Sr. Louise Zdunich


April 20, 2015

QuestionWhy are the psalms important for Christians?


AnswerA bit of history may help us understand why we pray the psalms as we do. The psalms are prayers of a people with whom God made a solemn covenant as their ruler and sovereign.

We have inherited that relationship since we have adopted Israel's connection with God.

In Hebrew culture, life is determined by one's belonging and we belong to God. Names denote to whom we belong and have precise meanings. This relationship and our actions touch and move God like we touch and move each other.

The present must have continuity with its past. Israel prayed out of its own experience, its own history, which was influenced by its 40 years of desert wanderings.

One can see their need to record their suffering through songs. Nevertheless, a joyous praise of God permeates the psalms. No wonder the psalms were important for the Hebrew people.

These are prayers of a people who need a strong arm for support. Israel responds to God's saving acts creatively through praise which recognizes and glorifies God in nature and history.

We are not certain who composed the psalms or why or where they were written. However, their content and tone show they were composed at various times and for various occasions.


They are sometimes referred to as Davidic psalms, and King David may have had something to do with their composition. Some may have been composed or prayed when the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. The people were desolate, not wanting to sing their own sacred songs in a foreign land.

The psalter is a collection of 150 psalms, hymns and royal psalms sung on special occasions such as the crowning of kings. Some are individual or community psalms. A number of psalms are classified as royal psalms (2, 20, 32, 45, 72, 127).

Some are simply called hymns while others are hymns of thanksgiving, trust or confidence. Laments are cries for help in keeping covenant promises; they can be individual or communal.

Some of the psalms are devoted to celebrating annual festivals such as the harvest, music, penance and renewal festivals. Several of these feasts had their own psalm (47, 48, 113-118).


The psalms were recited in the Temple from 200 BC until its destruction in 70 AD. Besides their use historically, they are still recited by Jews and Christians today.

Each daily Mass has a Responsorial Psalm in which all participate by praying a response to each of the verses sung or read by an individual. Sometimes, the psalm chosen exemplifies the theme or tone of the Mass.

Each season of the year has special psalms which give us the flavour of the season and the Mass. In Advent we sing: "Come, O Lord and set us free" (25, 85). At Christmas, Psalm 98 offers us "Lord today, we have seen your glory."

On Epiphany, we commemorate the coming of the kings from the East and we sing: "Today, every nation on earth will adore you" (72).

Why pray the psalms? The psalms are a special form of prayer. They speak for us to God, and God speaks to us through them. The psalms express complaints when things go wrong.


Priests, deacons and others pray the "hours," that is, the Divine Office, which is divided into specific times of day and night. In this way, the psalms permeate the 24 hours of the day.

The psalms express our sentiments. They are sublime songs of sorrow and anguish, of anger and suffering. But they also speak our praise and gratitude, faith and hope, confidence and love. We hear God's voice in the psalms, speaking to us and inviting us to prayer.


Jesus prayed the Psalm 22 during his life and on the cross as he was dying: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Mark 15.34).

The Gospels note that the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" was hung over his head. Truly a glorious king, the divine Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross praying the Hebrew psalms.

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