I know psalms and other Biblical songs are often sung as hymns, read and cited, but I wonder to which extent is this understood as a prayer by Protestants.

To be more concrete, is the use of psalms mentioned in Ephesians 5:19 understood as prayer, "strange prayer", "something related to prayer" or "something completely different"?

Ephesians 5:18b-20:

Instead, be filled with the Spirit, 19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This answer has awakened my old suspition that there is some hidden but grave terminological incompatibility between Catholic and Protestant understanding of prescribed prayer and praising God's name by Psalms and by words of Bible in general. For Catholics, singing/reciting psalms and other Biblic songs with intent to praise God is definitely understood as a prayer, in fact it's a base of Liturgy of Hours. The answer for the question Why did Protestants abandon Liturgy of the Hours? seems to imply different approach.
That's why I ask this question.

  • Not enough for an answer, but D. Bonhoffer's Life Together has an excellent section on the Psalms as prayers of the Body of Christ, not as individualistically personal prayers though prayed by an individual (i.e., the individual is praying as part of the Body of Christ). Although Lutherans are closer to Catholics than some Protestants--and Bonhoffer may not be representative--, this would seem to be one data point.
    – user3331
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 3:47
  • Eep! That should be Bonhoeffer! Since I am adding another comment, I will add that the section dealt with how to pray the imprecatory Psalms, Psalms proclaiming blamelessness, Psalms of great sorrow, which are not personally appropriate. Maybe I should try to compose an answer just to share some of Bonhoeffer's insights.
    – user3331
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 3:59

2 Answers 2


This may not be completely answerable in a way that applies to all Protestants, but I'm going to put forth an answer that I believe will apply to a large swath of protestant belief.

The generally accepted Protestant understanding of what prayer is can be found at http://www.whatchristianswanttoknow.com/10-prayer-tips-how-to-talk-to-god/

Prayer is simply having a conversation with God. There are many different thoughts on what you should and shouldn’t say when you pray. There is merit to many of these ideas. But try to make your prayer life a simple conversation with your Heavenly Father.

In that sense, prayer is not simply reciting words by memory. That's not a conversation. Prayer is not repeating words that others have said. There are many types of prayer recognized by Protestants:

  • Prayers of thanks
  • Prayers of repentance
  • Prayers of confession and asking for forgiveness
  • Petitions (asking God for something)
  • Prayers of praise.

In this sense, we recognize that the Psalms and other recorded prayers in the Bible were prayers of the psalmists, or of those that are recorded as speaking them. They are to us a pattern to emulate rather than something to simply be memorized and repeated.

Normally I wouldn't use personal items as part of an answer, but this does illustrate the point, so please forgive me if this strays into the "not a well supported answer territory"...

That said, when talking to people about the definition of repentance, and praying for salvation, in many protestant Churches, we condone a form of recited prayer - we call it the sinner's prayer, and scores of well-meaning Christians when witnessing simply ask the potential convert to repeat a prayer after them, something like "Oh, Lord, I'm a sinner. I realize I'm lost and can't save myself. Please forgive me, come into my heart, and save me", and we call that a prayer.

In a sense, that sinner's prayer is no more a prayer than simply repeating a psalm, and I, personally, like to point instead to psalm 51, and say something like, "Look a this. this is the prayer of someone who knows they're lost, and is truly repentant. Look at how David is begging to be cleansed..." and use it as a pattern for true prayer of repentance.

end of delving into the personal belief portion of the answer

The point of the above journey into not constructive territory is that Protestants, to answer your question, view such prayers as examples - as patterns, but would not see simply rote repetition of the prayers as prayer in and of itself. We would see mere repetition of established prayers as meaningless. To us, it misses the point of a personal relationship with God, because repeating words written by others isn't having a conversation with Him.

Perhaps this article sums it up better, but still says basically the same thing:


How do protestants pray?


Protestants may pray in silence , in groups or outloud. However , they do not like using formula prayers , and they do not pray to Mary or to saints.

  • If I understood how it answers my question, singing a musical version of for example Psalm 23 is not considered a prayer of praise, but... what? Just singing? [Something-other-than-prayer] of praise? The answer is not bad, but misses my point. Representing just a part of protestants is no problem, you seem to represent the mainstream, so it's completely OK.
    – Pavel
    Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 19:36
  • 1
    I think I see where I'm missing the point.. How about this: Singing a musical version of Psalm 23 would be considered singing and praise to most of us. It would be no different than singing a Hymn like "Amazing Grace" or "Great is thy Faithfulness". Praise being distinct from prayer. Praying to God and praising Him in prayer and singing his praises to Him, and to honor and glorify Him are two distinct methods of offering praise. Commented Feb 12, 2013 at 23:40

"If I understood how it answers my question, singing a musical version of for example Psalm 23 is not considered a prayer of praise, but... what? Just singing? [Something-other-than-prayer] of praise? "

I would say that most Protestants would consider singing praises to God as a form of Worship, not a prayer of praise.

Most protestant church services start (and often end) with singing. This time of singing is most often called "Worship." Even the bands are called "worship teams".

  • 2
    This is unfortunate, but I think true.
    – Caleb
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 11:04
  • 1
    I'll wait a little longer before accepting it (if some other good answer arrives), but it helped me. From Catholic view, "prayer" can be either "liturgical prayer" (~"worship" for Protestants) where one prays as a limb of mystical Body of Christ (i.e. Church), or "private prayer" (~"prayer" in Protestant sense) where one talks with God as an individual. This causes lots of confusion, since sense for liturgical prayer vanished from most of Protestant traditions; some even omit common Lord's prayer during worship, or at least don't consider it a prayer.
    – Pavel
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 14:11

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