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The Indispensable Wonder of the Psalms

By December 1, 2012 No Comments

I heard one of the editors of this impressive volume say at a recent worship conference that Psalms for All Seasons was “not born out of market research.” No one, he said, has been asking the editors, “When is there going to be a new psalter?”

Yet, here it is, in its third printing in about as many months.

Psalms for All Seasons may not have been “much anticipated” (in the breathless language of some prepublication blurbs), but it is nevertheless welcome, clearly filling a need and telling us a great deal about where the American church is today.

I grew up singing the Psalms in a denomination that has historically valued psalm singing and that sang out of a “psalter-hymnal,” but I don’t think I discovered the power and importance of the Psalms until I was well along in my ministry. Click to purchase Today it would be impossible for me to plan for a memorial service, for example, without making ample use of the book of Psalms. No other book of the Bible expresses what needs to be expressed during such a service quite like the Psalms.

I started out in ministry as an associate pastor in a large church, and I quickly discovered that the senior pastor loved the Psalms. Trained early on to sing opera, he continued to sing following ordination by using the Psalms in personal devotions. I would arrive at the church early in the morning and hear him behind the closed door of his office singing psalms, many of which he metered for singing with familiar hymn tunes. (Several of his versions, in fact, can be found in this volume.)

Writing this review, I thought, called for a different kind of preparation from other book reviews I’ve written, so I worked with the lead musician on my church’s staff, and together we have now selected several of the psalms in Psalms for All Seasons for use in worship.

On one recent Sunday, for instance, when Psalm 23 was the psalm of the day in the Revised Common Lectionary, the congregation sang three different settings of this psalm—from the stately and traditional to the lively and contemporary. The adult choir sang yet another setting, for a total of four very different experiences of this psalm.

What was the effect of all this attention to Psalm 23? I would like to think that this particular psalm’s message, meaning, and beauty were fully on display—and perhaps that my congregation caught a little of the rich diversity of music now being sung in American churches.

Psalms for All Seasons contains settings for all 150 psalms, including eleven different settings for Psalm 23 (only one setting for Psalm 101, but generally several settings for each psalm). The settings follow the text of each psalm in its entirety from the New Revised Standard Version, a brief prayer or collect, and a paragraph of commentary about the psalm. Outlines of morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer, and prayer for meetings and classes are given toward the end of the volume, making it valuable for personal use and small groups as well as corporate worship.

The settings for each psalm range from old to new and are thoughtfully selected to include a large number of the arrangers and writers at work today on psalms in the American church. Companion CDs are available, offering a sampling of the settings found in Psalms for All Seasons and giving the listener and worship planner an idea of how the setting might sound in worship.

Here’s a prediction for pastors and worship leaders who select music each week for use in worship: in this volume you will find at least two hundred psalm settings that you would never, under any circumstances, think to use. However, that means you will find hundreds more that would fit nicely with your worship preferences. The range is sometimes startling, though that would also be a good description of worship life in the American church today.

What the editors of this volume have revealed is perhaps what we’ve known all along—namely, that the Psalms have long had, and continue to have, an important place in the worship life of the church.

Having sung a great many of the settings in this volume both with my congregation and in other contexts, I can testify not only to its usefulness, but to its wonder. What an unexpected and timely gift to the church.

Douglas J. Brouwer is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.