There is a medley of reasons for our desuetude of Psalms. Not only are they my 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. The Psalms are 3000 year old poetry. They are also Hebrew poetry, and translation is typically the toughest 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 often. Shepherds and soldiers and priests and kings wrote these poems. None of us hold 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 into a sing-able format, it usually sounds odd 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 actually seems that most of church history has not used these inspired songs because it was 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?
That said, don’t forget 1 Corinthians 10:6 and Romans 15:4. The Psalms are undoubtedly included for our instruction and encouragement to endure, even if that takes effort to appreciate.
4. Postural Dissonance
Not only are we uncomfortable with the Jewish distinctives, we are also uncomfortable with the upfront 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. But maybe he needs us to keep singing the next verses that follow the frustration, the verses renewing hope in the Lord.