Sing us one of the songs of Zion – looking at the Psalms

With the psalms, this series reaches the book of the Old Testament most heavily used by Christians. It is the most quoted in the New Testament, and most read, sung and prayed in the life of the church. The Lectionary for Mass, which became the basis of the Revised Common Lectionary, reintroduced the psalms to celebrations of the Eucharist, and did so in a particular way.

Older eucharistic services, whether the Latin Missal or the Book of Common Prayer, only had an epistle and gospel reading, with chants or (eventually) a hymn between the two. When the new lectionary introduced an Old Testament reading (linked to the gospel) it also introduced a psalm which in some way responded to the Old Testament reading.

People are invited to respond to the word of scripture using other words of scripture. The pattern of speaking scripture to God, and hearing scripture from God was typical of forms of daily prayer, which many people meet, in a rather different way, in Anglican Evensong. It is this nature of the psalms as responses, rather than the provision of a spoken or sung response, that led to them being called responsorial psalms, although most people now associate the name with the use of responses.

King David Playing the Harp (detail), Gerard van Honthorst, 1622, via Wikimedia Commons

This way of using the psalms reminds us of the role the book of psalms plays as the prayer book of the bible. If the other books of scripture help us listen to God, the psalms additionally help us speak to God. That even seems to be the case within the book of psalms. We see the famous penitential Psalm 51 subtitled “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

What does that indicate? Well, it could indicate that David composed a psalm on the spot, which is entirely unmentioned by the story. However, it’s probably more likely that this title indicates that it was written (by whomever) to be sung as a response to the reading of 2 Samuel 12. The idea of using scripture to provide the words in which to respond to scripture may go back a very long way.

We can’t be entirely sure exactly what all the titles of different psalms mean: “Of Asaph” or “Of David” might mean the name of the poet, or they might indicate the title of a collection. Over time, a tradition arose that attributed all the psalms to David, despite the mix of collections shown by the subtitles.

The psalms are all poetry, but in a very particular style, which I discussed briefly in this post. They include praise, prayer and thanksgiving, which continue as staples of Christian and Jewish prayer. But they also include not just penitence, as we have just seen, but also a great deal of lament, which we perhaps do rather less of in church than we should. They teach us what it means to acknowledge in prayer that the world is not as it should be, and that bad things happen to good people.

One feature of the psalms is that they are often more honest in prayer than we are. I’m sure I can’t be the only child who was taught that certain things shouldn’t be prayed for. It may be true that if we are truly praying in Jesus’ name that there are certain things we shouldn’t pray for, but nobody seems to have told those who wrote the psalms there were rules about praying. I sometimes think it is true that it is only by praying for the wrong thing, that we realise (sometimes after a lot of prayer has gone on) that it was the wrong thing to pray for.

There is a degree of raw honesty and emotion in many of the psalms, that tends to get filtered out of our praying. Not all such sentiments are expressed in public worship: the lectionary does edit what is used. As prayers, however, the psalms have much to teach us about being honest in our own praying.

What do we do about some of the difficult verses? Well, the most difficult are usually left out in Sunday worship. But some difficult verses remain. Past generations of Christians have often read these (and other difficult texts of the Old Testament) in a spiritual way. In particular, the “enemies” were treated as demons, or powers and forces of temptation, and therefore praying for their defeat and destruction was seen in a positive light. I find that helpful, although I also sometimes think that by saying those words, I’m standing with the people who feel like that right now.

Whether the psalms are read in church (often by the same reader who has read the first reading), or whether they are sung by a cantor or choir, the reader or singer needs to pay attention to the nature of the psalm as a prayer to be read or sung. It is about helping the congregation own it as their response to the reading. That often means taking sufficient time for the words to sink in. A pause around the congregational response can help.

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