The season of Advent in the church calendar marks the days leading up to our celebration of Jesus’s birth. During this time, churches and individuals await Jesus’s coming and coming again. It is rife with anticipation, preparation, and expectation. Follow this three-part series to enrich your Advent season and deepen your Scripture reading practices.
When the much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand died in October 2016, the entire country wore black clothing to show their grief. Their good king, who had worked to bring clean water and modern agricultural methods to poor farmers, had left them. An iconic image of King Bhumibol shows him leaning down to touch gently the hands of one of his frail, elderly subjects. Thai people had called the king “Father,” and the refrain of their grief was “Our father is gone.” They wondered what would become of their kingdom.
I spent a year in Thailand. It’s usually hot and humid, and that December I missed having Christmas decorations and carols playing ubiquitously in the background. But perhaps the Thai experience can teach us something as we wait through the month of Advent.
We are waiting for Christmas, when we will rejoice that our king has come. But during Advent, we dwell in the waiting for him—for Jesus, our king. We acknowledge what life is like without him. Like the Thai people mourning the loss of their king, we feel—even in our happiest moments—that something is missing. The rest of the time, we are frantically shoring up a crumbling existence. Our relationships break; we or our loved ones are beaten by addiction; the audience of social media haunts us, whispering that we don’t have enough, we aren’t good enough.
We cry out for someone to fix our lives, to restore what has been ruined in the world. At his best, King Bhumibol of Thailand was only a hint of the gracious glory of King Jesus, who is with us, and who will come back to us. God’s people longed for a perfect king for centuries before Jesus was born.
What is the Kingdom?
Though many of the Psalms were written one thousand years before Jesus’s birth, they are full of Advent longing. They express a tension between present reality and hope for a different future. In fact, the Psalms map out that future world as a place where the king stoops low and lifts up those who are bowed down (Psalm 145:14), where the king himself walks into prisons and releases the prisoners, provides food for people who are hungry, and ensures the safety of refugees (Psalm 146:7-9). This king “heals the heartbroken and bandages their wounds” (Psalm 147:3 MSG). These images of God’s rule are far more compelling than our often superficial images of heaven. Through their prayers, the writers of the Psalms describe what Jesus called simply “the kingdom.”
But what is the kingdom, exactly? In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard describes God’s kingdom as “where what he wants done is done.” If the perfectly kind, just, and wise God is our king, then life under his rule reflects these attributes. Citizens of this kingdom are kind, laws are just, life is peaceful and good and beautiful.
The psalmists looked ahead to a king who would save Israel; in Bethlehem, the king came at last. Before Jesus, though the Israelites knew God, they didn’t understand fully what God’s kingdom meant. They were waiting for a national political leader. But Jesus’s kingdom transcended the political. He made God’s good rule available for anyone, regardless of nationality, status, or ability. As Willard says in the same book, “It is a kingdom that, in the person of Jesus, welcomes us just as we are, just where we are, and makes it possible for us to translate our ‘ordinary’ life into an eternal one.” We experience this eternal kingdom in part now, with God bringing significance and purpose to our lives as we live them. But we also wait for the psalmists’ vision of the kingdom to be fully realized.
This Advent, use these prayers to learn what King Jesus’s coming will bring. What do we mean when we pray “Let your kingdom come?” We want God’s merciful, benevolent rule to be more and more present in our own lives, now. But as we prepare for Jesus to return, we are also waiting for him to fulfill our deepest hopes: that everything will be put right.
The Songs of the Kingdom
Psalm 72—Pray that the King would come
This psalm is a celebration of the king who is coming. When you’re wondering what King Jesus will be like when he comes back, read and pray this psalm. Savor it slowly, letting the images fill your imagination of a ruler this powerful, and this kind.
He rescues the poor at the first sign of need, The destitute who have run out of luck. He opens a place in his heart for the down-and-out, He restores the wretched of the earth. He frees them from tyranny and torture— when they bleed, he bleeds; When they die, he dies.
(Psalm 72:12-14 MSG)
In the hymn-writer Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of this psalm, former prisoners “leap to lose their chains” at the king’s approach; his subjects gather to sing about his love. The earth itself joins the inaugural song: Yes!
Psalm 85—Pray that the kingdom would come
The king is coming, but what will his kingdom be like? Advent is a time to reflect on what Jesus accomplished when he came on earth, and what he will do when he comes again. We know that God has lifted the cloud of guilt from his people, putting their sins far out of sight (verse 2). But the world is still a mess. Our lives are missing something. The singers of this psalm acknowledge their discontentment by telling God what they need.
Help us again, God of our help … Why not help us make a fresh start—a resurrection life? Then your people will laugh and sing! Show us how much you love us, God! Give us the salvation we need!
(Psalm 85:4, 6-7 MSG)
This psalm offers a surprising image of heaven: “God is about to pronounce his people well” (verse 8). Heaven (God’s dwelling) and earth (where we live) are united. In this prayer, all the best attributes of God’s reign—love, truth, right and whole living, goodness and beauty—are personified. They embrace each other after a long separation. The world is finally as it should be. Think of the best aspects of life—a good meal, loving family, an exhilarating hike. Those things are just the foretaste of what we’ll experience in God’s kingdom. The world will deck itself in gladness.
Psalm 126—But don’t wait, Lord—help us now!
We believe that King Jesus will come back, and that he will restore the world, but we need him to fix things now. We know that at Christmas, God saved us by coming to us as a human, into our world and our history. But we need help again. And again. Psalm 126 is a prayer that holds up the joy of God’s salvation against the sorrow of our daily struggles.
God was wonderful to us; We are one happy people. And now, God, do it again— bring rains to our drought-stricken lives So those who planted their crops in despair Will shout hurrahs at the harvest, So those who went off with heavy hearts Will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.
(Psalm 126:3-6 MSG)
These are high-contrast images! The people who looked at their prospects and actually wept—they were that hopeless—are now so contented that they’re laughing together, carrying “armloads of blessing.” Dallas Willard points out that
One of the most outstanding features of Jesus’s personality was precisely an abundance of joy. This he left as an inheritance to his students, “that their joy may be full” (John 15:11) … He was well known to those around him as a happy man. It is deeply illuminating of kingdom living to understand that his steady happiness was not ruled out by his experience of sorrow and even grief. (The Divine Conspiracy, p. 64)
Psalm 126 gives us language for something that defies the imagination: how much joy we have coming to us.
Practical Tips for Praying Psalms During Advent
As Advent progresses to Christmas, pray these psalms repeatedly. Pray them with others. Let each voice your deepest longings.
Use your own words
All of the psalm excerpts in this article are from The Message paraphrase. Trying reading the psalms in a version you’re not used to. Even better, try paraphrasing psalms for yourself. Write them out in your own words and tone. Be authentic—God can handle your questions.
Talk to God
Read and pray a psalm out loud. Hear your voice speaking to God. When you’re done, be quiet for a while and listen. What verses especially stand out to you? What are you learning about God’s character and plan?
Try reading and praying a psalm with another person or with a group. Take turns reading verses. Talk about which images resonated with you and why.
Pray through a variety of Psalms
Other psalms that are good to pray during Advent are Psalm 25, Psalm 80, and Psalm 146–48. Using psalms as personal prayers has been a practice of Jesus’s followers throughout the centuries. Keep the habit past Christmas and into the new year.
All Nations in One Kingdom
The writers of the psalms looked ahead to when the good, powerful king would come, and they envisioned all the nations of the world as a part of his kingdom (Psalm 148:11). But they didn’t know who he would be. Now we know this king by name, but we still join these writers in our longing for his kingdom to come in full. I can envision the time when the Thai people won’t be grieving the loss of an earthly ruler, but rejoicing with us at the inauguration of King Jesus.
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