From Life to Prayer

Talking to God by writing psalms

by Robin Gallaher Branch

The octogenarian cocked her head as she considered my Bible study assignment: write a psalm. “I, I, I’ve never done that,” she stammered.

“I never thought I could. Is it, is it okay?”

Commending her honesty, I encouraged her to try and asked, “Do you pray?”

“Yes! Of course!” she replied.

“Trust me,” I smiled. “The Psalms are prayers. Write a prayer and structure it like a psalm.”

I passed out a psalm template. Consisting of eight broad headings, it serves as a format for writing personal conversations with God. I explained that the psalms contain generalities, enabling them to last for millennia. “If you’re mad at your neighbors, don’t give their names. Instead copy from the psalms something like ‘save me from my persecutors’” (Psalm 142:6).

A biblical psalm almost invariably contains praise or thanksgiving. Usually it extols one of God’s attributes like creation, justice, beauty, forgiveness, or lovingkindness. It squeezes in a complaint or boldly makes a request. Often a lament psalm contains a prophetic word of assurance of God’s intervention. In a praise psalm, the psalmist encourages himself toward even more joy.

David, the named author of 73 of the 150 psalms, seemed to chronicle his life in psalms. In some psalms, the superscriptions (italicized words between the psalm number and opening verse) can be cross-referenced to passages about David’s life in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

When David had a problem, he vented through writing. He penned Psalm 3 during probably the worst time in his life, when he fled his son Absalom who coveted his throne (2 Samuel 15–19). But instead of worrying all night, David plans to sleep, “for the LORD sustains me” (verse 5). Psalm 6 details a recovery from illness. David cries out for healing (verse 2) and soon breaks into praise, for “the LORD accepts my prayer” (verse 9). In Psalm 51, written because of his affair with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11–12),

David asks God to “cleanse me from my sin” (verse 2). In Psalm 34, David offers God praise for delivering him from life-threatening danger (1 Samuel 21:10–15). While feigning madness, David writes with assurance that “many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all” (verse 19).

The superscriptions from these psalms and others showcase David’s roller-coaster ride with God through life. His psalms touch on spiritual, emotional, and physical problems—but proclaim health.

If David worries and stews, he mentions that briefly but more often simply talks to God. His psalms illustrate the internal, emotional, spiritual yo-yo he undergoes while facing his external, volatile circumstances. His honesty toward God sharpens his ears—for David expects a reply.

Because he openly shared his struggles and God’s answers, David became the beloved “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1).

Truly David’s transparency invites us to share our lives with the Lord and listen hard for God’s directions. When we are seized by present-day Philistines, David encourages this shout: “This I know, that God is for me!” (Psalm 56:9).

My octogenarian friend returned the following week eager to share. Her two psalms were excellent—general in that we could relate to her struggles and specific in her ability to draw us all to praise the God she loves.

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