Framing the Psalms for Singing
Imagine a piece of art that you would like to hang or install in your home. If it’s a painting, you’d want to frame it and then find the right spot in the right room for it, so that your viewing of the painting would be enriched by its placement. If it’s a sculpture, you’d want to find the spot that best honors the piece and allows you to enjoy it fully.
Singing the psalms in worship is something like that. A particular psalm needs a particular musical setting—a frame, if you will. The psalm needs to be sung in a fitting place in the liturgy in order for us to hear its message well. And, just as visual art may incorporate a variety of media, so too the psalms can be framed in many ways: mixing and matching chant, various metrical structures, and refrain styles.
In this article we’ll consider a variety of frames for three psalms, also considering when to sing them so that they become beautiful “pictures” of God’s wisdom to strengthen our faith as we worship on Sunday and in our daily lives.
Congregations most often sing psalms of praise, which are often appropriately placed near the beginning of worship services. But in this article we’ll look at other kinds of psalms, including psalms of wisdom (Ps. 1), longing for God (Ps. 63), and trust (two settings of Psalm 131).
Also included here are meditations on these three psalms by Kevin Adams (see p. 13), who has served as a church planter/pastor at Granite Springs Church in Lincoln, Calif., since 1991 (see the church’s website at www.granitesprings.org, as well as a profile of Granite Springs in RW 87 at www.reformedworship.org). Adams’ thirty-one short meditations on selected psalms were written for the January 2010 Today devotion booklet, published in several languages by Back to God Ministries International. These excerpts were used with permission; the full collection is available at www.thisistoday.net.
Psalm 1: Planted by the Water
Psalm 1 is a wisdom psalm that introduces not only the entire book of Psalms, but the foundational direction of a faithful life before God. The choices we make in life, young or old, all come down to taking one of two paths set before us. We are called to follow the path of wisdom and delight, resulting in blessing—not the path of the wicked, which leads away from God.
John Ylvisaker set Psalm 1 to the African American spiritual “We Shall Not Be Moved” that has often been used in contexts of suffering and social protest. Many children learned a version of that spiritual with the text “The Wise Man Built His House upon the Rock,” based on Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7. The juxtaposition works very well. Children need this kind of rooting in God’s wisdom from their earliest days. These four stanzas provide a paraphrase of the psalm, and the refrain highlights the central image of “a tree that’s planted by the water,” rooted deeply so that “we shall not be moved.”
The setting is from Borning Cry, Volume II (2002), compiled and composed by John Ylvisaker (www.ylvisaker.com). Borning Cry includes hundreds of hymns, anthems, and biblical songs, most in a rather informal folk style. Volume II starts off with settings of all 150 psalms, and continues with a wealth of carols and children’s music, four hundred songs in all. Ylvisaker credits the text to African-American composer Edward Boatner (1898-1981; see www.afrovoices.com/boatner.html). Boatner was certainly known for his arrangements of spirituals, but it is unclear if he actually prepared the Psalm 1 text to fit this spiritual.
So when’s the best time to sing this psalm? It is included in the Revised Common Lectionary for all three years; for Year C (2010), it is assigned for September 5, at the beginning of the school year. Consider singing it that Sunday and inviting children to learn it in the next weeks in Sunday school, singing it again in a few weeks during the service. Encourage parents to learn it along with their children. The accompaniment should be simple, preferably on piano and/or guitar. Within worship, use this as a response of faith after any message that calls for commitment to follow Christ.
Psalm 63: My Soul Thirsts for God
David is in the desert, longing for safety, security, and salvation from his enemies, when he prays this prayer of longing for God. He remembers God’s love from past experiences of worship in the sanctuary—memories that give him hope for the future.
This psalm was prescribed for daily prayer in the early church, a time of persecution. These days, many believers also suffer—in prison, in nursing homes, in places of danger and resistance to their beliefs. They too can be blessed by remembering past experiences of worship, even while they are alone and feeling cut off from the community of believers.
Others who gather with God’s people on Sunday mornings may be struggling to believe, thirsty for living water. We all struggle with thirsts, sometimes with cravings that bring us away from rather than toward God. When we pray this psalm, we pray not only for ourselves, but also on behalf of all those who are cut off from the comfort of Christian community.
What kind of frame can set off this psalm well? I’ve been wondering lately about the lack of chant in the Reformed tradition. Chant has the advantage of proclaiming the straight text of Scripture. Chant is not modified by poetic rewriting to fit metrical structures of line length and even poetry; nor is it modified by various songs based on the psalm, as good as they may be. Perhaps chant is too difficult for most congregations to consider. It certainly takes more practice to chant psalms graciously than an occasional attempt on a Sunday morning allows. Chant flourishes best in the daily practice that still exists in some monastic traditions.
The setting of Psalm 63 offered here gives the congregation a refrain. The entire psalm is read, not chanted, but with musical support. This jazz setting might provide just the kind of prayer congregations can enter into, especially those that minister to young adults who are thirsting for God. It will take some rehearsal, and sensitivity on the part of both musicians and reader. During the singing of the psalm verses, the music must be quietly supportive of the clear proclamation of the text.
This setting was prepared by Daniel Richardson and Angel Napeiralski when Angel was a student at Calvin College; their setting of Psalm 27 in a similar style was included in RW 70. Consider supplementing keyboard with bass and percussion on the refrain, but stick to keyboard only under the psalm text. The keyboard player, as is typical in jazz, could use the notation and chords provided here as the basis for improvisation. To listen to the refrain sung by Angel and played by Daniel, visit http://tinyurl.com/y9so2ur.
The first time through have the refrain sung by a soloist, then repeated by all, followed by the solo reading (or perhaps chanting?) of the psalms in sections, with the refrain repeated by all after each section: stanzas 1-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12. For the final section of stanzas 9-12, the keyboard player should move to the second accompaniment and then transition from G major up to A flat for the final statement of the refrain.
Psalm 131: The Pride from My Heart
Psalm 131 has never been a popular psalm in worship; it sounds arrogant to say, “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” So how does one sing this psalm in worship?
The Iona Community in Scotland offers a gentle setting of this short psalm that comes with these comments: “For many people, Psalm 131 is a stumbling block. There seems to be an immodesty about the sentiment, a spiritual boasting. Not so. The words were never intended to be shouted from the rooftops. They are words of intimate personal honesty, the kind of honesty which two lovers share after a quarrel, when one admits that he or she has been wrong, has been big-headed or has overestimated his or her capabilities. Then forgiven and warmed by the love of the other, tranquility is found” (Psalms of Patience, Protest, and Praise, ed. John Bell, GIA).
The key to praying this psalm lies in the movement from ourselves to God, waiting for God with hope and quietness, learning to be content. There is a great need in our culture to learn contentment. Sometimes we need to be pruned, stripped of our ambition, bringing to mind Jesus’ words in John 15:2. Singing this psalm in community can encourage us all to let go of ambition in order to trust in God with a quiet heart.
The Iona text—written in community, so that no one person claims authorship, modeling humility—is not so much a direct treatment of the text as a poetic paraphrase. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, does something similar:
O God, I’m not trying to rule the roost, I don’t want to be king of the mountain. I haven’t meddled where I have no business or fantasized grandiose plans.
The melody is a gentle Scottish folk song. Your choir might want to sing this first, quietly and tenderly. For congregational singing too, sing quietly. Once the melody starts to take hold of you, you’ll find yourselves humming it, and bringing the words to mind, allowing you to be quiet too. Consider singing this psalm as part of a congregational prayer.
Psalm 131: Like a Child
For another setting of Psalm 131 that settles more on verse 2, consider this very simple refrain taken from a larger anthem published by Hope Publishing Company (M-051-469894-0). The accompaniment to the refrain could be played on organ and/or sung by a choir (only altos, tenors, and basses), while the melody is sung first by a soloist or soprano section of the choir and then is repeated by the entire congregation. Sing the refrain, then read Psalm 131:1-2, repeat the refrain, read verse 3, then conclude with the refrain one more time. The advantage of this structure is that the entire and straight biblical psalm is present as well as the refrain.
Keeping Up, or Not
Blessed are those who do not walk in step with the wicked. –Psalm 1:1
Rhonda has a new boyfriend. He’s funny, charming, and handsome. Her pulse races when he calls; her temperature rises when they touch. It feels wonderful to be with him. She gushes, “It’s like we’ve known each other all our lives.” People who don’t know her are charmed by her infatuation. Her friends are not. They’ve heard all this before. Rhonda always has a new boyfriend. One goes, another comes in an endless parade. Each is the true love of her life. And then they disappear.
Like Rhonda, we want to stay current. We buy a warmup suit, a Prius, or an Xbox 360 to keep pace. Part of us is desperate to be sleek enough or smart enough or charming enough. The present moment urges us, “Do something!” Unsettled, we shift girlfriends or jobs or vehicles or political parties or churches.
Psalm 1 pictures this life of keeping up and its alternative: a life with deep roots. Cultivating spiritual roots gives us the stability of a California redwood. Consider a walk in Redwood National Park. Surrounded by peaceful, elegant giants, we no longer hear NASCAR races, sniff the latest perfume, or eye the latest clothing style. Anchored to one place for a thousand years and more, these ancient trees give life to all that surrounds them.
In a sense, the righteous person must take time to stand still. Spiritual health depends on it!
Our Heart’s Desire
You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you . . . . —Psalm 63:1
In prayer we express our longings. We utter our deepest needs. We ache. We hurt. We cry. We wait.
In a sense all our longings are the same. Sure, we are different people with unique lives and individual feelings. But our longings, our friends’ longings, and even our enemies’ longings point in the same direction. The objective of all our longings is God.
God designed us to long for him. Every hunger pang, every craving to buy, to belong, or even to right a wrong shows that in our deepest heart we long for God. We want to know and be known by him, to love and be loved by him.
One day Jesus met a woman carrying a water jug. She was thirsty for God but didn’t know it. Divorced five times and ostracized by her community, she avoided people, preferring to draw water alone. She tried dodging Jesus’ conversation with religious chit-chat (John 4).
But the more Jesus talked, the more she craved what he had. Soon the woman with the water jar found herself asking Jesus for a drink. Who could guess that the living water he was talking about was the gift of his own blood by which her life could be redeemed?
This woman didn’t know she had been praying, but she was. Going from husband to husband, from fad to fad, she was pleading. She was searching for God.
— Kevin Adams
Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. —John 15:2
Every Spring, calm, law-abiding citizens grab sharp objects that can cut, slash, and lop. It’s pruning time. Pruning is often misunderstood. It can look like horrible mutilation to people who have no experience with it.
I live on a fifth of an acre, a modest lot on which we once had eleven fruit trees. After our first growing season an experienced gardener volunteered to help me with my first pruning. I loved those trees like family members: small, vulnerable relatives needing tender treatment. I wanted to leave as much growth as I could, hoping for fruit to come soon!
He knew better. He lopped and cut and snipped and sheared, and when he was done, half of my beloved fruit trees lay on the ground. He left nothing but a skeleton!
So the next year I didn’t invite him back. I pruned my own trees. You should have seen how many peaches we had that year! But a week before harvest two main branches broke under the weight of the fruit. That year and the next, my beloved tree was broken.
Eugene Peterson calls Psalm 131 “the pruning psalm.” This small psalm lops off “unruly ambition”—our tendency to act as if we are totally independent. It also cuts away “apron strings” that we no longer need as we mature. If we are not careful, doing things our way might break us in half. Thank God for being our gardener.
— Kevin Adams