The psalms have been the Church’s hymnal throughout all ages except for our own.
The singing of psalms from Scripture appears to have been the custom of Jesus and the apostles (Matthew 26:30), and in the fourth century psalm-singing was a staple of Christian worship. According to Gregory of Nazianzus, the Church’s psalmody is a prelude to heavenly hymns to come; according to Hippolytus of Rome, the reading and chanting of psalms was a crucial aspect of the church’s worship in third-century Rome. Gregory of Nyssa remembers his saintly sister Macrina by recalling that “there were no psalms which she did not know, since she recited each part of the Psalter at the proper times of the day: when she rose from her bed, performed or rested from her duties, sat down to eat or rose up from the table, when she went to bed or got up to pray, at all times she had the psalter with her like a good traveling companion who never fails” – and indeed, the psalms befriended Macrina even upon her deathbed. Much later, the great Lutheran and Reformed psalters – especially the Genevan Psalter – were arguably some of the greatest achievements of the Protestant Reformation, becoming the hymnbooks for many Protestants in centuries that followed. Historic Anglican liturgy according to the Book of Common Prayer, both in the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, as well as the lectionary for the reading and chanting of Scripture in public worship at the Holy Eucharist, worked the psalms deeply into the life of the Church, furnishing the Christian imagination for the work of practical theology and ethics in life and in death.
Today, a small number of denominations continue to prominently feature the psalms in the life of the Church, but by and large the psalms have been significantly displaced, if not wholly eclipsed, from the words we sing and pray regularly in our homes and churches.
How We Lost the Psalms
There are many reasons why this is so. But a significant reason might be that our theological imagination has lost a sufficient account of union with Christ and how this should transform our reading, singing, and praying of the psalms. For instance, do these words from Psalm 26 sound like something you can unhesitatingly pray, with sincerity?
Vindicate me, O LORD,
for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.
Prove me, O LORD, and try me;
test my heart and my mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
and I walk in your faithfulness.
I do not sit with men of falsehood,
nor do I consort with hypocrites.
I hate the assembly of evildoers,
and I will not sit with the wicked.
Rather than finding these words comforting or uplifting, such words in the psalter can be cringe-inducing for at least three reasons.
Existentially, our experience of the world, and knowledge of our own fickle hearts, provide daily evidence of just how little integrity we actually have, both in our routine dereliction of personal virtue and in our capitulation to vice. We are scoundrels; how can we stand before God and pray “Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity”?
Socially, our own personal integrity, or lack thereof, can seem like a trifling drop in the ocean of sin. We are all implicated in incomprehensibly vast systems of corruption, and can usually only respond with a collective shrug at rank injustice, crushing poverty, the exploitation of the weak, and whole systems of production and consumption that trash land, water, animals, and people in the modern world.
Theologically, if we have imbibed the apostle Paul’s teaching that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:9, 23), we might bristle at asking God to deliver us over and against “the wicked”. After all, in Romans ch. 3, does not the apostle Paul take words from the imprecatory psalms, such as Psalm 140:3, and apply them to us and all of humanity? Moses straightforwardly warns against claiming we are vindicated “because of my righteousness” rather than the Lord’s mercy (Deuteronomy 9:4). Does not the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector caution against presuming that we are more righteous than others (Luke 18:9–14)? How, then, could passages like Psalm 26 possibly become our own words that we pray and sing?
The doctrine of union with Christ provides an answer. Through union with Christ the strange and unsettling words of the psalms become not only fitting but provide a groundswell of life and hope for us as the Spirit of God allows us to share in the Son’s prayer offered in truth to God the Father. When the apostles and the earliest Christians listened to the words of the psalms they overheard a conversation between the different persons of the Trinity, not least in Psalm 110, where “the Lord” speaks to someone else whom David calls “Lord.”
Worshiping with Jesus in Hebrews
In the epistle to the Hebrews, the author hears the words of Psalm 22 as spoken from the mouth of the crucified and risen Messiah Jesus. According to Hebrews, it was fitting that the Son of God fully participated fully in human suffering and even tasted death, in order that by the grace of God he might overcome death and put all things in subjection to God, having true solidarity with humanity in our otherwise hopeless plight, but also altering our trajectory to now share in his divine life and glory that will transfigure the cosmos (Hebrews 2:9–11).
About this solidarity, the author explains its significance by way of a quotation from Psalm 22:22, concluding: “that is why he [Jesus] is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise’” (Hebrews 2:11–12). Thus, for Hebrews, Psalm 22 is not merely a messianic prophecy; the psalm itself is understood as the words and prayer of Jesus himself. The content of this prayer presents Jesus as identifying himself as the leader of the church’s congregational worship in singing the praise of God. Moreover, though only one verse is cited from this psalm in Hebrews, arguably the broader surrounding context of the whole psalm is being invoked. In the psalm the speaker moves from a cry of dereliction to celebrating God’s saving work in the congregation’s worship, as is the case in Hebrews 2:9–12 and surrounding verses as well.
Adoption to Sonship in Galatians
But how does this work? If the psalms are the words and prayers of Jesus, how can they become our own as well?
Through faith the Holy Spirit unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection, that we might call God our “Father” because we are in his Son. In Galatians, Paul declares “I have been crucified with Christ; I live, yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I now live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19–20). Life in Christ is not reducible to own autonomous selves, now trying harder with a new goal or technique for self-mastery; rather, now we belong to Christ. Life in Christ is a matter of the Spirit of God realizing the life of the risen Christ himself in us, who lives and is at work in and through us. Christian moral identity is determined by the presence of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, who is the acting subject in and through our lives of faith, hope, and love.
Paul later describes how the Spirit allows those adopted in Christ to share in the Son’s cry to the Father, proclaiming that “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:4-7). Since we thus share by the Holy Spirit in the Son’s cry to the Father, our union with Christ means that we can also share in his speaking and singing of the psalms. Augustine well describes how union with Christ should thus inform our relationship with the psalms:
We must recognize our voices in him, and his accents in ourselves…. We pray to him, through him and in him; we speak with him and he speaks with us. We utter in him, and he utters in us, the plea made in this psalm…. Let no one, then, on hearing these words maintain ‘this is not said by Christ,’ or, on the other hand, ‘I am not speaking in this text.’ Rather let each of us who know ourselves to be within Christ’s body acknowledge both truths, that ‘Christ speaks here,’ and that ‘I speak here.’ Say nothing apart from him, as he says nothing apart from you.
This brief sketch of union with Christ in Hebrews and Galatians, then, outlines how the doctrine enables us to speak along with Jesus. The prayers and praise and petitions of Jesus in the Psalter can become our own words through our participation in him.
The Need for the Psalms
But if we have established that we can pray the psalms with Christ, we must then ask: do we need to pray the psalms with Christ?
Old Testament scholar Michael Rhodes has observed that while contemporary Christian music tends to offer songs for expressing thanksgiving and praise to God, we also need songs that are appropriate for times of grief over injustice in the world and personal tragedies, that express lament, and that petition God to keep his promises. In the psalms God has provided such words to us. Especially during times of heartache, temptation, failure, anxiety, bereavement, and hopelessness, words that are not our own can be an anchor and balm for our souls. We can pray them alongside fellow sinners and sufferers as we cry out to God amidst it all. Hence, in the preface to his commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin confides that “I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”
The psalter is a treasury and arsenal for every season of the Christian life. Recovering the prominence of these ancient songs in congregational and personal worship will therefore be a powerful means of renewal in our churches and our lives, and a powerful counter-testimony against the triviality and ephemerality that pervades much of secular and contemporary Christian culture today. Whether we pray the words of the psalms in church alongside of others, in hospital emergency rooms in the wee hours of the night, at a joyful wedding, an unbearable funeral, or at lunch on the average Tuesday, even then these words are not merely our own. Through union with Christ, our prayer is enfolded into Christ’s own words as he is at work in and through us.
Some psalms, such as the thunderous conclusion of 145–150, redound with praise; others, such as Psalm 13, begin in lament and then turn to end in praise; in Psalm 88 there is no turn towards praise or a happy silver lining, but only a cry of agony in the darkness which is nonetheless still a prayer offered up to God in faith. In praying all of these psalms, our prayers are enfolded into Christ’s own prayers since according to Hebrews he is the singer of the psalms.
So, of ourselves we might not be able to pray the words of Psalm 26.
The thought of God rewarding us according to our just deserts is, usually, a dreadful prospect, not something comforting which we would petition God for. Yet, if we have not merely apprehended Christ, but have ourselves been apprehended by him, a new possibility emerges. If we have been torn away from Sin and Death, having been crucified with Christ, and we have been raised with Christ to share in God’s new creation, then the Spirit of Christ dwells within us and cries out to God “Abba! Father!” within our hearts. The words of the psalms that are the prayer of Jesus within the Church’s worship can become our own words, not in pretense but in truth. Vindicate us, O Lord, for we “are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, righteousness, sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).
Joshua Heavin received his PhD at the University of Aberdeen (Trinity College Bristol), is an adjunct professor at Houston Baptist University and the King’s College NYC, and is a postulant in the Anglican Diocese of the South (ACNA).
Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (New York, NY: Continuum) 39–40. ↑
Gregory Nazianzen, Orat. XL §46. ↑
Hippolytus, On the Apostolic Tradition, trans. by Alistair Stewart-Sykes, Popular Patristics Series 22 (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), ↑
Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of St. Macrina, trans. by Kevin Corrigan (Eurgene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 23, 45–50. ↑
Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 73–98, trans. by Maria Boulding, ed. by John Rotelle, Works of St. Augustine III.18 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2002), 221. ↑