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Why Sing the Psalms?

I’ve been planning and looking forward to this issue for some time. And now it’s finally in your hands! I feel a little selfish in dedicating this entire theme issue to the psalms because part of the impetus for it was my own desire to learn. Why is it that people are attracted to the psalms? What do we make of the current trend of increased psalm singing?

Yes, I studied the psalms in seminary. I learned the various types and the literary conventions that could and did help me understand them better. I studied Hebrew poetry and found it all very interesting. And yes, growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, I sang many of the metrical psalms at the front of the Psalter Hymnal. But I never felt the passion that others had for the psalms and psalm singing. My heart had yet to be engaged.

The story isn’t over, though. I am becoming a convert to the psalms and psalm singing. Not because of any convincing argument but because I am learning to pray them with my heart, to see myself in them, and, more important, to see the larger body of Christ. The psalms aren’t simply a collection of worship songs from a bygone era; they live and breathe because they are Scripture, and the Holy Spirit works through them to comfort, to teach, and to give expression to the full range of human emotion.

I also believe that I am only one person out of a growing body of Christians for whom the psalms are gaining in importance. The horror of 9/11 and the twisted steel of the World Trade Center has shattered our North American veneer of self-reliance and the Teflon coating that made us think we were protected against any tragedy. Since then our world has become bigger and yet closer than we had realized. Tsunamis, earthquakes, fires, and other natural disasters are happening in our backyard. Wars, rumors of war, persecutions, executions, human trafficking, and school shootings are too close for us to ignore.

Our eyes have been opened, and worship leaders have scrambled to find the right words of lament, of comfort, of assurance to utter in our services. Often we can’t seem to sufficiently give voice to our feelings, to truly express our belief. And so, time and time again, worship leaders and pastors like those at Nassau Presbyterian Church (see p. 22) turn to the psalms. In the psalms we find images and words that can help us express all that we feel, from joy to sorrow, from mistrust to trust, from darkness to light.

As they have throughout history, the psalms continue to capture the imagination of poets and song writers, who put them to music that reflects our culture. Suddenly there is a whole new body of psalm settings to give voice to our unbridled joy, our trust, our testimony, our lament.

In this issue we hear from Brian Moss, a student and composer of the psalms in a contemporary style (p. 8); Marty Haugen, the composer of “Shepherd Me, O God,” who encourages us to use the psalms in weekly worship (p. 10); and Carl Daw, who recently retired as director of the Hymn Society (p. 33). This issue also includes a series of services from a young church in California that took on the task of studying and memorizing the psalms (p. 13), the testimony of a woman who grew up with the Genevan Psalter (p. 24), and examples of psalms from various genres (Songs for the Season, p. 27). Additional articles provide resources for incorporating psalms into services of thanksgiving (p. 42), at the bedside of a person who is dying (p. 6), and at times of lament (p. 3).

Psalm singing is not a dying tradition but a revived one. It may look and sound different than it did a generation ago, but it is no less powerful. May you be encouraged to continue or begin your journey with the psalms as individuals and as congregations. Dwell with them; memorize them so that you may find words to express both your greatest joy and sorrow and join your words with those of the church of all times and places. “For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations” (Ps. 100:5).