I first went to church at the age of ten after being chosen to sing in a parish church choir near where I lived as a child. My parents didn’t go to church and my only memory of anything religious is hearing my primary school teacher read the ‘Gospels in Scouse’ at our morning assembly.
One of the many skills a young chorister has to learn is how to chant the Psalms. It was an important skill; we sang at least two or three Psalms every Sunday during morning and evening services. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I learnt to love the Psalms – and able to recite several by heart.
Probably, the best-known is the ‘twenty-third psalm‘, beginning with the words: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul”. The Psalms’ universal theme, of trust in God, has been used in worship since the time of the ancient Hebrews. Indeed some of the psalms are thought to be up to several centuries old. Every minute of every day psalms are still being read, sung, or chanted by Christians and Jews around the world.
I experienced this recently when, at the morning service at St David’s, our second reading was Psalm 26. Then, in the afternoon, I was privileged to be invited to the ‘headstone setting’ by a Jewish friend and the service included psalms being chanted in Hebrew. And, on the following day, I sat in Westminster Abbey in London where the choir also sang psalms as part of evening prayer. These were wonderful opportunities to feel connected to the timeless universality of the Psalms.
Psalms are poetic and easy to read, they are ancient hymns or songs designed for singing, and always meaningful. Although Muslims don’t use the book of psalms they are acknowledged as a holy book in the Qur’an where they are referred to as the Zabur of Dawud (Songs of David).
Jesus was born and raised in the Jewish faith. He would have learnt many of the psalms by heart and recited them even until his own death on the cross. The Gospels quote Jesus, whilst hanging on the Cross, saying: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the opening words of Psalms 22. And, Jesus’s final words before he died are from Psalm 31 verse 5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
Many of the psalms are pure joy – Psalm 98 verse 4: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” If you’ve never heard it sung, listen to Psalm 150 set by composer Stanford – it’s on YouTube multiple times as is William Walton’s Jubilate Deo, a joyous setting of Psalm 100.
Look up a psalm today and discover something ancient yet modern, timeless, relevant, and richly meaningful. Psalms can be used as prayers of supplication when we are suffering or songs of thankfulness in celebration. It’s difficult to have a favourite but read Psalm 128 – it would be high on my list.
(This article was originally published as part of St David’s Messenger in November 2018)