The Psalms written over 1,000 years

An open bible sitting on a rock.
 on December 1, 2014

Do you like to sing Christmas carols? I think most people do. One of the major complaints I have heard over my 50 years in ministry is, “We don’t sing enough Christmas carols before Christmas!”

The Anglican Church has tried to maintain the season of Advent, the four Sundays prior to Christmas, as a time of preparation for the birth of the Christ-child. Advent means “the coming,” and we leave the singing of Christmas songs during this period to the broadcast industry and the marketplace. There are a number of beautiful Advent hymns that we sing during this season, remembering that music is an important part of our worship.

The ancient Hebrew people were also aware of the importance of music, and they produced the Psalter as the songbook of the temple worship. That book, which we know more commonly as the Psalms, is a remarkable book of prayers, meditations and poems about their God and what He meant to their daily life.

The Psalms are probably the most varied collection of writings in scripture, having been composed over a period of 1,000 years. Some may actually date back to King David and his son Solomon. Others were written during the exilic period (586 BCE and later). Some were post-exilic, written after 538 BCE, when the Hebrew people returned to Jerusalem. As such, the Psalms give us a good overview of the developing theology of these ancient people.

The longest Psalm is the 119th, covering some 176 verses. Each stanza begins with a succeeding letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The shortest is the 117th. It has only two verses. The most popular Psalm is probably the 23rd. Most people in my age bracket learned this Psalm by rote, either in public school (when that was allowed!) or in Sunday school. I remember visiting my father-in-law for the last time in hospital. He was a cradle Anglican, attending church as a young child in his native Ireland, a practice that his family continued when they migrated to Canada when he was a young teen. His first request to me in the hospital that day was to read to him the 23rd Psalm. As I began to read, he said the words along with me without missing a word. At the end of the Psalm, he had that appearance of absolute peace and contentment. He knew the Good Shepherd, he knew where he was going, and he had absolute faith in the power of God in these last hours. He died shortly after we left the hospital that day, but he did so in the sure and certain hope of his place in heaven. That is the power of the 23rd Psalm for many of us!

My personal favourite is the 84th Psalm, having written a term paper on this Psalm over 50 years ago in seminary. This is one of the processional Psalms written for a major harvest festival. As I read this Psalm, I could visualize the priest and people singing it as they wound their way through the streets of Jerusalem, making their way up to the majestic temple. Here they would celebrate the great festival of harvest, singing a number of these harvest Psalms.

If you haven’t read the Psalms lately, I would urge you to do so, especially in preparation for the birth of the Christ-child. Start with the 84th Psalm, and then proceed to the “Kingship Psalms” of 93 to 99. These are the ones set aside to be sung through our Christmas day services. You may also look at Psalm 100, one of the Praise Psalms, and then conclude with your favourite, Psalm 23, or whatever one you prefer.

If you attend a church that traditionally sings these Psalms week by week, then you are most fortunate. We have a couple of young people who are cantors and they sing the Psalm for us each week. Fortunately, we also have a music director who will get the best out of his students. The congregation enters in with the refrain and it is most beautiful. We use the music setting composed by the late Dr. George Black, who was my professor of church music at Huron College many years ago. This music is especially for the Psalter, according to the BAS. These Psalms were the hymn book of the ancient people, can we do less? Enjoy the dialogue and have a holy Advent and a blessed Christmas.


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