Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Examine ways in which the Psalter is used in modern churches with critical discussion on how these uses relate to the original setting.

Examine ways in which the Psalter is used in modern churches with critical discussion on how these uses relate to the original setting.


The language of the Psalter owes much to the ancient poems of the Hebrew people, examples of which can be found in the Song of Deborah in Judges 5 and in the supposed Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. There is also sufficient evidence of Canaanite and other poetry, reminiscent of the poetry found in the Psalms, to suggest a common religious and cultural approach to liturgy in the ancient world.

The Book of Psalms reached its present form quite late and the process of completion took several stages from the fifth to the second centuries B.C.E. Some Psalms are related to the events of the Babylonian exile (586-539 B.C.E): for instance, Psalm 137 includes the line “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” while others such as Psalm 119 probably date from the period following the rebuilding of the temple. In its present arrangement the Psalter is divided into five distinct sections and it has been suggested that this may be a response to the five books of the Torah as if to link the Psalms to the Mosaic tradition.

Religious tradition depicts the Psalms as being the work of King David but the Psalms were not written down in Hebrew before the sixth century BCE, several hundred years after the generally accepted dating for the reign of David.

It is now recognized that the headings of the Psalms were added only in later centuries, and are not original. But even if we accord them a high credence as reflecting the tradition of the temple priests and singers, only about half of them contain the words “of David”. G.A.F. Knight, P 8.

Knight goes on to consider what the words “of David” actually mean in relation to the Hebrew preposition “of”. While it can certainly mean composed by David, it can equally mean composed for David, in the style of David, or even authorised by David. Such analysis lends strength to the critical belief that the Psalms are more likely to be the combined work of several writers or schools of writers. Brueggemann gives a helpful analogy when he describes the psalms as being rather like negro spirituals

…that have no author or identifiable place of origin, but simply arise in the life and practice of the community and are found to be recurringly adequate to many different usages over time. W. Bruggemann p279

Various collections of psalms were compiled over time to be used in liturgical settings: the Davidic collection contained all those headed “David” and others were collected by the Sons of Asaph (Ps 50) Sons of Korah (Ps 84). Knight suggests that these “Sons of..” were those responsible for liturgical worship and he goes on to suggest that the continued association of David with the Psalms comes to be in the manner of a patron saint of psalmody. Identification is, of course, further complicated by the fact that in calling David, God called his whole line of descendents: several generations of a King might still be known as David, Son of God. However, at the end of the second book of Psalms comes the statement “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse are ended.” (Ps 72.20) It seems that it was recognized that what was then considered as the Davidic collection was at an end.

What we might understand is that the competing groups were like guilds of liturgical performers and that what we are left with is what Bruggemann calls a “long editorial-traditioning process” (p278) as these various collections were moulded and shaped for use in a variety of liturgical contexts until they settled into the form which we know today.

In the end the Psalter is evidence of a long practice of Israel in finding poetic, artistic ways of to voice faith, but poetic and artistic ways that were being impinged upon, no doubt in decisive insistence, by vigorous theological intention and urgent ideological advocacy. We may imagine that the end result is something of an ecumenical achievement in Israel that sought to bring many diverse traditions together into a generally accepted poetic and theological coherence. W. Bruggemann, P278.

What we also know from studies on the Dead Sea Scrolls is that there were other Psalms which were in general circulation but which did not find universal usage and therefore did not make it into the final canon, so there was clearly a degree of flexibility in liturgical forms.

The Psalms are, then, nothing short of a condensed history of God’s dealings with Israel from the time of David to the late Old Testament period.

Psalms as Liturgy:

The Psalter contains one hundred and fifty psalms, each of which is a religious song. There is some variation in the numbering of the psalms between Christian denominations with Protestant churches using the Hebrew numbering system of the Masoretic tradition and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches following the Greek numbering of the Septuagint, which includes an additional psalm in Psalm 151.

One of the primary clues to the origin of the Psalms as liturgical texts lies in the Septuagint, the translation into Greek of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh. In the Greek text we find the word psalmoi, from which we get the word Psalm itself. Psalmoi originally meant “songs sung to a harp” from the verb psallein “to play on a stringed instrument”.

In the original Hebrew the Psalms are known as the tehelim, or “Praises” and are found in the book known as the ketuvim also known as “Writings”, the third and final section of the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Psalms is the first of the books in the ketuvim and also the first of a subset of three poetic books, together with Proverbs and Job.

When we read many of the Psalms today there is, perhaps, a natural tendency to assume that they were primarily written for individual private use.

More and more we are coming to realize that the religion of the Psalms is cultic – that is, it is the faith of a community at worship. It is quite true that many….were composed by individuals who spoke out of their concrete life situations. In any case, the treasury of Psalms was appropriated by the worshipping community precisely as songs of various origins are incorporated into modern hymn books. Thus when “I” and “my” are used as in Psalm 23, we must think of the whole community joining in to express its faith. Bernhard W. Anderson, p543

The Masoretic manuscripts, (the Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible) which predates the Septuagint, do not only set out the books of the canon, but also the precise accenting for both public reading and private study. Psalms, Proverbs and Job are set out in a particular style which highlights groups of related lines which have a parallel structure in the verses. This parallel structure is known as a “stich”. These reveal the function of the text as poetry. In a passage, there can be a distich (two related lines) or a tristich (three related lines), as seen in Psalm 1:1-2:
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.

In addition there are clear patterns or formats to the Psalms. Psalms may be Hymns of Praise, Laments, Hymns of thanksgiving and, more occasionally, Renewal of Covenant. If we take, for instance, a Psalm of lament. The format here would be:
• Invocation – an address to God.
• Complaint – the cause of the distress such as illness, famine or war.
• A creedal statement of Trust – the supplicant relies on God.
• Petition – an appeal for God’s intervention.
• Thanksgiving – expressing confidence that God hears and answers prayer.
The poetic function of these writings can further be recognised in the additional markings of cantillation, which aids the ritual chanting of readings in synagogue services. The chants are set out following specific accent markings printed in the text to complement the letters and vowel points.

These accents are used to guide the chanting of the sacred texts during public worship. Simply put, these cantillation marks, known in Hebrew as te’amim are linked to musical phrases and therefore show how the word or phrase is sung. The Hebrew word ta'am means "sense", and so the point is that the pauses and intonation revealed by the cantillation accents further highlight the sense or meaning of the passage. The musical themes associated with the signs are known in Yiddish as “trop”, absorbed into English as “trope”: a word or phrase introduced as an embellishment in the sung parts of certain liturgies. Tropes are carefully designed to follow a clear and set pattern.

The Psalms are not simply expansions of subjective feelings of pious Israelites, but are constructed from liturgical conventions and reflect a highly objective dimension of common worship. Brevard S. Childs P171

There are further indications of Psalm usage as being liturgical in what appear to be surviving “stage directions” which seem to have become absorbed into the text of the psalm. In Psalm 118.2 for instance, we have what appear to be a set of responses: “Let Israel say…Let Aaron say…Let those who fear the Lord say…” as an antiphon to the main text. Later in the same psalm (v27) we find “with boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” which strikes a note of dissonance in the context of the psalm unless it is understood as part of the liturgical performance which gives context to the text.

While we can recognize that the psalms were performed in public worship it is not possible to be sure of the exact details, which sets some limits on modern attempts to recreate a liturgy. In Psalm 46, for example, we come across the repeated word selah probably meaning “stop and listen” which is taken, again, as some form of stage direction, believed to be the point at which the vocal chanting is punctuated by an instrumental section. The music has been lost, of course. On other occasions a word at the start of the Psalm might indicate the nature of the instrumental accompaniment. One could speculate, for instance that the phrase “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith” at the start of Psalm 6 indicates the name of the contemporary tune used to accompany the psalm.

The mysterious final phrase, (and others like it at the start of other Psalms) is usually taken to refer to the name of a particular chant or musical motif. Within some psalms we find references to performances involving musical instruments and dance – and in the case of Psalm 150 the ancient equivalent of a symphony orchestra appears to be indicated. A.G. Hunter, p7

In relation to this ancient temple music it would appear that Israel imported some of the arrangements of the Religious Orchestra used in Egypt at the time of its cultural hight.

According to Abraham Zebi Idelsohn, p 7-15, the orchestra of the Temple of Jerusalem consisted of: Nevel, the big harp; Kinnor, the little lyre (“Sheminith” may indicate eight or ten strings). There was also the Shofar, rams horn, (which was simply for signalling purposes), the Chatzotzera, trumpet, the Uggav, small pipe, the Halil, large pipe and the Alamoth, the double flute. In percussion terms there were the Tof, little drum, the Tziltzal, Cymbal and finally there was the Paamonim, the little bells which were attatched to the robes of the high priest to call the attention of the worshippers to the sacred function in the sanctuary.

Christian Liturgical use:

Recognizing, then, that in the psalms we have reflections of the life of the worshipping community which was ancient Israel over a period of time and through a variety of experiences, we have to consider what use the worshipping communities can make of them today. In considering the idea of worshipping community we need to recognize the two main groups as modern Jews, who are the closest heirs to the Hebrew tradition, and Christians who also see themselves as heirs but whose heritage contains, in addition, a belief in Christ as the word of God both forward and backwards: the same yesterday, today and forever. “Before Abraham was, I am.” (Jn 8.58)

It is clear from the New Testament that the early Christians continued to use the patterns of worship they were familiar with from their Jewish heritage and this included the use of the Psalms which have remained, where other Jewish elements were abandoned, an important part of Christian worship. In the early Christian era it was even expected that candidates for the role of Bishop would be able to recite the Psalter from memory, having learnt to do so as monks first.

Schism did not change the use of the Psalms. The Roman Catholic church took the practice from the Orthodox and most Protestant churches including Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist retained it in their turn. All have a systematic cycle for the use of the Psalms which includes the recitation or chanting of most, if not all, of them in public worship. The precise order, varying slightly from church to church, are to be found in the appropriate Lectionary for each denomination. Several smaller denominations such as The Free Church of Scotland choose not to sing any non-Biblical material at all and will only use Psalms or hymns based on them.

A brief oultline of Orthodox usage:

Eastern Orthodox Christians follow the Byzantine Rite which divides the Psalms into 20 kathismata – literally “sittings”. Each kathisma is further subdivided into three stases literally “standings”). Different kathismata are read at different times during the liturgical year and on different days of the week so that all 20 kathismata containing all 150 psalms will have been read during Matins and Vespers in the course of a week.

The Psalms occupy a very important part in Orthodox worship in addition to kathisma readings. In particular the penitential Psalm 50 is widely used and individual verses of various psalms are used as introductions to readings from scripture. Psalm 118 is used at Matins on a Saturday and is a key element of the funeral service. In the period leading up to a funeral, in a reflection of Jewish usage, it would be quite common for the entire Psalter to be chanted over the body.

A brief outline of Roman Catholic Usage:

Again the Psalms have always been important in Roman Catholic usage. The daily practice of using the Bible for prayer, known as the Liturgy of the Hours, concentrated on chanting the Psalms in Latin using musical patterns called psalm tones best recognised today in the sound of the Gregorian Chant. This practice declined among the laity as knowledge of Latin declined. However, with the work of Bishop Richard Challoner, who provided devotional material in English, the Psalms again became accessible for English speaking Catholics from the eighteenth century. Joseph Gillow P456

The pattern of psalm usage before the Second Vatican Council tended to be on a weekly basis or less frequently, as in the Ambrosian Rite, but since 1974 with the publishing of the Breviary the psalms have been distributed over a four week cycle, although monastic usage may vary, often using a one week cycle based on St. Benedict’s sceme. With the development of the modern Breviary came a more formalised approach to the mechanics of performance with three styles sanctioned:
• The direct speaking or chanting of the psalm, in whole or part, by the entire congregation.
• Antiphonally, as two choirs or sections of the congregation recite or chant alternate verses. (This is the most popular method.)
• Responsorially, as the cantor or choir sings or recites the verse and the congregation recites or chants a specific response after each verse.
Since Vatican Two with the revision of the Roman Missal, when the use of vernacular languages was sanctioned, longer psalm texts were reintroduced into the liturgy whereas before, the Tridentine Mass had only retained fragments. This more contemporary arrangement saw the recitation or chanting of large sections of a psalm or indeed a whole psalm after the first reading of scripture, the Responsorial Psalm, because of its method of usage.

A brief outline of Protestant usage:

The use of the Psalms has been very popular in those of the Reformed Traditions and following the Reformation use of paraphrases of the psalms in hymns became very common, particularly in Calvinism where they were used almost exclusively to the exclusion of other hymns and, of course, Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God” is based on Psalm 46. The first book published in North America was a collection of psalm settings, “The Bay Psalm Book” of 1640. By the twentieth Century the psalms have been largely replaced by hymns in public worship but they remain a strong element of private devotion, and are still used in many churches as a formal element of the liturgy: Lutheran, Anglican and Methodist worship books all use the psalms in a structured way, with specific psalms for each day set out in the lectionary. The new Anglican publication “Common Worship”, for instance, has a companion Psalter in modern English.

Those churches who follow the lectionary read three biblical passages each Sunday, one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament epistles and one from the Gospels. In between the reading of the Old and New Testament lessons a Psalm is appointed to be said or sung, one that generally relates in some way to one or more of the lectionary texts.

The psalms have been used in numerous ways in Christian liturgy, at least three of which are familiar to congregations in the Reformed tradition. First, and perhaps most familiar to most of us, is the use of psalms as expressions of the congregation's successive acts of praise, penitence, dedication, and thankfulness. For example, a congregation might begin a service by reciting the votum ("our help is in the name of the Lord") from Psalm 124:8. A second way of using the psalms—linking psalms to Scripture text and sermon—is also familiar to Reformed Christians. Though not every text and sermon can be matched precisely with an appropriate psalm, often a minister can find a few verses that will echo something in the text. Or, thirdly, both psalm and text might be chosen to reflect a particular season or feast of the church year (e.g., Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, etc.) This third way of using the psalms is closely related to the second and is frequently practiced in our churches. Both of these can be grouped under the broad heading of a "psalm-of-the-day" approach. In adopting the new lectionary many churches that have historically been weak in the singing of psalms have now made the Psalter an integral part of their liturgies. The lectionary has transformed Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other churches into psalm-singing churches. It is becoming increasing less probable that one can attend the liturgy of these churches without hearing at least one psalm.

There is currently some controversy in the English speaking Lutheran world over the use of the Psalter in 2006 publications of congregational worship books which may offer some salutory lessons for others intending to render the psalms into the vernacular: the book Evangelical Lutheran Worship has received much criticism: The Book of Common Prayer/Lutheran Book of Worship version

…was rewritten, expurgated, one may say, to avoid calling God by masculine pronouns. The principal way this is accomplished is to turn all the psalms into second person address, “you” instead of “he”. This was variously defended as the objections came in. It was said that many people had wanted to pray the psalms and this new form facilitated that by making them prayers, ignoring the long tradition beginning in Judaism of praying the psalms in the existing biblical form. It was then said that the new form facilitated singing, ignoring the Anglican practice of choral evensong. Philip H Pfatteicher p249

Pfatteicher goes on to lament that the verses of the new Psalter have been renumbered to make it consistent with the New Revised Standard version numbering and has eliminated the asterisk in each verse which is essential to singing the psalms to Gregorian and Anglican chant. In addition this publication has revised the Psalm prayers of the Lutheran Book of Worship which are based on the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours. Pfatteicher questions the principles on which these revisions were made. Indirection is blunted: (“your people” becomes “us”) the prayers are invariably addressed to the Father rather than to the Son and never to the Spirit; references to the church as bride and references to the saints as martyrs are almost entirely removed. He is also disturbed that:

The concluding formula for each prayer is an invariable “Through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.” Avoiding the standard reference to “your Son” and thus selfishly relating him only to us and not also the the Father. Pfatteicher, p256

Pfatteicher goes on to lament that both new American publications, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Service Book, published by the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, abandon the carefully prepared two-year daily lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer which their predecessor publication The Lutheran Book of Worship had adopted, each moving off in a different direction. The outcome of this has serious implications: as there is now no psalm table appointing different psalms to different days of the week and as the traditional attempt to read the whole Psalter over a period of time has been abandoned, familiarity with the Psalter will be drastically reduced and public worship will be the poorer for it. It also disadvantages those pastors who are used to a daily lectionary because they celebrate the Eucharist on weekdays. Many such pastors are eschewing the new publications in favour of the Roman Catholic daily lectionary. His conclusion is that with the Psalms, in Lutheran worship, anything goes now.

I use the example of this controversy over the Psalter in critically evaluating the way the psalms are used in relation to their original setting because it comes from my own tradition and illustrates the point that even when new comprehensive worship books are commissioned and approved by committees of theologically literate people, things can go badly wrong. One must question why things went so badly wrong in America and the conclusion seems to be that, assuming these developments weren’t deliberate, those “theologically literate” people had not got a full appreciation of the historic significance of the psalms in public worship. That is some indictment, but it does illustrate the potential danger that where there are movements for liturgical updating, often alligned with a desire for relevance in any denomination the outcome may turn out to be liturgically and theologically impoverished. That is not to say that in all such new liturgies it will be the Psalter which suffers, but it might illustrate the vulnerability of the traditional and historical role of the psalms to misunderstanding. It does seem, however, that where liberalism, pietism, revivalism or rationalism have come to hold sway, the psalms are frequently seen as archaic, irrelevant, or even unchristian. In that context, bringing them back into the heart of worship may well be problematic.

BibliographyKnight, G.A.F: The Daily Study Bible – Psalms (Vol 1), St. Andrew Press, 1982.
Bruggemann, W: An Introduction to the Old Testament, WJK Press, 2003.
Anderson, Bernhard W: The Living World of the Old Testament, Longman,1993.
Childs, B: Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, Fortress Press, 1989.
Hunter, A.G: Psalms, Routledge, 1999.
Idelsohn, A. Z: Jewish Music, Dover, 1992.
Gillow, Joseph: Biographic Dictionary of the English Catholics, Ganesha Publishing, 1999.
Pfatteicher, Philip H: Reforming the Daily Office in Two new Lutheran Books. (From :Studia Liturgica Vol 37, No.2) Societas Liturgica, 2007.

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