Ask Andrew 3: Psalms

Ask Andrew 3: Psalms

Why did the United Church not include all Psalms in Voices United? Why shorten them? Why don’t we use the music from the Scottish Psalter as responses?

You know how it is with budget cutbacks: we had to let some of the Psalms go!

OK, before I start on a serious answer, let’s have some Psalm Trivia:

How Many Psalms Are There?

The Hebrew Bible has 150 Psalms

The Greek Bible has 151 Psalms

The Protestant Bible has followed the Hebrew pattern, and has 150 Psalms. In those Bibles with the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books, Psalm 151 is added.

SO answer me this: what is the opening phrase of Psalm One Hundred and Sixty-Six?

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth” is the opening line of Psalm 100 and Psalm 66. (This joke made it into The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom).

Why are the Psalms so important?

They have always been musical in nature. The New Testament urges Christians to sing “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” in two separate places.

There is a good reason for this: music is powerful. It carries a huge emotional impact. It is easier to remember the words of songs than sermons. In fact, lots of people get their understanding of theology from hymns. As a minister, I consider this a bit of a problem, since few hymn writers are good theologians. But darn it, they’re so singable!

Reformers knew this 500 years ago. People like John Calvin and John Knox were very tied to an intellectual approach to faith. They saw faith as being about belief, which meant that they wanted to encourage understanding. They distrusted the emotional content of religion, and felt it contributed to superstition. As a result, they also distrusted all church music.

BUT they respected the Word of God above all else. Since the Psalms are part of the Bible, they concluded that it was okay to sing them. The hymns and spiritual songs, however, were banned from church. Only the Psalms (as adapted for music) were acceptable in Reformed church worship, and even so, without instruments in the strictest churches (a tuning fork was permissible for starting on the right note).

The Reformed Church was dominant in Geneva, Switzerland and in Scotland, which is why we have a lot of music from the Genevan Psalter and the Scottish Psalter.

In churches of those days, someone called a Precentor would lead the singing. The Precentor would have a book that offered a selection of melodies that would match the various meters of the Psalms. The same tune might be used for quite a few different Psalms, which made the music either easier or more boring (depending on your perspective). Some became associated with particular Psalms, like the “Old 100th”.

Eventually, organs lost their status as the “instrument of the devil”, and were added to churches. When I went to my first charge in 1984, they still told the story of the time when their first organ was bought. It was put in on Saturday, with choir practice that same night. The next morning as the congregation came for church, they found the organ tossed out the back door into the cemetery! So they picked it up, dusted it off, and brought it in for the service. (I sometimes think we’ve forgotten how to have a good argument in the church)

United Church has edited the Psalms for worship for a long time. In his book Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (1784) John Wesley writes that “Many Psalms (are) left out, and many parts of others, as being highly improper for the mouths of a Christian Congregation.” While the Presbyterians entering Church Union would have had serious scruples about “editing the scriptures”, they went along with this practice when the United Church hymn books began to be produced.

When you think about it, worship leaders have always made choices about which Psalms to use, which to skip, which verses to leave out, or whether to have a Psalm in the service at all. The Reformed tradition has never bound its clergy to a set of required readings, and so in practical terms, a lot of “editing” has gone on for centuries.

For some, it was more of an issue that the people who chose which Psalms to include made it harder for worship leaders to use Psalms that had been left out. However, people find a way. Any church with pew bibles can simply read them!

My personal complaint is that in a really perverse move the Psalms chosen for Voices United often don’t include the Psalms suggested by the Revised Common Lectionary readings listed in the same book! Whose bright idea was that?

Why leave some out? Well, some parts of Psalms are repetitive. Some are violent or militaristic to modern ears, crowing about victories or promising horrible death to enemies. There is the fact that the Psalms were written and collected in a sexist society, and so contain mostly men’s names when heros are proclaimed. The United Church has added several Biblical women’s names to the Psalm texts in Voices United. This was done with a clear understanding that this is still scripture, so when they have added women they also footnote scripture reference to say how that name fits.

As for the music: the reason we have dropped so many Psalter tunes is because so many people feel they are old-fashioned, or boring. For many years there has been a tradition of playing them as dirges, when in fact they can be played at a fair clip (although, to be fair, many of the Reformers would have disapproved: they would have maintained that the singing of scripture should be respectful and serious.)

in Israel, in Jesus’ day, the Psalms were not yet viewed as scripture. They were closer to it in the Jewish community outside of Israel, where the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible was used. Frankly, the difference didn’t matter, because they were in use, being sung in the Temple and in the Synagogues.

The value of the Psalms has always been that they are so obviously human. They are human responses to God, and after millennia they can still express familiar feelings. Even the harsher ones.

I remember the story of an American Army General who came home after a terrible day of arguing with others. He was upset, and couldn’t get to sleep. He started reading in the Psalms and got to one he felt must have been written by another general: it was all blood and guts and fury at his enemies (clearly not one in our hymn book). That Psalm mirrored his own feelings so well that by the end of it he was chuckling at it and himself. He was able to put things in perspective and finally go peacefully to sleep. I suspect that he also brought a much better perspective into work next morning.

That’s the power of the Psalms: they speak to our hearts, not our heads. When combined with music, as they have been from the beginning, they can touch us deeply. They can express what is in our own hearts, and can connect us with past generations of people of faith. They were used by Jesus and his disciples when they sang a psalm at the last supper. And they stretch our connection beyond Jesus, to the generations who came before him, in some cases all the way back to king David.

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