Whilst the practice of singing psalms in worship is ancient both in Hebrew and Christian tradition, it behooves us to consider exactly why such a practice is important or meaningful. The word “psalm” comes from the Hebrew word “tehillim,” meaning “praises,” and we know that the psalms were originally sung. In fact, should you wish to flip through your Bible you will find many of them prefaced with either “a song,” or possibly “a psalm” or “a prayer,” or even less familiar Hebrew terms such as “maskil” (Psalm 89) or “gittith” (Psalm 84) or “miktam” (Psalm 58.) Many psalms are expressly labeled “for the director of music,” or give even more precise liturgical instructions such as those found prefacing Psalm 60, “For the director of music. To the tune of “The Lily of the Covenant.” A miktam of David. For teaching. When he fought Aram Naharaim and Aram Zobah, and when Joab returned and struck down twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” It is commonly supposed that David wrote most of the psalms, but many are attributed to other writers, such as Asaph, Ethan, Heman, and even Solomon. Further, the psalms were not only sung, but probably were accompanied frequently by the simple string or wind instruments of the time, as we read in the prefaces to Psalm 4 (“with string instruments”) or Psalm 5 (“for flutes.”) Since the ancient Hebrews did not notate their music, we have no way of knowing what melodies they might have used or how specifically they might have been accompanied. No doubt they would have sounded quite foreign to our ears, as they would not have employed the Western musical modes (such as major and minor) but probably would have been more reminiscent of modern Middle Eastern music (and, considering that all music evolves and changes, one can be quite certain it would have sounded different than even that.) The psalms are truly the “hymnal of the Bible,” containing a compendium of personal expressions for petitions, prayers, praises and even laments. Yet, they were almost certainly used in Temple worship, as suggested by the frequently-encountered title of “for the director of music.” The skilled Hebrew music director, just like his counterpart thousands of years later, would know which psalms to employ at which portion of the liturgy.
The Early Church, freed from the Old Covenant though it was, did not forsake the singing of psalms, and it is likely those early Christians (who, in fact, were mostly Jewish converts) sang psalms liturgically and exclusively. Not until several centuries into the growth of the Church do extra-biblical hymns become commonplace. (The earliest hymn whose author is known is “Shepherd of Tender Youth” by Clement of Alexandria, c. 200 AD.) Through the Middle Ages and the development of the Roman Catholic Church psalms were sung and chanted by the great schola of mendicants.
With the Reformation, psalm singing took a different turn. Luther continued to chant the psalms as he continued to chant the Epistle and Gospel lessons every Sunday. His famous “A Mighty Fortress” is a paraphrase of Psalm 46—certainly an extra-biblical liberty which would not have been taken by more conservative theologians of prior centuries. Huldrich Zwingli, the reformer from Zürich, forbade all singing in church, even of the psalms, finding the very act of singing to evoke humanity’s carnal nature; meanwhile, in Geneva, Calvinism embraced psalm singing both at home and in church, producing the Genevan Psalter (1539, but many editions were published subsequently.) This wealth of Genevan compositional activity both limited to and inspired by the psalms resulted in many tunes which have become second nature to us, including the famous Doxology, “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow,” whose tune name is OLD HUNDREDTH, a reference to the versified psalm for which it was intended.
Isaac Watts Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament (1719) brought to English speakers settings of the psalms more elegantly set for personal and corporate singing (“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” is from Watts’ volume and is a setting of Psalm 90: 1-5.) Up to the beginning of the nineteenth century (and, in fact, even into the twentieth century in many denominations), psalm singing was the normative liturgical practice, whether one was a New England Anglican or a New England Puritan (whose Calvinist background stressed psalm-singing.) Our American heritage is replete with musical settings of the psalms!
Therefore, this practice of singing psalms in the liturgy is both an ancient Hebrew and Early Church practice as well as an American practice. David, Solomon, Jesus, the Apostles, King George III, as well as George Washington, John Bunyan, Queen Elizabeth the First and Cotton Mather were all edified by the singing of psalms. Is there a reason why we moderns cannot likewise be edified the same way?
We do not know the musical style of the ancient Hebrews, but we can surmise that the melody was solely a vehicle for the text, as is all chant. Therefore, our style of psalm singing is one that allows the text to proclaim God’s Word. Nothing needs to be paraphrased in order to fit a certain tune’s meter (as was the case with all of Watts’ hymns) and the text can speak for itself. There is no human editor who alters the text in order to make it more palatable to our sensitive ears. We are able to use the same thoughts and expressions to offer our praise, prayers, and thanks to God as King David did when he wrote them, inspired as he was by the Holy Spirit.