5 Best Ways to Read the Psalms

By John D. Witvliet

All who long to lead biblical worship discover a rich and vital gift in the Bible’s longest book. In the words of one early church leader the Psalms are like a “gym for the soul”—just as valuable for our spiritual health as LA Fitness or your local YMCA is for physical health. The Psalms have been a source of worship renewal for 100 generations of Christians! Here are few pointers for “working out” in this spiritual gym.

1. Use the Psalms both Expressively and Formatively. 
Sometimes we scan the Psalms for verses that convey what we already feel. The Psalms then become our way of expressing ourselves to God. But throughout history, Christians have concluded that this is not enough. We also need the Psalms to teach us to pray things to God that do not come naturally to us. The Psalms give us models for conveying the whole range of human emotion to God—anger and joy, sorrow and gratitude, patience and impatience, anxiety and trust. A healthy worship service today will give us a chance both to express what we already feel and—like a good gym—the chance to strengthen our weaker modes of prayer, across the spectrum of human experience.

2. Learn from Both Excerpts and Whole Psalms. 
Most often, we use only excerpts of a Psalm in worship—a verse here or there that seems fitting to what we what to sing or pray. That can be good. But it also misses so much. Most Psalms convey meaning through how they move from beginning to end. 

  • Psalm 73 tells a story of someone who was converted from envy to trust in God. 
  •  Psalm 13 (and many other laments) pivots from despair to prayer to hope. 
  • Psalm 105 tells the story of the highlights of God’s dealings in history. It not only says “remember God’s works,” but it actually does so!
  •  Psalm 19 savors creation (vs 1-6), then God’s word (vs 7-12), and then concludes with prayer for true piety (“may the words of our mouths…”). That last verse is fine by itself. But the whole Psalm teaches us that this kind of prayer arises from a new awareness of God’s creation and revelation.

A good songwriter can write a memorable song on a Psalm excerpt. A genius songwriter—and there are many!—can convey the thrust of an entire Psalm in ways that an entire congregation can sing. 

3. Multiple Points of View. 
We can sing many Psalms from several different points of view. We can sing a lament, like Psalm 22, remembering the plight of David fleeing his enemies, or on Good Friday, remembering Jesus’ anguish on the cross. Or we can pray it as our own lament during especially difficult or tragic times. Or we can sing this psalm in solidarity with Christians who suffer—even when we gather in comfortable congregations who do not experience this suffering directly. This one psalm can function in at least 4 different ways. 

 4. Pay Attention to the Nuances of Language. 
Psalm 100 can be prayed or sung in ways that feel very cliché (praise, praise, praise). The Psalm’s own emphasis (“it is he who made us, not we ourselves”) tells us that it was written not only to express praise to God, but also to resist idolatry. It calls us to sing both “praise God from whom all blessings flow” and “down with the gods from whom no blessings flow.” 

5. Both Old Testament and New Testament Perspectives. 
The same psalm often resonates with different parts of Scripture. Psalm 72 fits with the anointing of David or Solomon. But Christians can’t help but sing it without reference to Jesus (that’s why Isaac Watts took Psalm 72 and turned it into “Jesus Shall Reign”). 

In these ways the Psalms are useful “for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). They are an indispensable training gym for every worshiper, and every worship leader. 

In the past few years, I have had the joy to participate on a team that has reviewed over 2,000 musical settings of the Psalms written for use in worship. We’ve chosen 700 of them (at least one on each Psalm) for a book entitled Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship (Faith Alive/Baker). Our work convinced us that we live in a time of renewed interest in the Psalms—with new Psalm settings, of even whole Psalms, in many styles and musical forms. The best of this music—in any style—features not just a good groove or memorable tune, but also an angle on the text that helps us all grow in grace and knowledge of Jesus our Lord. 

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and associate professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, respectively. 

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