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What is a Psalm?


In a recent comment in response to the Old Testament not being used during the Easter Season, there was a pointing to the plenty of psalms in the lectionary. This made me wonder – how do different individuals and communities understand the psalms?

Do you think of the psalms as readings?
Certainly, the psalms (for Christians) present so much of Christ’s life (and our own).
In the lectionary, the layout makes no distinction between the “readings” and the “psalm” – so people can be forgiven for understanding the psalm’s place, in the lectionary, as simply another reading:

Acts 16:16-34
Ps 97
Rev 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

In practice, it would not surprise me if, in some communities, the psalm is read as one of the readings, concluded with

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Thanks be to God.

I am used to a Eucharist always having a psalm. And I cannot recall, in twenty-five years of presiding at the Eucharist, ever presiding without having a psalm. But (unless the Eucharist is combined with an office, a practice I have seen particularly in monasteries) I also wouldn’t normally be used to having more than one psalm between the collect and the homily. So normally I am used to: reading; psalm; (reading); Alleluia verse and/or gradual hymn; Gospel. The psalm in this understanding is a sung prayer, an inspired hymn. I am used to a psalm between the first and second reading (and that second may be the Gospel reading) rather than the multiplication of psalms at this point certainly as allowed by the NZ Prayer Book rubric, “A psalm… may follow each reading.” (are there people, following this, who follow the Gospel reading with a psalm?)

“What is the book in the Bible with the highest number of chapters?” That question in a quiz game would not have me immediately have the Book of Psalms spring to mind. I don’t tend to think of the psalms as being 150 chapters in a book. I think of them as 150 inspired songs of prayer and praise.

In about five decades of praying the psalms, mostly daily, mostly many psalms a day, I do not tend to think of the psalms as readings, but as prayers, inspired prayers that have become my prayers, prayers I continue to grow into and with.

So how do you understand the psalms?
And how does your community understand the psalms?
And how do you, and your community, use the psalms?

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12 thoughts on “What is a Psalm?”

  1. I put up a story at the Episcopal Cafe last Saturday about an interview & conversation between Bono (U2) and Eugene Peterson (The Message) regarding the Psalms. I was struck by Dr Peterson saying that as a pastor when folks would come to him stating that they didn’t know how to pray, that he would personally translate a Psalm for them into modern US English idiom to use in prayer. This lead me to the Psalms from The Message, a popular modern paraphrase of the Bible translated by Dr Peterson. I have been praying these Psalms in personal devotions since last Thursday. They are so very different from what I am used to. Honest and gritty, but not conducive to plainchant!

    1. Thanks, David. The Message is one of the ways I regularly use to get into the Bible. I must go back and look at your piece. Blessings.

  2. a psalm is a musical meditative prayer unfortunately we usually read them I think the Scots come closest but the orthodox really have a real feel for the psalms we really should sing the psalms!!

    1. I agree, Brenda-Ruth, if possible we should sing them. I guess saying them is better than not praying them 🙂 Blessings.

  3. Thanks Bosco
    I have reread the Psalms more than any other book, for personal comfort.
    At first as historical documents, I found them much easier reads than Deuteronomy etc. Their descriptions of death & suffering have far more emotional impact than Joshua, Kings et all. As a new dad I found Psalm 78 , 105 …. appalling.
    So with death of my first born [1984] I dreaded rereading them. But when I did, I found them immensely reassuring that the God of Israel does care for all.

    For 20 years i’ve pew warmed at the back of a Presbyterian church where versions of Psalms are often used as hymns. But mostly only read if part of lectionary readings. We also enjoy times when a psalm is used [occasionally with a sermon] with the leader [or one side of congregation] reading a verse, then congregation [or other side] reading the next.

    1. Thanks, Walter. The psalms do express the wide spectrum of human emotions, including with gritty honesty, as well as comfort. Easter Season Blessings.

  4. The psalms as a whole are a detailed commentary on the whole of Tanach or the OT if you prefer. The Psalter is definitely a book with a story in it. Its purpose is to form a people who know how to administer mercy (aka loving-kindness). It is a critical story of course about the human condition as seen through the canonical history of Israel. Pss 1-2 introduce the Psalter. Ps 149 as part of the closing frame directly references the intro. Ps 146 outlines the character of Yahweh and by implication allows the person in the celebratory Psalm 111 to consider that those are the actions to imitate. There is a clear structure to the whole, framed by the 4 acrostics of book 1 and book 5, imitating or imitated by the 4 of Lamentations, an imitation that ties the Psalter to the exile – much of which is reflected in the laments of Book 2 and 3. The 7 psalms preceding the 8 acrostics, Pss 8, 24, 33, and 36 in book 1 and Pss 110, 118, and 144 in book 5 have a chiastic arrangement through their content and are each of special theological importance within the 150. 8 and 144 for example share the question ‘what is this humanity that God should pay it any notice’ – in quite different words but clearly intended and resonating with the Job parallel also. A psalm like a person does not ‘exist as an individual’ alone but is strongly in relation to this very carefully constructed/redacted body of poetry.

    1. Bosco Peters

      Thanks, as always, Bob. I encourage people to explore your website. Easter Season Blessings.

  5. Timothy Phillips

    I deem the psalms to be primarily songs. Maybe St. Augustine wanted to be just another reading, but if so he was wrong.

    1. Timothy Phillips

      I deem the psalms to be primarily songs. Maybe St. Augustine wanted them to be just another reading, but if so he was wrong, and so is anyone else who tries to downplay the distinction between the Eucharistic psalm (which, for us in the USA, is the Gradual) and the other readings. Psalms are special.

    2. Bosco Peters

      Thanks, Timothy. Where did St Augustine say that he wanted the psalm to be “just another reading”? Blessings.

  6. Here, in St Servais, I began introducing the whole psalm of the introit, not only the antiphon with the first verse. The other psalm quotations (gradual, alleluia verses, offertory) are only partial psalms. But I agree every Mass deserves one psalm in full.

    I am still struck by the discrepancy between those Christians who, by the use and repetitions, know many psalms by heart, and, on the other side, those Christians who have always something marcionite to reproach each and every psalm.

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