‘Open our lips, O Lord, but give us more interesting psalms to say.’
These were the songs that the very first Christians sang to praise the risen Christ. Psalm 2 promises a collection of songs which speak of the universal reign of God’s Christ over every other king, every other human. Psalm 3 shows us that the Messiah’s path to glory passes through suffering and hardship, even death. And as we work our way through these praises we find ourselves travelling a path of suffering and glory together with our Saviour. As we join the Son in his praises they accompany our praises into the Father’s presence.
In a previous issue of Southern Cross I wrote about the message of the Psalms, and how they get this message across. This time around, I want to think about why many of us have laid the Psalms aside, and challenge us to think creatively about taking them up once more.
What is stopping us from using the Psalms?
Not so long ago it was almost universal Anglican practice to say or sing the Psalms week by week. But over the last generation Christian songs have reinvented themselves into the lyrical and musical language of contemporary culture, and somewhere along the way the Psalms were left behind. One or two verses from a Psalm will often provide good material for a song, but a whole Psalm no longer fits the mould. They have become strange, bewildering, tackled by brave artists like the Sons of Korah, but too challenging for the rest of us to sing together.
I want to think about why the Psalms are difficult for us, and how we might respond. My aim is to spur readers to come up with their own creative solutions.
1. The Psalms are too strange and demanding
The Psalms have become new and strange. They no longer speak the language of Christian worship. To overcome this it’s going to take a congregation willing to commit to the new and strange until it becomes old and familiar, and leaders willing to work at making the encounter an engaging and interesting one. Perhaps a sermon series on the Psalms, out of which the church decides to work at bringing the Psalms back into their life.
Be warned, however: this strangeness is not just cultural or linguistic, it is emotional. Have you found yourself emotionally at odds with a psalmist who expects us to lament something we don t really care about, or delight in something that does not really move us? It is not always easy, or even possible, simply to jump in and sing a Psalm with all one’s heart. But this is exactly why the Psalms are so important! They expose our broken imaginations, and diagnose false love when we don t want to respond in praise. Each psalm has the capacity to work a kind of heart surgery to retrain our love.
The lament psalms are a good example. Lament is not something we Aussies do. The Gospel is God’s good news, and if there is one note that a Christian life sings, it is praise. Yet it is not the triumphal praise of the winner, it is the stunned thanksgiving of the forgiven sinner. Christian praise is praise won from the pit, from depths of pain and rebellion and degradation. Lament ackowledges the reality of that pain and brings it before God in solidarity with Christ our Brother and High Priest. We just need to recognise occasions for lament. We may lament together for the people in our own congregation, or for other Christians we know: the tradesman or mother or high-school student who is mocked and oppressed for following the Christ; the Egyptian or Indonesian who risks death for the name of Jesus. We may lament for our fellow fallen humans: those ground down by tryants; the widows and orphans; the victims of natural disaster and war who do not know that I am God .
2. The Psalms don t mention Jesus or the cross
Christians know that the Psalms have something to do with Jesus, but we don t always see what, or how. To overcome this it’s going to take men and women able to lead the congregation into an experience of the Psalms week by week that is both Christ-focused and personal, a common expression of our solidarity as brothers and sisters in Christ.
There are many ways to set a psalm against the New Testament gospel so that it sits like a picture within a Christian frame. Here is one example, using Psalm 126. In its original context this psalm remembers the rebuilding of Jerusalem with joy, but looks forward longingly to the completion of God’s good work of restoration. Its emotional journey is a perfect match for 1 Corinthians 15, and the psalm could easily be used as a way for us to respond directly to the confidence and hope of that chapter:
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:19 -21)
1When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
2Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
The LORD has done great things for them.
3The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy. (Ps 126:1-3)
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. (1 Cor 15:51 -52)
4Restore our fortunes, LORD,
like streams in the Negev.
5Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
6Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them. (Ps 126:4-6)
Other means of Christian re-framing might include the projection of suitable images onto a screen over the words of a psalm, or the use of a psalm to structure a series of congregational prayers, or simply a thoughtful 30-second introduction from the leader, to point our imaginations in the right direction.
3. The Psalms are a recipe for boring church
Perhaps the biggest barrier for many of us is our past experience of dull, even monotonous reciting of the Psalms. Our imaginations are not captured. We feel detached from the words we recite. We read the poetry efficiently, superficially, rarely drawn into the poet’s emotional world. To break down this barrier it will take emotion and imagination.
Our first vehicle for emotion is music, and one of our first tasks is to put music back into the Psalms. Musicians must take up the challenge of writing congregational music for entire psalms – as some are beginning to do (e.g. mattsearles.bandcamp.com). Ready-made lyrics exist in abundance, converted into metre and rhyme by muscians of the past, and hiding away in half-forgotten Psalters and hymn books.
But even without new songs we can simply add music over the psalms, or combine speech and song. For example, the song-leader adapts a verse from the Psalm to act as a chorus, sets it to music, and in 30 seconds teaches the congregation to sing it. The psalm is then recited over music – it often irritates me when prayers or (worst of all) appeals from the front are said over background music, but the Psalms were made for this – and at regular intervals everyone joins in the chorus. Here is an example, using the beginning of Psalm 146. I have taken v. 10, Christianised it, and made it a sung refrain (I would repeat it again after vv. 6, 8).
Praise the LORD, my soul.
2I will praise the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
Christ reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
3Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
4When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Christ reigns forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
The Psalms are works of imagination
What has been written with imagination must be read with imagination. So what could it look like to put the Psalms back into the centre of our worshipping life? There is such variety – the Psalms may be prayed, read or sung together, proclaimed or performed by individuals, and preached on. They make perfect responses to almost any other part of Scripture. Their poetic form and rich imagery opens the door to the use of other media beyond speech and music. Here I recommend John Witvliet’s book The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship (Eerdmans, 2007). When we begin to appreciate how much imagination it took to write the psalms, and take the time to put some imagination of our own into performing them togther, most of our problems will be solved.
This is not a call to run wild. Nobody wants boredom to be replaced by embarrassment or alarm! It is about closing the gap between ourselves and the psalms, under guidance from the text. It is about picking up on the poetic cues – the images, the rhythms, the emotional tone – and matching them to the gospel-shaped journey of death and resurrection which most psalms travel. It is about joining together imaginatively with our Messiah, and having the permission to say as we read psalms of lament, I suffer with the Messiah. He and I are alongside each other in suffering; having permission to say as we sing psalms of praise, We rejoice with our risen Christ. The psalms are his gift to us. Let’s get them out of the cupboard and put them to use.
This article draws on material from the forthcoming book Stirred by a Noble Theme (Apollos, 2013).
Andrew Shead is Head of Moore College’s Department of Old Testament and Hebrew and lectures in Hebrew and Old Testament.