There is a medley of reasons for our desuetude of Psalms. Not only do I offer these reasons as observations, they also are my experience.
Our use of psalms is flat. What I mean by flat is that we lack interest in the Psalms. We don’t give much energy to them. Likewise, if a musical note is flat, the sound is below the true or normal pitch. Our use of Psalms is well below the pitch God’s praise calls for.
Why is our use of Psalms flat? Here are four types of dissonance (lack of harmony or tension) between us and the Psalms.
1. Lyrical Dissonance
We are not used to the style of writing. As a culture we don’t have much familiarity with, let alone appreciation for, poetry. Plus the Psalms are 3000 year old poetry. They are also Hebrew poetry, and translation typically takes its toughest toll on poetry. A frequent setting for these poems is a dessert, sometimes the temple, other times the palace. We don’t find ourselves in similar places very often. Shepherds and soldiers and priests and kings wrote these poems. Most of us don’t work any of these occupations. The poetic devices, other than alliteration and maybe chiasm, are things we are not comfortable with.
And when we do give these words our precious time
most of these inspired lines don’t even end the same way (or rhyme!).
2. Musical Dissonance
Who knows what the original songs sounded like? In order for us to get the English translation into a sing-able format, it usually sounds strange to us, like a six year-old forcing everyday conversation into tune. Men in monasteries in the first few centuries used to memorize and chant the Psalms. More men during the Reformation and Renaissance wrote new melodies to compliment the Psalms in their respective languages. But it seems that most men through church history have not used these inspired songs because it is hard.
It is a challenge for us today. There are some who will take the time to learn, to appreciate, maybe even to play the more difficult stuff. Many would prefer to have catchy, easy tunes. There is a reason that popular music is popular.
3. Theological Dissonance
We are not sure what to do with Israel. Our Presbyterian and Covenantalist brothers would say that Israel was the Old Testament Church and the Church is the New Testament Israel. But that by itself doesn’t solve all of the issues. What about Israel’s King and immediate theocracy? What about all of the national themes? What about all of the military battles? We are not Israel. Jesus is our King, but that works out differently in the United States in the 21st Century. Can we find anything for us in the Psalter? Will we be able (or give the effort) to think through the steps to make proper application?1
4. Postural Dissonance
Not only are we uncomfortable with the Jewish distinctives, we are also uncomfortable with the unambiguous lows (though we may not get cozy with their highs, either). We prefer our piety a little dishonest; keep the hard parts of your life to yourself.
There are discouraged, weary, if not depressed and borderline bitter cries in these songs. It isn’t that we don’t ever doubt, we just wouldn’t say it out loud in church company. We certainly wouldn’t write it down in a song, or think that others should sing it in worship. If we heard a man praying like certain psalmists we might confront him afterward. Maybe he needs to be corrected. Maybe instead he needs us to keep singing the next verses that follow the frustration, the verses renewing hope in the Lord.
These are high bars between us and the Psalms, but there are reasons to jump.
- I can’t let this get too far without a response. Don’t forget 1 Corinthians 10:6 and Romans 15:4. The Psalms are undoubtedly included for our 21st century instruction and encouragement to endure, even if that takes effort to appreciate. ↩
Somewhat recently a large group of believers were taken from their homes. Their capital city was attacked and those who weren’t killed were taken captive. They were allowed to live but provided with minimal rations and put under hard labor. We would consider them only a level above being prisoners of war.
What did they do to keep their faith alive while in exile? How would they stir up hope among themselves that God would return them to their homeland? Would they compromise and lose their distinctions and blend in with the culture? Or would they be known as a group within their captivity? What would identify them?
The nation of Israel was taken captive a few times in its national history, a history that is “somewhat recent” to us in light of eternity. The book of Psalms was collected and collated around some of these disasters.
Book 1 (1-41) emphasizes David’s kingship and troubles. Book 2 (42-72) is Israel’s troubles in general. Book 3 (73-89) is Israel in exile, the darkest of the five sections. Book 4 (90-106) is end of the exile and looking to the heavenly King. Book 5 (107-150) is exaltation. It’s a pattern of problems, prayer, and praise found not only in individual songs, but the whole hymnbook leads through the same process.
Many of the Psalms were written in the middle of trouble. The songs were certainly sung in the middle of trouble. These songs were weapons for the soul, in good and bad times.
For example, what if your captors made you sing your praise songs to taunt you? What would you sing? You’d get a psalm.
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
(Psalm 137:6, see verses 1-3 for the context)
We have a variety of strategies for dealing with low tides of the soul, but singing is not usually one of them. Singing hymns and psalms and spiritual songs even less.
I didn’t grow up as a psalm singer. In my childhood at church, we only sang hymns and we only sang out of a hymnal. If you can imagine it, we didn’t have projectors putting lyrics up on a screen for all to read. I think we read from the book of Psalms, probably, or at least some of them such as Psalm 23. The Gideons included it in the back of their New Testament copies so we probably gave Psalms at least a little more attention than Leviticus.
I attended a variety of churches while in college and stuck with one throughout seminary. This is the second congregation I’ve been a part of since graduating seminary. And this is the first church I’ve ever been a member of where we’re actually attempting to sing any actual Psalms.
Some churches I attended just didn’t have a high appreciation for the Bible. The leadership wanted visitors to feel comfortable more than they wanted the truth to be clear. Of those churches that did esteem the truth, most were Epistolary Evangelicals, the truth-tube believers that live almost entirely in the New Testament letters. Ain’t nobody got time for the Old Testament mess.
And why bother? The Old Testament is a mess. Besides, aren’t there issues with New Testament Christians looking to Old Testament contexts for help? As for songs, aren’t there plenty of good, new sources today? And don’t Psalm-people tend to be pretentious people? A few of you may have grown up around gold-plattered snot-fests where patriarchs looked down on anyone who even mentioned the name Sandi Patty or Twila Paris.
I get the resistance. I am a notoriously slow processor. It can take me hundreds of pages and sometimes hundreds of days to think over and work out my responses to certain issues, let alone maybe change my mind. I am also a career contrarian. I do not like to be persuaded; I like to argue. I resist being led (sometimes a strength) and am hard to edify (always a weakness). But I have been persuaded that the chasm between us and the Psalms is worth crossing. It is work, but it is worth it. So, yes, I am trying to persuade us to believe in Christ, to die like Christ, and to know the Psalms just as Jesus did.
In the next couple of posts I want to address reasons that we might not utilize the Psalms in our personal and corporate worship, along with reasons that we should.
Abraham Kuyper stated that his aim was to equip a body
of spiritually mature, sober-living, serious people who, consciously assuming God’s promises and in the tradition of the historic Reformed church, sought to make visible in their personal lives and the life of the nation something of the kingdom of God.
—quoted in For the Healing of the Nations: Essays on Creation, Redemption, and Neo-Calvinism