Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Psalms

I’ve just read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book on the Psalms:

Psalms and prayer

Bonhoeffer describes the book of Psalms as a book of prayers. They can teach us how to pray. We can use them as prayers.

Bonhoeffer is not happy with the idea that we can just say “Dear God”, and start blabbing and that is a prayer.

It is a dangerous idea to suppose that prayer comes naturally to the heart. By falling into that error we confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing, with praying. Praying does not simply mean pouring out one’s heart, it means rather — whether the heart be full or empty — finding one’s way to God and talking to him.

So DB would probably say that something like, “Dear God, please let me find £1,000,000 tomorrow Amen kthxbye” is actually not a prayer.

Just like children learn their first language by copying the speech of their caregivers, we learn to pray by copying the prayers God gives us in the Bible

We begin to pray by repeating to God his own words.

I like this. I like the discipline — in the sense of learning; in the sense of putting one’s self in another’s shoes. I like the sense of high culture this position presupposes — like learning the piano by exploring Bach, Haydn and Beethoven.

I like the idea of adding Psalms to my prayer “repertoire” — and I mean whole Psalms, not just the “lines I like”. Follow and absorb the structures, digressions, repetitions — abide — and notice the subtle meanings that emerge.

Old Testament and New Testament

Bonhoeffer has a very narrow interpretation of the Old Testament as a prophesy of the life of Jesus. So here for example, the whole of the Psalms is contained in the “Our Father”. I find this unnecessary. For me the formalism (mapping OT onto NT) denies what I most love about the Bible, which is that it is so full of life, so full of different voices, over a thousand years’ worth of stories and voices. The Christian God is a living God and his book is a living book. It will break out of any structure.

I’m very pleased to find a point on which I can disagree with Bonhoeffer :D

Ten themes

He looks at ten themes in the Psalms — creation, Law, the history of salvation, the Messiah, the Church, life, suffering, guilt, enemies, and the end. For each theme he gives a few example Psalms (for the first few themes three or four examples each, then more and more, as if DB is getting tired … or short of time perhaps). For the first theme, creation, he gives Psalms 8, 19, 29 and 104.

My immediate responses to these: Psalm 104 is lovely; I can appreciate Psalm 29 but it doesn’t move me; Psalm 8 and 19 are fantastic! Psalm 8 is a sheer celebration of God’s creation and humanity’s place within it. Psalm 19 is more sober, praising God’s law, and taking a sudden humble turn in the last three verses. The two Psalms complement each other nicely. I am going to learn them.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my rock and redeemer.

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  1. Great review. It shows me I have a broader definition of prayer than DB would allow though. ;-) Starting with “Dear God” and going from there seems healthy to me.

    Nonetheless, I do agree that using the Psalms for our own praying is also a great idea. Both/and.

    • Dear Lisa

      Thanks for saying this! DB can be a bit severe. (and I think parrotting something you’ve learnt by rote can be as empty and mindless as listing your top faves of the moment.)

  1. My 2014 in books | Luke 7:39
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