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O ‘Twas a Joyful Sound to Hear: On Singing Psalms (Part 2 of 3)

Posted by Steve Turley ● Jul 19, 2015 5:15:00 PM

In our last post, we began our exploration of the profound significance of singing Psalms. I meant no exaggeration when I stated 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 early church understood the Psalms as an embodiment or summation of the Scriptures in toto. To sing the Psalms is to be united melodically with the sum total of biblical revelation. But why? Why were the Psalms considered the harmonic center of Scripture?

Christ’s Own Prayers

For early Christians, the centrality of the Psalms for biblical faith appears rooted in an acute sense of the implications for the Incarnation. Jesus does not merely pray the Psalms; he embodies them. Their words are appropriated as his own. On the cross, his cry of dereliction (Ps 22:1) and the committing of his spirit to the Father (Ps 31:5) are spoken as endemic to himself. Similarly, the writer of Hebrews ascribes the words of Psalm 22:22 to Christ when he writes: “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. He says, ‘I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises” (Heb 2:11-12, emphasis mine). James E. Adams is correct when he observes: “Further intensive investigation bears out that the ‘I,’ the author of the Psalms, is Christ himself. His is the great voice we hear in the Psalms crying out in prayer to God the Father.”[1]

Augustine had a profound appreciation for the ecclesiastical significance of the prayer life of Jesus. He noticed that when the resurrected Christ confronted Paul (then Saul) on the road to Damascus, Jesus interrogated him about his persecution of the nascent church with the question: “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4, emphasis mine). The Psalmist’s suffering voice is the suffering voice of Jesus precisely because our sufferings are now his by virtue of the Incarnation; having been incorporated into Christ, our temptations, pains, sorrows now become his, and he is thus able to bring to bear his own redeeming presence upon our fallenness. Moreover, when we sing the words of the Psalmist, Christ’s Psalms become our Psalms, his prayers are identified with our prayers.[2] We thus see revealed in the Psalms Christ in his genuine humanness, in his full participation in our sufferings and frustrations. In singing the Book of Psalms, we therefore enter into the prayer world, the inner life, of the Incarnation.

Harmony of the Soul

As the Psalms harmonize the whole of Scripture in Christ, so they bring about a comparable harmony in the human person. The bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius (296-373AD), wrote an extended treatise reflecting on the ways in which the Psalms integrate the soul and body, where “Christians can find every aspect of their inner selves reflected, or more tellingly, revealed; every thought, every emotion, every feeling, every longing, every desire, every failing, foible and weakness.”[3] When the Psalms are sung, not merely read, it brings the actions of the body, lungs, tongue, and lips in unison with the soul and mind. The whole person is engaged in transmitting the songs of God.

Ambrose of Milan concurs; he sees the Psalms as a holistic education for the formation of a virtuous soul:

Whoever reads there [the Psalms], has a special remedy whereby he can cure the wounds of selfish passion. Whoever is willing to look closely, discovers a variety of contests prepared for him, as if in a communal gymnasium of souls or a stadium of virtue, from which he can select for himself the one for which he knows himself best suited, in which he can more easily win the crown. If one is eager to study the deeds of our forebears and wishes to imitate them, he finds contained within a single psalm the entire range of ancestral history so that he gains a treasury of memories as a stipend for his reading. (Explanatio psalmi I, 7)[4]

Ambrose’s psalmic perspective was certainly not lost on his protégé, Augustine. The first line of his classic autobiography, Confessions, is a quotation from the Psalms (Ps 47:2), which serve collectively to weave together his personal narrative through every subsequent page. It has been observed that Augustine’s autobiographical voice is systematically blended with the voice of the Psalms.[5] Indeed, a Psalm can be seen as a soul in microcosm, voicing the full range of emotions buried within the human person in a conversation with God. It is in the context of this conversation that the human person is radically transfigured in such a way that the recitation becomes the instrument of transforming grace. “At the root of this understanding is the assumption that the grace of God changes what we can say to God, and so changes what can be said of ourselves.”[6]

Thus, the Psalms are embodied both by Christ and his church, serving as a sonic center for the harmony of our faith. In our next post, we will discover the implications of this for the formation of a distinctively Christian culture.

Until then, what do you think? Have you considered the singing of Psalms as a special place where Christ and his church are united with one another?


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[1] James E. Adams, War Psalms of the Prince of Peace: Lessons from the Imprecatory Psalms (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1991), 25.

[2] Rowan Williams, “Augustine and the Psalms,” Interpretation 58 (2004): 17-27, 19.

[3] Carol Harrison, “Psalms,” n.p.

[4] Cited in James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 126.

[5] Williams, “Augustine,” 17.

[6] Williams, “Augustine,” 18.

Featured image credit: © 2011 Waiting For The Word, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Topics: music, blog, Patristic theology, Patristics

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