The Psalms—Then and Now
The book of Psalms—it has been loved, cherished, memorized, prayed, and used as a solace and comfort throughout the history of the Christian church and the Hebrew people. Portions of the psalms have been the source for countless anthems, hymns, and choruses. Somehow, we inherently recognize that the psalms were meant to be a means of grace in our lives, and they were meant to be sung. From the apostles themselves and the earliest days of the church, Christians have sung the psalms in their entirety, and used this prayer book of the Bible as the foundation for Christian worship. Sometimes the psalms were chanted, sometimes put to poetic verse to be sung to metered tunes, and sometimes they were recited with sung antiphons interspersed throughout the text. But regardless of the form, the psalms have always been the fundamental unifying thread of worship for God’s people throughout time and across the globe. They constitute the shared worship space of all believers, the church’s public square.
The apostle Paul instructed the church in Ephesians 5:19 to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” and in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” In both letters, Paul acknowledges that hymns and spiritual songs do not replace the Psalms. Rather, the ongoing flowering of Christian worship is built upon the foundation of the Bible’s prayer book—the book of Psalms.
Sadly, the proliferation of hymns and choruses has supplanted this foundation for Christian worship in most churches. We still read the Psalms (though often sporadically and selectively), and we still set portions of the psalms to music as anthems or choruses. But the regular, systematic, and congregational singing of the psalms has fallen out of vogue in many Protestant churches. It is our deeply held conviction that by this neglect the church is forfeiting a means of grace that it desperately needs to regain in order to meet the challenges of these days.
Why do we need the psalms today? The book of Psalms does not just contain “songs of praise,” as is often assumed. The Psalms can be very turbulent, filled with anguish, raw with emotion but also full of deep theology. Ultimately, the Psalms cultivate a posture of humility and trust in God, even when in the midst of great lament or circumstances that seem incongruent with God’s love. This is the posture of the Christian life. The Psalms give us the interface of faith with the real world—with all of its antagonism and bewilderment, agony and beauty. By singing these words that have been sung by God’s people for thousands of years, we are formed into that posture of trusting God’s covenant love as the encompassing and most basic assumption of our lives. Singing carries that formation deep within us, until we actually own that life posture as our truest identity. These are the songs that God gave us to sing; these are the songs that Jesus sang; these are the songs that the apostles sang, as well as the whole Christian church, which sprang from their testimony. These are songs that we must regain and learn to sing again.
These are songs that we must regain and learn to sing again.
The Psalms cultivate a posture of humility and trust in God, even when in the midst of great lament or circumstances that seem incongruent with God’s love. This is the posture of the Christian life.
The book of Psalms is actually divided into five books, each with its own character and closure. The five books of the Psalms remind us of the five books of the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament. In Hebrew, torah means instruction. The Torah was God’s law and revelation to his people. The Psalms, then, function as “sung Torah”—the instruction of Torah framed as an act of worship. Just as the Torah is God’s instruction for his people, the Psalms are the prayers and interaction of God’s people with him, seeing Torah with its ultimate purpose of loving worship. The structure of being arranged into five books intentionally gives this correlation.
We have seen that the psalms are grouped into five books. But it is also true that each one of the Psalms takes us on a unique journey, and each journey has something to teach us. In essence, this book of the Bible is a book of 150 separate journeys. We need to take every one of those journeys, and to sing our way through them regularly. The steady practice of singing through all of the Psalms is a spiritual discipline that forms us in our Christian pilgrimage. Some may seem more relevant to our present lives than others, but every psalm is laying the tracks for some journey in life that we will eventually encounter, or that we will walk through vicariously with another, or that has been taken by another pilgrim in another time or place with whom we stand in solidarity. Every psalm is teaching us something about the character of God and the posture of God’s people, who live amid the tensions of a broken world.
When we sing our way through these journeys, we slow down our pace and truly engage the full progression of each psalm. These songs express our prayers and thoughts and emotions to God, but they also form our thoughts and emotions and character before God. When we sing, our hearts and affections are engaged, and God’s Word is embedded in our minds. Singing opens channels into the soul, and through those channels our lives are reoriented toward God’s truth. The singing of psalms is part of God’s catechesis for our spiritual formation.
Singing also is an act of commitment. Rather than just passively reading these songs, we give voice to them, thus making their orientation of life our own. When we enlist our voices to sing, our wills are also engaged. It becomes a volitional act of owning the worldview that the Psalms cultivate. With our voices, we give assent to, and allow the formation of, a catechesis of life that trusts both the covenantal loving-kindness and the sovereign purposes of God.
The full journey of each psalm must be experienced and encountered. Singing forces us to engage in every line and helps us traverse the full terrain of the journey.
The scope of these journeys is tremendous. They include praise, lament, thanksgiving, penitence, recitation of history, wisdom for life, the worldview of the wicked, questions (and sometimes even accusations) directed toward God, curses, messianic aspirations, instruction, and admonition—basically, a vast cartography of authentic life in tension with the real world. And in the midst of that tension, there is unwavering trust in God, who is guiding the parameters of all of those journeys. The many voices within the Psalms (even shifting within a given psalm) include the voice of God to his people, the voice of the psalmist to God, the voice of the psalmist to the people, the voice of the psalmist to his own soul, the voice of the psalmist to the wicked, and even the voice and thoughts of the wicked themselves. This array of voices creates a texture of earthy authenticity and sometimes shocking honesty. No hymns or choruses can ever replace this vast scope of what the Psalms provide for Christian worship and prayer. Moreover, we have the confidence of knowing that these songs are inspired Scripture—simultaneously our words to God and his inspired word for us.
When we cherry-pick which psalms we choose to sing, or select the more comfortable portions of a particular psalm, we lose the impact of the full journey and often miss the formation that would happen within us along the way. There is no doubt that the Psalms contain a good bit of difficult material, but each of the 150 journeys has been given to us for a reason. Some take us on roads that we may not know how to navigate at first, or journeys that we may be reluctant to venture into. But we must be patient to truly engage each journey, and to wrestle with God along with the psalmist, until the Lord reveals his purposes. The Psalms are filled with references from the whole canon of Scripture, including history, law, wisdom, and prophetical writings, all of which find their way into the worship of God’s people through these songs.
The Psalms are for singing—so why don’t we sing them? The word psalm simply means song, and the superscriptions that introduce many of the psalms indicate that the Psalms were indeed sung. Those superscriptions in the Hebrew text were actually part of the first verse of the psalm. They give information for the director of music about the tune, or instruments to be used, or the type of song form to be used. But we have no collection of those Hebrew tunes or song forms. And Latin chant, which was the church’s music for singing psalms for much of church history, is not a familiar musical form for many Christians today. Therefore, to provide a way for psalms to be sung, a metrical Psalter sets the text of the psalm into meter and rhyme. This enables the text of the psalm to be sung to metered tunes that are currently known.
When singing metrical psalms, it is important to remember that the purpose of a metrical Psalter is to set the biblical text into poetical form, not to write new poetry about the text. Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, and many other hymn writers wrote beautiful poetic verse about the mighty acts of God and the salvation found in Jesus Christ. Their poetry is exquisite. But metrical psalmody is not like hymn writing. The first goal of a metrical psalm is to follow the exact text of the psalm as closely as possible—a very different project from writing original poetry.