The Psalms as Songs

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts unto God (Colossians 3:16).

In a previous post I attempted to introduce a study of the Psalms; I and hope to spend time on the Psalms so as to encourage Christians to reclaim their lost Biblical heritage found in those songs. But before we begin such an endeavor it may be profitable to explore why we have reached the present point: what has led to the neglect of the Psalms?

One answer likely involves doctrinal concerns. The Psalms, after all, are in the Old Testament. They continue to be used in the services of Roman Catholic churches, Orthodox churches, and the Anglican church, featuring prominently in the daily office of prayer and the lectionary readings. The Psalms can help form a proper understanding of God and man; unfortunately, certain verses in Psalms were frequently used to justify and promote doctrines in conflict with Scripture like original sin (e.g. Psalm 51:5). Among churches of Christ there is also all the exhortations to praise God with instruments, no longer a feature of Christian praise and song (e.g. Psalm 150).

The Psalms are indeed Old Testament texts; if we were to use them to commend behaviors and practices rooted in the Old Testament but not authorized in the New we would be violating Ephesians 2:11-18, Colossians 2:14-17, Hebrews 7:1-9:27, and other passages. Instruments are prominently featured in some Psalms; nevertheless, early Christians sung psalms without instruments, explicitly eschewing and disavowing instruments:

The one instrument of peace, the Word alone, by whom we honor God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, trumpet, timbrel, and flute. For those expert in war and scorners of the fear of God were inclined to make use of these instruments in the choruses at their festive assemblies (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, 2.4).

It would be tedious, dearly beloved, were I to recount every episode from the history of the Psalms, especially since it is necessary now to offer something from the New Testament in confirmation of the Old, lest one think the ministry of psalmody to be forbidden, inasmuch as many of the usages of the Old Law have been abolished. For those things that are carnal have been rejected, circumcision for example, and the observance of the Sabbath, sacrifices, discrimination among foods, as well as trumpets, citharas, cymbals, and tympana (all of which are now understood to reside in the bodily members of man, and there better to sound). Daily ablutions, observance of new moons, the meticulous examination of leprosy, or whatever of this sort was necessary at the time for children, have clearly ceased and gone their way. But the remaining practices that are spiritual, such as faith, piety, prayer, fasting, patience, chastity, and praise in song; these have been increased rather than diminished (Nicetas of Remesiana, On the Benefit of Psalmody 9).

Yet even as early Christians recognized the distinction in covenant and no longer used instruments they still powerfully affirmed the importance and value of the Psalms in their singing and praying. While Paul’s exhortations regarding song in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 may authorize songs glorifying God in Christ above and beyond the Psalms, they certainly do not authorize less than the Psalter in its current form in our Bibles!

We do well to remember that psalms are songs. As poetry set to music they can speak more powerfully and more efficiently than the best orators and communicate the majesty of God and His work through Israel and in Christ in so many ways which go beyond mere words. Songs are very easily re-appropriated for purposes beyond their original intent; we frequently will “make a song our own” by giving it a sort of understanding as we sing it that may not have been intended by its original author or be the same meaning used by others as they sing it.

Nevertheless, the Psalms are not presented in our Bibles as songs. It has only been within the past few decades that they have been portrayed as poetry; for some time the Psalms were printed as if no different from prose. In light of this, perhaps the Psalms have become a illustrative victim of a trend plaguing how people approach Scripture in general, as an object of study to examine, dissect, and weigh in a dispassionate and detached manner as opposed to respecting the power of Scripture as God’s two-edged sword, designed to pierce our very souls (Hebrews 4:12).

It may not be entirely coincidental that the relative decline of the importance of the Psalter corresponds to the growing influence of the Enlightenment and modernism in Western culture and thus the church. Reason and rationality are the highest principles of the Enlightenment; the goal is to verify and validate all beliefs and practices through a robust investigation while seeking to remain an objective, dispassionate investigator/observer. Such a perspective is highly empirical and thoroughly left-brained and has rarely left any room for anything resembling an aesthetic of beauty and the numinous. Little wonder that the immediate reaction to the Enlightenment was Romanticism, powerfully affirming right-brained endeavors of poetry, song, and other matters that resist “objective analysis.”

Does this mean that any investigation or analysis is a bad thing? By no means! The issue involved is not investigation or even necessarily the tools of investigation but the disposition of the investigator, the recognition of the limitation of the investigation, and the ultimate purpose of the endeavor.

When we approach the Scriptures we decide whether we will act as if we are an explorer or a coroner. An explorer is attempting to make sense of his environment; he cannot master it but can easily be mastered by it. He wants to learn about what he sees and can appreciate the wonder and majesty of it all. He may able to understand some aspects of what he is seeing, but much may be hidden from him, and he would not presume to understand fully everything he is trying to absorb. A coroner, on the other hand, is attempting to sort out the facts of what happened in the past. He views that which he is investigating as devoid of any real life; throughout the endeavor the goal is to not be personally swayed by whatever he might see but to be able to report just the facts about how the person died. From beginning to end the coroner is in control of the situation and leaves little room for mystery. Perhaps he is not able to ascertain some of the facts; it is generally not a lack of his ability but a lack of evidence or ability to make a decision on the evidence.

Thus, the “coroner” does not expect to find any life in the Bible. He reads it to try to make sense of the facts on the ground: what is it saying, why is it saying that, where such thinking derives, perhaps even attempting to make some connections to later ideas. Maybe the “coroner” would claim some level of faith, but only in terms of what he can master and understand; he is in charge of the interpretive process throughout and never allows himself to be transformed by what he is reading. We can see the futility of this endeavor; as long as the “coroner” attempts to remain “objective” he will never understand Scripture, for Scripture was written to pierce the soul (Hebrews 4:12); there is never such a thing as a truly “objective” observer, and “objectivity,” at any rate, is over-rated. Yes, we must seek to first understand Scripture in its own context, and that will require us to step outside of ourselves for just a moment.

But to what end? To master theology? To master Scripture? Such is sheer presumption! Yet such is ultimately the goal of knowledge in the Enlightenment paradigm: to become the master of whatever subject we seek to master. Yet Scripture warns us against such an attempt in terms of God and His purposes, and that warning is found in the Psalms and in Job.

Does this mean that we ought not attempt to learn about God? Again, by no means! When we open the pages of Scripture we are to reckon ourselves as the explorer, appreciating the majesty and glory of what we see, allowing ourselves to be transformed by the experience of God’s Word, recognizing that whatever we learn is miniscule compared to what God is and what He knows. “God can only be known by devotion; only in receiving can we know,” noted Hiliary of Poitiers; another Christian of the time, when asked why he explored theology if God cannot be fully known, declared that he explored theology not in an attempt to know so as to master but in order to praise and glorify God. They are right, and in no little part because they are rooted in the Psalms. The Psalms do warn us against the idea of mastering all knowledge of God; they also provide some of the most profound theological declarations in all of Scripture.

Such is why our purpose in interpretation of Scripture becomes so important. Scripture, especially in the Psalms, can very quickly be investigated in such ways as to bleed the life out of them, like a live dissection in front of an audience. You might be able to identify all the appropriate parts, point out the connection between them, and even wax philosophically about the whole, but by the time you have finished, the patient is dead!

Few people intend to interpret Scripture this way. Yet it comes from an excessive fealty to all the objective and rational declarations and conclusions that can be made from the text. We can compare it to a more modern example.

O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

You will probably recognize this as the first and most famous verse of the Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States of America. For the purposes of this examination let us seek to approach this as a text; for a time please try to forget about how it sounds in song.

If we attempted to approach this as often is done with a psalm, perhaps someone might read it aloud. The reading will rarely include any sort of inflection, emphasis, or anything involving the tonal quality. That reading will make the song seem rather dead.

A good investigation will attempt to set the context. The Star-Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 as a poem in part of his Defence of Fort M’Henry; it was later put to John Stafford Smith’s tune “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a tune and song of a British society but popular in the United States. Key wrote the poem based on his experiences while a captive in a British ship during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Maryland after the British had already laid waste to Washington, D.C. He had been inspired by the American flag waving over the fort in the midst of the bombardment even while the outcome of the battle was in doubt.

The context well explains the substance of the song: Key is asking if the flag is still waving the morning after the bombardment. He saw the flag and continued to hear the explosion of munitions, inferring that the fort had yet to fall since the British were still shooting. He finishes the thought by asking whether the flag still flies over America.

All of the above is accurate interpretation of the song. If we were to make our conclusion about this song only based on the information above, we would most likely conclude that The Star-Spangled Banner is the most depressing and inappropriate national anthems in the world. Everything was going wrong for America; their former overlords had destroyed their capital and were making inroads north; Key’s questions, in context, are far from idle. He has good reason to wonder whether the American experiment would succeed!

Americans especially would immediately protest such conclusions, and honestly for good reason. Is there power in the words and context of the Star-Spangled Banner? Yes. But there is greater power in the collective singing of it as an anthem and how it is sung. The final question is never sung in doubt but as triumphant affirmation: yes, the star-spangled banner still waves over the land of the free and home of the brave. If anything, the context affirms the very heart of what it means to be American: when you think we or our flag are down, that is precisely when we rise to the occasion and get the victory. The Americans ended up standing their ground at Fort McHenry and repulsed the British naval invasion; the War of 1812 would end in a draw. Whenever The Star-Spangled Banner is sung Americans are affirming that America still stands despite all that may be thrown at her; The Star-Spangled Banner is a declaration of triumph despite distress.

But how much of the information about The Star-Spangled Banner is encoded in the music, in its production, and in its context? Such is the nature of all poetry, and that is why humility is always called for when interpreting poetry. We can do what we can to make the best sense of what is before us but then need to use our imagination about the function it may serve. There are some Psalms that may function in ways akin to The Star-Spangled Banner in America, particularly the “historical” psalms like Psalm 136. Who knows how raucous the congregation would declare “for His lovingkindness endures forever” as their response? They certainly would not sing it as a dirge!

Therefore, if we approach the Psalms with a view to just try to make sense of the context of the psalm and its basic meaning and then walk away we will miserably fail at appreciating them. If we are going to restore and recover the Psalms for Christian faith and service in the twenty-first century, we need to start with such basic contextual consideration, expand our view to the Second Temple Period, Christological, and ecclesiological interpretations, and then find ways of making the songs sing again. It is not enough for a tune to fit the words of a psalm; the tune must fit the meaning and purpose of the psalm. We should strive to attempt to capture, as best we can, the same wonder, majesty, and glory of the Psalter in ways perceptible to the ear and heart of a twenty-first century Christian.

Such is quite the endeavor, and one for which I personally am entirely unsuited. But for the moment let us appreciate that the Psalms are songs. Songs do not just communicate by their words and context; they communicate in their tune, in the venues in which they are sung, and how the singer is willing to own the song as their own word and how they mean what they sing. We do well to make more room for the Psalms in our songbook; after all, no matter how good a modern hymn may be, it’s not inspired!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Psalms as Songs

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.