Connecting with the Psalms

A couple of days ago, as I was perusing ye olde internet, I landed on a resource for which I had been searching for a long time: a complete metrical (i.e. rhythmically translated) Psalter in Spanish! Though I own a metrical Psalter in English, I had never found one in Spanish like this for sale, so of course I excitedly ordered my own copy right then and there. Purchasing this Psalter however has given me another opportunity to ponder why so often our churches seem unwilling or unable to sing the very songs that God gave us in his Word to sing right back to him.

For me, this is weird. On the one hand, almost nothing could be clearer about Christian worship from Scripture than that we ought to sing the inspired words of the Psalter. Psalms formed the backbone of worship in temple and synagogue, sung by God’s people from Moses to Jesus himself (who sang every psalm in the scroll). Then after the Resurrection, the Apostle Paul urges believers to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” In fact, the psalms serve as a musical prelude to Paul and Silas’ jail-break, as the texts for sermons (e.g. Acts 2, Hebrews, etc.), and as the inspiration for apocalyptic Lamb-centered worship in Revelation. It seems so obvious: God is glorified in our songs of praise most particularly when we sing his inspired words of worship back to him.

But, on the other hand, almost nothing could be clearer than that, in Western Christianity, we have largely abandoned the psalms as the “bread and butter” of our worship. Long before organ-lovers and guitar-lovers began waging a mutually toxic battle for dominance in our churches, English-speaking churches ditched the previously common practice of singing the Psalter in favor of sexier fare (e.g. Watts and Wesley hymns). In fact, hymns so completely replaced psalms in worship that hardly anyone today realizes that psalm-singing is a possibility. And although some contemporary worship music has borrowed isolated lines from certain psalms, a believer in most American churches can go a lifetime without once singing a psalm in its entirety.

So, what prevents us today from singing the psalms? Some hurdles are obvious: relatively little attention has been paid recently to making psalms easy to sing (really, chanting?), Old Testament imagery might be a bit illusive (“on Moab I cast my shoe”?), and they can be super short (e.g. Psalm 117) or long (e.g. Psalm 89). But after reflection, I have come to believe that much more is getting in the way.

It is not that we simply prefer not to sing psalms; rather, for the most part, we have rendered ourselves incapable of singing the psalms. Our priorities for worship, for singing, and really for the Christian life are at variance with those of the Psalter. To what exactly am I referring?

  1. Psalms Are Completely Human. In worship we tend to like to focus on things that are happy, and on what is internal to us (heart, mind, feelings, etc.). However, the Psalter in its entirety focuses on the whole sphere of human existence. In the psalms, worship involves the whole body: with heart and with lips, with bodies prostrate and with hands upraised. In addition, worship involves the full range of human emotions: joy and sorrow, faith and doubt, courage and fear, pardon and wrath. So, singing the psalms requires us to be more consciously human than we usually prefer.
  2. Psalms Are for the Community. I have often had people complain that they were too happy to sing a sad psalm, or vice versa: we want to sing only what we think applies to us alone. Yet the Psalter was intended to be sung by the Assembly, not just by individuals. When we sing psalms, we join our voices with Christians around the world, brothers and sisters for whom what we are singing may apply more acutely than for us. So, singing the psalms requires us to be less individualistic than we usually prefer.
  3. Psalms Are Centered on Christ. Many westerners expect to be able to connect immediately to God on their own terms through what they sing. Yet, almost none of the psalms can be sung this way; in fact, singing some of their lines can seem downright inappropriate! To sing a psalm, we must sing as we live: in Christ. Think about it: our Lord took his people’s worship on his lips when he became like us. He sang (and, I believe, sings) on our behalf every single psalm in the Psalter, each fulfilled in his own life lived on our behalf. So singing the psalms requires us, contrary to our sinful nature, to come to God always and only through our only Mediator, Jesus Christ.
  4. Psalms Look to the End. We dwell in a culture of instant gratification, and we often expect instant gratification in worship, fully experiencing the totality of God’s presence and blessing automatically when we sing to him. The psalms however force us to wait: to wait for his blessing, to wait for our inheritance, to wait for the Lord himself. Whether singing reward for the righteous or vengeance for the wicked, we can only sing psalms in light of the End of the Age and the coming of our Lord Jesus. So, singing the psalms requires us to have hope and to be patient as we take up our cross and follow Christ.

These four reasons help explain why singing psalms often just does not “connect” with our congregations. How then do we become fully-embodied, community-oriented, Christ-centered, future-looking Christians? The paradoxical answer, I believe, is that these priorities are best acquired by singing the very psalms that may not now seem relevant.

When songs are set in our lips, we have a tendency to swallow them. Songs get in our gut, and singing songs inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit will change us inside and out. I have seen the fruit of the psalms in my own life and in the lives of others, and I commend them to you now. May God indeed grant that the Word of Christ might dwell richly among us through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in our hearts to God.