares his trust in the Lord and asks that he not be put to shame and that his enemies may not win. The psalmist appeals to God’s mercy and love. He asks the Lord to forget his transgressions but remember him according to his love. The psalmist declares God to be good and upright, which is why he instructs sinners in the correct way. He asks again for pardon. He declares that friendship with the Lord is for those who fear him. He asks for protection and deliverance. And in the end, the psalmist requests for redemption, not for himself, but for Israel. Here we see a mixture of declaration and request, request not only for self but also for the community.
In Ps 26, the psalmist asks for vindication and combines that request with another for the Lord to test his heart and mind, knowing full well that the Lord will see his commitment to Him. He requests earnestly that the Lord not sweep him away with the sinners, because he is not like them. No, he walks in integrity. It is appropriate in prayer to qualify one’s requests if desired. In this case, the psalmist makes his requests for vindication and qualifies them by declaring that he is indeed righteous. He appeals not only to his own righteousness, but also to the Lord’s love. His righteousness alone is not enough; he brings into play the Lord’s love as part of his request.
In Ps 27, the psalmist declares that the Lord is his light and his salvation, and it is in the Lord that he places his trust. He knows that the Lord will protect him in the temple. He asks that the Lord not forsake him or turn him away. He declares that if his parents forsake him, the Lord will take him up. In the end, he declares that he believes he will see the goodness of the Lord. He says to wait for the Lord, to be strong, and let courage overcome the heart. Here we have a mixture of declaration and instruction in prayer.
In Ps 28, the psalmist cries out to the Lord his rock, and asks him not to ignore him, else he be like those who go down into the Pit. He asks that he not be swept away with the wicked. He asks that the wicked will be repaid for their wrongdoings. Then he blesses the Lord for listening to him, declaring that the Lord is his strength and shield, and it is in the Lord that his heart trusts. He declares the Lord to be the shepherd of his people; he is also their saving refuge and strength. Here again we have a mixture of declaration and request.
In Ps 29, the psalmist declares the glory of the Lord in the nature of the storm, and in the end he asks for the Lord to give strength and blessing to his people. Here we have a mixture of declaration and request.
In Ps 30, the psalmist gives thanks to the Lord because the Lard did not deliver him over to his enemies, and, furthermore, the Lord healed him. He calls on the faithful ones to the Lord to sing praises to Him and give thanks to him. He declares that the Lord established him, but when the Lord hid his face, he was dismayed. He appealed to the Lord that if he were to die and go to the Pit, it would not benefit the Lord, because he would not be able to praise the Lord from the Pit. Here again we have a request that is qualified. And again we have a mixture of declaration and request, but also thanksgiving for the request being answered.
In Ps 31, the psalmist declares that it is the Lord in whom he seeks refuge. He asks that the Lord not allow him to be put to shame; based on the Lord’s righteousness, he asks for deliverance. He says later that the Lord is indeed his rock, his fortress, his guide, and his refuge. He declares that it is into the Lord’s hands he commits his spirit, declaring further that the Lord, the faithful God, has delivered him. Then the psalmist declares that the Lord hates those who pay tribute to worthless idols; in stark contrast, the psalmist declares that he trusts in the Lord. He asks that the Lord be gracious, because he is filled with sorrow as his enemies scorn him and his neighbors abhor him. He declares that he is like the dead, for his enemies plot against him, and they are surrounding him. Yet, he declares that he places his trust in the Lord. He asks the Lord to cease lying lips that attack the righteous. He appeals to God’s abundant goodness. Then the psalmist blesses the Lord for his wondrous steadfast love in hearing his prayers and repaying his enemies. In the end, the psalmist exhorts others who wait for the Lord to be strong and take courage. Here again we have a mixture of declaration and request. We also see an element of faithfulness in times of trouble. We see not only the trust of the afflicted in God, but we also see the Lord’s faithfulness to the afflicted in hearing the request.
In Ps 32, the psalmist declares that those whose transgressions are forgiven is happy, those whose sin is covered is happy. He declares that the guilt of sin is too much and it is very draining. But, he declares, when he acknowledged his sin to the Lord, God forgave the guilt of his sin. Then he exhorts the faithful ones to pray to the Lord, for the Lord is a safe refuge in times of distress. He encourages them in the end to be glad in the Lord and rejoice with joy. Here we have prayer as confession.
In Ps 33, the psalmist praises the Lord and calls others to rejoice in the Lord, because the Lord’s word is upright and He loves righteousness and justice. He then declares that it was by the Lord’s word that the heavens were made, declaring also that the Lord is basically in charge of the waters. It calls the earth to fear the Lord, for he called it forth and he is in charge of its inhabitants. None, not even the king, can be saved from the Lord. But those who fear the Lord is watched by the Lord; the Lord will deliver them. And, in the end, the psalmist requests of the Lord to let his steadfast love be upon him and the people. For the most part, this prayer is that of declaration and praise, but in the end it does include a request.
In Ps 34, the psalmist declares praise because the Lord heard and granted his request. He exhorts others to look to God, to taste and see that He is good. This prayer is one of reflection on what it means to fear the Lord. Here we do not see a request, but we see praise and thanksgiving.
In Ps 35, the psalmist asks for deliverance. He asks the Lord to fight for him! He asks for his enemies to be put to shame and for their plans to be thwarted. The psalmist asks for deliverance, and in return he promises to thank him and praise him in the congregation. He calls upon the Lord neither to be far nor silent. Here we have a request for the Lord to bring vindication, deliverance, and intervention.
In Ps 36, the psalmist speaks of the way of the wicked and then contrasts that with the love of the Lord, then, in the end, he asks the Lord to continue his love and salvation to the righteous, not to let the foot of the wicked tread on him. Here we see contemplation of the wicked and contrasted with the Lord, but it is followed by a request. Prayer can be praise, thanksgiving, and request, but it can also be contemplation.
In Ps 37, the psalmist contemplates the way of the wicked and the way of the righteous. It is a wisdom psalm. No requests are made. If it is a prayer, then it is one purely of contemplation that rests on the Lord’s promises for retribution.
In Ps 38, the psalmist confesses his sin and his guilt. He asks the Lord not to rebuke him while angry. He declares that his sin has driven out his health from his bones. Yet, despite his afflictions, he waits on the Lord. He confesses his sin and acknowledges that his enemies who are great in number are declaring him to be evil even though he desires to do good. He asks, in the end, for the Lord not to forsake him, not to be far from him, and for him to make haste and help him. Here we have a mixture of confession and request.
In Ps 39, the psalmist contemplates about the futility of life, and he asks for deliverance from his transgressions, to know also the measure of his days, that he would not be made the scorn of a fool, and in the end he asks the Lord to hear his prayer and not hold peace from him. He appeals specifically to the fact that he is but an alien, a passing guest. Again, we see contemplation mixed with request. Again, we see that the request is qualified.
In Ps 40, the psalmist declares that he waited for the Lord and He heard his prayer, that when he was near death the Lord raised him up. He spoke of these deeds to the congregation and did not keep it to himself. He asks the Lord not withhold mercy from him and to let His love keep him safe forever. He asks the Lord for help concerning those who wish to kill him. He asks in the end for the Lord to help him without delay. In prayer, we may ask for expedited help.
In Ps 41, the psalmist asks for healing. He declares that the poor are delivered by the Lord in times of trouble, they are protected by the Lord and kept alive, and the Lord does not give them over to their enemies. Furthermore, the psalmist declares, the Lord sustains them when they are sick and heals them when they are ill. The psalmist transitions to speaking of sick and ill to his own request: Lord, be gracious and heal me. He declares that he has sinned. His enemies want him to die. He asks for the Lord to be gracious and raise him up. In the end, he notes that he has not lost favor with the Lord, because his enemies had not trampled upon him. He acknowledges that the Lord has upheld him due to his integrity. As we have seen time and time again throughout Book 1 of the Psalms, prayer can be a mixture of elements, such as confession, praise, thanksgiving, and request, just as it is here with a blending of confession and request.
In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
Deliver me, O Lord,
from lying lips,
from a deceitful tongue.
If thieves come to you
If robbers in the night
—how you would be destroyed–
would they not steal enough for them?
If grape-gatherers come to you
would they not leave gleanings?
How Esau has been searched out
his hidden treasures grazed bare.
All your allies have driven you back as far as the border
they deceived you
they prevailed against you
your allies who eat bread with you
have set a trap under you;
there is no understanding in it.
On that day, thus he declares, the Lord, would he not exterminate the wise men from Edom
and understanding from Mount Esau?
Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord!
Open to me the gates of righteousness,
that I may enter through them
and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.[b]
This is the Lord‘s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.