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The Psalms, a Pathway to Prayer


St. Jerome, the great doctor of the Church, whose feast day occurs on September 30, famously said, “Ignorance of the Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” As an outstanding Latin scholar, he also knew Hebrew and Greek. One of his most important contributions was translating Sacred Scripture from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. Known as the Vulgate, this Bible gave more people access to Sacred Scripture. Considering that most people of the fifth century were illiterate, this was a good starting point.

Through his study and scholarship, St. Jerome encouraged those who read Sacred Scripture to understand the New Testament through the lens of the Old Testament. In order to really know and understand Jesus, it is worthwhile to consider his culture, traditions and the history into which he was born.

A good starting point for delving into Jesus’ roots is the book of Psalms. The 150 poems that were sometimes set to music were an important part of Jesus’ prayer. He knew them and was steeped in their tradition. As the Psalms permeated the life of Israel into which Jesus entered the world, they also saturate the prayer of the Church today. The Psalms are the only book in the Bible which is part of the liturgy every day of the year. Furthermore, New Testament writers quote the Psalms more than any other book from the Old Testament.

Many, but not all the Psalms, were composed by King David, who reigned over Israel for 40 years. Throughout the years, the people of Israel and their king faced challenges and experienced triumphs. The Psalms are prayers which reflect both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Through them the psalmist expresses a range of human emotions to God, from joy and gratitude to fear and desperation. Praise, thanks, contrition and petition are all elements of prayer found in the Psalms.

In praying the Psalms, it is possible to discover that the story of Israel and King David is also our story. The victories and defeats of Israel serve as reminders of the sovereignty of God, and that the Messiah ushers in a kingdom that will never collapse, one that is eternal. Scripture scholars sometimes refer to Jesus as the new David. The Psalms are in a sense Christocentric, meaning that they point to Jesus the Messiah. In Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 22:43-44), Jesus cited Psalm 110, in his debate with the Pharisees to demonstrate that David was referring to Him in the Psalms. From the cross, Jesus cries out with the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

The Psalms are a pathway to deeper prayer because they were Jesus’ prayers. He knew them and prayed them. He is hidden in the Psalms, inviting us to know him more intimately in prayer. The psalmist’s deep friendship with God is evident from the open, honest and direct dialogue evident in his prayer. As the Psalms shaped the prayer of Jesus, so they shape the prayer of the Church. Plunging into the Psalms in the spirit of St. Jerome can draw all of us closer to God.