The Psalms in Worship

Q Is it really legitimate to treat some psalms as if they refer to Jesus?

A Christians have long interpreted several psalms (16, 24, 72, 110, and others) as referring to Jesus. This is very similar to Christological readings of other Messianic prophecies, such as Isaiah 7, 9, or 40.

Like all Old Testament prophecy, it is important to realize that these texts can be understood to have more than one referent or “fulfillment.” They may refer to a just ruler or a hoped-for ruler of Israel, as well as to Jesus. And they can refer to both Jesus’ first and second coming. That is why so many psalms are associated with celebrations of the Christian year. See if you can discern the typical Christian year use for these Psalms: 16, 22, 24, 72, 22, 47, and 118.

Q The psalms are so violent! What do we do with all these violent texts?

A As much as we might want to soften the violence of the psalms, many of them are war songs, including songs that depict God as the warrior. So the first thing to do is to recognize and acknowledge this theme.

These texts can be very important for us when we see the kind of spiritual warfare that rages all around us. God is resolutely set against evil. Jesus’ triumph over death is not only a resurrection, but also a conquest. That is why so many psalms of triumph find a natural place in Christian worship: Psalm 47 on Ascension Day, Psalm 118 on Easter, and so on.

At the same time, it is important to see the entire range of imagery for God in the psalms. God is not only a warrior, but also a rock; not only a king, but also a shepherd. The warrior psalms yearn for life beyond war. They lead to the peaceable kingdom described in Psalm 85, for example, where “righteousness and peace shall kiss.”

In general, we need to be much more careful with musical or other settings that treat this violent imagery lightly. While I am a big fan of metrical psalmody, I have also discovered that responsorial psalm settings are ideal for some of the most challenging psalm texts. It allows worshipers space to listen and think through the words of the psalm. We can sing metrical settings of texts we love and use responsorial settings for texts that challenge or perplex us, realizing that both are important for our growth in understanding.

In theory I like the idea of using more psalms in worship. But in the process of weekly planning, psalm settings so often end up as our second and third choices. In the relatively short space of a worship service, with a limited number of choices and many worthy goals that demand our time, it can be very easy to leave the psalms behind.

We need to recognize that the psalms are part of God’s Word, sharper than a two-edged sword, texts that do not return to God void. They are ecumenical and global, used by believers in all cultures. They offer spiritual protein that provides lasting sustenance. In other words, they are worth our best effort.

Consider starting with twelve psalms that express a range of emotions, perhaps 1, 13, 19, 22, 29, 32, 62, 103, 121, 131, 133, 147. Then find accessible settings of the entire psalm (not just a verse or two). Try to incorporate at least one in every musical rehearsal with your worship team or choir, whether or not it is slated to be used in worship. Then work toward incorporating two or three of these each month into your congregation’s diet. Over time, this discipline can become a remarkable gift to your congregation.

Q What are some of the richest parts of the Psalter that are most in need of exploration?

A One unexplored theme is disappointment with other human beings. We have long explored the God-focused aspects of the psalms: their expressions of dependence on God, their vivid depictions of God’s character. But many are focused on other people: evil people for whom everything turns out well; enemies who generate fear; dishonest people who destroy relationships; even a few good people who bring about justice.

These texts about other people seem at first not to have a natural liturgical function. They don’t naturally serve as texts for praise or confession or blessing.

Still, many of them could have a more prominent place in worship, particularly when used just prior to prayers of confession, lament, or petition. Take Psalm 37, for example—a probing study of human envy and pride. Musical or dramatic settings of this psalm likely will not crack the top ten of the CCLI song list anytime soon. But a thoughtful rendering of this psalm prior to either a sermon or prayer of confession promises not only a poignant description of human folly but also a deeper appreciation for the wisdom of God’s law and the redemptive power of God’s grace.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 96 © June 2010 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.