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Singing the Psalms

Eternal and Yet Ever New

It’s been five hundred years since the Protestant Reformation, a good time to remember the new ways of singing the psalms in the sixteenth century that now, however, seem very old. But the psalms are so much older! The oldest psalm, Psalm 90, which we sing as “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” was probably written by Moses. There were another five hundred years or so between Moses and the end of the reign of King David, the great warrior and sweet singer of Israel who gave us so many of the psalms, and then another thousand years between King David and the birth of Jesus, who was born more than two thousand years ago. In sum, we received the psalms more than three thousand years ago.

These numbers make the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation seem quite recent! In this article I invite you to dip into that long timeline—before, during, and after the important sixteenth-century milestones in the long history of singing the psalms.

Psalms in the Life of Jesus

Mary, the mother of Jesus, knew the psalms well. She was just a teenager when the angel announced she would bear the Messiah, but her own powerful sung response (Luke 1:46–55) is rooted both in the Song of Hannah and in the psalms written a thousand years earlier. The psalms shaped her faith, as they did for every faithful Israelite longing for the Messiah, and she undoubtedly started to teach the psalms to her son when he was a young boy. As a human being, Jesus had to learn the psalms, and they were so deeply embedded in his heart that on the cross the words he cried out included the opening of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus called out in trust, knowing how the psalm would end. He also quoted from Psalm 31: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” What a mystery that the Word made flesh, who as the eternal Son of God gave us the psalms to help us pray, had to learn them. They became companions, deeply embedded in his heart and voice, in life and in death.

Psalms in the First 1,500 Years of the Western Christian Church

We have the ancient words of the Hebrew psalms, though not the chanted melodies, so we don’t know what they sounded like. But the practice of chanting the psalms in Latin reached a peak in the fourth and fifth centuries. John Witvliet, in The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship (Eerdmans, 2007), cites wonderful testimonies from that time period, including one from Athanasius (c. 295–373): “The Psalter . . . is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. . . . You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries” (7). However, the practice of chanting the psalms in Latin centered in the monasteries and large churches more than in the lives of ordinary people who no longer spoke or understood Latin. Not many even had the opportunity to learn, sing, or pray the psalms.

Psalmody in the Sixteenth-Century Protestant Reformation

Next in the timeline is Martin Luther, who as a monk also treasured the psalms, singing them daily—all 150 psalms every week. His life of prayer was shaped by the psalms. But in one of the ironies of the Reformation, which introduced worship in the language of the people, Luther couldn’t bear to lose what he had committed to memory: the chanted Latin psalms. His contribution was to prepare some psalms in chorale form—not singing the psalms directly, but in effect preaching the text in contemporary German poetry and song. “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is Luther’s sung exegesis of Psalm 46, proclaimed in song to include the work of Christ, as all good sermons should. The German chorales became hymns, many of which continue to bless us.

John Calvin was never a monk, but like Luther, Calvin was committed to worship in the language of the people. As a theologian and pastor in Geneva, Calvin’s great project of preparing the psalms in French was similar to Luther’s but honored the psalms on their own terms, leaving New Testament connections to preaching rather than singing. In that way, Calvin honored the ancient Latin psalmody tradition while also standing with Luther in crafting poetry and melody from contemporary culture. Printing presses were still rather new, but the Genevan Psalter became hugely popular when it was first published in 1562 and was immediately translated into several languages, sung to the same melodies in Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands, and beyond. (I have modern translations of the Genevan Psalter in Dutch, English, Hungarian, Indonesian, Japanese, and Korean!)

Simultaneously, in Scotland and England, new English settings provided psalm texts in the language of the people, but as devotional poetry, not as song. Separate composers set them to music.

Psalmody in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Space doesn’t permit detailing the growing diversity of psalm singing and practice in the past five hundred years. The peak of the sixteenth-century practice of singing the psalms gradually declined so that today typical teenagers in North American culture—or many adult Christians, for that matter—no longer know, sing, or pray many psalms.

Yet the psalms are once more receiving new life in the prayers of Christians of all traditions, and we are again at a peak of creative activity and practice. The Roman Catholic Church instituted new reforms in the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council adopted new ways of singing the psalms, now also permitting songs in the language and culture of the people. At the same time, a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit among young people inspired praise choruses, many of which included psalm texts. Since then, thousands of new psalm settings have poured off the presses. Over time, Protestants and Catholics began singing each other’s psalm settings and German chorales, Genevan metrical settings, guitar psalm choruses, and gospel settings, and they have found their place beside each other in print hymnals.

The new form of learning today, though, is on the Internet rather than in print. The web is breaking down even more boundaries. There is such a wonderful variety of psalms accessible to us that the issue now for churches and Christians is to put into practice praying the psalms regularly, in church and at home. May the same desire that Mary had—longing for the appearance of the Messiah as an occupied people longing for redemption—be matched by our own deep desire today to make the psalms the foundation of our prayer life, now longing for the return of Christ during our own troubled days. May we sing in ways our youth can join, ready with all God’s people to pass on their faith to generations yet unborn, until Christ returns.