Christian Psalms for Worship and Prayer

Between two and three thousand years ago, a number of songs were written that were so used and loved and valued that a collection of them was made for continuing use first in the synagogues of the Jews and then in the churches of the Christians.   A contemporary Christian scholar, Bishop N.T. Wright, has called them “the daily life blood of Christians.”  Hymn books abound, but none can replace the psalms.

Not only do the psalms provide irreplaceable statements of faith and praise, they do it in a way uniquely adapted both to public worship and private prayer.  The Hebrew psalms are poetry of a special kind, lacking the clear and definite rhythms of so many of the familiar Christian hymns, but with a unique rhythm of their own.  Unlike the familiar hymns with their definite syllabic pattern and rhyming of sounds, the Hebrew psalms provide a looser structure and usually rhyme ideas rather than sounds.  They are especially suited both to public recitation and to private meditation.

Yet the psalms can create problems for modern users.  They come from an age unimaginably different from ours and take for granted patterns of life unfamiliar to most of us.  Perhaps we can picture the world of the shepherd who leads a flock beside still waters (Psalm 23), but far more difficult to imagine is a world of violence that dashes an infant’s head against the rocks (Psalm 132), or of sexual inequality that says to the princess, “The king is your master”(Psalm 45).   There are psalms and portions of psalms that are never used in contemporary worship.

Meanwhile two thousand years of Christian life have produced eloquent expressions of faith that are seldom if ever used in worship.  Most of the hymns we sing were written in the last two centuries.  Earlier expressions of prayer and praise were written in other languages or in older forms of English and so are seldom used.  But what if some of those expressions could be adapted to the rhythms of the Hebrew psalms and so made available both for responsive readings or psalmody on Sunday morning and for individual prayer and praise and meditation? What if even more modern expressions of prayer and praise could be adapted for those purposes?

It was with those questions in mind that I set out to quarry the mines of Christian faith where gemstones and veins of gold might be found.  The resultant collection of psalm-like readings will never replace the ancient psalms, but perhaps they might provide useful alternatives for some occasions.  In their present form they could be used wherever a psalm or responsive reading might otherwise be used.   They could also be easily “pointed” for use with plainsong or Anglican chant and hymn writers might find them a source of inspiration for new hymns.  Finally, the use of these texts may introduce contemporary Christians to some of their ancestors in the faith and lead them to explore further a wealth of resources often overlooked to strengthen our faith and expand our vocabulary of praise.