Psalms

The Psalter and its Counterparts in our Culture

Writing in the New Yorker, James Wood offers us an interesting take on the contemporary place that the Book of Common Prayer has in our society.

The words persist, but the belief they vouchsafe has long gone. A loss, one supposes—and yet, paradoxically, the words are, in the absence of belief, as richly usable as they were three hundred and fifty years ago. All at once, it seems, they are full and empty. They comfort, disappoint, haunt, irritate, disappear, linger.

The whole piece is worth a read here but it got me thinking about the ways that the Psalter (the 150 Psalms) are similarly looked upon in our contemporary culture. Certain phrases and snippets are printed onto mugs or used in funerals or on condolence cards but our neighbours (Canadian society more broadly) have largely left behind the beliefs which undergird and enliven the Psalms.

As with the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, the Psalter in particular has had a profound impact on the literary and artistic culture that we have inherited. Nevertheless, it is increasingly a foreign and off-putting text which is, in the memorable phrase of James Wood, “full and empty”.

When we faith-full-y sing the Psalms in public worship and read the Psalms together, we are brought into a liturgy of sanctification that transforms us.

While our congregation has never made use of the Book of Common Prayer in a formal manner - and many would be quite unfamiliar with it - the theological content and the manner of expressing our heartfelt repentance for sin, our profound awareness of God’s glory and majesty, and our faithful reception of the mercies of God shown to us in Jesus Christ all find beautiful expression in the phrases and responses of the Book of Common Prayer. And the BCP derives much of its scriptural basis from the 150 Psalms. And where the Word is present, the Lord’s work is continued in us!

Thanks to Denisse Leon for the cover photo on Unsplash

Where's your head at when you sing the Psalms?

Bradley Johnston, in his book "150 Questions about the Psalter",  asks a great question for us to consider together as we worship the Lord and draw upon the wondrous resources found in the Psalms.

He asks a personal and pointed question: “What mindset should singers have as they sing a particular psalm?”

In reply, he writes:

As we sing a particular psalm, we should have a mindset focused clearly upon heaven, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. We should be consciously lifting our souls to the Lord and praying for the strength and guidance of His Spirit, who enables us to turn away from sin, to rest in God’s abundant provision, and to walk in the ways of righteousness. (p 51)

I don’t know about you but I certainly can attest to the fact that it can be a challenge to adopt this proper mindset while singing the psalms or even in the time leading up to our singing. It’s easy to be distracted (even by the mechanics of singing!) and we can lose sight of the great wonder of bringing our songs before the very throne of God in praise of His Holy and Glorious Name!

May the Lord bless you as you sing!

How should the majesty and ancient authority of the Psalter shape our services?

Bradley Johnston, in his book "150 Questions about the Psalter", quotes from William Binnie to answer the question posed in our title. 

Question 140:

How should the majesty and ancient authority of the Psalter mold worship services?

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Answer 140:

"In the Church of Jesus Christ, where the prayers are free, it is of utmost importance that services of worship should be molded in the forms of ancient authority; and surely the best possible mold is that which the Holy Spirit Himself gave by the Psalmists, which has left its divinely guided lines on the Church for these three thousand years."

I'm struck by that phrase, "divinely guided lines", and the compelling suggestion that this is the mold that we are to see impressed upon our services of divine worship. As I continue to grow in my understanding of and appreciation for the Psalms, I'm amazed at the ways in which the indelible mark of the Holy Spirit's inspiration becomes more and more evident in these sacred compositions. 

What do we currently have in our repertoire that bears the majesty and ancient authority of Holy Scripture? 

One of the Longest Psalms to Learn...

It was Charles Spurgeon who once said of Psalm 131, “it is one of the shortest Psalms to read but one of the longest to learn”. And he’s right, isn’t he?

We can pick this Psalm up and read it quite swiftly – and with just a few hours of practice we can have it committed to memory so that we can recite it at will. 

But to learn this way of living – this way of humbling ourselves before God – this way of Christian lowliness... of a will subdued to the will of God – that is a lifelong lesson. 

To simply sum up the psalm’s lesson, it is this: a believer rests with the greatest contentment in the Lord’s abiding love, without the grand boasting of those who are enemies of God. 

Q: How did the Psalter come about?

"David arranged for the composition of the Psalter because he had received a covenant promise from God that his heirs would serve as the leaders of God's people forever. (2 Samuel 7) The Psalter was prepared in David's temple arrangements for use in the Lord's worship."

(From '150 Questions about the Psalter' by Bradley Johnston;http://www.crownandcovenant.com/product_p/ds199.htm)

"How Can I Say What I'm Feeling?

Dr. David Murray, on his blog Head Heart Hand, offers some very good reasons why the Psalms are so impactful in a Christian's life. The whole piece is worthwhile reading as we think of that age-old dilemma of expressing how we feel about something.

Whether it is feelings of loss or despair, loneliness or fear, joy or thanksgiving... all who come to the Psalms discover that the words which capture our experiences and emotions are already composed for us by the One who identifies with us in our suffering and thanksgiving!

"Despite hundreds of new Christian songs, of every possible genre, being composed every year, the ancient Psalms are experiencing somewhat of a revival in various places. Why?

I believe the main reason is their therapeutic value; in a day of so many disordered emotions, worshippers are discovering how the Psalms minister so powerfully to their emotional lives."

...

The Psalms express the full range of human emotions
"The Psalms contain an incomparably rich mixture of extreme and varied emotions: grief and joy, doubt and confidence, loneliness and fellowship, despair and hope, fear and courage, defeat and victory, complaint and praise, etc.

Is it any wonder that Calvin called the Psalms “an Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul”? As he explained: “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

Read the whole piece online here: http://headhearthand.org/blog/2012/02/13/therapeutic-praise/

Rollercoaster photo credit: Matt McK on Unsplash