Singing the Psalms

Third week of Lent

by Marjorie George

I can’t get the tune out of my mind. And I only remember half of the words. So I drive merrily down the highway or cheerfully dig in the garden half-humming, half-singing the song with lots of start-overs, hoping no one else is listening.

I wonder if the psalmists forgot the words sometimes. Did they do a little strum-thing on their lyres as they searched their minds for the chorus?

For, whatever the source of the psalms (see the notes, below), their communal delivery was most often in the form of music, and that usually in the setting of temple or synagogue worship.

So the Christian tradition of singing the psalms in worsip has ancient and accepted roots. In fact, the title “the book of psalms” comes from the New Testament (Luke 20:42, Acts 1:20). In the Hebrew Bible the title is tehillim which means “praise.” The early Christians read Jewish scripture in the Greek version where the prevailing title was psalmoi, referring to songs sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments.  For many of us, the image of the psalms recalls David playing upon the lyre.

Singing a verse or even an entire song has a way of making it one’s own. I can almost not read the Nunc dimittis (“Lord, now lettest thou they servant depart in peace . . .”) without breaking into song because in the church of my childhood it was sung during Evening Prayer. I loved the haunting tune of it long before I knew it came from Simeon encountering the child Jesus in the temple (see Luke 2:29-32). 

In “The Psalms as Music,” below, writer Sylvia Maddox suggests adopting a psalm each day as one’s “song line” for that day, letting it carry us through whatever we encounter along the way. By the end of the day, it will be a psalm and a song that has become our own. And it probably will not matter if we remember all the words; the intent will be our tune. 

Going Deeper: 

The Internet is full of resources on psalms set to music. Dig around at these websites to see if any of them give you song lines to remember.

OWL MOUNTAIN MUSIC has an album of Psalms in “simple piano/guitar with vocal to full-throated 4 part harmonies, to ‘Psalm-Rap’ chants supported by multi-continental percussion.  Mountain and Hammered Dulcimers are joined by the Australian didjeridoo.”

Psalm 100:  Online 30 seconds – rap  

 Psalm 46:  4 min. 

Website listing various resources including hymns based on Psalms    

 PSALM 139:  LYRICS by Steve Pearson, Songwriter/Composer, 3/16/11,         MP3 version of musical setting on the website.

PSALM 46:  COUNTRY WESTERN STYLE, musician Charles Pettee, 4 MINUTES.

PSALM 46:  Luther’s version of “A Mighty Fortress is our God”  rousing traditional choir anthem style with words streaming across screen



PSALM 46:  Christy Nockols singing “Christian Rock” version of a translation of “A Mighty Fortress”


Notes on the Psalms

Traditionally, right up to the 19th century, the psalms have all been attributed to David. But recent scholarship shows that many of the psalms were written by musicians and choir leaders, along with psalms written by Moses, Solomon, Heman, and Ethan. Seventy-three psalms bear the title “leDawid” which may mean “by David,” but it could also mean “for David,” or “concerning David.” Hence, many of the psalms may have been written at David’s request or to honor him or by those in his court. As an archetypal figure, David’s career of misery as well as grandeur echoed the history of the Hebrew people, and in the psalms the community identified itself with David as it came before God in worship.