What’s with all the Psalm chanting

From last Sunday’s service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church

Where do we have Psalms in the service?

The Introit, the Gradual and (often) the Alleluia Verse are portions of Psalms. Sometimes, a whole Psalm takes the place of the Gradual. Also, some of the hymns we sing are paraphrases of Psalms (such as The Mighty Fortress and Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven).

Why do we have Psalms in the service?

The Psalms are the hymn book of the Bible. They are the only hymns Jesus would have sung (e.g. Matt 26:30), and they have always been the chief songs of the church (Col. 3:16). When we sing the Psalms, we are singing the same songs that the people of God have sung since the second millennium bc! And when we sing the Psalms, we are singing words that God has given for us to sing. So why wouldn’t we sing the Psalms?!

Why do we sing the Psalms?
Psalms are songs. They were written to be sung. In fact, there are still some musical instructions left in the book of Psalms in the Bible—although unfortunately we no longer know what they mean.

So singing the Psalms is like singing the hymns. They are meant to be sung. And speaking the Psalms are like speaking hymns: not wrong, but not the full experience.

But why do we chant?

The Psalms are ancient poems, written with a very different idea of what singing is from our own. Unlike in the hymns in our hymnal, there’s no regular meter. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to set them to a regular, repeated tune.

As a result, the way Psalms have been sung for at least 1,500 years (and possibly much longer) is by chanting, where most of the words are sung to a repeated note, with other notes only at the ends of phrases. This way, it’s possible for the congregation to sing together with a simple melody. The only alternatives are speaking (but see the previous question), or writing an enormously long melody that covered the whole Psalm—but that would be very hard to learn!

But since the word ‘chant’ just means ‘song’, you can just say that we ‘sing’ the Psalms if that sounds better to you, and it would be just as true.

My righteousness?

What should we do with those Psalms that are so hard to pray: the ones where the Psalmist protests his innocence and his righteousness. How can we possibly pray them as our prayers?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer answers:

What really concerns us here is not any possible motives behind a prayer, but whether the actual content of the prayer is true or false.This however is where it becomes clear that the believing Christian has not only something to say about his guilt, but also something at least as important to say about his innocence and righteousness. Inherent in the faith of a Christian is the belief that, by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, he has been made perfectly innocent and righteous in the sight of God, ‘that there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom 8:1). And it is inherent in the prayr of a Christian that he should hold fast to this righteousness and innocence in which he has been granted a share, and give thanks for it, relying on the Word of God. So if we take God’s dealings with us at all seriously, we not only may, but we positively must, with conviction and humility make this affirmation:’I was also uncorrupt before him and eschewed mine own wickedness’ (18:23); ‘thou hast proved my heart … and shalt find no wickedness in me’ (17:3). With such prayers on our lips we stand at the heart of the New Testament, in the fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

The Psalms: Prayer Book of the Bible (Oxford: The Sisters of the Love of God, 1982), 19–20.

The invitatory: teaching us to pray the Psalm

I’ve been listening to the current series on Issues, Etc. on the daily prayer offices, with Pastor Wil Weedon. If you haven’t, I recommend them to you, even if you consider yourself to be an expert on them.

Listening to Pr. Weedon’s discussion on the Venite (Ps. 95), which is an integral part of Lutheran Matins and Morning Prayer, the following detail struck me:

The Invitatory, which introduces the Venite, is a great tool for teaching us how to pray this Psalm – and by extension, all the Psalms.

Psalm 95 itself is an invitation to God’s people to “sing to the Lord“. Who is this Lord? To this, the Invitatory provides the answer.

The common Invitatory simply blesses “God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. O come, let us worship Him.” Fair enough.

But if you use the seasonal Invitatories, the worshipper’s eye of faith is drawn to greater details:

Advent: “Behold, the Lord comes to save us. O come, let us worship Him.”
Christmas: “Lo, to us the christ is born. O come let us worship Him.”
Epiphany: “The christ has appeared to us. O come, let us worship Him.”
Lent: “The Lord has redeemed His people. O come, let us worship Him.”
Passiontide: “Christ became obedient to death, even death on a cross. O come, let us worship Him.”
Easter: “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! O come, let us worship Him.”
Ascension: “The King ascends to heaven. Alleluia! O come, let us worship Him.”
Pentecost: “The Spirit of the Lord fills the world. Alleluia! O come, let us worship Him.”
Holy Trinity: “The Lord has called us by the Gospel. O come, let us worship Him.”
Post-Pentecost (Trinity 1–Trinity 19): “The Lord has called / gathered / enlightened / sanctified us in the true faith. O come, let us worship Him.”
Michaelmastide: “Glorious is God with His angels and saints. O come, let us worship Him.”
End of church year (Trinity 25–27): “The Lord will come again in glory. O come, let us worship Him.”

See what’s going on? We aren’t directed only to the glory of the Triune God, but to the specific offices of the Divine Persons, chiefly the redeeming work of the Son (Advent–Ascension) and the sanctifying work of the Spirit (Pentecost–Trinity 19).

This is the Lord whom we worship: He who comes to us not in the abstract, but in the specific work of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He is YHWH of Sabaoth.

As we confess in the Athanasian Creed: The Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord. Yet there are not three Lords but one Lord!

Jesus’ silence

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Reminiscere Sunday
Genesis 32:22–32 Matthew 15:21–28
24 February 2012

A recording of the sermon is posted here.

In the name of ✠ Jesus.

Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

I say to God, my rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”

Why have you rejected me? Why do I go about mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!
O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture?

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?

The Canaanite woman was not alone. Her need so desperate, and her only hope implacably silent. Jesus is silent, and when he opens his mouth, he speaks only to discourage and to repel, seemingly impervious to her cries, showing no interest in her plight, determined only to push her away.

In her plight, she joined that dark place inhabited by king David, the author of the psalms you have just heard, and the patriarch Jacob himself, the man named Israel, in whose name Jesus was driving her away: “I have come for the lost sheep of Israel—only for the children of Jacob. Why do you bother me?” That dark place where our desperate prayers are met with rebuttal or, worse, with complete silence. She may well have wondered with the Psalmist, “Has forgotten to be gracious?”

Continue reading Jesus’ silence

And he was clean

Sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham on 23 January 2011, Epiphany 4 [typos and all]

Naaman is one of those characters in the Bible whose story is familiar to almost everyone who has been to Sunday School for any length of time. Every time I read or hear the story myself, images of the fuzzy felt storyboard from my own Sunday School in the early ‘70s and ‘80s come flooding back.

And like so many of the biblical characters we encounter through Sunday School, Naaman gets a bit of a rough deal. He comes across as something of an anti-hero: he is the enemy general who has vanquished God’s people in battle, killed their king, kidnapped a poor Israelite girl as a slave, who shows no faith in the promise God makes through His prophet, and who is saved only after his servants persuade him to listen to the prophet. However, even a brief moment of self-scrutiny should make us realise that this is hardly fair on Naaman: he is certainly no worse than us. At every turn his reactions are just what you would expect from any normal, rational person. This passage is not a story about Naaman’s foolishness—it is a story about God’s foolishness, about how God saves us through wonderfully foolish means.

Continue reading And he was clean

The Christian life …

… in a nutshell:

3 Trust in the LORD, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
4 Delight yourself in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
(Ps. 37:3–4)

Lost in silence, saved in song

As part of my Isaiah's lips cleansedpreparation for preaching on Isaiah 6:1–13 next Sunday, I was reading Luther’s lectures on Isaiah. I was intrigued that the translation (presumably Vulgate) he was using rendered Isa 6:5 as, “Woe is me! For I was silent”, rather than the usual “I am lost”. Well, some digging around ensued, with the following discovery: the Hebrew word normally rendered `I am lost’ (niphal  of DMH) can mean (1) be brought to/obliged to be silent; (2) be destroyed; (3) be ruined or undone. Well, I never!

No doubt the almost universal translation “I am lost” is the best translation of the Hebrew. However, I’m prepared to wager a pair of cotton socks that the Hebrew is also a pun: “Woe to me, for I am lost—and so I am silenced.” A prophet who is perishing because of his unclean lips—and rendered speechless because of his unclean lips.

But when the seraph touches his lips with a burning coal from the altar, his lips are cleansed. His guilt is taken away, his sins atoned for—and his mouth opened to proclaim God’s word.

Which is precisely what happens to us, especially in the Divine Service. Our lips are touched, not with a burning coal but with the body and blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Our lips are cleansed, our guilt taken away, our sins atoned for—and our mouths are opened by the Lord to declare His praise to one another and to the whole world.

This is why I think Luther was so spot-on in switching the place of the Sanctus in the Liturgy of the Sacrament, so that it came after the Words of Institution, and not in the Preface (even though this move is almost universally condemned as amateurish, ignorant and cackhanded). The song of the seraphim was a spontaneous reaction to the presence of the Lord of hosts in the Temple. With the Consecration, the Lord of hosts, Jesus Christ, becomes truly and bodily present in the Temple of His Church—so what better way to confess that than to join in the song of the angels, the archangels and all the company of heaven!

Having been cleansed, the Church is saved from sin and rescued from silence, to proclaim the wonderful deeds of Him who saved her.

Non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera Domini


I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.

The ending and the beginning

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834 – 1890), "Casting out the Money Changers"

I don’t know what it’s like from an author’s point of view, but as a reader of books I have got the impression that the two hardest things in writing a book are the beginning and the ending. The story might write itself, but how do you open it? I suppose that’s why there we have “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after”. There is no substitute for a solid opening—”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” comes to mind.

Or, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”.

But how to end it?

Well, as I was reminded while reading today’s OT reading in the Treasury of Daily Prayer, in the case of the penultimate book of the  Old Testament canon, this is how:

And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day. (Zech. 14:21, ESV)

The wider context is Zechariah’s prophecy of the humbling of the enemies of Israel, the bringing in of the nations to worship the Lord, and the consecration of everything from the bells of the horses to pots and pans in the kitchen “so that all who sacrifice may come and take of them and boil the meat of the sacrifice in them.”

I have read Zechariah before, more than once. However, I hadn’t paid close attention to this closing sentence before. For some reason, as I was reading it this morning, however, it hit me right in the face: Jesus in the Temple.

All the Gospel writers relate the incident of Jesus entering the Temple, almost certainly soon after his triumphal entry—i.e., some days before his crucifixion. Once in the Temple, he drove out the traders and money changers, incurring the wrath of the Temple authorities.

Rightly, much has been made of the incident. The corruption of late second Temple worship, the narrowing of Jewish exclusivism at the expense of Gentiles coming to the Temple, Jesus’ authority over the Temple and its guardians, his zeal for true worship of the Father, setting himself up as the true Temple, etc. All good and true, there in the text. Since the Holocaust, several scholars have pinpointed this incident as a clear indication that Jesus deliberately orchestrated his own martyrdom (thereby lifting the blame from the Jewish authorities, whose hand Jesus allegedly forced). Not so good and true…

However, I hadn’t made the link to Zechariah before (and, it seems, I’m not alone in that). By driving out the traders from the Temple, Jesus was signalling the fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. And sure enough, within a week or so, Jesus had died and risen again, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two. And a few weeks after that, the Holy Spirit came upon his disciples, making them into temples for the Holy Spirit. The division between Jew and Gentile, sacred and profane space, gone. All who worship the Lord, who come to the Father through the Son, are holy to the Lord and their whole lives sanctified, holy to the Lord.

And so in Holy Week, Jesus started a new beginning—just where Zechariah and the Old Covenant had left off.

A great insight . . .

… from John H at Confessing Evangelical. Read it.

The Erotica of Salvation History

Marc Chagall: 'Song of Songs III'

Now, here’s a new way to read the Old Testament in the light of the Song of Songs. Talk about thinking outside the box!