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On Singing Psalms
Richard Leach

There is no other Bible book quite like the book of Psalms. The psalms are often in the first person, the language of creed and prayer: "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." (23:1) "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (22:1) They are written in the energized, heightened language of poetry intended to be sung. "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint." (22:14--sounds, almost scans, like an old blues lyric, doesn't it?) And as all scripture does, they bring the word of God to us, God speaks to us through the psalms.

I think this three-fold identity is what gives the psalms their special power. Not only do they speak calm belief, desperate need and exuberant joy to God, they do it in words that are also God's word to us. And they do it with the special power of poetry and song.

We affirm our faith with Psalm 23 at the funeral of a beloved 89-year-old saint. Psalm 13 confronts God with our incomprehension and despair beside the grave of a child. We wonder with Psalm 90:12 if we have learned to "number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom," at still another funeral service. Dealing with life and death, we long for better, stronger words than we can make up for ourselves. We long for words that not only express what we think and feel, but lead us out beyond ourselves to what we yearn to think and feel more clearly, and what the church has witnessed to us, that we long to trust more fully. Psalms provide those words.

On Sunday morning the psalm is usually a response to the Old Testament lesson. It seems less powerful, more functional in simple terms of moving the service along. The way we turn to psalms at funerals reminds us of their great power and depth, and invites us to make more of them than we often do.

It has to be said that particular psalms can seem odd and diffuse. Some are logical from beginning to end; others seem a jumble of petitions and affirmations. We are too familiar with it to notice or complain, but in Psalm 23 we go from being sheep in a pasture to being human guests at table--and, if we have such a faithful shepherd and such a generous host, how do we end up walking in the valley of the shadow of death in the middle of the psalm?

Questions like these suggest that the psalms are a rich, and often overlooked, source for preaching. For example, the sermon can tell us what that bad valley has to do with the good shepherd (I think he has come to get us out.)

Further, the kinds of questions that come from close attention to a psalm call upon poets and composers to spend enough time with the biblical text to identify and make singable the logic that one, two or three readings of a psalm may miss.

When we sing a psalm, rather than read or speak it, we claim an essential part of our Christian heritage. The book of Psalms is the Bible's own hymnbook, and it has been the songbook of the church since the church was born. As Ephesians 5:18-19 says, "be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." Careful historians point out that we don't know exactly what that phrase means.

But the first Christians were Jews--it's difficult to imagine them not singing psalms. And we know that from the third century on, up through this present day, psalm singing has been a part of Christian worship. In the Western church (Roman Catholic and Protestant as distinct from Orthodox), psalms have been central to worship song, so that writing a complete history of psalm singing in the Western church would be a way to prepare a complete history of the church itself. What I'm writing here is a stone skipping across the surface of twenty centuries, touching glancingly at a few places. May the reader forgive many waters jumped over.

As Christian worship in the West evolved, from the first century's joining the synagogue service of the word with the Lord's Supper, to the elaborate medieval Mass, psalms were the key to its song. Psalms were the source of the introit, offertory and communion verses; a psalm was the "gradual" (from gradus, the step the leader stood on to sing it) between the first and second lessons. This was sung in various ways. One popular way was responsorial--a soloist singing the psalm text in sections, the people responding to each section with a refrain. The soloist's words would be the biblical text, translated into Latin from Hebrew. The music would be chant--a way to assign notes to syllables regardless of how many or few syllables the line of text to be sung contained.

By the fourth or fifth century the music of the gradual was becoming more and more complex. The people's response was dropped, and the gradual was sung only by a choir. This was the beginning of a silencing of the congregation's singing that grew and continued (though Christian people sang, and sang their faith, outside the Mass) until the Reformation.

The Reformation restored congregational song. Martin Luther wrote psalm-based hymns, including his most popular, "A Mighty Fortress," on Psalm 46. And Calvin's followers, seeking to offer God only what was truly fitting, sang nothing but psalms (and a few other pieces). The Calvinists did not use chant but hymn tunes, such as we sing today (and we still sing a number of the original psalm tunes from Calvin's Geneva). Since the tunes are regular, the irregular psalm verses were reshaped. This is "metrical paraphrase"--fitting Bible words into a regular pattern as well as possible, altering words when necessary. In French-speaking Geneva, this was done with some skill. The 150 psalms were rendered in 110 different meters.

Things did not work out so well among English-speaking Calvinists. They tortured psalm texts into submission to very simple metrical patterns. Many of us have sung "The Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want/he makes me down to lie/in pastures green, he leadeth me/the quiet waters by." English-speaking Calvinists had an odd theory of biblical inspiration--as if God had inspired the exact words of the Bible, but not the sense of the words (which depends in part on order). It's as if one could dismantle a stone wall, move the stones to another place, pile them in a heap, point at them and say, "There's the wall."

About 200 years after the Reformation began, Isaac Watts reacted against the English metrical psalms of his day. His psalm versions (first published in 1719) were freer and more poetic. And, they made explicit the witness to Christ that the church had found in the psalms since New Testament times. "Joy to the World," which most of us think of only as a Christmas hymn, is Watts's version of Psalm 98.

So Watts's psalms were more like hymns. He wrote several hundred hymns-as-such as well, and cleared the ground for others to do so. Erik Routley calls him the "liberator of hymnody in English." The vast work of Charles Wesley, and many other writers, followed.

By the early 20th century (with some exceptions) psalm singing was in eclipse in North American churches. For the most part, hymns were sung, and the psalm, if there was one, was read as a scripture lesson or spoken responsively by the worship leader and the people.

But that is not the end of the story! The liturgical renewal of the 20th century (one of whose high points was Vatican II) led to a new emphasis on the Bible in worship, including psalms. The Roman Catholic lectionary developed after Vatican II led to the Common Lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary, widely used by Protestants. The Revised Common Lectionary selects a psalm for each Sunday, as a response to the Old Testament Lesson. It calls for the use of 105 of the 150 psalms. And the "hymn explosion" of the mid-twentieth century led to a kind of "psalm explosion," composers creating new musical settings, and poets writing new paraphrases and psalm-based hymns.

"Psalm-based hymns" is what I call a hymn based on a psalm in the way a hymn may be based on any scripture passage, not directly paraphrasing it but using its story, images and ideas to proclaim the gospel or to pray. The distinction between "metrical paraphrase" and "psalm-based" hymn is blurry, but it can be useful.

The result of these 20th century movements is that today there are extensive resources for psalm-singing, in both denominational and independent publications.

The Revised Common Lectionary suggests a psalm for each Sunday, following the first lesson, and this is an excellent starting point for singing the psalms today. Chant, metrical paraphrase and psalm-based hymn are all possibilities. Remember that psalms are scripture: Just as there is not one sermon to preach on a given lesson, there is not one way to sing a particular psalm!

The Selah Psalter (2001), which I helped to prepare, reflects this idea. It gathers 66 pieces that are poetic and musical settings of 47 different psalms, including almost all that the Lectionary selects most frequently.

When writing paraphrase, today's poets seldom fall into the Calvinist trap of using biblical words and losing sense. Edith Downing, Ruth Duck and Herman Stuempfle are among the skillful text writers whose work the Selah Psalter draws upon. I will write in more detail on texts by several other poets, and weave suggestions for varied use of psalms into my comments.

Gracia Grindal's text "When the Lord Restored Our Fortunes" (with its dancing setting by Donald Busarow, Selah Psalter #53) is a paraphrase of Psalm 126 that uses few words not in the biblical text itself. It is almost Calvinist in its devotion to the text--almost. The text and musical setting work together to let us sing the Bible's own words in a very exuberant way.

Mark Sedio's paraphrase and musical setting of a portion of Psalm 136, "Give Thanks to the Lord" (Selah Psalter #56) is another direct paraphrase, a delightful one. It is not the whole psalm, but the portion the lectionary selects for the Easter Vigil. This setting lets us enjoy the refrain in every verse of the psalm, "for his steadfast love endures forever." What seems overly repetitive when read or spoken seems natural when sung.

Rae Whitney deserves special mention here, for she has written the text of what may be the best single piece in the Selah Psalter. "If I Take the Wings of Morning" (Selah Psalter #58) ranges from Eden, Noah and the tower of Babel to Peter, Judas and Paul--all to interpret the theme of Psalm 139: there is nowhere to flee from God. Each stanza lets the singer play the part of a Bible character, in a most affecting way. For example, stanza 3: "If I build an ark to bear me safely to a mountain's crown, if the tower I raise to heaven wounds me as it tumbles down." Whitney's text is lifted into song by Amanda Husberg's wonderful tune, LOVE'S LIGHT.

Psalm 139 turns up in every Lectionary year. But the way "If I Take the Wings of Morning" moves through the Bible means it need not be confined to its lectionary assignment. It could be sung when any of the scripture lessons it alludes to is read. The penitential stanzas of "If I Take the Wings of Morning" suit it to Lent, and its affirmative refrain to the Easter season--sing it in those seasons and whenever else you wish!

"If I Take the Wings of Morning" is long--five stanzas, and a refrain after each. This gives an opportunity to turn a stanza or two over to the choir, or to the men in worship, or to the women--whomever in your congregation can manage a stanza by themselves. Another effective way to vary a long piece like this is to have the organ "sing" a stanza--the congregation reading one stanza to itself silently as the organ plays it. I have tried this a few times, and been surprised by how well it works.

Like "If I Take", most of the psalms I mention here could be sung whenever the theme or mood of the text is what is desired. Psalms have been the norm for the church's singing (in the West) since the church began. So there's no reason to confine them to the slot after the first lesson--though that makes a good reminder not to forget to sing them.

"At Last We Gather Here Again," my version of Psalm 36:5-10 (again, the lectionary selection) picks up that psalm's images of shelter, a feast in God's house, and the fountain of life to create a gathering hymn. It's for the opening of worship on any Sunday. The first line "At last we gather here again," is not from the psalm, but suggests some of the relief we may feel coming to worship after a hectic week. The use of the psalm's images for our own experience around the font, pulpit and table on Sunday morning suggests that what we are doing is not our own invention, but a gift deeply rooted in the story of God with his people.

Another fine gathering hymn is "Sing to the Lord No Threadbare Song" (Selah Psalter #41), Carl Daw's text on Psalm 96, set by Alfred Fedak. The exhortation of 96:1, "O sing to the Lord a new song" becomes a challenge to singers and to hymn poets themselves: "Sing to the Lord no threadbare song, no timeworn, toothless hymn, no sentimental platitude, no empty pious whim; but raise a song just off the loom, fresh-woven, strong and dense, as new as God's eternal now transcending time and sense." Wow! That opening phrase might well be blazoned on every hymnbook in Christendom--and how much within them would then go unsung! Fedak's tune does justice to the words, and this piece might be the opening hymn for almost any Sunday service, as well as the gradual on those days the lectionary calls for it.

Psalms could easily provide every hymn in a service on particular Sunday. Another possible gathering hymn besides those mentioned is "This Is the First of Songs" (Selah Psalter #1), my paraphrase of Psalm 1. It speaks of turning from sin, which suits the penitential tone many services begin with. And it has an extra feature: a companion piece, "This Is the Song that Crowns Our Singing" (Selah Psalter #66), in the same meter, but with a festal tune (which will require a bit of preparation in some congregations). These two bookends of the psalter might well be the opening and closing hymns on a Sunday devoted to psalm singing. Or, if the service opens with "Sing to the Lord No Threadbare Song," close with "O My God and King and Savior" (Selah Psalter #60), Whitney's hymn on Psalm 145 with the familiar tune NETTLETON. On that psalm-singing Sunday (or any other), "I've Eaten Honey from the Comb" (Selah Psalter #8, also by Whitney) would work very well as preparation before hearing scripture, or as response to a lesson.

Of course, in most parishes one can't do three new hymns on one Sunday and expect a satisfied congregation! The use of a sung psalm as the gradual provides a natural way to introduce a new text and tune. The psalm so introduced can later become an opening or closing hymn.

As I said above, psalms should be preached upon more than they are. When the psalm is the scripture lesson for the sermon, it makes sense to read the psalm before the sermon, and sing a setting of elsewhere in the service--gathering hymn, hymn following the sermon, or closing hymn, wherever the music and mood of the setting seem most suitable.

Psalm 23, familiar as it is, is a deep well for preaching. Besides my question about the valley above, there is the defiance in that first verse: The Lord is my shepherd, not my employer, not my income bracket, not past decisions that I long to change. David Robb's "Since You Are Shepherd" (Selah Psalter #12) is an excellent complement to a Psalm 23 sermon. It is a strong contemporary example of traditional style, fully rhymed, and further unified by the repeated "Since you are shepherd" that opens each stanza.

On the other hand, George Black's setting of Psalm 23 (Selah Psalter #13) is a return to one of the oldest Christian forms of psalm singing--chant by a soloist with a refrain by all. Such settings do not have the flexibility of metrical paraphrases, but are ideal as the gradual between the first and second lessons. And there are times when singing the Bible text as written is the only thing that will do.

Psalm 22 begins with Jesus' cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" I think it resists paraphrase because of that. Yet singing it is still most fitting. Song adds feeling (not formless feeling, but shaped feeling) to text. The feeling it adds can be somber as well as glad. Black's chant setting of Psalm 22 (Selah Psalter #10) lets us sing this powerful text, as solo with refrain. How compelling this would be on Good Friday. And Black provides a second, festive refrain for the last section of the psalm, in which pleading turns to rejoicing.
Some psalm hymns are sermons in themselves, such as Brian Wren's "With Humble Justice Clad and Crowned," on Psalm 72. This goes beyond paraphrase to proclamation, that Christ will come again to establish justice in the world at last. Wren does what Watts did (which is what the early church did)--make this psalm Christocentric. The Lectionary calls for this psalm on Advent 2A (2004), and on Epiphany in all three years. It would work very well on those days, perhaps best with Psalm 72 spoken after the first lesson. Imagine it as the opening hymn on Epiphany, with strong stanzas such as this: "As thunderclouds of love rain down life-giving, universal showers, the meek will rule, and thus redeem earth's high authorities and powers."

This is a wonderful time to be singing psalms. Resources abound. Pay careful attention to the psalm suggested by the Lectionary each week. Look through the Selah Psalter and other books for settings of that psalm, consider using them in place of a responsive reading, or at another place in the service. Try to sing all the stanzas, but don't just plow ahead with the whole congregation singing everything. Give a stanza or more to the choir, or a subgroup of the congregation, or the organ. Introduce new settings of familiar psalms as responses to the first lesson.

Encourage the pastor to preach on psalms. Think about having a Sunday on which a psalm version is sung in place of every hymn. Remember, and remind your congregation, that by singing psalms we claim our birthright as singing Christians, and take part in a community of song going back to the earliest church, and beyond that, to Jewish and Israelite worship--and extending into the future as well. A hymn may pass away, but the church will always have the Bible, so it will always have the psalms. May they always be sung!

--Richard Leach, 2001

A Panorama of Christian Hymnody, Erik Routley, G.I.A. Publications, Inc., Chicago, 1979
Selah Psalter, Richard Leach, David Schaap, eds., Selah Publishing Co., Inc., 2001
"Singing Psalms in the New Millennium," Lourdes Montgomery,
Te Deum, Paul Westermeyer, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1998

Examples. Numbers refer to Selah Psalter (2001).
1. "I Rest Beneath God's Sheltering Wings" 36
2. "As Pants the Deer for Living Streams" 23
3. "From Depths of Need I Cry to You" 54
4. "When the Lord Restored Our Fortunes" 53
5. "Give Thanks to the Lord" 56
6. "If I Take the Wings of Morning" 58
7. "At Last We Gather Here Again" 20
8. "Sing to the Lord No Threadbare Song" 41
9. "This is the First of Songs" 1
10. "This is the Song that Crowns our Singing" 66
11. "O My God and King and Savior"
12. "I've Eaten Honey from the Comb" 8
13. ["A Small Thing Like a Hazelnut" 44] (not mentioned in text)
14. "Since You Are Shepherd" 12
15. ["The Lord Is My Shepherd" 13]
16. ["God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me" 10]
17. "With Humble Justice Clad and Crowned" 34


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