Singing More Psalms in Worship
Discover why and how more congregations are reclaiming old ways and creating new ways of singing from the songbook God gave us--the Psalms. A feature story about the importance of singing Psalms in worship.
Whenever U2 closes a concert by singing “40 (How Long),” the audience joins in. Most keep singing the plaintive chorus, “How long, how long to sing this song,” long after the band leaves the stage.
The song’s simple lyrics capture despair, hope, and joy. Bono, U2’s lead singer, has said that “literally hundreds of thousands of people of every size and shape T-shirt have shouted back the refrain, pinched from Psalm 6.” The rest of “40 (How Long)” is based on Psalm 40:1-3.
Many sung psalms are joyful. Others voice honest anger, like “pulling at the hem of an invisible deity whose presence we glimpse only when we act in love. How long…hunger? How long…hatred?” Bono wrote in an introduction to Pocket Canons’ Selections from the Book of Psalms. He’s been surprised that merely vocalizing such questions can bring comfort.
Rediscovering the Psalms as the Bible’s songbook helps congregations navigate the paradoxes of moving toward full communion with God. Singing psalms forms us as God desires, resetting our inner soundtracks to music the Holy Spirit works through.
Singing our stories
Tehillim, the Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms, means “songs of praise.”Psalmoi, the Greek name for the same book, means “songs sung to a harp.” Psalm inscriptions give clues to their original musical settings: Psalm 5, for flutes; Psalm 6, with stringed instruments; Psalm 30, a song for the dedication of the temple; Psalm 75, for the director of music, to the tune of “Do Not Destroy”; Psalms 120-134, songs of ascent.
Jewish children in biblical times grew up singing psalms. The words and images took root in their imaginations, available to cling to when life didn’t appear to live up to the story God told.
Hanging on the cross, dizzy with pain and thirst, Jesus drew on the Psalms. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cried, and at last, in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Paul and Silas knew enough psalms by heart to sing all night in prison in Philippi till an earthquake opened the prison doors.
Basil, a 4th century bishop of Caesarea, said that harmonious psalm tunes are the Holy Spirit’s way of helping us “absorb the benefit of the words.” Basil noticed that his parishioners rarely remembered sermons yet often sang psalms at home and in the marketplace.
Martin Tel, now music director at Princeton Theological Seminary, grew up in a church that let worshipers request songs during the evening service. His dad often asked for Psalm 68. Years later Tel learned why his parents, recent Dutch immigrants, sang the plodding Genevan psalm with such exhilaration.
During World War II, Nazi soldiers stood in every Dutch Reformed church service to show who was in power. They had no clue that worshipers were singing, “God shall arise and by his might / Put all his enemies to flight.”
More formative than expressive
“The Psalms should be sung in worship more often because they’re the word of God and connect us with our past. They deal with all the affairs of human life,” says Robert Glick, who teaches music and worship at Erskine College and Seminary in Due West, South Carolina, and organized a psalm singing conference there.
The Psalms encompass the full range of human emotion. Yet most psalm-based lectionary portions or songs used in worship are “bright and focused on praise,” Glick says. For him, the conference’s most valuable insight was this: “We think of worship and the Psalms as being expressive when they should be formative.” The insight came from John D. Witvliet, who spoke on “Prospects for Psalm Singing in an Era of Liturgical Change.”
Using psalms formatively means, for starters, offering all of yourself, including your difficulties, to God. “What a refreshing break it would be for me to able to yell at God in church and sing a very loud song that says, ‘How long, oh Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?’” Glick says.
Singing psalms formatively also means identifying with Christ’s whole body. “We need to be weeping with those who weep and dancing with those who dance. We’re afraid of admitting too much of the real world into our worship,” Glick says. He suggests that pairing psalms with projected images, such as slums and mansions or drought and lush lawns, “would make it harder for us to ignore injustices.”
Eric Sarwar is a Presbyterian pastor and musician in Pakistan. He says that singing psalms of praise, petition, and penitence helps his mostly illiterate congregation withstand persecution, learn the Bible, and defend their faith. “The best way to memorize is singing,” he explains. A Presbyterian pastor in Peru says that singing psalms helps guard against heresy in his illiterate congregation. (Imagine what singing psalms could do for North American Christians who are biblically illiterate.)
The Holy Spirit at work
“To sing the psalms with understanding, then, is to meditate on them verse by verse, with the heart always ready to respond in the way the Holy Spirit desires,” explains the General Instruction of The Liturgy of the Hours.
The Holy Spirit prompted several responses when H. Leverne Rosenberger began singing through the Book of Psalms for Singing. Rosenberger, a retired missionary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, came to see the Psalms as poetry that Christ “designed for his church on earth to sing, in its infancy or in its maturity.”
Singing psalms in their entirety made him more attuned to how “Christ actually sanctifies, teaches, exhorts, comforts, and leads his church in our daily lives.” Singing about enemies prevented him from believing he and God are always on the same side. Instead, Rosenberger felt led to confess the enemies inside himself.
Imagine what might happen after your congregation starts singing psalms in worship….
- You’re snorkeling, amazed by shapes and colors of corals and fish. Psalm 103 pops into your mind. “Let all that is within me bless God’s holy name” plays again as you choose what or how much to eat and drink at a church potluck.
- Running along a rushing river, you recall a Native American melody sung as a refrain to Psalm 8, “Many and great, O God, are your works, Maker of earth and sky.” Then you wonder what it’s like to have your ancestral waters polluted by power plants. So you invite others to help you plan an intergenerational service on water in worship.
- You learn of yet more bulldozed homes. A mournful Jewish melody, based on Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon…we sat down and wept” (or perhaps the Sweet Honey in the Rock version) wafts into your consciousness and prompts you to pray.
Expand Your Congregation’s Sung Psalm Repertoire
Explaining that your congregation doesn’t sing psalms because there aren’t any good psalm songs is like deciding there’s nothing in the house to eat, so you head to Burger King—never noticing that your backyard garden and orchard are ripe for picking.
You might start by reclaiming your psalm singing heritage. In congregations where choirs are important, this might mean choosing psalm-based choral anthems. If yours is a denominational church, look again at buried treasures in your denominational hymnal.
Psalm singing gets even more interesting when you widen your definition of heritage to include the church universal across time and place.
Sample someone else’s version of the Bible’s songbook—singing or chanting, straight text or rhymed poetry, straight through or with antiphons or responses—and taste how good God is. Singing psalms helps bridge divisions within Christian communities. As Basil, a 4th century bishop of Caesarea, said, “Who can still consider one to be a foe with whom one utters the same prayer to God!”
All singing the whole Psalter
Iona Community hymn writer John Bell recalls asking musician William Ramirez for a song from El Salvador. Ramirez, who’d had to leave his country during the 1980s civil war, gave the song in Spanish.
When Bell got the English translation—“Should the wrong change places with right and the courts play host to corruption”—he dismissed the text as “far too political.” Then he discovered it was Psalm 94, though not the parts he would have chosen “as private spiritual nuggets.” He says that the song opened him to “God's preferential option for the poor.”
Bell’s experience illustrates the value of using whole psalms and the entire Psalter. Early Protestants wanted whole congregations, not just clergy or choirs, to sing psalms. They introduced metrical psalms, translated from Latin into local languages and reworked to fit musical meters, patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables.
John Calvin commissioned the Genevan Psalter in French, and it has been translated into Czech, Dutch, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Spanish, and Turkish. English speakers developed the Bay Psalm Book, Scottish Psalter, and Book of Psalms for Singing. Later Isaac Watts wrote metrical psalm texts that point to Christ and his work.
Antiphons and responsorial psalms
Metrical psalms usually add or omit text to fill out the lines. Chanting a psalm, however, lets congregations stick to the biblical text in a sound between spoken and sung speech. It also retains the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, in which the “rhyme” comes from similar or opposite thoughts or images, not from the sound of each line’s final beat, syllable, or word.
If you doubt your congregation can learn to sing or chant many new psalms, then try antiphonal or responsorial psalms. In these a cantor or choir sings or chants the verses of a psalm, and the congregation responds with a repeated antiphon or refrain.
You’ve probably noticed that “His love endures forever” is the built-in refrain in Psalm 136. In Psalm 42, the “Why are you so downcast” verses (5 and 11) are the refrains. You can create an antiphon by focusing on a key phrase or image in the psalm.
In many Catholic churches, worshipers and cantors sing responsorial psalms by Joseph Gelineau, a French Jesuit priest whose translations capture the rhythms of the original Hebrew psalms. The Church of Ireland (Anglican) recently published Singing Psalms, responsorial psalms set to simple chants.
(Some musicians also use the term antiphonal psalmody when two groups—men and women, right and left sides of sanctuary, children and adults, or soloist and choir—sing a psalm in dialogue, alternating lines or verses.)
You can combine spoken text with sung psalms. In The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources, John D. Witvliet suggests pairing a spoken psalm with a praise chorus based on a single psalm verse, such as Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord” with Psalm 65 or Martin Nystrom’s “As the Deer” with Psalm 42.
If a hymn or song is based on a psalm, simply list the psalm number behind it in a printed bulletin or projected order of service: “O Worship the King” (based on Psalm 104). If spoken prayer will incorporate part of a psalm, note that “Our intercessory prayer today will begin with the plea that opens Psalm 61.” Catch worshipers’ attention before a psalm reading by striking a gong, triangle, or hand drum.
Singing a new psalm
“Be intentional each week to use psalms as part of worship,” Brian Moss advises. For 11 years he was director of worship, music, and the arts at John Knox Presbyterian Church in Seattle. He says that besides singing psalms for praise or a lectionary reading, you can use psalms for the call to worship, confession and assurance of pardon, prayer of illumination, congregational prayer, as part of the sermon or response to the sermon, or for the offering, communion, or sending.
“I want to keep exploring old and new ways of praying and singing the psalms. Harold Best said to keep praying the ancient prayers but in a new way, so it’s a living word that speaks through our experience and life together in community.
“This requires listening to the Holy Spirit as a community and as worship leaders. There’s no way to know the breadth and depth of experience people bring into worship. But praying and singing all the psalms can create space for the Holy Spirit to work,” Moss says. He’s now in the M.Div. program and leads worship at Regent College in Vancouver. His blog, The Prayerbook Project, chronicles his decision to set every psalm to music.
Commissioning jazz compositions and planning contemporary jazz and blues worship services helped Calvary Third United Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, use psalms more intentionally in worship.
Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, is singing more psalms in worship, thanks in part to two of its psalm-based recording projects, These Things I Remember and Over the Grave, a tribute to Isaac Watts.
You may find inspiration for writing and singing new psalms from bilingual Spanish/English, bluegrass, Christian reggae, Iona, Mongolian, Pakistani, Sacred Harp, Sovereign Grace, Taize, or Ugandan Jewish musicians.
Feeling overwhelmed with all the psalm singing resources out there? Read The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship: A Brief Introduction and Guide to Resources by John D. Witvliet. It will give you the basics of choosing and using psalms in worship and help you choose among options for singing and chanting the Psalms. Then explore these online Psalms resources.
If you’d rather listen than read, check out:
- “What the Psalms Have to Teach Us about Song Writing” by Mark Altrogge at the 2009 Calvin Symposium on Worship.
- Presentations at the “Where Are the Psalms?” conference, held February 26-27, 2009, at Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West, South Carolina. (Participants blogged about that conference here andhere.)
- Speakers for the Psalms Project held during the spring 2009 semester at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.
- Highlights from all-day Psalms seminar, 2007 Calvin Symposium on Worship.
- Genevan psalms sung in Dutch, English, Hungarian, Spanish, and Turkish. Notice how evocative slides add layers of meaning to Psalm 6, sung in English.
- This program booklet lets you join in (after the fact) at a Genevan Psalm Sing Along in honor of John Calvin’s 500th birthday. Several songs are from the Psalter Hymnal.
Use or adapt psalm-based worship plans for a Lenten series or Advent service, “When Justice and Peace Embrace: Singing the Psalms at Christmas” (includes audio snippets). Read Brad Pitre’s fascinating blog post on links between the Eucharist and the Passover psalms Jesus sang at the Last Supper. Introduce neglected psalm portions by singing John Bell’s Psalms of Patience, Protest, and Praise.
TextWeek and National Association of Pastoral Musicians both suggest appropriate hymns and choral anthems based on the Revised Common Lectionary. You can search TextWeek according to specific Psalms. Use this index to find hymn versions of all 150 Psalms as published in major Protestant and Roman Catholic hymnals.
For sung psalms in the public domain, check Choral Wiki, Pursuing Life Ministries, and Fred Himebaugh’s suggestions for chanting psalms to familiar hymn tunes. Adapt psalm use ideas from small Anglican congregations with few musical resources. Apply James Grant’s method for matching metric psalms with familiar hymn tunes.
Choir directors and ministers of music may appreciate choral settings from John Bell’s Psalms of David and Songs of Mary; anthems by Hal Hopson based on Psalm 8, Psalm 24, Psalm 95, and Psalm 117; new psalm settings for congregational singing by Greg Scheer; and Psalms Made Singable, the Psalms of David set to Anglican and Plain chants with text and music aligned.
Read brief histories of psalmody from biblical times till now by Richard Leach, Elizabeth Liebert, Lourdes Montgomery, or Ralph F. Wilson. Then consider thisChristian Century essay on why churches no longer sing the whole Psalter.
Use ideas from Reformed Worship stories on psalmody (singing psalms).
Start a Discussion
Talk about using more psalms in worship:
- What do you think about the claim that the Psalms are the Bible’s songbook, the words God “put in our mouths”? Did God mean for people to keep singing psalms even after Christ ascended?
- Over the course of the church year, how many psalms do you sing in your worship services? Which first steps might you take to sing more (and entire) psalms, use them more often, or use them in new ways?
- Which psalm singing traditions intrigue you most? How would including these sung psalms in worship change your congregation’s understanding of the body of Christ?
Share Your Wisdom
What is the best way you’ve found to talk about the importance of singing psalms in worship?
- Did you bring youth or another church group to experience psalm singing or chanting in other congregations? If so, we’d love to learn which questions best helped you process the experience and whether you made any changes in your church’s musical repertoire.
- Which resources—music, visuals, video, online, conferences, whatever—have you found especially helpful in helping your congregation understand and sing different types of psalms in worship?