The first Bonhoeffer book I ever read was Prayerbook of the Bible. I had just finished the Metaxas biography on Bonhoeffer, and I was amazed by his story and the freshness of Bonhoeffer’s thought. I was particularly interested in Prayerbook of the Bible for three reasons:
- It was the book which got DB permanently banned from publishing in Nazi Germany;
- It is DB’s argument that Christians should pray the Psalms;
- It is DB’s shortest published work (at about 20 pages).
I ordered the recent translation published by Fortress Press (2005), which came bound with the DB classic Life Together, but I skipped straight to Prayerbook. I have been a devotee of the writing and thought of DB ever since.
The introduction alone is worth the price of the book. It is a simple argument, which begins with the observation that when the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” in Luke 11:1, they were acknowledging that could not do so on their own. We find ourselves in the identical situation as the disciples, of being speechless before God with no resources of our own.
“To learn to pray,” says Bonhoeffer, “sounds contradictory to us. Either the heart is so overflowing that it begins to pray by itself, we say, or it will never learn to pray.” But this is a dangerous error which confuses our thoughts and words with true conversation with God. “Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart,” DB argues. “It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ.”
But Jesus wants to pray with us, and he teaches us not only a form of prayer, but words by which we may properly address our Father in the “Lord’s Prayer”. We must treasure such words from God, and repeat them back to him as children learn to speak the language and hope and thoughts of their parents. As Bonhoeffer writes, “We ought to speak to God, and God wishes to hear us, not in the false and confused language of our heart but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ.”
There is one book in the Bible is entirely unique in that it only contains prayers to God: the Psalms. But how, Bonhoeffer asks, can prayers to God really be God’s own word? We can grasp this mystery, “only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father who lives in eternity.” This is why, “In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word,” with the result that, “when we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word.”
Already in the opening paragraphs of the book I realized that DB had thrown most of my presuppositions into question, and had replaced them with an entirely new vision of what prayer is and how I could possibly hope to do it. My prayer life has never been the same since. Most importantly, though, was that this vision and direction is entirely based on the words of the Bible itself.
The question arises almost immediately, “What do the Psalms have to do with me?” And as soon as it does, thought, DB corrects us and suggests that the first question can only be, “what they have to do with Jesus Christ?” He points out that if we were only to prayer things which concern ourselves, we might always and only pray the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Give us this day our daily bread.
“But,” says DB, “God wants it otherwise. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s word, ought to determine our prayer.” The Lord’s Prayer is the touchstone and guide of all prayer, since all our prayers are contained in it (cf. Luther, Calvin). But since it is not the sole prayer given by to us by God, it cannot remain alone in our efforts to learn the language of God.
DB then asks the question, “Who prays the Psalter?” He argues from the traditional inscriptions that it was first David who prayed them, or at least most of them. Within those prayers, however, David was not alone since the future Messiah prayed in him a well.
“How,” asks DB, “can it be that a human being and Jesus Christ pray the Psalter simultaneously?” It is so because he is the representative of all of humanity, and because he knows our humanness more fully than we do. “Therefore it is the prayer of the human nature assumed by Christ that comes before God here. It is really our prayer.”
So who prays the Psalms? Bonhoeffer concludes, “David, Christ, the congregation, I myself…” I pray in and part of Christ and the Church, as a free individual before God. I pray them at the cross of Christ, and as a beloved son of the resurrection. DB reminds us that “Jesus died on the cross with words from the Psalms on his lips.”
Finally, he concludes the introduction with a strange blessing and curse: “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.”
I cannot recommend this book enough, both to those who feel their speechlessness before God, and to those who do not feel it. The thought is rigorous, and can feel at times like condensed soup. It is wonderful for group Bible study, but like all the best studies of the Bible, it leaves you with the haunting impression that your life must somehow change if you are to be honest with God and with yourself.
Resources for praying the Psalms:
· Mike’s daily Psalter bookmark here (taken from the monthly plan found in the BCP)