Several years ago, I began reading the books of Psalms and Proverbs daily during my devotional time. By following a set schedule of readings, I have been able to read each book completely once a month. This daily immersion into the prayers and wisdom of Israel has been deeply rewarding.
Billy Graham followed a similar devotional routine, though his was not the inspiration for mine. “I used to read five psalms every day — that teaches me how to get along with God,” he wrote, explaining his routine. “Then I read a chapter of Proverbs every day and that teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.”
I quibble with Graham’s explanation a bit. Psalms talks about human relationships (e.g., Psalm 15), after all, and Proverbs about our relationship to God (e.g., Proverbs 1:7; 3:5–6). Graham’s explanation nonetheless remains a good way of explaining why reading Psalms and Proverbs daily is a good devotional practice. So, let’s look first at each in turn.
Psalms: Our Relationship with God
The first word of Psalms is blessed (1:1). The last word is hallelujah, translated as “Praise the Lord!” (150:6). To me, that lexical fact makes a profound point about the way God relates to us and the way we should relate to Him. Ever since Creation, God’s fundamental desire has been to bless humanity (Genesis 1:28). And as New Creation shows, everyone touched by God’s blessing responds instinctively and enthusiastically with praise (Revelation 19:6–8).
In this way, our theology and our spirituality mutually support and empower one another: The more God blesses, the more we delight to praise Him. The more we praise God, the more He delights to bless us.
And yet, in between Creation and New Creation, a lot of bad stuff happens. Given every blessing by God, Adam and Eve — and you and me, in their wake — chose to disobey God and seek their own ways. We have thought that by doing so, we would make for ourselves a better life, becoming “like God” as we took charge of our own lives (Genesis 3:5).
The serpent’s words were a lie then, and they continue to be a lie now. There are only two ways in life: God’s way and any other way. The first leads to life, the others to death. “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction” (Psalm 1:6).
What happens when we find ourselves in the way of destruction? Sometimes, we ourselves are the sinners, doing what is wrong. Other times, we are the sinned against, suffering because of the wrongdoing of the wicked. Between Psalm 1’s blessed and Psalm 150’s hallelujah, the Psalter teaches us the necessity of heartrending repentance and lament in addition to the joy of heartfelt praise.
In this way, our theology and our spirituality mutually support and empower one another:
The more God blesses, the more we delight to praise Him.
The more we praise God, the more He delights to bless us.
David, one of Psalms’ most prolific authors, demonstrated how to do both. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1). David wrote that after he got caught committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband, Uriah the Hittite, to cover up his offense. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?” (Psalm 22:1). We are not sure what the particular occasion was for this lament, but I am sure we have all felt the same way. Even Jesus did, according to Matthew 27:46.
When we sin, we repent. When we’re sinned against, we lament. We can do both because we know that behind all the problems we create and experience in life is a God who desires to bless us, to restore us to relationship with Him. Our repenting and our lamenting are shot through with hope.
The Psalms’ hopefulness is more than wishful thinking, however. It’s more than a positive mental outlook, much more than a Pollyannaish optimism. It’s rooted in who God is and what He has done.
Think of it this way: Psalms is the most quoted book of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Quite often, these quotations draw out the connection between the Messiah the Psalms promised would appear and Jesus who has in fact appeared. He is that promised Messiah.
Consider Psalm 2: Jesus is the “anointed” (literally, messiah) of verses 1–2 (cf. Acts 4:25–27). He is the “son” of verse 7 (cf. Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5). He is the divinely appointed king of verses 8–9 who will inherit and rule the nations (cf. Revelation 2:26–27; 12:5; 19:15).
Or consider Psalm 110, the most quoted or alluded-to Psalm in the New Testament. Together with all Jews, Jesus believed that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. The common belief was that the Messiah, because a descendant of David, was inferior to him. But Jesus used verse 1 to show that the Messiah would in fact be David’s superior, his “lord” (cf. Matthew 22:42–46; Mark 12:35–37; Luke 20:41–44). The Early Church drew the obvious conclusion: Jesus is both “Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:35; cf. Hebrews 1:13).
When we see the connection between the Psalm’s messianic hope and Jesus, we see why Jesus quoted the lament of Psalm 22 from the Cross (Matthew 27:46). Jesus incarnated the innocent victim; He embodied to the fullest degree the victim who had been sinned against. No wonder He lamented so greatly! And yet, lament — the most common type of Psalm, whether individual or corporate — ends with hope because the lamenter trusts in the God who blesses.
“I will declare your name to my people,” the Psalmist exclaims; “in the assembly I will praise you” (Psalm 22:22). Why? Because God “has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (22:24). Because of this, “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord” (22:27). Christ suffered in hope and experienced resurrection. Because of His death and resurrection, we have hope of redemption.
Do you see, then, why it is important to read the Psalms daily? They teach us God’s desire to bless. They teach us our need to repent when we sin and lament when we are sinned against. They show us that Jesus is Messiah, Lord, and Redeemer. And thus, they teach us to praise with hope. We have been blessed. Hallelujah!
Proverbs: Our Relationship with Others
What about Proverbs? How does a daily encounter with it change our lives? Billy Graham said that Proverbs “teaches me how to get along with my fellow man.” I think he is basically correct, though we need to remember that Proverbs itself articulates a Godward perspective: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7). Our relationship to God is the foundation of our relationship to others because His wisdom shapes the way we live with our neighbors. At least, it should.
Notice, by the way, that Proverbs also articulates a two-ways perspective: God’s way and any other, the way of wisdom and the way of folly, the way of life and the way of death. Proverbs 8:35–36, which personifies wisdom as a woman, puts it this way: “For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord. But those who fail to find me harm themselves; all who hate me love death.”
So, wisdom leads to life. But what is wisdom? Is it book-learning? A graduate education? Proficiency in the relevant literature of a given topic? No.
Wisdom is less about knowing what than about knowing how, less theory than practice. We see this in Proverbs 1:1–7 by looking at the terms Solomon places in company with wisdom: terms like “understanding,” “insight,” “prudent behavior,” “doing what is just and fair,” “prudence,” “knowledge and discretion,” and “guidance,” among others. Wisdom is skillfulness at living, the ability to know what to do in a given situation, how to respond, when to initiate, whether to walk away.
This accounts for the paradoxical character of some of the individual proverbs. My favorite example of this is Proverbs 26:4–5: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Wisdom is highly situational, these two verses are telling us.
Sometimes, you avoid correcting fools lest you get caught up in their insanity. This is good advice whenever you’re dealing with internet trolls. But sometimes, you need to step in and show fools the error of their way, as, for example, when I have to remind my 6-year-old daughter that, to paraphrase Jesus, “Man does not live on sugary candies and beverages alone.” You have to eat your veggies too.
And that example brings me to another characteristic of Proverbs. It is often expressly parental advice. “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8). As the father of one son and two daughters, I resonate with these words because after 50 years of life, I have learned through hard-won experience what works in life and what does not. Like Solomon, I want to pass that wisdom along so that my kids make good choices knowingly.
In life, we need to make good choices … because those choices shape the trajectory of our lives, for good or bad. We cannot make good choices without wisdom.
And we cannot have wisdom without God.
Obviously, I want them to make good choices in every area of their lives, and Proverbs will help them do that. But one of the interesting things that stands out about Proverbs is how important finding a good wife is. (Proverbs was written to sons; with a few mental adjustments, you can easily make its advice relevant to daughters too.)
Notice, for example, how often Proverbs warns against adultery (e.g., Proverbs 5:1–23, 6:20–7:27). And notice how its last chapter praises the “wife of noble character” (Proverbs 31:10–31). Life is not always easy or fair, but a good spouse softens its hard edges and makes it not merely bearable, but enjoyable. As Proverbs 18:22 puts it, “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.”
Wisdom, Proverbs 31 seems to teach us, isn’t just about knowing how; it’s also about knowing who. A good life is demonstrated by good deeds done for the right reasons at the right time. But it is also demonstrated by the quality of the people you surround yourself with, especially in the intimacy of marriage and family.
Do you see, then, why it is a good idea to read Proverbs daily? In life, we need to make good choices about what to do, whom to befriend, whom to marry, because those choices shape the trajectory of our lives, for good or bad. We cannot make good choices without wisdom. And we cannot have wisdom without God. Reading Proverbs daily keeps that decision tree in the foremost of our minds.
I hope I have convinced you to begin reading Psalms and Proverbs daily. Once you have decided to do so, the next question is practical: How do I do this? Here are some points to consider:
First, read the chapter of Proverbs that matches the day’s date: chapter 1 on the first day of the month, chapter 2 on the second, chapter 3 on the third, and so on. Proverbs has 31 chapters, and seven months of the year have 31 days, so your reading schedule those months is straightforward. In months that have 30 days, I read chapters 30–31 on the last day. In February, I read chapters 28–31 on the last day.
Second, reading Psalms is a bit more complicated than reading Proverbs because there are 150 Psalms. Billy Graham read five Psalms a day. The problem with his approach is that the individual Psalms are of uneven length. For example, if you follow Graham, you will read Psalms 116–120 on the 24th day of the month. That means you will read the Psalms’ shortest (117) and longest (119) chapters on the same day, and it will take a while.
In my experience, it’s better to read a few Psalms in the morning, just after you wake up, and few more in the evening, just before you fall asleep. The Book of Common Prayer divides the Psalms into roughly equal sections morning and evening. Depending on how fast you read, it will take 5–10 minutes in the morning and another 5–10 minutes in the evening to read all the Psalms and Proverbs each month. See the Daily Psalm Reading Schedule below.
Third, if you miss a reading or two, do not worry about making it up. Just move on to the next scheduled reading. Over the course of a year, you’ll be exposed to all the chapters of both books several times.
And finally, keep in mind that the purpose of reading Psalms and Proverbs is practical, not legalistic. The goal, in other words, is to grow in your relationships with God and others, not to check off a box on a spiritual to-do list.
May God bless you as you begin your daily journey through Psalms and Proverbs!
Appendix: Daily Psalm Reading Schedule
P.S. I wrote this for InfluenceMagazine.com in 2019 and it is posted here by permission.