Every Maundy Thursday evening during the stripping of the altar, the choir at my church sings a version of Psalm 22, the Psalm that begins “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It’s a poignant piece for that part of the service and a look at the way in which the Psalms continually point us to Christ. This repetition of the same psalm at the same service every year also ensures that the psalm becomes familiar to the congregation and offers members words of Scripture to pray in times of need.
Psalms are for Church Musicians
The Psalms are intended for all Christians, but they specifically are directed for musical use during a worship service. The biblical titles of many of the psalms instruct which musicians should use them and how musicians should play or sing them. Although we do not have the original music used for the psalms, we can view their texts as some of the oldest songs in the world, incredibly still in continuous use today as part of the rich heritage of both Judaism and Christianity. As such, they are our beginning point as church musicians and should be known and studied by us.
Eternal Truth in the Psalms
The fact that we still regularly use these ancient songs in our modern lives speaks to the fact that the Psalms contain eternal truths about God and about human nature. Therefore, it is important that all Christians continue to read them, sing them, study them, pray them, and teach them today. Music teachers should include the Psalms as a component of music class. Students should learn how to use the chant tones in Lutheran Service Book associated with the Psalms. In doing so, they continue a centuries-long practice.
The Psalms take us through the gamut of human emotion, showing that human nature remains constant throughout centuries and cultures. The prayer book of the Church, the Psalms demonstrate to us the way in which we call upon God both in good and in bad times. The more often students are exposed to the Psalms, the more they see the psalmist contemplating the same things they do. Many psalms praise God for His deeds and for His characteristics, but others question the Lord, crying out to Him and asking how long suffering must continue. The Holy Spirit inspired these psalms to show us the healthy way to express these doubts and emotions to God as He draws us to Christ for faith, peace, and comfort. By reading these, students see how historically, many biblical figures and faithful saints questioned and doubted God. Students begin to see how the life of a Christian is not one of easy, prosperous, joyful faithfulness, but is instead one of trials, temptations, questions, and suffering that ultimately leads to eternal life with the Triune God and the saints in heaven.
Taking Psalms to Heart by Familiarity
At times, my students will learn a psalm to chant in chapel or in church. They become the Cantor for the day and chant the psalm responsively with the congregation. As they rehearse these psalms many times in class, they come to unintentionally memorize them, at least for a time. As their teacher, I find myself hearing familiar psalms in church and immediately remembering the words, psalm tone, and cadence used when learning it with a class. Although students do not keep these psalms memorized for life, they are at least able to recognize them and think of them as familiar.
As students—and as teachers, Pastors, and laypeople—become familiar with the Psalms, they begin to take them to heart. When we become familiar with anything, we begin to adopt that thing into our hearts and minds. When learning and singing the psalms, students become immersed in the historic traditions of the Church. Put simply, if something has stuck around for that long, it has to be good. The ancient Psalms, still sung regularly around the world today, are important for our students to know in order to show them beautiful and lasting text. In a world that quickly moves from one fad to the next, showing our students things with staying power is important. It is up to their trusted adults to show them things like the psalms that last, that are truthful, that are important, and that they can take with them through their whole life, spending their lifetime unpacking it.
Psalms Point to Christ
Although teaching these ancient songs to young children certainly gives them a reference for when they are questioning God and immerses them in the history of the Church, it also directs children to Christ. After all, the Psalms find their fulfillment in Christ. It is for this most important reason that all Christians should study, pray, read, and sing the Psalms for their whole lives.
Children need lasting truth in their lives. They need songs that speak truth and have spoken truth for centuries. They need text that constantly points them back to their salvation in Christ.
We need the same. We need these first songs of the Church. We need them to point us to Christ in the midst of joy and sorrow, clarity and confusion. We need God’s Word to give us life.
Take the Psalm chants with you to sing and memorize with your personal copy of the Concordia Psalter.