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Where Have All the Psalms Gone? Reclaiming Our First Love

It happened again this past Sunday. A great worship service, including baptism. Wonderful singing—of hymns. No psalms, not one. This is a church that stands in the Reformed tradition known for its singing of the psalms. Whenever I go to ecumenical conferences, I’m identified as one who comes from a psalm-singing heritage. I smile wanly, agreeing. But that heritage is too often missing on Sunday mornings.

What happened? In my own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), we sang only psalms in worship until 1934! We connected to a tradition dating back to the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. When the Psalter Hymnal came out in 1934 (for the first time combining those two words in the CRC), some shook their heads and worried that hymns would draw us away from the psalms. They were right. Psalm singing has fallen on hard times.

Don’t get me wrong. I love hymns, but I’m convinced that unless hymns are nourished by our first and primary songbook, we’re in danger of cutting ourselves off from our biblical roots. Singing the psalms honors the gift God gave us for worship. We need to learn once more how to offer that gift back to God in ways that are compelling in our own culture.

The Reformed Love Affair with the Psalms

This past summer at the annual conference of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, I spoke with enthusiastic gratitude about the Reformed gift to the larger church: the Genevan Psalter, a collection of all 150 psalms set in meter and rhyme, thus “metrical” (versus chanted) psalmody. John Calvin was convinced that metrical psalms would be the most accessible form for the culture of that day.

So Calvin enlisted the best poets and composers to provide French texts and new tunes. The release of the complete Genevan Psalter in 1562 created a publishing sensation. Calvin’s instincts were on target: the psalms became extremely popular, spreading out from Geneva to Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, Scotland, and beyond. Ever since, the psalms have been at the heart of the worship and the piety of people called Reformed.

Losing That Love

So how did the psalms get sidelined? This is a complex question. Somewhere along the way, the tradition got tired; tunes slowed down and flattened out; texts started sounding old. Meanwhile, new hymns with new tunes and fresh poetry were coming out. Besides, so many psalms are laments, and who wants to lament in a feel-good culture? Church is supposed to be joyful.

The fact is that most North American Christians don’t know the psalms very well. We know some of the praise psalms that fit well in the opening of worship. We may use settings of Psalms 32 and 51 as prayers of confession. And Psalm 23 is still the best-known psalm of all. But there are many types of psalms. Some recite history, and our culture is bored with history. Some are laments, but many praise choruses extract the bright verses from longer psalms and skip over those that deal with the “Friday voice of faith,” as Walter Brueggemann put it (see RW 30, p. 2). Those who plan worship may not have had the struggles many of our fellow believers have had with hunger, war, or oppression. But pain and sorrow dwell in every congregation and in most families, and the poor we have with us always. Worship services that are always joyful fail to connect with those living through painful situations.

Reclaiming Our Love

What form would Calvin have chosen today as a vehicle for ensuring that the psalms would form the foundation for the sung prayer of the church? Would he still have chosen the metrical form? That is still the form of our hymns, but not of choruses that are currently popular.

The Genevan Psalter is still a jewel worthy of honoring as part of a rich heritage. Let’s continue to sing some from that collection. But we need new psalm settings too, so that once more we come to know and love the songbook that is God’s gift to the church.

One major sign of hope comes from beyond the Reformed tradition. Ironically, the Roman Catholic reforms of the 1960s are encouraging all Protestant traditions to reclaim the psalms. The Catholic approach was not metrical but took a responsorial form, with short refrains for the congregation to sing and the rest of the psalm to be read or sung by others. Most new hymnals have a healthy number of new psalms of this type, and many people are once more singing the psalms on Sunday mornings. Psalms are also found in every section of Sing! A New Creation, some in new metrical settings, but many in responsorial form.

What really matters is that in our own time and place, we continue to sing the psalms, to pray the psalms, to honor the psalms as the foundation for the song of the church. That goal of the Reformed tradition is worth working toward again today in every Christian tradition. It is also a worthy goal for every service.

Don’t forget to choose at least one psalm for next Sunday.