The Church’s Oldest Song Book

2143980427_c96f3ee879_m“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want … ” When a minister recites these memorable words before a congregation grieving a tragedy that has struck them, that minister is repeating a psalm that has comforted God’s dear children for more than 3000 years.

Psalm 23 is attributed to David, the shepherd king, and has been recited across the centuries in public worship by those rich in faith or whispered in lonely places by the imprisoned, sick, forlorn or betrayed. The shepherd psalm has great power to inspire faith.

But it’s just one of 150 psalms, though likely the best known and most loved of them all. There are many more in this ancient collection that give renewed strength to go on. For example, “The Lord is my light and my salvation — / whom shall I fear? / The Lord is the stronghold of my life — / of whom then shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).

You may be curious as I am to know how God used humans to bring this collection of his inspired word into existence. No one knows for sure but one possibility is that Cyrus, ruler of Persia played a role. Late in the sixth century B.C. God moved him to give permission to the exiled people of Israel to return to their native land with the weighty task of rebuilding their demolished temple and restoring their practices of worship.

Certain Jewish patriots among them must have asked from whence would the worship music come for this rebuilding. It is possible that Ezra, the priest, saw the need and set about sorting the thousands of sacred poems of the nation to arrive at the 150 finally chosen.

Another possibility is that a company of cult-prophets may have anticipated the need and set into motion the search, and it was they who did the sorting.

Whatever the case, we know the psalter has selections from many sources composed across more than 1000 years. Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses. At least 73 of the 150 psalms are attributed to David, who lived three centuries later. It is believed some psalms were even composed after the exile.

In the 16th century A.D., Martin Luther called the Psalter “The Bible in miniature.” As such, it holds a special relationship to both Old and New Testaments. For example, there are 207 verses from the Old Testament quoted in the New Testament, and 116 of these are from the Psalms.

The psalms are unmatched instruments for worship. Consider how our Lord leaned on them for strength. At the close of his last meal with his disciples, he and the eleven sang together the Hallel, Psalms 113–118. From his cross, and feeling abandoned, our Lord Jesus chose to cry out in the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Despite all this history, we sometimes neglect the psalms, perhaps because they may not meet our sense of what poetry should be.

If this is the case for you, it may help you to understand that in their construction, Hebrew poems follow the major principle of parallelism. That is, a second line often repeats the sense of the first using different words: “I will extol the Lord at all times; / his praise will always be on my lips.” (Psalm 34:1). Or a second line may complete the first line: “Save me, O God, / for the waters have come up to my neck” (Psalm 69:1). There are other variations of parallelisms but this may give you a start.

The themes of the psalms are diverse, yet, diverse as they are, they are gathered together under one title. The word, “psalms” in the Hebrew language means “praises.” The psalms are meant to help us reduce to worship all of life’s experiences — the good and the bad — and in all circumstances to praise the Majesty of Heaven who is always accessible to his people.

It is always good for believers to say, “The Lord is MY Shepherd,” because the God of the psalms has declared himself a personal presence to us and has proven his trustworthiness throughout the ages. So we turn to this rich source of worship to “praise” the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whether our faith is ripe and growing, or life’s wounds have left us with situations we don’t understand.

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Photo credit: Josh (via flickr.com)

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One thought on “The Church’s Oldest Song Book

  1. Thankyou,Pastor ,for this fascinating blog on the Psalms,their creation and the possibility of the involvement of Cyrus then Ezra . Also of the importance of the psalter to the Temple and it’s worship.

    The Psalter,the book of psalms ,in Hebrew often known as the Book of Praises or simply Praises, seems ideal for communal worship.

    These 150 hymns or sacred songs contain all the proper parts of ordered and solemn common worship,every kind of prayer : praise,lament,thanksgiving , penitence and more.They offer a complete liturgy.

    Sometimes I turn to the Book of Psalms in my Bible .or find myself in church,speaking the Psalm for the day, where minister and congregation take turns reciting alternate verses.Then I often muse on their authorship.

    Who composed these magnificent and powerful songs of praise and petition?

    At these times I often make the wrong assumption.that all the 150 Psalms were written by the musician King ,David.

    Pastor ,you remind me that not all the Psalms were written by David ,by God’s inspiration.They couldn’t have been,since some refer to Solomon’s temple ,built after David’s death.You point to Moses,much earlier,being one author.

    In ‘Introduction to the Old Testament: A Presentation of it’s Results and Problems’,by Otto Kaiser 1969,translated by John Sturdy in 1975 ,I read :

    ‘’the psalter as a whole was the prayer book of post –exilic Judaism’’

    I tend to think of the psalms as prayers,even as liturgies for use in church.Many have the question and response form which one can imagine being used in the Jerusalem Temple rites.Not the empty rituals that God is so sick and tired of at the beginning of the book of Isaiah,so vividly even astonishingly expressed in Pastor Eugene Peterson’s ‘The Message’

    “Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
    Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
    Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
    I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
    When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
    No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.
    And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
    people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
    Go home and wash up.
    Clean up your act.
    Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
    so I don’t have to look at them any longer’’

    These are strong words,but the psalms are not about empty ritual.They contain in their 150 .all the proper parts of ordered and solemn communal prayer .

    Trying to find the time of their writing ,I came across various conjectural dates,mostly from around 1,000BC to later than 600 BC,with some writers attributing some to as late as the second century BC.

    When I think of the Psalms I often remember a church local to me,in which I try to worship each April 23rd.

    In nearby cross shaped Holy Trinity Church,on the banks of the Avon at Stratford ,the Bible on the lectern is usually open at Psalm 46. Holy Trinity is the church Shakespeare was baptized in,worshiped in ,married in and buried in.

    William Shakespeare was 46 in 1611,in King James 1s employ.,the year the Authorized Version or King James Bible was published.It was translated by the finest writers in England

    If one turns to Psalm 46 in the King James Bible of 1611,the year Shakespeare was 46,a strange coincidence is visible.

    One must discount the marginal liturgical musical mark ‘selah’ in the following word count.

    Then one finds ,in the 1611 AV, that the 46th word,counting down from the beginning of Psalm 46 ,is translated as SHAKE.

    The 46th word,counting up from the end is SPEAR.

    Bearing in mind Shakespeare was in King James’ employ during preparation of the Bible ,and the finest writer in the kingdom,and aged 46 on publication of Psalm 46 in the AV,I often wonder if he had a hand in the Bible’s translation of Psalm 46.

    In English churches,carvers of misericords ( the kneelers in the nave choir stall),often left a secret little signature or sign of themselves to identify their workmanship.It’s tempting to think Shakespeare may have done the same,even though Skakespeare is not listed as one of the 50 or so translators.

    This is just a point of interest with me since I live local to Shakespeare’s church.

    Noting your point ,Pastor ,about Martin Luther calling the psalter the bible in miniature, I recall other words of Luther on the Psalms.

    ‘Luther found in the Psalter ,as in the whole of scripture,prophecies of the Passion,death & resurrection, of Christ,.But as well as a prophetic significance – an exemplary one’’ I read in Otto Kaiser’s book on the Old Testament.

    Luther himself said this of the Psalms :

    ”The Christian can learn how to pray in the Psalter,from here we can learn how the saints talk with God”

    and

    ”everyone can find psalms ,and a word in them ,which link up with his affairs,and are to him just as if they had been placed there for his sake alone” Martin Luther quoted in one Deutsche Bibel I came across.

    I was very interested ,Pastor ,in your note about the paralelist structure in Hebrew psalmody, and will look at this more closely when reading the Psalter from now on.

    I don’t know Hebrew and can only guess at the beauty of the composition of the Psalms in that language .But in their English translations,the Psalms are among the few greatest song collections in the English language ,and a valuable resource for common worship.

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