On learning true prayer only from Jesus Christ

As I undertake a reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms, I am struck by three reasons that every Christian should read and pray the Psalms with regularity: first, “Jesus himself says of the Psalms in general that they announced his death and resurrection and the preaching of the gospel” (Luke 24:44); second, “the Psalter is entirely taken up into the prayer of Jesus,” commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer; and third, “Jesus died on the cross with words from the Psalms on his lips.”* Bonhoeffer’s christological interpretation of the Psalms is persuasive:

Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words. How then do they come to be in the Bible? Let us make no mistake: the Bible is God’s Word, even in the Psalms. Then are the prayers to God really God’s own Word? That seems difficult for us to understand. We grasp it only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father, who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayers, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

To summarize the above, all the other books in the Bible are God’s Word to us, whereas the Psalms is God’s Word for us as mediated through his Son, Jesus Christ.

Since “David, as the anointed king of the chosen people of God, is a prototype of Jesus Christ” and author of 73 out of 150 psalms, Bonhoeffer contends that “David prayed not only out of the personal raptures of his heart, but from Christ dwelling in him. To be sure, the one who prays these psalms, David, remains himself; but Christ dwells in him and with him.” Bonhoeffer explains this mystery:

How is it possible that a human being and Jesus Christ pray the Psalter simultaneously? It is the incarnate Son of God, who has borne all human weakness in his own flesh, who here pours out the heart of all humanity before God, and who stands in our place and prays for us. He has known torment and pain, guilt and death more deeply than we have. Therefore it is the prayer of the human nature assumed by Christ that comes before God here. It is really our prayer. But since the Son of God knows us better than we know ourselves, and was truly human for our sake, it is also really the Son’s prayer. It can become our prayer only because it was his prayer.

*See Matt 27:46 and Mark 15:34, where the words of Jesus are derived from Ps. 22:2: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” See also Luke 23:46, which cites the words of Jesus derived from Ps. 31:6: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

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