How might the Psalms help us in our walk and worship?

A close up of a KJV Bible open to Psalm 107 with wheat.

Yesterday I wrote about why we do not need to sing the Psalms. In response, I’ve heard from people about how helpful they personally and their churches have found singing them.  It is important not to confuse two things here. It is very different to say “you don’t have to sing them”  to saying “you should not sing them.”

The Psalms form a significant portion of Scripture and therefore as with the rest of God’s word are inspired by him and useful for teaching, encouragement, and correction. I personally have found them so helpful in my personal prayer life and indeed enjoyed their presence in corporate worship too. All I am saying is that there isn’t a Biblical imperative to sing all of the Psalms in church and particularly not in the format we tend to use them in free church contexts (metrical psalms).

So, today, I wanted to say a bit more about the place of the Psalms in our worship.  How can we make best use of them for personal and corporate benefit, apart form singing metrical versions or chanting the Anglican versions (both options being of course valid to those who find them helpful)?

I would like to suggest that our aim should be to encourage deep meditation on these poems/songs so that God’s Word dwells richly in our hearts.  The first and most obvious part of this then is to start teaching and preaching on them, It was as I did a daily series during lockdown that I began to get a much deeper feel for how the whole book fitted together. So, whilst there is a place for one off sermons on ad-hoc Psalms, I would encourage preachers to plan series that take the congregation through the Psalms or a section of Psalms in order and context.  This will open up eyes to how the book fits together.

Secondly, as well as seeing the Psalms in the context of the book and the canon, teaching them enables us to think about their setting. Where and when were these Psalms used in Israel? This means that some Psalms are better for personal response and some for corporate worship.  It means some are best read or sung in the morning and some in the evening. It means that some Psalms were attached to specific phases in the annual and seasonal life of Israel. For example, the Psalms of Ascent were part of the journey, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the festivals. Take time to consider what the equivalent would be today. Here’s  a clue, it is unlikely to be about going to church (or even to the Keswick Convention).

Thirdly, as we teach the Psalms, we learn to apply them to and through Christ. It is important that we learn how to read them as Christian literature and if we do sing them, to sing them as Christian songs.

From there, I would encourage people to use the Psalms in their personal devotions.  What about planning to read 1 Psalm a day (or a few shorter ones or part of a longer one).  Doing that means you should be able to cycle through all of the Psalms a couple of times each year.  Of course you have the option to sing or chant them if that is your preference too.

Finally, let’s talk meditation. By this, I mean taking time to chew over a Psalm, to let its words resonate and bury themselves deep into your soul.  How can we do that?  Well, the point of meditation is to slow us down in our reading of Scripture whilst keeping it as a heart or devotional exercise.

Try reading a verse through slowly a few times. Memorise it and return to it through the day. In fact, you could memorise a whole Psalm together as a family each week. As you say the words slowly, try placing the emphasis in different places and thinking about what that highlights. What does it mean to say

The Lord is my Shepherd

The Lord is my Shepherd

The Lord is my Shepherd

The Lord is my Shepherd

As you spot particular words and imagery, why not take time to read through Scripture and find other examples of where that language is used. Pause to pray. What does it mean to describe the Lord as Shepherd in your circumstance, in your church, at your workplace, for your family, for the suffering church? Pray into each of those situations.

Next, why not try paraphrasing the words of the Psalm, putting them into your own words.  Now, think again about what those words and phrases mean for your context.  At this stage, it may be that you are moved to sing. This might in some cases mean that you sing the whole Psalm.  However, I want to suggest that there are other ways of singing the Psalms.

Think about other songs and hymns that have been written which pick up and flesh out the theme either directly or indirectly.  For example, I could listen to and sing a version of Psalm 23 such as the traditional metrical version or Stuart Townend’s version. However, I could also start to think about other songs that describe God/Jesus as the Shepherd. Think for example of Tommy Walker’s song about Jesus as the Good Shepherd who is always leading us home. This will move us to other songs that talk about the providential goodness of God and his fatherly care, he is the Good Good Father and he is the captain of my soul.  Songs that describe the way he leads, guards and protects are therefore relevant too. Consider “All the way my Saviour leads me” and “My Light House.”  Then there are those beautiful contemporary songs that remind me of God’s goodness and care.

“All my life you have been faithful, all my life you have been so so good.”

“God your so good, your so good to me.”

Finally, I cannot think of the shepherd in Psalm 23 without thinking about our tendency as sheep to wander and the one who comes and seeks us.  So I will sing about “reckless love” that leaves the 99 and I will confess as I sing “Come thou fount” that I am indeed “prone to wander.”

None of this is prescriptive but may I gently suggest that taking time to think more carefully about how we use the Psalms in worship rather than simply saying “we need to obey the command to sing them” may lead to a richer and deeper experience of them.

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