Friday, September 18, 2009


Time was when Presbyterians and other Reformed types were noted for their psalm-singing in worship. Not so much these days, even though the ecumenically accepted lectionary includes a schedule of psalms. Four lessons are prescribed; well, actually three with a psalm following the Old Testament reading.

In this arrangement, the psalm can be used as the source of a text for the sermon, but more often serves as a response to the Old Testament lesson. As such, the psalm is an act of praising God or a prayer of penitence—in either case an occasion for congregational singing.

The problem I have with the psalms in Sunday worship is that we speak them rather than sing them. (That is making a rather rash assumption that the psalm is even included—too often it is simply dropped, skipped over, ignored.) The psalm may be a “responsive reading” alternating back and forth from leader to congregation. The question persists, Why aren’t we singing the psalms on Sunday?

One answer is that it is good enough to just speak the psalms responsively—it gets the meaning across. My reply is that speaking isn’t as good as singing, and besides it isn’t usually done very well. Those who lead such antiphonal readings need to practice their presentation as much as they would in reading any passage of Scripture. Too often it’s done with flat intonations and empty of enthusiasm or meaning.

I’m not happy either with the practice of assigning the parts by whole verses, when the Hebrew half-verses are clearly visible (usually noted by the asterisks). Using half-verses makes the dialogue much stronger, as the people reply by affirming and elaborating on the lines of the leader.

Singing is much, much better, however, and our forebears have left us a treasure of metrical hymnody based on the psalms. I gained a new appreciation for our Presbyterian legacy of metrical psalms in an unusual way. The task force on Daily Prayer and the Psalter of the Presbyterian Church (USA), on which I served, was meeting at St. Meinrad’s Seminary and Monastery to sample their practice of singing the Psalter. We also had time with Brother Samuel F. Webber, a preeminent Roman Catholic scholar, who spoke at length with us about the use of psalms in worship.

The task force had already discussed metrical psalmody among ourselves, and had come to the conclusion that we’d omit them from the new Presbyterian Psalter. After all, plenty were in the current hymnal, and they were old hat anyway, not very exciting any more because of long usage.

After Brother Samuel had finished his lecture, one of our group asked him what he thought of metrical psalms. To which he replied with great excitement and zeal about what a great contribution our Presbyterian tradition had brought to psalmody, finishing with this exclamation: “Metrical psalmody is a jewel in the crown of the Psalter!” Needless to say, we changed our minds and metrical psalms were included.

Another resource is available too. The psalms in the Book of Common Worship are “pointed” for chanting, with singable congregational refrains and chant tone. Now, these will take some work on the part of the church musicians, the choir and the congregation, no question of it. Church musicians will have to teach them to the choir and use a bit of extra rehearsal time. In turn, the choir will function as the auxiliary to the congregation, and be the mentors and teachers of the people in the pews. Maybe even some pre-worship rehearsals as people gather will be desirable.

Chanting allows the congregation to have the benefits of both the speaking and singing referred to above, without the limitations of each. The whole psalm text is used in chanting as in speaking, not a paraphrase as in metrical versions. Singing the psalms is a significant part of our liturgical tradition, one which we share with Christians in many denominations, to the enrichment of our common faith.

How does your congregation employ the psalms in Lord’s Day worship?

1 comment:

  1. Don,
    Thank you for another insightful posting.
    I recently added a wonderful resource to my library that will help us use the Psalms more in worship: "Psalms for Preaching and Worship: A Lectionary Commentary" edited by Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A. Shawn (Eerdmans, 2009). You can see excerpts from the book at Amazon:
    Grace and Peace,


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