Saturday, October 22, 2011

On Singing Psalms


Did you know the Psalms are actually songs? Of course you did. Anyone who's spent any time at all in Sunday School knows that. But have you ever really stopped to think about what that means?  I've had that piece of information stored in my cranium for decades, but never really gave it much thought. I still tend to think of the Psalms as the poems that I was assigned to memorize when I was a kid, or as the words they taught us to chant in the Lutheran church of my childhood. Though they are lovely, when I read them I almost never think of them as music, and, since I'm not a very musical person, I've honestly never really thought it mattered one way or the other.

That changed this past Sunday. Our pastor began his sermon, the latest in a series on the church,  with a discussion of Psalm 118. He explained that it was originally written as a festival song, most likely for the Festival of Booths, and that it was sung responsively. The crowd gathered at the Temple to worship. The song-leader sang his part, and, from memory, the people sang their response. One of the points he was leading up to was that when verses from this and other Psalms are referred to in the New Testament, the Jewish audience would have immediately recognized the allusion and make the connection to the Psalm it was quoted from along with its context. 

So, for instance, when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey and the crowd burst into cheers, it was one of the response portions of Psalm 118 from which they drew their words of praise:

"Save us, we pray, O LORD!
O LORD, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
We bless you from the house of the LORD."
Ps. 118: 25-26

And again, when Jesus and the Apostles Peter and Paul made reference to "the cornerstone", they were alluding to another responsive portion of Psalm 118:

"The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes."
Ps. 118:22-23

The pastor's point was that the use of the word "cornerstone" or statements such as "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" were a kind of shorthand that any Jews in the audience would immediately recognize. When they heard these words their thoughts went directly to the psalm they were drawn from. In other words, these were songs and the people knew the lyrics.

Unlike us, these folks didn't have radios playing everywhere in the background. They had the Psalms. This was their music. The Psalms were the soundtrack of their lives and their history, the songs of their faith, the songs of their nation, the reminders of their greatest triumphs and their deepest sorrows. The Psalms were the vehicle that carried the promises of God and the record of His faithfulness from one generation to the next. It is likely that Psalm 118 was to them something like what "God Bless America" is to us - an anthem of God and country and hope. They knew the words; they knew the music; and their hearts swelled with emotion with every word. When someone began a line, they could finish it. When it was quoted, they knew exactly what was being alluding to and what was being implied. 

What a rich treasury the Psalms were to Israel! How blessed they were to have words inspired by God committed to memory in such a way, to have such a common musical and scriptural heritage to draw from. How precious it must have been to hear a word from the lips of Christ or his apostles and know immediately the ancient words of prophecy to which it referred. What a tragedy it is that I do not know these songs, that they aren't imbedded in my heart, filling my mind, and ready to spring from my lips! What a waste it is that the modern church has not taken hold of such a glorious tradition. A few people in recent years have set a few of the psalms to music again in lovely and memorable ways, but only so very few. How sad it is that our English translations lend themselves so poorly to song, and that we American Christians are so little committed to finding ways to sing them. I hope and pray this will change.
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Col. 3:16

6 comments:

HYDRIOTAPHIA said...

I agree, its hard to comprehend how important the Psalms are, not only in early Jewish history but even up until today. The Book of Psalms is the only OT book I ever read, and that on a daily basis, so much spiritual wisdom in one book, perhaps the most influential of all OT books for Christians.

Lobbans said...

Hi Laurie-friend, your writing has opened up an old question again and I wonder what you think? When we sing in church Psalms,old & modern hymns, we aim at lifting our hearts up to God. Do you think there should be "room"/encouraging to sing appropriate words to each other? Ephesians 5:19. There Paul exhorted the church. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”

Laurie M. said...

Estelle, part of the reason I closed with the Scripture I did,is that I intend to make this a three-part series. This was originally going to be one post, but it was clearly going to be too long, even for me. I already have the second entry plotted out discussing in part, through the lens of one of Luther's hymns, the value of hymnody, particularly the value of the greatest hymns in teaching people in doctrine in ways that are moving and memorable. More within the next couple of days, my friend!

WhiteStone said...

Thanks, Laurie. Looking forward to reading more thoughts on this topic. (Loved the Keith Green rendition of the 23rd Psalm.)

John Child said...

At last I've got to this blog! I've been sidetracked all along the way. It was short & sweet; the three-part series is a good idea.
1. Your pastor is up to date in his education re how the NT quotes the old. I'm not sure when the scholars recognised that when Jesus or the apostles (or the Jewish teachers) quoted what we call a verse they were referring to the passage in its context but it is not that long ago or at least I don't think has been widely recognised till fairly recently. See further Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [Hardcover]
G. K. Beale (Editor), D. A. Carson (Editor) (Baker 2007).
I liked this; it is very well put & think you are correct: "Unlike us, these folks didn't have radios playing everywhere in the background. They had the Psalms. This was their music. The Psalms were the soundtrack of their lives and their history, the songs of their faith, the songs of their nation, the reminders of their greatest triumphs and their deepest sorrows. The Psalms were the vehicle that carried the promises of God and the record of His faithfulness from one generation to the next." Most helpful analogy; I'd never thought of Psalms as the soundtrack of their lives & history, as their music, despite knowing that singing Psalms was a key aspect their worship.
The one reservation I have is this & it is not so much a difference I have with you but a common assumption in biblical scholarship. It is often said that the Jews knew this & that, referring to detailed knowledge of the OT or theology. I always wonder what if they said the same sort of thing of evangelical Christians? Granted there isn't the same rote learning & memorizing today but my experience of even well taught Christians is that their knowledge & understanding of the Bible & basic doctrine is pretty poor. I grant that due to singing Psalms they would have naturally memorized many Psalms but would they have remembered the context if a verse or two was quoted? If the Psalm was well known probably yes. Further, the Jews were often far from God. Would that not transfer to a lack of knowledge of Scripture? After the return from exile I think it likely that biblical knowledge increased vastly. Certainly Israel was careful to keep the Torah & from what we know sang Psalms in the temple & I presume in the synagogues though I personally know little of synagogue worship. So all that strengthens your case. But I still have my doubts whether the post-exilic Jews knew as much as the scholars assume.
I'll make this a two-part blog so my brief final point stands out.

John Child said...

You lament: "What a tragedy it is that I do not know these songs, that they aren't imbedded in my heart, filling my mind, and ready to spring from my lips! What a waste it is that the modern church has not taken hold of such a glorious tradition!"
I share your lament. As you know I teach Psalms (as an amateur not as an OT scholar) in my College. Each year I introduce Psalms as the prayer book & song book of Israel AND the church down through the ages, saying Psalms is the most quoted OT book in the NT, that Christians read the Psalms more than any other OT book, that there is a rich tradition of Psalm singing in the church - in the Catholic Church, amongst the Lutherans, Calvin's Geneva, the Scots (& English) Presbyterian tradition, & of course our Anglican tradition. I lament the loss of Psalm singing in the modern evangelical church & what that loss means in theological terms & how we should revive the singing of Psalms. All to no avail! Last year I asked the musicians in the class to compose some songs from the Psalms & set them to music so we could sing them at the start of class. One older man wrote a number of songs & we sang some in class & maybe a couple in Chapel. But still I don't think the message has really penetrated.
This year I tried something related but different. I got the whole class to get into small groups & in a few weeks time each group to share something before the whole class: a meditation, a devotion, a song, a poem. The groups took it seriously & met & prepared properly. The highlight for me was an African group from the Congo & Cameroon who did a drama (not on my list of suggestions!) on Ps 137, weeping by the waters of Babylon. We all laughed at their weeping & vivid dialogue but it was so realistic. Others sang, recited a poem or 'preached' a meditation. In all a success in using the Psalms but whether anyone will actually sing the Psalms in church I don't know.
The bottom line is that you're right: we need to recover the Psalms in our singing - and praying!