Praying All the Psalms

In the last post I wrote about the praying the Psalms at the heart of the Daily Office. But which Psalms should we pray? How do we choose? Well, why not all of them. While in particular times and situations we might find particular Psalms rather appropriate, all the Psalms have been given by God to be prayed, and through praying all of them He teaches us more and more how to pray.

Having to choose which Psalms to pray each day might actually be a big obstacle to praying the Psalms. If we’re searching each time for an “appropriate” Psalm, we’ll end up spending much more time searching for Psalms than praying the Psalms.

But also, choosing the Psalm that feels “right” each day doesn’t help us very much in being able to pray the appropriate Psalm in those moments when we can’t find any words of our own to pray. Why? Because, the only way to be able to know there’s a Psalm for this moment is to know the Psalms well. And it’s by praying all the Psalms regularly (not just the ones we prefer) that we become familiar enough for that.

So, rather than spending lots of time each time you pray looking for the right Psalm, it’s quite helpful to have some sort of plan to pray through the whole of the book of Psalms. And there are all sorts of ways you can do that. You could just put a bookmark in your Bible and pray through the Psalms from 1 to 150 and then when you finish go back to the beginning, and that’s quite a good way to do it.

But you might want a bit more of a structured plan to pray through the whole Psalter in a specific period of time. The Book of Common Prayer, for example, has a plan to pray through all 150 Psalms each month over the course of Morning and Evening Prayer. It just works through from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150, but divides them up into 60 sections, for Morning and Evening Prayer over the 30 days of the month.

I used to pray the Psalms over the course of a month (from the BCP plan). But a few months ago, a friend mentioned how he’d started praying the full Daily Office. While the pattern of Morning and Evening Prayer (and perhaps Compline) is more familiar, the original full Daily Office involves praying seven times a day (and once in the night). And that means praying all the Psalms every week. For the last few months, that’s the pattern I’ve been following.

Seven times a day, with all 150 Psalms in the course of a week might initially sound like a lot, but it isn’t really. The idea of the Office, remember is to root our life in prayer, and so the seven-fold Daily Office forms a framework around everything else we do in the day. Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline are still the main times of prayer, with the other four offices simply consisting of praying three Psalms at each.

For me, the pattern works like this: when I wake up I pray the Psalms for vigils and then say Morning Prayer (lauds). Then I pray the Little Hours (prime, terce, sext, and none) at my breaks through the day: prime at my morning coffee break, terce at the start of my lunch break, sext at the end of my lunch break, and none in my afternoon tea break. (I don’t always manage to have all those breaks in a working day, but if not, it’s okay, as the traditional pattern for the Psalms at most of the Little Hours repeats the same Psalms most weekdays, so you can still pray all the Psalms each week without managing to fit in all the Little Hours each day.)

For me, I’ve found it really helpful to switch to this weekly pattern for praying the Psalms. It might sound like an awful lot, but actually, because the Psalms are spread out across 7 or 8 times in the day, none of them demands a huge amount of time in one go. In fact, on non-working days I’ve often found myself not being able to wait for the next office, and so wanting to spend quite a bit of time reading and meditating on Scripture in between them as well. It’s also helped me be less concerned if something unusual happens and I can’t say Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer on a particular day. Before, when I was praying the Psalms over a month, I’d feel the need to try and catch up, as otherwise it would be a whole month before those Psalms came round again. Now I’m more relaxed about it, as there’s the chance to pray them all every week.

You can either say the Psalms or sing them. If you want to sing them, here are some useful resources:

  • The Brotherhood Prayer Book (for singing them in the Authorised/King James Version) – you can find audio recordings all the Psalms from the BPB here, so to learn the tunes you can along to them. (I’ve linked to the Kindle version, which doesn’t contain the musical notation, put is pointed – i.e. marked so that you know which words to change notes on when you’re singing – so you can use it with the free recordings. The hardback with the music is lovely, but you can only get it from the publishers in America.)
  • The Manual of Plainsong is also a good resource (which is easier to get and cheaper than those other two), with the Coverdale translation of the Psalms (i.e. the translation from the Book of Common Prayer). Edward Carter has been singing through the Psalms from the Manual of Plainsong and posting them on Youtube, so you can easily learn the tunes that way. An older version (which is doesn’t necessarily use the same music for each Psalm as in the current version) is available for free online.
When I’m away from home, I’ll not sing. I usually carry a little ESV Book of Psalms with me wherever I go, as it’s a very handy size with good, big print to easily pray from. If you know the tunes, you can use this to sing from by yourself as well. Once you know the tunes, all you really need to know is where the break in the middle of the verse is (which is usually quite easy to see in this one) to be able to sing any Psalm. (Unless you’re singing with other people, you don’t really need a pointed text to be able to sing the Psalms.) In fact, as long as you can easily see where the middle of the verse is in your Bible, you can sing straight from that too.

If you fancy having a go at singing the Psalms, here a few examples of a few Psalms to a few of the tunes (sung from the NKJV).