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The Psalms in Christian Worship

This blog post is excerpted from Engaging the Psalms: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer. 

The Psalter was ancient Israel’s hymnal, and it was the hymnal for Jesus and His disciples. From earliest times, Christians continued to use the psalms to give voice to their prayer and praise. The psalms have had an immense influence on Christians and their worship.

The Psalms in Worship in the Past

With the development of a daily worship life, the psalms took on even greater significance. As morning and evening services were developed for each day of the week, specific psalms were assigned to be sung at the appropriate times. By the sixth century, the development of monasticism resulted in an even more elaborate use of the psalms. One practice, specified by Benedict of Nursia, became widely accepted in the Western Church. Eight services of prayer were observed each day. The chief morning service, Matins, became the primary service at which psalms were used. The number of psalms could vary from twelve to thirty-six—in one service! Benedict’s goal was recitation of the entire Psalter every week.

Martin Luther was trained in this system. Singing all 150 psalms on a weekly basis, he and others like him became steeped in the language of the psalms. Over many years, they had likely learned all the psalms by heart. Such a pressing schedule took its toll, though. Even Luther would complain during the early years of the Reformation that all his other duties left him little time to attend to the prescribed plan of prayer.

The Psalms in the Reformation

With the Reformation, monasticism met its end among the Protestants. Luther proposed simple morning and evening services (Matins and Vespers) that would be appropriate for the Christian life. These services followed the historic use of the psalms, although on a much-reduced scale. Some of Luther’s earliest hymns were paraphrases of psalms. (For example, see “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee,” LSB 607, a paraphrase of Psalm 130.)

The psalms also figured prominently in other churches of the Reformation. The Reformed churches in Switzerland made extensive use of the psalms, at first limiting singing in the churches to hymnlike versions of the psalms. Often these were called metrical psalms because the text was translated into a regular meter. In other words, metrical psalms were psalms set to music. Among the revisions of the daily services in Anglicanism (the Church of England), the psalms assumed a prominent place. They were usually sung to simple chant tones. Later, hymnwriters such as Isaac Watts began to write hymn paraphrases based on the psalms (for example, “From All That Dwell Below the Skies,” LSB 816, a paraphrase of Psalm 117).

There seems to have been a general decline in sustained use of the psalms in worship until the second half of the twentieth century. With the publication of new hymnals came a renewed interest in using the psalms. Simple melodies coupled with an easy method of singing the psalms have put a premium on singing the psalms for a new generation.

The Psalms in the Liturgy Today

Portions of the psalms are built right into the liturgy. For instance, the confession of sins relies upon the blunt language of guilt for sin as found in the psalms, especially the penitential psalms, or psalms of repentance. When we confess, “I, a poor, miserable sinner” (LSB, p. 184), we echo the words of David, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3), or again, “I acknowledged my sin to You, and I did not cover my iniquity” (Psalm 32:5a).

Many have spent years preparing to confess sins by quoting the next words: “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5b). A newer setting of the Divine Service employs these words from Psalm 130: “If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared” (LSB, p. 203; see Psalm 130:3–4 NIV).

The Divine Service also draws directly from the Psalter in the Offertory. For years, we sang “Create in Me” (LSB, pp. 192–93), from David’s psalm of confession (Psalm 51), praying that God would make us new and restore the joy of His salvation to us. Recently, another psalm portion has been sung as an Offertory: “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me? I will offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call on the name of the Lord. I will take the cup of salvation and will call on the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows to the Lord now in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the Lord’s house, in the midst of you, O Jerusalem” (LSB, pp. 159–60, 176). Drawn from Psalm 116, this text teaches us that the very best we can offer God is thanksgiving in faith for the gifts He has so freely given us.

Another portion from the Psalter appears in the Sanctus, the Communion liturgy’s grand hymn of praise. Our voices are joined with all the saints on earth and the whole heavenly host. At its conclusion are these words: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 118:26). These words appear in the New Testament in a very intriguing place, at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem: “And the crowds that went before Him and that followed Him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Matthew 21:9). He who came in the name of the Lord was, of course, none other than the Lord God Himself: our Savior, Jesus Christ. How fitting to sing the same words in preparation for the Lord’s Supper, where this great and almighty Lord comes humbly to give communicants His body and blood under bread and wine.

Blog post adapted from Engaging the Psalms: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer copyright © 2021 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Scripture: ESV® and NIV®.

Quotations marked LSB are from Lutheran Service Book, copyright © 2006 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.


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