While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Ask Andrew 1 (2021): Why Do We Have a Psalm Every Sunday?
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 16:14-23
This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked why we have Psalms each week but it’s the first time it’s been formal as an “Ask Andrew” question.
I thought it would be a simple one to address: not so! I’ve learned something researching this one and parts of it became a bit of a rabbit hole down which I disappeared.
One reason for having a Psalm each week is historical: we follow the Revised Common Lectionary a lot of the time and it contains a Psalm reading, sometimes two, for each week of the year.
Lectionaries have been around since the time of the Babylonian Exile, before the building of the Second Temple. It was a plan to read all of the Torah in one year and over time that grew to include readings from the Prophets. Today, Jewish practise still has a one-year lectionary and a three-year version although, interestingly, it still only lists the Law and Prophets. None of the Writings, which include the Psalms, are part of those lectionaries.
The early Christian church followed this tradition and eventually added in readings from the Gospels and Epistles. Psalms were added too. The original idea was to have the Gospel lesson control everything, so lessons from the Hebrew scriptures, including the Psalms, were chosen to support that lesson.
Most churches eventually switched from a one-year lectionary to a three-year lectionary, following the Jewish pattern, which allows for a lot more readings: you don’t leave out as much of the Bible that way.
For many denominations, lectionary readings are required. You have to read whatever is listed for that Sunday. The United Church is part of the Reformed Tradition. 500 years ago, when John Calvin, John Knox and others re-formed a branch of the church they also allowed for a lot more local decision-making. So, while a kind of lectionary existed, particularly for the followers of the Heidelberg Catechism, there was no requirement to use it and preachers were free to choose whatever scripture text seemed wise for that week.
You might think that the Psalms would become less frequently used as a result but the opposite was true. Admittedly, people rarely preach from the Psalms but the Reformation was all about the centrality of Scripture.
Our Ephesians lesson talks about Christians singing “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” when they gather but some of the Reformers were very suspicious of anything that put Biblical interpretation to something as powerful as music. So, many of them banned the singing of anything
except the Psalms themselves: “Can’t go wrong by singing scripture itself,” was the thinking.
I do understand the problem: some of our most powerful images of Christmas come from music. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain that no kings visited Jesus at all at the manger and we don’t know how many Magi came later, all because We Three Kings caught people’s imaginations.
So the Psalter was created with sung versions of the Psalms and a collection of tunes that would do for most of them. Even as I was growing up in the Presbyterian church the first hymns in the hymn book were always the Psalms, following the order: Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
So that’s the history part of it but I still haven’t answered the “why” part .
The Psalms have always been understood to be the part of scripture that is in the voice of the people. Other readings have traditionally just one voice reading, but the Psalms are inclusive, either sung, or read responsively.
We have a long history of calling the Bible the Word of God but the Psalms are exceptional in that they are clearly in the voice of human beings expressing a whole range of deep and profound emotions: all connected to God in some way.
In today’s service the Call to Worship is part of a Psalm, as often happens, and the opening Prayer is a prayer from a Psalm. The only change I made to it was to change “I” to “We” at the beginning; it had switched itself by the end.
Psalms are often songs of praise. Sometimes they are calls for help, prayers. They are expressions of deep sorrow or despair; they give voice to outrage and sometimes lead us from one feeling to another, rather like giving voice to the stages of grief.
In the Reformed tradition young people were encouraged to memorize Psalms so that they would have something to give them hope and strength, even in a situation like a difficult exam or a deeper, more personal crisis. The hope was that this would last for their lives.
This is part of an ancient tradition that would allow someone to simply utter the first line of a Psalm and the hearer would be able to understand the greater message of the whole Psalm.
Today I could do that by saying: “The Lord’s My Shepherd” (Ps. 23). Most church-goers would have a fair idea of the comfort intended, even at a time of death. I’m not sure which other Psalms would work anymore yet that’s exactly what Jesus is shown doing on the cross when he said the opening words of the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. That line alone is a cry of despair but the whole Psalm leads the hearer on a journey that ends in hope and trust in God for the future.
As you study the New Testament it is remarkable how often the Psalms are quoted or referenced. The Law and the Prophets are certainly there but the early Christians found in the Psalms a great deal of wisdom that shaped their understanding of Jesus and his ministry: they often treated the Psalms as prophetic works foretelling and interpreting Jesus so that the confusing stuff he did made more sense.
But beyond even that foundational inspiration, beyond the way the Psalms have shaped Christian theology is a deep, human, personal response to them.
Many Psalms are attributed to David who was famous for his skill with music. He is shown in our 1 Samuel lesson when he was recruited to play music for King Saul who was recorded as being tormented by an evil spirit. We might call that depression or something similar today and Saul found the music soothing, calming.
Music has a power to slip by our intellectual walls; it reaches deep into our emotional selves and changes us.
The Psalms are, first and foremost, musical. Some of them even have directions for the choir leader in the Bible even though we no longer have the original music to accompany them. As music they open our hearts to our faith in ways that words cannot match.
In the Reformed Tradition we have emphasized the intellectual pursuit of truth, the educated analysis of scripture, and other aspects of faith. Within our tradition, if we had abandoned the Psalms we would have left ourselves emotionally stunted as people of faith. Some would argue that we’ve done that anyway but without the Psalms it would be worse and simply adding hymns and spiritual songs to our repertoire cannot replace the power of these words.
The Psalms link us in deep ways with people of faith going back well before the time of Christ. It’s remarkable how some of these resonate when we read them especially during challenging times. And when we include them in our worship each week we remain familiar with them and they are more accessible when we really need them.
To remove the Psalms would be to remove a part of worship that has always belonged to the people in the pews. The Psalms are a part of the Word of God where the voice of humans is most clearly and expressively heard, even in the 21st century.
To lose them would not only be a loss of our connection through time; it would be a loss of part of our souls. I could not bear that.