Psalms in the Key of Life

The book of Psalms has played a vital role in Jewish and Christian spirituality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “the prayer book of Jesus Christ.” Jews at the time of Jesus prayed the psalms so often that, without even trying, they would have easily memorized the entire book. St. Benedict, the sixth-century Christian monk, made psalms the key component of his system of fixed-hour prayer. Reformers John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli placed such heavy emphasis on psalms that, to this day, some Presbyterian and Reformed churches allow no music in public worship except for a capella singing of psalms.

Many Christians regard the psalms as divinely inspired model prayers that we ought to imitate. But if you actually try to use the psalms in your devotional life, you will find aspects of them that are puzzling. Some psalms are difficult to understand.  Others display attitudes that are  apparently  unChristlike. What should we do with the so-called cursing psalms that wish injury, violence and death on one’s enemies? And how should we handle verses like Psalm 131:1, “My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty…” It seems impossible to pray this without making yourself seem unbearably proud. Most English translations of the psalms maintain a style reminiscent of the King James Version, giving them a noble and churchy sound. But if you were to express the psalms in everyday language, they would appear so raw, unholy and unChristian that many congregations would think they are inappropriate for use in church.

Even the psalms that are gushing with praise toward God can be problematic. I find them hard to pray in an authentic manner because, frankly, the occasions when I feel that I can praise God like this are exceedingly rare. It’s not because God isn’t worthy of this kind of praise; he certainly is. But it’s a rare occasion when I can praise God without reservation. Life is stressful, full of disappointments, trials, hurts and defeats. Those psalms sound like they can be be uttered only by super-spiritual, high-level Christians, not by ordinary sinners like me. My renditions of these psalms seems to fall flat.

For the past several years, our church at Penn State has been trying to incorporate psalms into our Sunday worship service. And I have been using them in my own personal devotions and in times of family prayer. This experience has been partly rewarding and partly disappointing.  I’ve read a few books about the book of Psalms and learned some useful things. I believe that the psalms are important. Yet I still don’t feel that I deeply grasp how to use them in personal and corporate worship.

One of the reasons why modern Christians are puzzled by Psalms is that many of us tend to ignore their genre.  We approach them in the same manner as all the other parts of the Bible. We asked the usual questions: What is the message intended by the author? What are the principles and lessons that God is trying to teach me now?

It’s easy to forget that psalms are songs. More precisely, they are the lyrics to ancient songs in Hebrew whose original tunes have been forgotten. The psalms were designed for private singing and liturgical performance. They became the background music of the Jewish religious life.

Songs are different from historical narratives and logical discourse. They appeal to a whole person, to our heads, hearts and guts, and impact us in powerful and subtle ways that mere words cannot.

The effect that a song has on a person depends on how the song is performed. The same lyric sung to a different tune can produce drastically different results. Shifts in tempo and key can transform a song into something far from what the original composer or performer imagined.

Back in the early 1980’s, one of the most popular tunes in America was Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper. It was a squeaky, bouncy pop song about a young, working class woman who regularly stayed out late partying with her friends. The song was addressed to the girl’s disapproving parents, and she pleaded with them to understand her thrill-seeking lifestyle. In 2007, a male singer named Greg Laswell, recorded the same song in a different style. He sung it much slower to a different tune, and the effect on the listener is radically different.

A song can be sung in many different ways. But even if it’s always performed in exactly the same manner, it can evoke diverse emotions depending on who the listeners are and the context in which they are hearing it.

Consider the hymnbook that is used in UBF chapters throughout the United States. To younger people, many of the hymns in that book sound stodgy and dreary. But once upon a time, all those hymns were brand new. They reflected musical styles and tastes that were popular in their day. Some of the melodies were adapted from popular folk songs. When they were sung for the first time, some churchgoers thought they were inappropriate. After a while, congregations grew accustomed to them, and the songs began to seem churchy and devout. A few generations later, they began to sound dated.

Perceptions of songs change over time. And even when people are in the same place at the same time, they can perceive the same song very differently. Imagine a church where different generations are worshiping together. Imagine that they sing one of the old traditional hymns like The Old Rugged Cross. What is going through people’s minds? Chances are the older folks really like it. The song feels pious to them, and it evokes positive emotions and memories from their past. But the younger people who didn’t share those experiences may feel indifferent. To them, the hymn sounds boring. And perhaps some will find it offensive, because they sense a hidden message of intergenerational judgment and rebuke. Through that song, they hear a voice telling them that their youth culture is sinful and they ought to be getting back to the values of their elders, back to the supposedly purer and holier faith of the past.

A song is a complex form of art whose effects on people are diverse, subjective and malleable. It does not carry a unique message for all people at all times. The meaning of a song is hard to separate from the culture in which the song is embedded.

Last year, when my family was on vacation, we were listening to the car radio. We came across a show where they were talking about the comedian Jimmy Fallon. Fallon is a talented impersonator. They played a clip of Jimmy Fallon doing an impersonation of Neil Young singing the pop song Whip My Hair. And in the middle of the song, Bruce Springsteen walks out on stage and joins in. The performance was hilarious. What made it hilarious was the sound of Fallon’s voice, the strange mix of personalities and the complex crossing of intergenerational cultural references. Suppose you take that recording and bury it in a time capsule. Imagine that a hundred years from now, someone opens the time capsule and listens to the recording. Would they get it? Probably not. Would they laugh? Probably not. If they hear the howls of laughter coming from the audience, they would sense that it was very funny in its time. But unless they were experts who immersed themselves in our culture, they wouldn’t have a clue why it would be funny.

So what does this mean for us if we open the book of Psalms and try to use these song-prayers today? It’s tempting for us to try to understand a psalm on its own terms. We may want to get back to the meaning of the text as the composer and performers originally viewed it. But that will be nearly impossible. The original meanings were rooted in an ancient culture that we no longer understand.

Does this mean that using the psalms today is futile because the original meaning has been lost? Not at all. We just need to recognize that the feelings and messages evoked by a psalm will change with the context. Adaptation to context is normal and natural. I believe that this is part of what it means that Scripture is God-breathed, living and active (2Ti 3:16, Heb 4:12).

Many of the psalms appear to have been composed during the pre-exilic period (roughly 1000-586 BC) when Solomon’s temple was still standing. Other psalms (for example, Psalm 137) were written during the Babylonian exile or during the so-called Second Temple period after the exiles returned home. Imagine how a psalm from the First Temple period might sound to a Second Temple audience. A grand hymn that originally evoked solemnity and awe when it was performed in Solomon’s temple might, in the Second Temple period, bring out a mixture of confusion and tears. Was it wrong for the different audience to react differently? No, it wasn’t. In the years leading up to coming of Christ, when messianic fever was running high, the Jews must have read their nationalistic hopes and expectations into the psalms. Was it wrong for them to do so? No, it wasn’t. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, his disciples did some wholesale reinterpretation of the psalms in light of the events they had witnessed. Was it wrong for them to do so? No, it wasn’t. When Benedictine monks from the sixth century incorporated the psalms into their monastic life, their understanding of the psalms was shaped by their own unique experience and was somewhat different from what the early Christians thought of them. Was it wrong for them to interpret the psalms in light of their unique experiences? No, it wasn’t. And consider how the psalms were heard by 19th century African-American slaves longing for freedom. Their understanding may have been unlike that of anyone who came before.

As we read the psalms today, we shouldn’t just be looking at some words on the page and trying to discern their original intent. Original intent does matter, and if anyone can discern what the original intent was, then let me be the first to say, “Bravo.” But that original intent is only a small part of what these living, breathing song-prayers can bring to us today.  Each psalm can be a window through which we take in breathtaking views of the panorama of God’s history through the ages. It’s astounding to think of the variety of ways that God’s people interacted with him through the words of the psalms. They are not just ancient words on a page. They are divinely inspired songs that are lying dormant, waiting for creative and faithful believers to pick them up and allow the Holy Spirit to breathe new life into them at any moment.


  1. Thanks, Joe, for your thought provoking blog on several fronts, all of which need reflection if we are not going to live in a bubble or in a time warp.

    I used to think that CCM was shallow and unspiritual. So I know that some older folks can’t stand it (especially the pounding drums, or a loud base line), and they use their senior status to impose their choice of “more holy” music on Sun, thinking that it will spiritualize our worldly inclined church kids.

    Thinking of our favorite UBF Psalm key verse, Ps 1:2, I used to teach it as a demanding imperative, “meditate on the word day and night.” Of late, I am focusing more on the word “delight,” which can never ever be forced on imposed on others.

    It seems like our general approach to the Bible should no longer be one person using a verse or narrative or text, sometimes out of context, to make a point, such as “Be a good soldier of Christ,” etc. Perhaps it would be far better to simply let the Holy Spirit be our guide, and pray that it points us to the grace of God in Christ.

    What I think would be helpful is to use the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) by studying less familiar Bible passages, such as all of the 150 Psalms, instead of recycling the same old passages over and over again in order to push a particular agenda or prayer topic, which has already become trite, banal and hackneyed, not to mention predictable and boring. This should never be, because our God is never predictable and boring.

  2. Joe Schafer

    Ben, thanks for your kind words. I’m glad that you brought up Psalm 1. Later this week, I hope to post a followup article that deals specifically with that psalm.

    I agree with your final statement, “…our God is never predictable and boring.” We have an astonishing ability to take the Bible — the most amazing piece of writing on earth — and turn it into something boring. Those of us who believe we are called to preach and teach need a healthy dose of pastoral imagination.