When was the last time your church sang a Psalm? Not a phrase or image from a Psalm, but a whole Psalm? If your church is like most Evangelical churches today, it’s unlikely you’re singing more than a handful of Psalm-based songs each year. Isn’t it sad that we “People of the Book” sing so little of it in our worship? Let’s consider reasons to sing the Psalms more regularly.
- The Psalms give us a vocabulary of faith.
Babies don’t come from the womb with the ability to say, “I love you,” or “I’d prefer the mashed orange stuff over the mashed green stuff.” Parents have to teach them. In the same way, God has given us the Psalms to teach us how to express ourselves in worship.
- The Psalms correct our myopia.
Let’s face it: we all think we’re normal. Unfortunately, our personal and cultural norms are often out of sync with God’ Singing the Psalms helps us ingrain God’s patterns, so we won’t “be conformed to this world, but will be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Rom 12:2). For example, I love what Psalm 19 says about seeing God in nature: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (v1) but have a hard time seeing God’s law as “sweeter than honey” (v10). Singing the whole of Psalm 19 helps me love God more fully, rather than just the attributes I like.
- The Psalms connect us to the historic and global Church.
They have nourished Christians of every nation in times of peace and in times of persecution. We would do well to join the “cloud of witnesses” in singing God’s song.
We only have tantalizing hints as to how the Israelites originally sang the Psalms, but we do know that faithful Christians have sung the Psalms anew through the ages, leaving us numerous ideas for singing the Psalms in our own day. Many of these musical forms are still in use today, and all of them can be adapted and updated for our own churches.
Though the Psalms are songs, we shouldn’t ignore a wide range of spoken and chanted psalm possibilities. Spoken options can include responsive readings, choral readings, and dramatic presentations. Chanted psalms have a long history, but there’s no reason we can’t expand the basic idea to include rap and poetry slam styles.
Responsorial psalmody simply means that a leader sings the verses and the congregation responds by singing a repeated refrain. This is standard practice in Catholic churches, but could be put to good use by all of us. It distributes the music well, with the more complex verses given to prepared music leaders and simple choruses given to the congregation.
With roots in Calvin’s Geneva Psalter, these “Psalm hymns” are psalm texts reworked into poetic meter for singing. Musically, they range from traditional hymns like “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” (Ps 100) to modern songs like “My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone” (Ps 62) by Aaron Keyes and Stuart Townend.
Similar to metrical Psalms, paraphrases render the general themes of the psalm rather than providing a phrase-by-phrase “” Among the many well-known Psalm paraphrases are Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” (Ps 46), Watts’ “Christianized” Psalm 72 “Jesus Shall Reign,” and modern contributions by Bob Kauflin, Tommy Walker, and Matt Searles.
Some Psalm songs simply extract an image or phrase from a psalm, rather than render the whole psalm into song. Among them are Marty Nystrom’s “As the Deer” (Ps 42:1), Matt Redman’s “Better Is One Day” (Ps 84:1, 2, 10) and the Taizé community’s “Bless the Lord, My Soul” (Ps 104:1).
The variety of ways worshipers have approached the Psalms in the past should inspire today’s worship leaders and songwriters to be creative, modernizing historic styles or mixing them to come up with new forms. The only limit is our understanding of the past and our imagination for the future.
Greg Scheer (gregscheer.com) is Minister of Worship at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids and Music Associate at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. His life’s work includes a two-decade marriage (Amy), two children (Simon and Theo), a book (The Art of Worship, Baker Books, 2006), and hundreds of compositions, songs, and arrangements in a freakishly wide variety of styles. He is currently writing a new book, to be published by Baker Books in 2016.