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O ‘Twas a Joyful Sound to Hear: On Singing Psalms (Part 1 of 3)

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jul 12, 2015 5:24:00 PM

I walk into my classroom at the beginning of class, coffee in hand. About 15 high school sophomores are gathered standing around in a circle in the room. At first glance it may appear that they are grouped according to gender, but closer inspection will find that they are actually grouped by vocal part: sopranos, altos, tenors, and, closest to me, basses. I take my Psalter off the shelf and place it on the lectern. At this point, the lobbying begins. “Let’s do Psalm 119X,” one student requests. “No, we sang that just the other day,” came the protest from another. “How about 40E?” We decide on the psalm for the day and, after humming their starting notes, we begin to fill the room with the echoes of Paradise.

I am an educator. At the high school level, I teach students whose ages range from thirteen to nineteen, and at the university, eighteen to twenty-two. One of the differences in my pedagogical approach which is influenced by both logistics and training is that with the high schoolers I sing Psalms. I am not at all exaggerating when I say that, as an educator, perhaps the most important parts of the school day are the times at the beginning of class when we sing the Psalter. This is because singing entails the power to create sacred space, a sanctified environment that can in turn sanctify all that goes on subsequently in the classroom. Singing harmonizes not merely the environment of the student, but the students themselves, bringing them in harmony with one another (you can’t fight while you’re singing together) and with themselves.

But more so, there is a profound harmonization with the historic church when we sing Psalms together. This practice was not lost on the early and medieval church, nor was it neglected by the Protestant Reformers and the Puritans. Indeed, Psalm singing is such an integral constituent to historic Christian identity that it is a wonder it could ever have been lost.

But lost it has become. In our day, the Psalter is read far more than it is sung, an ironic departure from many of the psalms’ entailed instructions. And the four-part harmonies that our forefathers have bequeathed to us have been eclipsed by the monophonic singing of musical illiterates who are guided by PowerPoint lyrics rather than musical notation. Lest I be mistaken for an elitist conservative curmudgeon, I think the consequences for this loss are profound. I believe that the loss of Psalmody in our corporate, family, and private worship impoverishes significantly our sense of Scripture, our Christology, and our corporate identity as the people of God in this world. In fact, the more I sing through the Psalter with my students and my own children, I am convinced that they learn more from singing than any lecture I could give or reading I could assign. The church fathers discerned profound reasons for this, and it is these reasons that I would like to explore in what follows.

The Summary of Scripture

There is a longstanding tradition within the church that sees the Psalms as an embodiment or summation of the Scriptures in toto. For example, Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379) writes:

All Scripture is inspired by God for our benefit; it was composed by the Spirit for this reason, that all we men, as if at a common surgery for souls, might each of us select a remedy for this particular malady. ‘Care,’ it is said, ‘makes the greatest sin to cease.’ Now the Prophets teach certain things, the Historians and the Law teach others, and Proverbs provides still a different sort of advice, but the Book of Psalms encompasses the benefit of them all. It foretells what is to come and memorializes history; it legislates for life, gives advice on practical matters, and serves in general as a repository of good teachings, carefully searching out what is suitable for each individual. (Homilia in psalmum i)[1]

For Basil, to sing the Psalms is to be united melodically with the sum total of biblical revelation. Ambrose the bishop of Milan (337-397AD) concurs; the harmony of the Psalms embodies the harmony of all of Scripture:

History teaches, the Law instructs, prophecy proclaims, reproach chastens and moralizing persuades; in the Book of Psalms there is the successful accomplishment of all this along with a kind of balm of human salvation” (Explanatio psalmi I, 7).[2]

By singing the Psalms, we are not merely encountering Scripture; we are identified with it. In a very real way, our bodies transform into transmitters of biblical revelation that send sacred messages in two directions: towards others as we sing in harmony together, and towards ourselves individually, as such harmony transmits information concerning each participant’s own status to his or herself among the other participants.

In our next post, we will develop why the Psalms were considered the harmonized summary of all Scripture.

In the meantime, what has your experience been with singing the Psalms?

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[1] Cited in James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 65.

[2] Cited in McKinnin, Music, 126.

Featured image credit: © 2014 St. George's School, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Topics: music, blog, classical Christian education, Patristic theology, Patristics

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