The Psalms, which make up the great hymnbook at the heart of the Bible, have been the daily lifeblood of Christians, and of course the Jewish people, from the earliest times. Yet in many Christian circles today, the Psalms are simply not used. And in many places where they are still used, whether said or sung, they are often reduced to a few verses to be recited as a ‘filler’ between other parts of the liturgy or worship services. In the latter case, people often don’t seem to realize what they’re singing. In the former case, they don’t seem to realize what they’re missing.
Suppose the Psalms had been lost and had never been printed in any Bibles or prayer books. Suppose they then turned up in a faded but still legible scroll, discovered by archaeologists in the sands of Jordan or Egypt. What would happen? When deciphered and translated, they would be on the front page of every newspaper in the world. Many scholars from many disciplines would marvel at the beauty and content of these ancient worship songs and poems.
In some parts of contemporary Christianity, the Psalms are no longer used in daily and weekly worship
The Psalms are among the oldest poems in the world, and they still rank with any poetry in any culture, ancient or modern, from anywhere in the world. They are full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope. Anyone at all whose heart is open to new dimensions of human experience, anyone who loves good writing, anyone who wants a window into the bright lights and dark corners of the human soul – anyone open to the beautiful expression of a larger vision of reality should react to these poems like someone who hasn’t had a good meal for a week or two. It’s all here.
And astonishingly, it doesn’t get lost in translation. Most poetry suffers when translated into other languages because it relies for its effect on the sound and rhythm of the original words. It’s true that the Hebrew of these poems is beautiful in itself for thosewho can experience it. But the Psalms rely for their effect on the way they set out the main themes.
In some parts of contemporary Christianity, the Psalms are no longer used in daily and weekly worship. This is so especially at points where there has been remarkable growth in numbers and energy, not least through the charismatic movements in various denominations. The enormously popular ‘worship songs’, some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaced, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshippers, the steady rhythm and deep soul- searching of the Psalms themselves. This, I believe, is a great impoverishment.
By all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their enduring charm. I hope that one of the effects of this little book will be to stimulate and encourage those who lead worship in many different settings to think and pray about how to reintegrate the church’s ancient prayer book into the regular and ordinary life of their fellowships. The Psalms represent the Bible’s own spiritual root system for the great tree we call Christianity. You don’t have to be a horticultural genius to know what will happen to the fruit on the tree if the roots are not in good condition.
But I’m not writing simply to say, ‘These are important songs that we should use and try to understand.’ That is true, but it puts the emphasis the wrong way round – as though the Psalms are the problem, and we should try to fit them into our world. Actually, again and again it is we, muddled and puzzled and half-believing, who are the problem; and the question is more howwe can find our way into their world, into the faith and hope that shine out in one psalm after another.
The Psalms were the hymnbook that Jesus and his first followers would have known by heart.
As with all thoughtful Christian worship, there is a humility about this approach. Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate upsurge of emotion, however ‘Christian’, but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy that is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That’s what those great chapters, revelation 4 and 5, are all about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer that has been going on for millennia and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent non-psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoilt child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his game Boy.
In particular, I propose that the regular praying and singing of the Psalms is transformative.
It changes the way we understand some of the deepest elements of who we are, or rather, who, where, when and what we are: we are creatures of space, time and matter, and though we take our normal understandings of these for granted, it is my suggestion that the Psalms will gently but firmly transform our understandings of all of them. They do this in order that we may be changed, transformed, so that we look at the world, one another and ourselves in a radically different way, which we believe to be God’s way
The Psalms were the hymnbook that Jesus and his first followers would have known by heart. Even in today’s world, where electronic gadgets have radically reduced the need for memorisation, most of us can remember the songs, whether sacred or secular, that were popular in our childhood and teenage years. Jesus and his contemporaries would have known the Psalms inside out. Paul would have prayed and sung them from his earliest years. What Jesus believed and understood about his own identity and vocation, and what Paul came to believe and understand about Jesus’s unique achievement, they believed and understood within a psalm-shaped world. That same shaping, remarkably, is open to us today. That is the burden of my song.
By Ian Matthews
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