Join our mailing list

Martin Tel on Psalms for all Seasons

Martin Tel is C. F. Seabrook Director of Music at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. Here he talks about the forthcoming Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship, which is one of the most comprehensive resources ever published on using the Psalms in Christian worship. Tel collaborated with Joyce Borger and John D. Witvliet on this psalter.

Martin Tel is C. F. Seabrook Director of Music at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. Here he talks about the forthcoming Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship, which is one of the most comprehensive resources ever published on using the Psalms in Christian worship. Tel collaborated with Joyce Borger and John D. Witvliet on this psalter.

Martin Tel

What’s the same and different about this psalter compared to other psalters or psalm sections in denominational hymnals?

It’s more different than the same when compared to denominational sources. This resource crosses boundaries. People in any particular psalm-singing tradition will find hundreds of examples of their own material, but they’ll see it side by side with hundreds of examples from Catholic folk tradition; Reformed metrical psalms; Lutheran chants, refrains, and responses; contemporary worship; and psalm settings from Iona, Taizé, and single author psalters.

We laid out each of the psalms, andwhere there were gaps, we made a wish list, which went effortlessly global and brought in many submissions. The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship sponsored a psalm symposium that bore good fruit as well. After that, where gaps still remained, we commissioned authors and composers specifically.

Psalms for All Seasons includes the complete New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) text of each psalm. How much of each psalm does it include musically?

Every psalm has a musical presentation, but that's not to say that each word is musically presented. Some psalms have only one setting. We use the alphabet for psalms with more settings; 1A, 1B, and so on. There is no musical example that claims to cover all of Psalm 119, but for 119O—that’s the letter O not the number 0—we included Christopher Idle’s “All Your Commandments, Father Almighty.” His text is an acrostic for all the letters of the psalm except X and Z and shows the playfulness of the original Hebrew acrostic.

The way traditions package psalms for singing—by straight-jacketing them into a hymn-like setting or making the psalm conform to a single chant tone—sometimes fails to show profound shifts in a psalm. Our presentations of Psalm 73 demonstrate ways for composers to break outside musical boxes and move in a new direction. “All My Life” (73A) is a through-composed song [the melody changes each verse] by Ken Medema. It takes you on a journey “through” the psalm but is accessible for congregational singing. For 73B, we paired an optional two-person reading of the psalm with “In Sweet Communion, Lord,” and 73C is set as a pseudo rap with one voice reading and the congregation singing a refrain. It’s very experimental, but we’ve tested all these settings in worship to make sure they work.

How should worship leaders choose psalms for worship—especially since many churches don’t use a lectionary?

Worship leaders can look at their “normal order,” whatever form that might take, and consider how a psalm could convey or respond to a particular act of worship. If we begin worship with an acclamation of praise, how might a psalm give voice to this? Which psalm might help us pray for illumination before reading God’s Word? The Psalms cover the gamut of biblical preaching themes, so, for example, to understand how the exiles felt when returning from Babylon, we can sing Psalm 126. We can look at the Psalms as a book of material for prayer and worship and observe which ones don’t fit the way we “do church.” They can interrogate us about why we sometimes do not make room for doubt, hurt, lament….

With John Witvliet’s performance notes and all the indices, we’re giving worship planners hundreds of ideas on how to use the Psalms and psalm settings in worship, prayer services, and church meetings.

Can you share a story of how a psalm can bless a worship leader?  

Len Vander Zee’s arrangement of Psalm 102  [120A song, 120B litany] for use in hospice situations is a great example of how psalms have the gravitas necessary to help us pray communally with those who are dying. When I’ve shared this liturgy with pastors, they have said, “Oh, how I could have used this before, but I didn’t know about it.” The “cursing” psalms speak for people who are under attack by real enemies, and even if we are not under persecution ourselves, Psalm 79 shows us how to sing and pray in solidarity with the millions of Christians who are.

What impact do you hope Psalms for all Seasons will have on churches—and what types of churches?

For people in evangelical churches with no remembrance of the Psalter, this will give them food to rediscover the Psalms. For those Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic congregations with a remembered Psalter tradition, this resource can help them reinvigorate their tradition—and cross boundaries. In churches that use a lectionary and/or a prayer book, we hope Psalms for all Seasons will help them include psalms or psalm portions that are not included in the lectionary.

We have no dream of seeing this book in Lutheran pews, but we hope it goes to Lutheran choirs, pastors, and worship leaders. Maybe instead of chanting the psalm from Lutheran Book of Worship or Evangelical Lutheran Worship, they’ll go off the page some Sunday and see how Catholic or Reformed or contemporary or global musicians might be singing the psalm.


Reserve your copy of Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship. Join Martin Tel and others during a public festival of singing from this book when it’s released during the 2012 Calvin Symposium on Worship