The Psalms, furthermore, have given rich inspiration to poets, artists, and musicians down the ages. Last month I suggested that a return to this congregational norm was long overdue; some signs are hopeful, but the overall picture is bleak. The primary use is for singing together, with due regard for their varied mood, style, length, purpose, and meaning. In two recent studies in the Psalms it was almost literally gob-smacking to find no hint that we were meant to sing them. They were taught like doctrinal theses from which certain propositions must be drawn. Bring hither the tabret, the merry harp with the lute, say I! And don’t be lobbed off with tiny snippets repeated so often that you think the needle has stack (a metaphor from prehistoric technology).
The Psalms of the Old Testament have a similar role to the Lord’s Prayer in the New. Some would be shocked to omit the latter but rarely touch the former. Others insist that we sing nothing but the former, and would eject from their assembly any who uttered the latter. But surely both these God-given texts have a dual role. We use them, duly translated, as they stand. And they are models when we sing or pray in different words.
We use common-sense when drawing conclusions. Not every prayer must begin with ‘Our’ (the original doesn’t) or have the same number of words as Matthew and Luke (which are different anyway). So with the Psalms; we need not divide Sichem or mete out the valley of Succoth in every Quiet Time. But in this secondary use of this “Treasury of David” (as C H Spurgeon called his commentary) our hymnals have much to learn. Not to arrange their books from A to Z, I am tempted to say; there are alphabetical Psalms, but the Psalter has an overall plan. It is not a heap of King David’s greatest hits from Aleph to Tay.
The Psalms have variety, poetry, metaphor, boldness, and a world-view with God at the centre, not me. They don’t all need the organ; nor the tambourine. Some thrive on the human voice alone. Some almost unbearable, but are included all the same. None is a complete credal statement of All You Need To Know About God. Having set out ‘the Problem’ in the earlier verses, they don’t all conclude with t’he Answer’. As Isaac Watts was among the first to realise since Peter and John, the Psalms need Christ. Anglicans might say, the Gloria.
What should a brief song aim to do in less than forty words? Psalms 117 and 134 are masterpieces of their craft; if you think writing brief lyrics is a doddle, try it. And even here there are reasons for praising God. Check out the ditties in your church’s supplement, or on its screen.
Ah, but there is much repetition: look at Psalm 136! Yes, do; and see its great story-line moving us on the whole time! Mindless mantras are no part of Hebrew or Christian devotion. The Psalms are models of anti-idolatrous worship. And I hope the year 2000 will end the reign of the Venite-vandals; give us back our four verses!
A forthcoming book from a Free Church stable is set to put some of us to shame. “Praise!” (yes, that’s the title) will include at least one version of every Psalm, in credible English and acceptable verse, when it comes out next year with hymns as well. I declare an interest; I’m sharing in its preparation. I don’t expect Anglicans to buy in bulk for the pews, but as a resource, it could remind us of our heritage and widen our horizons.
Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.