The Book of Psalms is an extraordinary treasure trove of prayer, instruction, prophecy and praise. Specifically designed to be sung, these sacred songs are quite different from any other form of music we may sing in Church because they form part of the biblical canon and are, therefore, God’s inspired Word. It seems strange then that these wonderful ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’, which once formed the hymnbook of the early Church, are conspicuous by their absence in many assemblies and particularly in modern worship. Why is this?
In practical terms, singing Psalms can be very challenging. It’s certainly true that Hebrew verse is quite different from what we’re familiar with today. Characterised by various forms of parallelism and powerful imagery, it employs neither metre nor rhyme and this presents significant musical challenges in providing arrangements that can be easily and enthusiastically sung. But we shouldn’t let these challenges deter us from embracing this wonderful repertoire of divinely inspired verse.
A significant number of Psalms have superscriptions which include instructions for how they were to be performed and they make it clear that many, if not all, were designed to be sung with instrumental accompaniment. This notion is further enhanced within the body of certain Psalms with references to using specific instruments and, indeed, to playing with skill.
‘Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; make melody to Him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to Him a new song; play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts.’ (Psalm 33:2-3)
Over the centuries, the original melodies have been lost. So how then are we to sing the Psalms? There are several possibilities and here are three possible methods:
Word for word interpretation
Whatever translation you choose to employ – the beautifully lyrical King James version or a more punchy, contemporary version – the challenge arises from the fact that the particularities of Hebrew poetry make it difficult to harness the text into a singable format.
One option is to compose music specifically for each Psalm. The difficulty here is that the melodies necessarily tend to be quite irregular and consequently they can be difficult to sing. While I can see the value of this method for memorising large passages of Scripture, I’m not persuaded that it’s suited to mixed ability congregational singing.
There is, however, one particular application of word for word interpretation that may be entirely suitable for most assemblies – setting an individual verse, or perhaps two, to music. Given that the text is much shorter, the musical challenge is significantly reduced. The melodies often remain a little irregular but the results can be delightful and, very importantly, easy to sing.
These short extracts can be a wonderful way of memorising individual verses and storing them in our hearts. They’re also very helpful during mediation and prayer in private worship.
The metrical Psalms address the challenges of rhythm and rhyme by adjusting the words to fit recognisable melodies. And what a good job they do!
For me, the great advantage is that any one particular Psalm can be sung to a number of different tunes providing they’re written in the same metre. This makes for a great deal of variation even if you choose to sing the same Psalm time and again.
While congregational singing is not about the music but rather about the words, a change in melody for a particular Psalm can illuminate the lyrics in quite a different way and help us to pay more attention to what we’re singing. For example, we’re probably all used to singing Psalm 23 to the beautiful melody of Crimond. If you try it with Brother James’ Air, it sounds altogether different, new and fresh.
There are some excellent hymns based on Psalms and here are a few examples:
- Jesus shall reign where’er the sun (Psalm 72)
– Oh God, our help in ages past (Psalm 90)
– Joy to the world (Psalm 98)
- Praise my soul the King of Heaven (Psalm 103)
- Oh Worship the King, all glorious above (Psalm 104)
– How pleased and blessed was I (Psalm 122)
While the Psalms themselves are part of God’s inspired Word, hymns are not so it’s wise to apply the same caveat to hymns based on Psalms that we would to any new hymn we choose to sing in Church. That is, to check that the lyrics are in keeping with Scripture.