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!

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)