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No One Reads The Psalms

Christ in Gethsemane

I was recently in an (Christian group) online discussion where one person said (wrote) “no one reads Psalms”. I was caught up short. That is the very opposite of my own personal experience.

OK, occasionally I am caught out, and I don’t feel guilty about that, but normally my day begins with Morning Prayer with 2-3 psalms in it. And the last thing I do, the last prayer I pray, and I have every single day, decade upon decade, is Psalm 134. Also, it would be a particularly exceptional Sunday service that I oversaw that didn’t have a psalm in it (a Christmas Carol service may lack a psalm).

But the “no one reads Psalms” comment raised no significant surprise. That fits with other such comments I’ve encountered. It fascinates me that, when I talk to some people about the Revised Common Lectionary, and some communities regularly cut down the number of readings, they simply regard the Psalm as “just another reading” (ie they see RCL as offering four readings), and the Psalm, for them, is the first reading to be cut back. Whereas, I am used to the tradition evident in weekday Eucharists – there is one reading and the Gospel, with the Psalm prayed between those. If I cut back a reading in RCL, the Psalm is not where I would start. I haven’t even mentioned hymns that are essentially reworked Psalms.

I have lived in the land of the Psalms certainly since I was a teenager. The Psalms provide me with the landscape, the map, the grammar of the spiritual life. The Psalms go through every human emotion from despair to hope, from rage to reconciliation. By praying Psalms that are describing feelings and experiences that may not currently be a reality for me, I am exercising spiritual muscles that I may need to have functioning healthily at a moment’s notice.

Jesus clearly lived in this land of the Psalms. And the New Testament is obviously set in the land of the Psalms.

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49 Responses to No One Reads The Psalms

  1. This is an interesting question for us. We rarely have a psalm at the Eucharist. At the sung Eucharist on a Sunday it says “gradual hymn or psalm” but it’s only happened once or twice in my 4+ years here. Never use the psalm in a said communion. But we have choral Mattins and evensong every Sunday and said morning and evening prayer most days. So I get a lot of psalmody but majority of congregation get none. And 50% of Sunday services have psalms…

    • Thanks, Yrieithydd. I’m trying to visualise your service – do you have two readings and a Gospel? What is between the first two readings? Nothing? Blessings.

  2. We always, ALWAYS have a Psalm, every Mass, every day. It’s the Responsorial to the first reading. Always sung on Sundays (and the Saturday vigil), and often on weekdays. I love the Psalms because they are so reflective of real life.

    • That’s cool, Claudia. My poll came out of the discussion, as I said, about people not encountering the Psalms. I’m pleased to see that about 80%, currently, are saying the majority of their Sunday services have a Psalm. Blessings.

  3. “No one reads the Psalms.” What book of the Bible is recited and sung more widely and often than the Psalms? In parishes, by individuals, and of course by monastics the world over.

    • Yes, Scott – that is my experience (and hope) also. It is also (from the poll) the norm of those who visit this site. Clearly there is a whole side of Christianity for which the opposite is true. But they don’t visit a website like this 🙂 (at least not in significant numbers). Blessings

  4. I was reading Zechariah 8 this morning. My life is not very liturgical these days but a week cannot pass without hearing either an echo or the basis of a psalm in the rest of the OT that I am working through. So to plagiarize a post I wrote this morning: “I hear echoes of Psalm 85 in this chapter. The two chapters share about 25% of their words in total. In verses 7 to 12, we find salvation, dwell, truth, righteousness, peace, yield and produce in the same sequence as in Psalm 85:10-14 + a few other shared words – again about 25% of the words in this section. I wonder if the Psalmist was writing based on the prophet’s promise?”

    The question that occurs to me is – what is the reception history and vice versa, the stimulus to poetry that was happening in the years before the TNK was completed?

    • Thanks. You and I might understand “liturgical” differently, Bob. A Christian reading the Bible prayerfully is liturgical. We can only begin to imagine the answer to your question. Blessings.

  5. I think I know more Psalms by heart than any other part of the Bible (including Psalm 119, which I learned a couple of years ago – just showing off!)
    The Psalms are like a New Testament book. In fact, if the early Christians had thought about it, they should have plucked it out of the OT and into the New.
    What other book offers such down-to-earth prayers, prayers that are as relevant today as when they were first written?

      • Oh, yes, the original Hebrew, definitely! NOT.
        I’ve used the New American Standard for years, mainly because when I came back to the Lord after a couple of years of trying to ignore him, that was the version being used widely in the Pentecostal Church we began to attend. The flavour of it suits me, and though it’s probably no longer the ‘in’ translation, I’m at home with it.

          • Thanks so much, Scott. I think that may need a blog post of its own. When you say you think it reads and sings better – better than what? Than the Revised Grail Psalter, or than the Inclusive Grail Psalter? Is this Ecumenical Grail Psalter available as a book? The copyright on the page you give is to the Revised Grail Psalter, not to the Ecumenical Grail Psalter. And the clickable link on the page goes nowhere. Blessings.

          • Sorry about the link. Yes, the Ecumenical Grail Psalter is available as a book. In regular and singing versions. Might want to search at giamusic.com or Amazon.

          • Thanks, Scott. Yes – I’ve found all that, and am working on a blog post (probably out next week), and I’ll order the books. Blessings.

          • I think I’ve heard of these from the past (in my Catholic days…). Interesting to see on Wikipedia under ‘Grail Psalms’ that a comparison of the 2010 version with the 1963 shows that the more recent version leans towards a more traditional rendering, by which I mean, something that’s closer to the language of the Psalms themselves.

          • If I ever got off my high horse of wanting to use Yahweh in the Psalter more frequently, this is probably the version I’d wind up with.

            I just get too annoyed when it says things like, “The Lord is his name.” 😉

          • Yes, Fr Robert, the use of “Yahweh” is a whole discussion. “LORD” is more obviously masculine, but “Yahweh” is problematic for our Jewish siblings. It is conjectural (though it is the pronunciation I currently hold to). “Yahweh” has the same number of syllables as “The LORD” – so can be substituted. And then there’s always “HaShem”. And even “The Name”. Blessings.

          • I have looked at the Ecumenical Grail (what’s this, the 6th version of Grail?) and personally don’t care for it. I’m stuck in my old ways, but some of my favorite Psalms are different enough from previous version as to make me dwell on the differences with a degree of lament instead of embracing them.

            As for the Yahweh issue – while I realize it does cause an issue for some of our Jewish friends (and I don’t wish to oversimplify their concerns), but the adoption of Jewish piety governing Christian liturgical use has always seemed odd to me. While we spring from Judaism, we are not Jewish. In all the years I have ministered, I am aware of one individual of Jewish belief being present in worship with us. Perhaps there have been more, I don’t know.

            I have heard a few folks suggest simply placing the Hebrew letters for YHWH into our English texts and letting each individual choose how they read it. Of course… as you said, that’s a different thread of discussion we might choose to have at another time.

          • I am not sure, Fr Robert, if you have mentioned which translation you do prefer? I am preparing a separate blog post now on the Ecumenical Grail Psalter. I do regularly have Jews present in worship. But, that aside, I think that there is a connection with them in any translation of the Hebrew Bible. I am particularly sensitive because of the reaction (internationally) at the removal of “Israel” and “Zion” from the official NZ Anglican Psalter. Blessings.

          • Well, in terms of completed and published psalters, I was reared with the Grail, but my concern for horizontal exclusivity tends to have me preferring the Inclusive Grail in theory, but since my only source for it is my copy of Benedictine Daily Prayer, I don’t use it often.

            I have started a project to develop a liturgical psalter that includes the Divine Name… but who knows if it will ever see the light of day.

            In the meantime, I either use the original Grail, or else the NLT – Second Edition for the most part, since those are the most ready texts I usually have at hand.

  6. Is it possible that the audience in that online group were mainly non-liturgical church goers, i.e. they’re Pentecostal, Baptist or some other group and that’s wherein the problem doth lay?

    • Yes, Gregcolby, of the about 9,000 members of the group, I am coming to realise why my perspectives regularly appear to be so out of place. Blessings.

    • Those of Pentecostal origin don’t always realize how many of their modern worship songs have lyrics pulled straight out of Psalms. (I often find myself humming when I’m reading and reflecting on a psalm).

      I was thinking about this, as someone who worships in a Pentecostal congregation. There seems to be less emphasis is reading scripture corporately and more emphasis on individual reading, study and prayer. The Sunday worship is seen as a gathering, a culmination of the individual prayer and worship thats already happened Monday to Saturday, and a place of encouragement and equipping for the next week. We may not have the Psalms as a part of our service, but I read a psalm daily at home.

  7. My parish usually abbreviates the Saturday evening vigil such that there are only 13 full psalms, plus parts of about fit teen more, depending on the service. Sunday morning has seven in full, six – eight in part.

    But the Orthodox do tend to skew the results for Western Christian polls. (:

    • Wonderful! Peter. Thanks for that perspective – continuing traditions from the early church and back through Jesus into our Jewish roots. Blessings.

  8. I use the Psalm in the lectionary either as a reading or as the call to worship or pastoral prayer, sometimes a combination. If it isn’t the central text in the sermon, it is referred to.

  9. So, at the moment, my context is a Long Term Care facility in the American Midwest for the Sunday Eucharist.

    Given the attention span, time we are given, etc., to accommodate a weekly Eucharist for 15-25 people, We use the Gospel plus one reading. To ensure thematic integrity between the texts, and simplicity of preaching, I use the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod’s reworking of the 3 year series, so that the NT reading is thematically linked with the OT and Gospel. I try to balance proclaiming from both options to accompany the Gospel.

    I do, however, omit the Psalm.

    We have a reading, an alleluia, and the Gospel.

    I try, then, when possible, to find a hymn based on the psalm to use while I am preparing the Holy Table… but the assembly mainly listens. It’s only really well known hymns (How Great Thou Art, On Eagles’ Wings, etc.) that gain joiners – even when I hand out the texts – and then it is only the refrain.

    If I were in a parish environment, I’d be 3 readings and a psalm all the way… but, in my context, that’s what I do.

    If I weren’t using canned musical accompaniment, I’d consider using some of the Psalm as the Alleluia verse… but I’m stuck there.

  10. While many of the Psalms are beautiful, they are often meaningless to most congregations, for they cry for meditation. We always sing the psalm with as beautiful a setting as we can find. It seems to increase their importance and beauty.

    • I can’t help but wonder if a broadly Cathedral structure to the Daily Office might reinvigorate an interest in the Psalms as accessible texts.

      A smaller number of psalms, suited to the time of day, but also touching on the wide variety of the human condition…

      A few years back, a US publisher of Reformed material released Philip Reiners (think I got the name right) book “Seeking God’s Face”. Each day includes a biblical invocation, a short selection of psalmody (usually 5-10 verses), a brief biblical reading, guiding principles for Lectio, suggestions for free intercession, a collect based on the Reformed Confessions, and a biblical benediction. It is really well done, covers all the psalms in a year, and makes the Psalter a bit more accessible to people, like my wife, who find chanting two or three psalms a day to be an exercise in lip-curling.

  11. While it’s totally not part of my liturgical tradition, I really love Isaac Watts’s psalm paraphrases. I have a book of them that I read sometimes. My mother (whose liturgical tradition does include them) has a copy too, and I think she uses them as part of her daily prayers, along with the psalm they’re paraphrasing.

  12. I deeply value the Psalms through the daily offices, even more so since close association with a Benedictine community. And after reading Philip Yanceys’ “The Bible Jesus Read”. They are a profound part of the understanding of God’s people, through good and – even more – through bad times.

  13. My church very rarely reads Psalms unless it’s a specific part of the sermon, but I read them often in personal prayer time. I actually just finished reading Psalms 5-10 as part of my study tonight!

  14. Here’s a quote from Eugene Peterson from Answering God, The Psalms as Tools for Prayer,

    The dominant diction in this theater is metaphor. Metaphor is the witness of language that spirit and matter are congruent. Metaphor uses the language of sense experience to lead us into the world of the unseen: faith, guilt, mind, God. The visible and invisible, put asunder by sin, are joined by metaphor.

    This general statement goes beyond the Psalms to the whole of the Bible but since the Psalms are poetic commentary on the whole story, it belongs to them truly.

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