A word study on "psalm," calling out the deep historical tradition of not only reading, but also singing psalms.
"Above the couch of David, according to Rabbinical tradition, there hung a harp," wrote Rowland Prothero inThe Psalms in Human Life. "The midnight breeze, as it rippled over the strings, made such music that the poet-king was constrained to rise from his bed, and, till the dawn flushed the eastern skies, he wedded words to the strains."
This story is as wishfully speculative as it is beautiful, but it reminds us of one central truth about the Psalms: they are music. First and foremost, they are pieces of music, to be played, sung, and danced to.
It's a healthy reminder to those of us who read the Psalms much more than we sing them. We risk turning this music into merely words, poetry into prose. I grew up in a church that did a responsive reading of a psalm every Sunday night. Too often these were perfunctory recitations that lacked most of the vibrancy of the original material. Imagine doing a responsive recitation of a song like this:
Leader: Happy birthday to you.
People: Happy birthday to you.
Leader: Happy birthday, dear Susan.
People: Happy birthday to you.
Or, before a sporting event:
Leader: Oh say, can you see?
People: By the dawn's early light ...
How much would be lost if we experienced these songs mostly like this? Their music is part of their lifeblood.
Which is not to say we should abandon all readings and recitations of the Psalms, and stick to music only. The Psalms can still speak to us vividly in a silent reading or a public recitation.
But let the word "psalm" itself remind us that the DNA of the book of Psalms is music. The word "psalm" is Greek for "song." It literally means "twitching of the strings of a harp." I've been toying with the habit of privately referring to the Psalms as "the Strums." "Psalm 23" becomes "Strum 23." The terminology isn't fit for public worship, but informally, it's a reminder of what the Psalms are at their core. They are music.
Of course, the Psalms are much more than that. "The Psalms are a font of inspiration, encouragement, and instruction in the life of both public and private prayer," John Witvliet writes in The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship.
In this one book of the Bible we find the full range of human experience in God's creation—emotions of every color, cries of all kinds, intimacy with a deity. Even when the psalmist's complaints seem trivial or petulant, it serves to praise God as the one who owns every moment and every emotion of each of his human creatures. As John Calvin wrote:
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, 'An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;' for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented 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 [our] minds are wont to be agitated.
And so the Hebrew name for the book—Tehillim, meaning "praises"—seems incomplete. Unless you think of every part of the life we live before God—even our anger and our lament—as a song of praise to the one who grants us life in the first place.
This is a book to live by, to pray by, to feel deeply, and to think carefully about. Any of us who are tempted to reduce our faith to something abstract, cerebral, compartmentalized, or unspoken need only to open these pages and let the shouts and sighs leap out, springing up like notes from the strings of a harp.