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Seeing the Church in the Psalms

Can our Church community be found in the Psalms? Rev. Dr. Nick McRae walks us through this question:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who opposed the evils of Hitler and the Nazi regime. Because of his courageous work, Bonhoeffer was tragically executed in a Nazi concentration camp only 14 days before the camp was liberated by US troops. Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer was devoted to Scripture as the word of God, and he had a special love for the Psalms. He understood the Psalms to be the prayers of Jesus Christ. He believed that, because Christ has made the Church to be his earthly body, Christ now prays the Psalms through the mouth of the Church. This is a beautiful idea that deserves unpacking. But first, some necessary background.

This week’s meditation on seeing the Church in the Psalms is in many ways a counterpart to last week’s about seeing Christ in the Psalms. It may be helpful to go back and read that post first. The most important takeaway from last time—as least for the purposes of this post—is that Jesus is the fulfillment of all Scripture (Mt 5:17), such that all Scripture points to him. Because of what Jesus accomplished for us in his cross and resurrection, he is our lens for interpreting all of Scripture, including the Psalms. This New Testament clarity helps us understand what God was doing all throughout the Old Testament narrative.

One of the barriers that many people encounter when trying to pray the Psalms is that the cultural landscape of the Psalms is very far removed from our own. The Psalms are jam-packed with references to kings and kingdoms, temple sacrifices, Mt. Zion and Jerusalem, and so much more. Of course, this is true of most of the Bible, yet it seems to be more of a barrier when encountered in the Psalms. When we read, say, the narrative of Solomon in the First Book of the Kings, we expect to read about the workings of Israel and Judah and the Jerusalem Temple. But when we pray the Psalms, we expect the Psalms to in some way become our own prayers. Reading about ancient Israelite culture is one thing—but how do we pray it? Furthermore, how can we as 21st-century Christians honestly pray the prayers of ancient Jews?

Some Christian scholars have argued that we can appreciate the prayers of ancient Israel and Judah, and we can in some ways pray alongside the Jewish people, but that the Psalms can never fully be our own prayers. Some have even suggested that reading the Psalms as Christian prayers is anti-Semitic because it erases the Jewishness of the Psalms. I understand and am sympathetic to these scholars’ concerns, but I disagree with their conclusions.

There isn’t space here to go into the deep weeds of Jewish-Christian relations, but the part of that discussion important for us here and now is to recognize that the Church isn’t something wholly separate from Israel, but an essential part of what God has been doing in and through Israel all along. God made a covenant with Abraham to bless his descendants, who became the people of Israel. The Apostle Paul says in his Letter to the Romans that the true descendants of Abraham aren’t just those who are physically descended from him, but those who follow in his footsteps by having faith in God’s promises, whether they’re physically descended from Abraham or not (Rom 4:1-25). Anyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ, Paul says, becomes a spiritual descendant of Abraham and a member of God’s covenant people. 

We see this again through Moses. God sent Moses to free the people of Israel from the darkness of slavery in Egypt and to make a new covenant with them. At Mount Sinai, God told Israel, “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). 

The Apostle Peter echoed God’s message to Israel in a letter to early Christians, telling them, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9). Peter clearly understood the Church to be a continuation of God’s covenant promise at Sinai, and he saw the Church as a spiritual Israel, even though most Christians were not physically Israelites.

The point of all this is to say that the biblical narrative of the people of Israel isn’t just someone else’s story. It’s our story, too. Likewise the Psalms, in all their ancient Israelite particularity, aren’t the just the prayers of another culture. They’re our prayers as well. 

And, of course, the Psalms are the prayers of our Savior. Jesus was Jewish, born into a Jewish family, and as such, he would have grown up hearing, reading, and singing the Psalms in worship, just as any first-century Jew would have. He would have continued this practice all throughout his earthly ministry. The Psalms were a part of him; more than that, he saw himself in the Psalms and understood his own life and ministry to be a fulfillment of what they expressed. This has deep implications for how we understand ourselves as the Church. 

Jesus promised to be intimately united with believers. He said to his disciples, “abide in me, and I will abide in you” (Jn 15:4). Paul applied this teaching of Jesus to himself in a letter to Galatian Christians: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). This means that Christ lives inside of every person who has faith in him. Paul also taught that, though Christ dwells inside every individual believer, this truth is most fully realized in the Church as a community. Paul explained to the Church in Corinth that “just as the body is one and yet has many parts—and all the parts of the body, though they are many, are one body—so also is Christ” (1 Cor 12:12). Paul summed up this teaching with a clear statement: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor 12:27). The Church as a whole is the earthly Body of Christ, of which every Christian is a part.

It’s in light of this truth that Dietrich Bonhoeffer could speak of Christ praying the Psalms through the mouth of the Church. This is why we can pray even the most unmistakably Jewish psalms as our own Christian prayers. Jesus, the one true seed of Abraham, lives inside of us as we pray the words of Scripture. This doesn’t erase the Jewishness of the Psalms—it celebrates the grace of God in Christ, who brought us into the covenant people!

So how does this affect our prayer in practical terms? 

I think it makes all the difference. It allows us to see whole new layer of meaning in the Psalms as we’re praying them. It’s like an old pair of 3-D glasses with two different colored lenses. Through the blue lens we see the original context: the ancient Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the court of David and Solomon, priests and Levites offering food and animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. At the same time, through the red lens we see ourselves as the Church in our own context: Jesus Christ as our Shepherd and King, the Church as his bride, the Church as the glorious Temple of God at Zion, the Church as a priesthood of all believers offering sacrifices of prayer and thanksgiving. We don’t cover up or erase the original context—we enrich it with a second layer of meaning that draws us into the worship of Christ our Lord. And like a pair of 3-D glasses, looking through these two lenses makes what we see jump off the page and come alive!

Take Psalm 45 as an example. Psalm 45 reads like a wedding song for an ancient Israelite king. Scholars disagree on the precise original context, but many throughout history have seen it as a song of God’s blessing upon King Solomon’s marriage to an Egyptian princess. When we look at this psalm through the lens of Christ, we can also see the Church. Christ is the victorious King welcoming us, the Church, into his household as beloved bride: “All glorious is the princess as she enters; her gown is cloth-of-gold. In embroidered apparel she is brought to the king; after her the bridesmaids follow in procession. With joy and gladness they are brought, and enter into the palace of the king” (Ps 45:14-16). 

Compare this with the Apostle John’s vision of Christ’s return as the wedding of Christ the Lamb and the Church: “Let’s rejoice and be glad and give the glory to him, because the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has prepared herself. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. [...] Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7-9). 

Paul likewise compared the relationship of Christ to the Church as a marriage: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave himself up for her, so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present to himself the Church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (Eph 5:25-27). 

Jesus even spoke of himself as a groom (Mt 9:15) and compared his second coming to a groom escorting his bride to the wedding feast (Mt 25:1-10). 

Looking at Psalm 45 through our 3-D glasses, we can see how what God was doing through Solomon in ancient Israel hasn’t been erased, but is finding its fulfillment in Christ and the Church. It allows us to acknowledge the psalmist’s culture and context while also praising God for the gift of new life in Christ. And Psalm 45 is just one example. This same multi-layered richness can be found all throughout the Psalms. 

So let’s put on our 3-D glasses and boldly pray the Psalms as Christians. Let’s look for the Church in the prayers of our spiritual ancestors, and let’s pray them as our own, giving thanks to God for welcoming us into the covenant people!

Wondering how to pray the less pretty parts of the Psalms—the violent, judgy, vengeful parts? Join me again next week for a new way to think about these difficult portions of Scripture.

Posted by Alyssa Robinson at 9:35 AM

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