The Psalter, also known simply as the Psalms, or Psalms of David, is the Old Testament book that contains hymns and poems traditionally ascribed to the Holy Prophet and King David, ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ. Virtually every aspect of Orthodox Christian worship—from praise and thanksgiving to penitence and intercession—is covered in the Psalter. Thus, we consider the Psalter the hymn book of the Church. In this post, we explain how to use your Psalter at home and how to benefit spiritually from making this a regular part of your prayer life.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Table of contents
Why pray the Psalter?
The Psalter teaches us how to pray. Through the Psalms, God Himself provides us with the words we need in order to pray. One who chants the Psalms will learn how to pray in the correct manner and for the proper things.
When the apostles came to Jesus and asked Him to teach them how to pray, He did not say, “Make up your own words”, or “Meditate on the wonders of nature”, or “Just let the Spirit move you“. He said, “In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father, Who art in heaven…” (Mt. 6:9-13). We pray with the words that God gives. This is why all the prayers of the Orthodox Church are structured, built from the words of the Scriptures; because true prayer always begins with the words that come from God.
Chanting vs. reading
Many Orthodox Christians wonder if they should chant the Psalms during personal prayer, or if they should simply read them. The Church counsels us to chant them, as doing so enables us to hear the Word of God and remember it. When words are attached to a melody of some kind, our minds have a tendency to latch onto them all the more. If, however, something is merely read aloud, we would not remember it half as well.
We should chant the Psalms slowly and with attention, not rushing through them. This way we can actually hear the Lord speaking to us, as these are prayers He Himself has provided for us.
In the Antiochian and Greek traditions of the Orthodox Church, we chant in one of eight tones. If you do not know these melodies, the Antiochian Village posted a great playlist that teaches you how to chant each of them!
The Psalter in Orthodox worship
The Psalms of the Bible were composed with divine inspiration, sacred poetry of praise and lamentation hewn by the ancient Hebrew people from their own intense experience. In other words, they are poetry of the human heart in the midst of triumph, desolation, and the ordinary affairs of life.
Bishop Demetri, in his foreword to Christ in the Psalms, described the Psalter as a “golden thread [which runs] through the beautiful garment of Orthodox worship”. Indeed, the Psalter forms the core of each of the services of the Daily Cycle, the Divine Liturgy, and the other sacramental offices of the Church. The Psalter is so prevalent in Orthodox worship that St. John Chrysostom said wherever one looks in the Church, he finds the Psalter “first, last, and central.”
In this wonderful podcast, +Fr. Thomas Hopko takes a close look at the psalmody of the Church and its use in Orthodox worship:
Structure of the Psalter
Chapter divisions: Septuagint vs. Masoretic text
If you have the Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament used by the Orthodox Church, then your Psalter will differ in several ways from the Masoretic text (MT), which forms the foundation of the King James Version and most modern English translations of the Bible. One of the main ways they differ, aside from noticeable textual differences, is in their chapter divisions:
Note: The deuterocanon of the LXX contains an additional Psalm ascribed to David. This 151st Psalm is not numbered with the other 150 and is not included in the Psalter proper.
Make sure you know which version of the Psalter you have, so you can more easily follow the readings for each morning and evening.
The Psalter is divided into 20 kathismata (from kathisma, Gr. “to sit”), with readings for Vespers and Matins. Each kathisma is further divided into three stases (from stasis, Gr. “to stand”), each of which contains between one to three chapters/psalms (except Psalm 118; due to its length, this psalm constitutes the entire 17th Kathisma). During the reading of any kathismata during the divine services, the faithful typically sit. They only stand at the end of each stasis, during which we hear, “Glory to the Father…Both now and ever…”
In the back of most Psalters, there is a schedule of the Kathisma readings throughout the week. If you follow the weekly kathismata reading schedule as prescribed, then you will have read through the entire Psalter in the course of a week. During Great Lent, you read through it twice in a week.
How to pray the Psalter at home
Time needed: 30 minutes.
Some Orthodox Christians chant the Psalter as part of their morning or evening prayer rule. Others prefer to chant them as a separate set of prayers.
- Enter your prayer space.
Light a candle, burn incense, and take a moment to quiet your body, mind, and soul.
- Firstly, recite the Trisagion prayers.
Most Orthodox prayer books contain these prayers. They begin with “O Heavenly King…” and end with the Lord’s Prayer.
- Secondly, chant the following:
Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us, for we are empty of all defense, as sinners we offer this supplication to Thee, O Master; have mercy on us.
Heaven reveals to the Church, O Lord, Thine honorable prophet David, and angels in gladness join mankind. Through his holy prayers, O Christ God, direct our life in peace.
Many are the multitudes of my sins, O Theotokos, but I run to thee, O Pure One, seeking salvation: look upon my weary soul and pray to thy Son and our God to grant me forgiveness of my iniquities, O only-blessed one!
- Then, “Lord, have mercy” 40 times.
Make as many prostrations as you are physically able.
- Chant “Come, let us worship God our King…”
Prostrate during each verse.
- Then chant the first stasis of the prescribed kathisma.
Do this with attention, meditating on the meaning of the words.
- After the first stasis ends, chant:
Glory… Both now…
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia! Glory to Thee, O God! (thrice)
Lord, have mercy (thrice)
Glory… Both now…
- Repeat steps 6 and 7 for the second and third stases.
- At the end of the third stasis, repeat step 6. Then after “Alleluia…” close with “O our God and our Hope, glory to Thee!”
Some Psalters include hymns after each kathisma. If your Psalter has these, chant them instead. End with “Lord, have mercy” (40x) and the concluding prayer.
- If chanting another kathisma, return to step 6. However, if finishing the final kathisma, chant, “Through the prayers…”
Helpful books on the Psalms
In order to help deepen your spiritual life and your understanding of the Psalms that we pray in the Psalter, here is a beginning list of valuable books to check out:
- Commentary on the Psalms, Volume I, Saint John Chrysostom (covers Psalms 4-13, 44-50)
- Commentary on the Psalms, Volume II, Saint John Chrysostom (covers Psalms 109-150)
- Christ in the Psalms, Patrick Henry Reardon
- Grace for Grace: The Psalter and the Holy Fathers, ed. Johanna Manley
In summary, the Psalter is a wonderful spiritual tool the Church provides to help us learn how to pray. Therefore, the Church encourages each and every one of us to make it a part of our prayer lives. Speak with your priest about finding a way to integrate the Psalter into your prayer rule. There might be other people in your parish wondering the same thing – if so, share this post with them. Some parishes even have groups that read the Psalter together during fasting periods like Great Lent!
How has the Psalter helped you spiritually? Let us know in the comments!
Read More: Keeping The Orthodox Faith Alive At Home