Like a lot of other churches, we place two large books in the pews for the use of our worshippers: a hymnal and a Bible. Actually, what many people don’t realize is that the Bible contains its own hymnbook: the book of Psalms. The Psalms are a collection of songs of praise, supplication, repentance, reassurance, and thanksgiving that have been used in Jewish worship from ancient times through the present. A lot of the hymns are attributed to King David (who was known to be a gifted musician) but some are even older, such as Psalm 90 which is attributed to Moses.
Many Psalms contain ancient references to the circumstances of their composition (e.g., Psalm 34) or directions as to when or how they are to be performed (e.g., Psalm 6, Psalm 45). Though such words of explanation and instruction are not part of the Psalm text itself, they have been copied faithfully for hundreds of generations – even though we may not today know exactly what those instructions mean. For example, the reference to “Lilies” in the Psalm 45 introduction (shoshanim in Hebrew) is thought by some to refer to a long-forgotten tune to which it is to be sung, others think it refers to a musical instrument (also unknown) to be used for accompaniment. Then there is the mysterious notation selah which appears 71 times in the Psalms (e.g., Psalm 76). Though experts disagree, a common explanation of the meaning is something like: “pause and reflect on this.”
Though the Psalms were created by and for Jewish believers, it would be hard to over-emphasize their importance to Christianity. Throughout the New Testament there are many explicit and implicit references to the Psalms – not surprising, since these songs which Jesus and the disciples had heard and memorized since childhood shaped the way they expressed themselves and provided a common context for communication in much the same way that lyrics from familiar songs do today. For example, when Jesus cried out from the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46) he was quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22. Though this is a cry of stark anguish, the message is transformed from hopeless despair to one of triumph when we recognize that the body of the Psalm is a ringing statement of confidence in God’s deliverance, ending with these prophetic words: “They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, for he has done it.”
Matthew 26:30 tells us that Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn at the conclusion of the Last Supper; this was undoubtedly one of the Hallel (praise) Psalms traditionally sung at Passover (Psalms 113-118). It is particularly poignant to imagine Jesus and his followers singing the words of Psalm 116:3-4, 8-9 which foreshadow His suffering and resurrection. Other Psalms also incorporate many important Messianic prophecies, which Jesus sometimes referred to (e.g., Matthew 22:44 refers to Psalm 110).
Given their great antiquity and the way the themes of the Psalms are woven through the words of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Christians continue to cherish them; the singing during our worship of a traditional “Psalm Tone” chant connects us with thousands of years of worship of the One True God, and fragments of Psalms are found embedded in our liturgy (e.g., Psalm 116:12-14). The 23rd Psalm (“The Lord is my Shepherd…”) is certainly one of the most familiar and beloved passages, not only of the Bible, but of all literature. Though our lifestyles and circumstances may have changed, the themes of the Psalms remain fresh and universal. Once you get past the archaic references to a long-past culture and recognize the universal human emotions, you can find great comfort in recognizing the over-riding message of God’s faithfulness through both adversity and joy.
By the way – the Psalm we sing on a given Sunday is not chosen randomly, but usually has a connection to the Gospel reading. The connection is sometimes subtle, but finding it can greatly enhance one’s understanding of both.