My Experience with the Psalms
Growing up, I didn’t get the appeal of the Psalms. I found them boring a repetitive. I mean, there were some good ones, like Psalm 23. But I figured Christendom had selected the best ones and those were the ones everyone would know. If most people couldn’t recite it by heart, according to my logic, it probably wasn’t all that spectacular.
This time of apathy concerning the psalms was during my ‘Scripture as Doctrine stage.’ During this stage in my spiritual development, scripture was “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” but little else (2 Timothy 3:16). My greatest spiritual goal was to have the most theological information, no matter how mundane or useless. I devoured books on Calvinism, Arminianism, apologetics, etc. I wasn’t putting much into practice during this time but I sure was learning a lot!
Fortunately, as time went on, I discovered that Jesus seldom waxed eloquent on the finer points of predestination. Don’t get me wrong, everything he said was theological. But (and this is a very large BUT), Jesus was immensely practical. His Sermon on the Mount, among other discourses, is theology put into practice; not theological theories. As God revealed this great truth to me in His word, I stopped reading scripture as if it was a theology textbook and life was one long study session punctuated at the end by a great final exam in the sky. Scripture as a whole became something far more profitable and beautiful to me. No longer did I simply want to learn the Truth of the Word, I wanted to experience it.
This pivotal transition in my spiritual growth, from a ‘head-focused’ spirituality to a ‘heart-focused’ one, caused a great love of the Psalms to blossom in my life. No longer were the Psalms repetitive or boring. I no longer viewed them as sounding the same or being a few gems among a lot of coal. I came to the realization that the Psalms are an absolute gold-mine of spiritual depth. They’re much more than poetry. The Psalms are the Songs of our Heart. They are Hymns of the ages. Praise songs which God himself inspired to be written. And we, as a church, would do well to reclaim them in all of their fullness and beauty.
A History of the Church’s Use of the Psalms
You may or may not know that the Psalms were once the primary songbook of the Church. If you’re unaware of the history of singing the psalms ( as well as generally adopting them into the Church’s regular worship), I’d highly recommend that you read through this ‘History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church.’ One of the statements that stuck out to me as I read through this history was the following about the Scottish church during the time of John Knox:
You can imagine what it would be to them. Books in those days were few. The Bible came first. The Psalm-book stood next in honor. It was their constant companion, their book of private devotion, as well as their manual of Church worship. In godly households it was the custom to sing through it in family worship.
Unfortunately, much of the church today has neglected the Psalms. Most evangelical churches don’t sing them. We don’t even read them as part of worship. Naturally, I believe that we, as individuals, should be reading the Psalms in our own devotional time; however, I think the church is missing out on one of the richest worship aids that we have when we neglect the use of the Psalms.
The Psalms were not just written as poetry. They were songs of praise and lament that God’s people used to enter into worship. In fact, there’s a theory that the actual musical notes were encoded in the Hebrew text (See this YouTube Video for more). So, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we began using the Psalms as they have been used for generations? This is the Songbook of Scripture itself! Let’s begin using them in that way…
Today, I’m not going to go into detail about all of the various ways that we might adopt the psalms into our worship. If I did that, we’d be here all night. Instead, I want to highlight one way that you can use the Psalms more effectively in your private, family, or church worship time.
Metrical Psalms are songs which have been adapted from the original text. Many Christian hymn-writers have produced metrical psalms throughout the years. English has hundreds and hundreds of metrical psalms. These are not merely songs that are loosely based on a Biblical text. These are songs which take the Biblical text and make it fit a certain meter so that it can be sung to familiar tunes (think Amazing Grace, America the Beautiful, or the Theme Song to Giligan’s Island). Rather than go through a long discourse, I think it would be best to take a look at an example. Here is the 23rd Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Now, here is a metrical version of Psalm 23 by Isaac Watts. Don’t just read it. Try singing it to one of the tunes mentioned above:
My Shepherd will supply my need,
Jehovah is his name;
In pastures fresh he makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wand’ring spirit back
When I forsake his ways;
And leads me, for his mercy’s sake,
In paths of truth and grace.
When I walk through the shades of death,
Thy presence is my stay;
A word of thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread,
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.
The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days:
O may thy house be mine abode,
And all my work be praise!
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.
And there are literally hundreds of these metrical psalms that have been written to go along with these tunes and so many more! And yet, I have never heard one sung in any church that I’ve ever attended. What a wealth of worship awaits us! I would spend a little more time discussing other ways to use the Psalms in worship but I think we’ll have to save that for another day. For now, check out the following link for a treasure trove of Isaac Watts’ metrical psalms and other hymns.
Leave a comment and let me know what you think of the Psalms. Are they a part of your or your church’s regular worship? How have you used the Psalms in your worship?
Grace and Peace,