Singing the Psalms in church is a strange thing. On the one hand, no one is going to complain about using more scripture in worship rather than less. On the other hand, it’s not something that people get very excited about.

One problem is that Psalms are riddled with odd and disturbing language. For example, Psalm 139 starts well: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” It builds to some of the most beautiful language found in scripture: “You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” But the ending is certainly unexpected: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God… Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?” Portions of the Psalms are difficult to read, never mind sing together!

Another difficulty is that there is no simple method of “translating” Psalm texts into musical forms that make sense to modern ears. (When was the last time you heard an acrostic pop song?) Over the years a number of approaches have been taken. Metrical Psalms, most closely associated with the Reformed tradition, translate the original Psalm text into poetic meter so it can be sung to a strophic (verses) tune. Look at the first 150 songs in the Psalter Hymnal for an example of metrical Psalmody. In responsorial Psalms a leader sings verses (usually chanted or non-rhyming text) and the congregation responds with a refrain. Examples include Marty Haugen’s “Shepherd Me, O God” and Michael Joncas’s “On Eagle’s Wings.” Then there are less literal renditions of Psalms like Isaac Watt’s “Joy to the World” (Psalm 98) and songs based on single phrases of a Psalm such as Marty Nystrom’s “As the Deer” (Psalm 42:1) or the Taizé “Bless the Lord, My Soul” (Psalm 103:1). None of these approaches provides a perfect solution—generally the more faithful a song is to the Psalm text, the less memorable the music.

Despite these cultural obstacles, the Psalms continue to speak to us today.

The Psalms constitute the core vocabulary of worship. They give us words to express our praise, trust and love. But they also help us learn new ways to talk to God, enabling us to bring our complaints, doubts and desperation to light. By intentionally using the lectionary Psalm each week we begin to learn this rich vocabulary, and as these biblical worship expressions work their way deep down into our souls our faith deepens.

No, singing the Psalms is not always easy. Yes, we could find other songs that have smoother texts and catchier tunes. But there is no other repertoire of songs that has shaped the worship of the Christian church like the Psalms. Let’s commit to singing the Psalms as a spiritual discipline. Like any discipline, it’s not always easy, but the rewards will be great!

Can’t tell an acrostic poem from an acoustic dome? Contact Greg: