Praying the Psalms: A Commentary

By Stanley L. Jaki
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2001). 238 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. James Rosscup
12.2 (Fall 2001) : 261-263

This book is sometimes helpful and sometimes unhelpful. The author, a Roman Catholic priest (cf. 192, 239) and professor at Seton Hall University, works on a premise. The psalms, he says, were “originally prayers on the lips of Jews” and “began to be uttered by Christian lips. . . .” So they should be “Christian prayers on the lips of Christians” (7). He attempts to help readers pray the psalms and elevate their minds to God. To do this, he gives a general background on the psalms, for example a section on their use as Jewish and Christian prayers (9-28), then a commentary on each psalm (29-237).

Often the book suffers from a dry lecture tone that will not make it inviting and refreshing to follow. One has to read much to gather some nuggets amid the verbiage. Occasionally nuggets do come, as “The purpose of the prayers is to turn the soul into a sort of burning bush, . . . [and] the soul itself ought to catch fire in order to communicate with God” (27).

Like most psalms commentators, Jaki sees Psalm 2 as a summary of all the psalms (31). He provides no outline for any psalm. The author at times gets more involved with tangents than staying with the flow of thought, for example in Psalm 1. There, he spends much time on trees’ place in human history, and little on explaining the actual thoughts of the psalm; a reader finds general philosophical discussion and no exposition. Likewise on Psalm 2, this reviewer came away with little to guide prayer unless he figured out the relevancy in addition to Jaki’s discussion, a discussion which gave much information about other things but was sparse on how Psalm 2 can be prayed. One would wish that the author would trace the line of thought through a psalm, then draw principles that are relevant for praying.

Occasionally, relevancy peers through more sharply, for instance in the prayer on Psalm 5 that God will keep the believer’s “way clear from those who lie in wait” as with “traps laid by business associates, by lobbyists, and . . . reporters . . .” (42). Or, on Psalm 91, the author says of the cry “God is my refuge” that one can in principle pray today for protection from road-rage drivers (170). Much of the time, however, one can get the feeling that just using the psalms alone will offer more vitality than wading through discussions that drift to the author’s own ideas of relevancy and do not appear vitally right to the point of the psalm. Often an assumption appears to make the book ineffective: more general commentary summarizing a dominant them e is adequate, without a guide on how to pray it today (cf. on Psalms 111, 112, and 139, to name a few). Psalm 16 seems to be treated too briefly, in less than a page, whereas some shorter and less-known psalms are given more space (e.g., Psalms 9, 14). Roman Catholic theology comes through as in saying on Psalm 16 that Christ’s mother was “saved from the decay of her mortal body” (59).

Certain comments offer understanding, e.g., “scattering bones of the wicked” (Psalm 14) could have been true, for example, in the cases of Pharaoh’s soldiers at the Red Sea and Assyrian troops whom the Angel of the Lord put to death in Isaiah 37 (56).

Instances appear where praying a psalm seems to be forgotten, crushed out by anecdotes. An exception ends Psalm 40, which is clear on asking God to rescue from a predicament. On Psalm 45, the author believes that Mary is the bride of the Holy Spirit. She is “queen and mother, and stands above all the choirs of angels in her golden dress . . . because she is the mother of God” (101). Jaki is citing Thomas Aquinas and seems to endorse this. After a discussion about Catholic ideas, one is not told how to pray Psalm 45.

Jaki will not find agreement from all when he says that imprecations, as in Psalm 58, disqualify the psalm from the lips of praying Christians (118). Likewise, he will not convince Protestant readers that Augustine’s words are true, “I would not believe the Bible were I not prompted by the authority of the Church”—the Roman Catholic Church (192).

The book has many good moments within the range of a hundred and fifty psalms. But it also has many instances where its discussions lead one away from refreshing thought in the Bible itself to its own discussions, and thereby hinder meaningful prayer rather than helping by providing a guide.