Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why Do We (Not) Sing Psalms?

It’s a double-barreled question.

Way back when, it was the custom of Presbyterians to sing psalms. In fact, in church they sang only psalms. Anything other than the biblical Psalms was unfit for human singing, because the Psalter had divine authorship, or, at the very least, God’s seal of approval.

Songs of mere human composition just didn’t measure up. This was true at least until people like the brothers Wesley and Watts took pen to paper and came up with psalm-like hymns that were seductively singable. Their success provoked the true-blue Psalm-singers to recast the Psalms into hymn-like metrical settings. Sometimes it must have been difficult to tell the difference between biblical songs and songs crafted by humans.

As hymnody increased in popularity for Sunday morning singing, the use of Psalms waned. Why bother with the old when you could have the new?

This very sketchy historical review helps us understand how we Presbyterians (and some other Protestants as well) got to the situation we’re in. The Psalter has been neglected if not abandoned. A Psalm is too rarely sung in worship in some churches, unless it sneaks in masquerading as a hymn. That’s the answer to the question, “Why do we not sing the Psalms?”

If it weren’t for the monastics persisting in singing the Psalms day and night, and the resurgence in local congregations and individual Christians to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, we might have forgotten about Psalms on Sunday morning altogether.

So, now we ask the question, “Why do we sing the Psalms?”

The Psalms are part of our spiritual history. They were collected to be the song/prayer book of Judaism, the anthology Jesus knew, used and quoted. They continued to be the source of prayer and praise for the early Christians.

The Psalms are candid, honest prayers. They cover the full range of human needs, express emotions from one end to the other, and have an intimate and personal quality that touches people in the depths.

The Psalms (at least many of them) are used as responses to the Old Testament reading in Sunday Christian worship. Yet they have also been recognized to speak of Jesus Christ, and in this usage, they show the continuity of God’s revelation throughout the Scripture. In this role, the Psalms serve as a historical and theological bridge between the Old and New Testaments in the pilgrimage of Lord’s Day worship.

When the Psalms are sung on Sunday mornings, the congregation has the opportunity to be the “true choir” as the Reformers thought they should be.

I’m sure there are many other reasons to be cited, but you get the idea. We don’t use the Psalms in worship as well as we could and should.

In my travels in retirement, I’ve confronted this delinquency in various forms. In many churches there simply is no Psalm. Others might include the Psalm, but they will read it (not sing it) responsively. Some will sing a Psalm, but in place of a hymn. Rarely will the Psalm be sung following the Old Testament reading. Even more rare is the chanted Psalm.

Congregational singing of the Psalms can be intimidating, of course, yet with proper training and leadership of church musicians, it can also be tremendously inspiring. I remember well the occasion decades ago when I had the chance to attend a large Lutheran church in Minneapolis. The Psalm that morning was to be chanted, according to the tones recorded in the hymnal. The people had been taught well. The music was uplifting, stirring, even exhilarating as the tones of prayer rose heavenward.

The objections are likely to come quickly when psalm-singing is suggested. “How can we expect the people in the pews to sing anything more demanding than simple hymns?” That’s a good place to start, and move on to chants with congregational responses and refrains, or specially composed pieces, to everyone chanting the full psalm text.

Of course, this does not happen without some exertion on part of worship leaders, clergy and musicians. It requires their liturgical and musical education in order to educate and train the congregation to praise God with sung Psalms.

Psalms are available in many modern settings (and some ancient ones) that lend themselves to congregational usage. Two resources are highly recommended for your perusal: The Psalter: Psalms and Canticles for Singing, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1993; and Psalms for All Seasons, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources, Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2012.