Psalm Songs: The Best New Worship Music You Might Not Have Heard Yet

I wrote about the Psalms as descriptive and prescriptive not long ago:

The writers of the Psalms give language to the whole range of emotions: from gratitude to fear, from joy to lamentation, from petition to thanksgiving, from intimate, private prayers to national, corporate prayers. In this way they are eminently descriptive of the human experience.

The Psalms also prescriptively guide the reader into various postures of prayer, so that the one praying does not only ever approach God with petitions, or only ever with complaint, and so on. The cognitive and affective come together in the Psalms in sometimes unexpected ways. Psalms of lament, for example, often begin with a loud “Why?” (stressing the affective) yet end with a determined profession of faith like, “But I will trust in you still….” In this way they stress the use of cognitive powers in prayer—external life evidence notwithstanding!

The Psalms express (descriptively) and call forth (prescriptively) a whole spectrum of human experience in relationship to God. They teach us to bring our whole selves to God in worship.

There comes a point in biblical studies when one has to say, I guess we’ll never know. That’s especially true with possible musical settings of Israel’s Psalms (careful efforts notwithstanding). So when it comes to music today for the Psalms, the Church (and before that, the synagogue) has had to make the way by walking.

 

*    *    *    *    *

 

A few months ago I received an email from Adam Wright, a church worship leader in Alabama and primary force behind The Corner Room. He introduced me to his band’s Psalm Songs, Volume 1. I’ve heard Scripture set to music in ways that were helpful and edifying, as well as ways that were… well… not. I was getting ready to reply with what I usually need to say, which is that I’m behind on existing reviews and need to take a pass on writing about this record. But then I listened and found myself spending at least a half hour at his site. Months later the record is still on regular rotation at our house and during my sermon preparation sessions and in our car.

 

Adam Wright (image via The Corner Room)
Adam Wright (image via The Corner Room)

 

Each of the album’s ten tracks sets a Psalm to full-band music. Adam writes, “As the Psalms are diverse in their character and intent, so is the musical character of this collection – rock, folk, bluegrass and modern worship are genres you’ll hear on this first volume.” Not only that, the kinds of Psalms represented are wonderfully diverse. The album covers a broad range: from the Psalm of Ascent (121) to the pastoral Psalm (23) to the lament Psalm (42)–and that’s just the first three tracks!

Adam’s voice on the record is perfect. It’s smooth but not overly saccharine, strong but not abrasive, and his soaring tenor has me singing in my falsetto just to try to keep pace. He calls to mind Chris Thiele, not just in terms of vocal timbre, but also in his ability to effortlessly cover different styles of music. If Adam will forgive my mild Hoosiers obsession, I can say that he’s as good a songwriter, musician, and band leader as Jimmy Chitwood is a ball player.

 

Jimmy Chitwood Hoosiers
Psalm Songs: Like This Guy’s Shooting Set to Music

 

The musicianship on Psalm Songs is as good as it gets. The band is tight and the instrument parts all fit together well–from mandolin to guitar to fiddle to bass and drums. The multi-part harmonies so characteristic of bluegrass will have you singing along as soon as you know the song.

 

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psalm songs vol 1_itunes imageThe album takes the Psalms verbatim from the English Standard Version. The ESV is not my all-time favorite translation–I will probably always take issue with the generic Hebrew or Greek word for human being translated as “man.” But that version is more fluildy poetic than I expected for the Psalms. Rare is the moment on the album when the words feel shoehorned into the music–the settings do the Psalms great justice.

Psalm 23 has been set to music so many times, one might wonder how it could be done well again. But the second track is poignant and uplifting all at once. It’s got a moving video, too:

 

 

The other two videos at this page are pretty awesome, too.

One of Adam’s driving motivations, by the way, is to help people memorize Scripture via these musical settings. I’ve found the music helpful to that end, for sure.

I could go on about how much I like this record (and my three kids are big fans, too, especially of the opening Psalm 121). But go listen for a few minutes and I suspect you’ll have the same reaction I did, that this is an album you’ll not only want to own, but will also want to get a few copies of so you can give away to others.

Check out The Corner Room’s site here. You can also get Psalm Songs on iTunes (link) and Amazon (link).

 


 

I received Psalm Songs, Volume 1 free for the purposes of review–I’ve already given away my hard copy but am happily still listening to an electronic copy.

A Three-Volume, Multi-Thousand Page Commentary for Psalms Study

Engagement with the Psalms—reading them, owning them, singing them, praying them, and taking cues from them—is vital for robust worship and spiritual formation in the church. If they truly are “a Bible in miniature,” as Luther has said, they offer the opportunity for the church to grow in its spiritual and emotional maturity.

 

Descriptive, Prescriptive

 

The writers of the Psalms give language to the whole range of emotions: from gratitude to fear, from joy to lamentation, from petition to thanksgiving, from intimate, private prayers to national, corporate prayers. In this way they are eminently descriptive of the human experience.

The Psalms also prescriptively guide the reader into various postures of prayer, so that the one praying does not only ever approach God with petitions, or only ever with complaint, and so on. The cognitive and affective come together in the Psalms in sometimes unexpected ways. Psalms of lament, for example, often begin with a loud “Why?” (stressing the affective) yet end with a determined profession of faith like, “But I will trust in you still….” In this way they stress the use of cognitive powers in prayer—external life evidence notwithstanding!

The Psalms express (descriptively) and call forth (prescriptively) a whole spectrum of human experience in relationship to God. They teach us to bring our whole selves to God in worship.

 

Preaching the Psalms

 

But how to preach them? One will need to take into account intercultural realities. Understanding the role of a shepherd in ancient society will certainly help with Psalm 23. And soul-searching is required.

 

Psalms of Summer

 

A good set of commentaries helps, too. I preached some Psalms a couple summers ago, and found these two options quite helpful.

Just completed, too, is Allen P. Ross’s three-volume, multi-thousand page commentary on the Psalms, published by Kregel Academic.

 

Ross’s Commentary, in Three Volumes

 

Ross Psalms Vol. 1

 

Volume 1 has more than 150 pages of introductory material, covering:

  • “Value of the Psalms” (Ross says, “It is impossible to express adequately the value of the Book of Psalms to the household of faith”)
  • “Text and Ancient Versions of the Psalms”
  • “History of the Interpretation of the Psalms”
  • “Interpreting Biblical Poetry”
  • “Literary Forms and Functions in the Psalms” (the best starting place, I thought)
  • “Psalms in Worship”
  • “Theology of the Psalms”
  • “Exposition of the Psalms”

I haven’t seen the just-released third volume, but Kregel was kind to send me the first two volumes for review. In what follows I interact with those books. Volume 1 covers Psalms 1-41; Volume 2 treats Psalms 42-89.

 

The Commentary Layout (Psalm 42 as Case Study)

 

Even in the Table of Contents you can get a sense of where Ross will go with a given Psalm, as each Psalm listed includes summary titles. Psalm 1 is “The Life That Is Blessed.” Psalm 23: “The Faithful Provisions of the LORD.” Psalm 46: “The Powerful Presence of God.” Psalm 51: “The Necessity of Full Forgiveness.”

Introduction to the Psalm

Then there follows Ross’s introduction to the Psalm. He provides his own translation from Hebrew with extensive notes, analyzing the text and textual variants. Psalm 42:2, for example, he translates:

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When shall I come and appear before God?

His footnote offers a point of interest: “This first ‘God’ is not in the Greek version; it simply reads ‘for the living God.’” He often has the Septuagint in view, which I especially appreciate. On Psalm 42:9, for example (“I say to God, my rock…”), he notes:

The Greek interprets the image with ἀντιλήμπτωρ μου εἶ, “you are my supporter/helper.”

Not that every footnote “will preach,” but they don’t need to—Ross offers a wealth of insight that will help preacher, student, and professor better understand the text as it has come down to us.

Still with each Psalm’s introductory material, the “Composition and Context” session sets the Psalm in its biblical-literary context and explores background information (where available). Regarding Psalm 42, Ross says:

And Psalm 42 is unique in supplying details of the location. The psalmist is apparently separated from the formal place of worship in Jerusalem by some distance, finding himself in the mountainous regions of the sources of the Jordan. There is no explanation of why he was there; and there is no information about who the psalmist was.

Ross Psalms Vol. 2Reading the commentary, one trusts that were there such information, Ross would have unearthed and presented it!

Then there is a summary “Exegetical Analysis,” followed by an outline of the Psalm. Anyone looking to get their bearings quickly with a Psalm will find this one of the most helpful sections. Here is Ross again, with his summary of Psalm 42:

Yearning in his soul for restoration to communion with the living God in Zion and lamenting the fact that his adversaries have prevented him, the psalmist encourages himself as he petitions the LORD to vindicate him and lead him back to the temple where he will find spiritual fulfillment and joy.

Commentary in Expository Form

After each Psalm’s generous introduction, Ross presents the commentary proper (“Commentary in Expository Form”). It’s as detailed as one would expect and hope. Here he is, for example, on Psalm 42:3-4 (“They must endure the taunts of unbelievers”):

In the meantime, the psalmist must endure the taunts of his enemies—enemies of his faith. In this he is an archetype of believers down through the ages who are taunted for their faith. This has caused him tremendous grief, so much so that he says his tears have been his food night and day (see Pss. 80:5 and 102:9; Job 3:24). The line has several figures: “tear” (collective for “tears”) represents his sorrow (a metonymy of effect); “food” compares his sorrow with his daily portion (a metaphor); and “day and night” means all the time (a merism). The cause of his sorrow is their challenging question: “when they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God’?” (see Pss. 74:10 and 115:2). The unbelieving world does not understand the faith and is unsympathetic to believers. “Where is your God?” is a rhetorical question, meaning your God does not exist and will not deliver you—it is foolish to believe. For someone who is as devout as the psalmist, this is a painful taunt.

This blend of careful attention to the text and reverent devotion to the God who breathed it is typical of the Ross’s rich comments.

Message and Application

Though Ross already offers theological interpretation in the commentary proper, the Message and Application section is one any reader will appreciate. He often reads (in a good way) through a New Testament and Christological lens, as with Psalms 42-43:

But in the New Testament the greatest longing of those who are spiritual is to be in the heavenly sanctuary with the Lord, for that will be the great and lasting vindication of the faith. Paul said he would rather be at home with the Lord—but whether there or here, he would try to please the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8–9). And Paul certainly knew what it meant to be persecuted for his faith. But the marvelous part of the desire to be in the heavenly sanctuary is that the Lord Jesus Christ desires that we be there with him, to see his glory (John 14:3; 17:24). Throughout the history of the faith believers have desired to go to the sanctuary to see the LORD (see Ps. 63); in Christ Jesus that desire will be fulfilled gloriously.

Those looking for a dispassionate commentary or for one that does not find Jesus in the Hebrew Bible will be better served looking elsewhere. To my mind, this dynamic is one of the great strengths of these volumes.

Toward the end of a Psalm, then, Ross boils it down to an italicized expositional message. This is one of the (many) highlights of the commentary, as it pulls everything together from Ross’s careful exegesis into the world of the listener. Here is how he puts Psalm 23:

The righteous desire to be in the presence of the Lord where they will feed on his Word, find spiritual restoration, be guided into righteousness, be reminded of his protective presence, receive provisions from his bounty, and be joyfully welcomed by him.

Where to Get It

 

Here is where to find these fine books:

Volume 1: Amazon / Kregel

Volume 2: Amazon / Kregel

Volume 3: Amazon / Kregel

 


 

Thanks to Kregel for the review copies of both books, given to me for the purposes of reviewing them, but with no expectation as to the content of this post.

A Seven-Syllable, Emphatic Word of Praise

One thing that continually impresses me about Greek is its preponderance of multisyllabic words.

Much of this has to do with how its verbs are conjugated. The four-syllable verb μεγαλυνω, for example, when inflected in Psalm 19:8 (Psalm 20:7 in English Bibles), becomes a majestic seven-syllable ending to an already beautiful verse:

ουτοι εν αρμασιν και ουτοι εν ιπποις,
ημεις δε εν ονοματι κυριου θεου ημων μεγαλυνθησομεθα.

Here is an English translation:

These ones take pride in chariots, and these ones in horses,
But as for us, we will find glory in the name of the Lord!

Though I’m a week behind on the reading plan, little gems like this make reading the Greek Psalms in a Year well worth the effort.

Greek Psalms: Some Standout Verses So Far

 

LXX Psalm 1
 LXX Psalm 1

Greek Psalms in a Year is almost through its first month. Here are some verses that have really stuck with me, both in the Greek and with the NETS (New English Translation of the Septuagint) translation. All references below are according to the Septuagint versification:

Psalm 3:4

συ δε, κυριε, αντιλημπτωρ μου ει, 

δοξα μου και υψων την κεφαλην μου.

 

But you, O Lord, you are my supporter,

my glory, and one who lifts up my head.

 

Psalm 9:10-12

και εγενετο κυριος καταφυγη τω πενητι, 

βοηθος εν ευκαιριαις εν θλιψει· 

και ελπισατωσαν επι σε οι γινωσκοντες το ονομα σου, 

οτι ουκ εγκατελιπες τους εκζητουντας σε, κυριε. 

ψαλατε τω κυριω τω κατοικουντι εν Σιων, 

αναγγειλατε εν τοις εθνεσιν τα επιτηδευματα αυτου,

 

And the Lord became a refuge for the needy,

a helper at opportune times in affliction. 

And let those who know your name hope in you,

because you did not forsake those who seek you, O Lord. 

Make music to the Lord, who resides in Sion.

Declare his practices among the nations,

 

Psalm 9:19

οτι ουκ εις τελος επιλησθησεται ο πτωχος, 

η υπομονη των πενητων ουκ απολειται εις τον αιωνα.

 

Because the poor shall not be completely forgotten,

the endurance of the needy shall not perish forever.

 

There are others, too, but Psalm 9 especially—with its focus on God’s compassion for the poor—struck me as important… and convicting.

 

Greek Psalms in a Year: Resources for Reading

LXX Psalm 1
LXX Psalm 1

Greek Psalms in a Year starts this coming Thursday. The two primary loci of activity (at least online) are the Facebook group and now a dedicated sub-section of the Accordance Forums. (Thanks, Accordance, for hosting!)

Follow along or contribute to either place for what is going to be a challenging and rewarding year-long activity.

Here is the reading plan, compiled by Russell Beatty.

In this post, I offer a sampling of resources–electronic and in print–that could be of help in reading through the Psalms in Greek. Do you know of anything not mentioned here? Please add it in the comments. You can also contact me with any questions or comments about the endeavor.

 

Greek LXX Texts: Electronic

 
 

Greek LXX Texts: Print

 
  • Rahlfs
  • Göttingen
  • Oxford University Press (out of print!): The Comparative Psalter (Hebrew MT, RSV, Rahlfs LXX, NETS) (Amazon)
  • Psalter Synopse (Hebrew, LXX, two German editions) (Amazon)
 

English Translations of LXX: Electronic

 
 

English Translations of LXX: Print

 

 

Images or Transcriptions of the Greek Text

 

 

Transmission/Reception of the Greek Text

 
  • Albert Pietersma’s article: “The Present State of the Critical Text of the Greek Psalter” (PDF)
 

Monographs and Collections of Essays

 
  • A Question of Methodology: Collected Essays on the Septuagint, by Albert Pietersma (Peeters)
  • The Old Greek Psalter: Studies in Honour of Albert Pietersma (The Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies) (Amazon)
  • Psalms 38 and 145 of the Old Greek Version, by Randall X. Gauthier (Brill)
  • Emanuel Tov, The Greek and Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays on the Septuagint (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 1999) (Amazon)
 

Sermons and Devotionals on the Psalms

 
 

Septuagint Lexicons

 

 

Vocabulary Help

 

  • This. An amazing resource via Daniel Semler for Greek Psalms vocab acquisition, set up both for Anki and Mental Case

Happy reading!

Coming Soon: Greek Psalms in a Year

LXX Psalm 1
LXX Psalm 1

It’s funny–I was just thinking the other day about how much I missed Greek Isaiah in a Year. More than 200 of us read through the Septuagint text of Isaiah in a year, roughly five verses a day. Both the readings and the discussion were rich.

I didn’t do anything like that this past year, though the Greek Isaiah in a Year Facebook group I’d created stayed active, as folks went after it a second time.

Just this afternoon I learned that Russell Beatty, a member of the Greek Isaiah group, has started a Greek Psalms in a Year group, to launch January 1, 2015.

That group is on Facebook, and you can see the well laid out reading plan here.

I preached through some Psalms this past summer, which greatly deepened my love for that book of the Bible.

I can’t wait to get started–feel free to contact me or request to join the Facebook group if you’d like to read along with us.

Through the Psalms? 2 Books to Help

Before the mid-50 degree winds blow Psalms of Summer too far back into my homiletical consciousness, I want to highlight two Psalms commentaries I used every week this summer.

They are Willem A. VanGemeren’s Psalms (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised edition) and Gerald H. Wilson’s Psalms Volume 1 (NIV Application Commentary), both from Zondervan.

 

1. Revised EBC

 

Psalms Revised EBC

In the EBC set’s previous edition, Psalms was only available in a larger volume that also contained Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Now, with some expansions and revisions, it is its own 1,000-page volume.

VanGemeren’s introduction is detailed, offering the kind of thorough but not verbose overview anyone reading or preaching on the Psalms would want. Among other issues, he writes about Psalm types, the formation of the Psalter, theology in the Psalms, and literary/poetic devices–in addition to parallelism, he lists and describes 16 devices.

The typical pattern is for each Psalm to begin with an Overview (covering its themes, structure, authorship, and so on). Then follow “Commentary” and “Notes” for each passage. The Commentary section is verse-by-verse exposition; the Notes include more detailed technical insights, especially delving into the Hebrew text. 22 “Reflections” throughout the commentary offer additional explanation of important themes.

To take just one look inside the commentary, Psalm 13:5-6 in the NIV (1984) reads:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.

Of these verses VanGemeren says:

Though he has experienced deep despair, the psalmist does not give up. His feet did not slip. He held on to the promise of God’s covenant love: “your unfailing love” (hesed). He is not overwhelmed by his troubles, but in his depression he says, “But I trust.” The emphatic “But I” (v.5) is a surprising response from the heart of a depressed person. Because life may be so bitter for some, it is only by God’s grace that the heart of faith may groan, “but I.”

 

2. NIVAC

 

Psalms Vol 1 NIVACAs with the Revised EBC volume, the introduction to Psalms Volume 1 in the NIV Application Commentary series (NIVAC) covers good ground: authorship, historical use of Psalms (in temple worship, as well as the move “from public performance to private piety”), poetic conventions, Hebrew poetry specifically (parallelism, use of refrains, acrostics), Psalm headings, and types of Psalms.

Wilson–after an informative historical survey of attempts to categorize Psalms–highlights three “main” Psalm types: Praise, Lament, and Thanksgiving. He also notes other types, like royal Psalms and wisdom Psalms. The introduction spans more than 60 pages and (thankfully) exceeds what one might expect to find in an “application commentary.”

The NIVAC series has as its primary goal “to help you with the difficult but vital task of bringing an ancient message into a modern context.” It employs three sections for each Psalm to (quite successfully) accomplish the aim:

  1. Original Meaning: “the meaning of the biblical text in its original context.”
  2. Bridging Contexts: “to help you discern what is timeless in the timely pages of the Bible–and what is not,” i.e., what applies only particularly to a context and not universally.
  3. Contemporary Significance: the application section, including suggestions for the preacher or teacher or reader of the passage.

The text of each Psalm is printed in full before its commentary, which I appreciated. This first volume covers Psalms 1-72 (Books I and II of the Psalter). The author is as adept in the text’s Original Meaning as he is in Bridging Contexts or discussing its Contemporary Significance. Wilson won’t write your sermon for you, but he gives the preacher or teacher plenty to chew on, both for herself and for her congregation. Especially illuminating in the application section is Wilson’s Christological read of many Psalms.

Here are just two examples of the kind of edifying insights that fill Wilson’s NIVAC volume:

1. He notes the walk…stand…sit progression of Psalm 1, and does so with a nice turn of phrase:

The order of these verbs may indicate a gradual descent into evil, in which one first walks alongside, then stops, and ultimately takes up permanent residence in the company of the wicked.

2. When Sons of Korah in Psalm 46 call the congregation to a counterintuitive praise session, they do so in the midst not just of some tragic events befalling God’s people—it’s the complete disintegration of all of life that is the dominant metaphor in these verses. Wilson says that when the Psalm speaks of mountains falling into the sea, this “amounts to a moment of uncreation.”

 

Praying with Many, Many Others

 

Wilson puts it well:

Thus, whenever you read the psalms, when you sing them or pray them, you are praying, singing, and reading alongside a huge crowd of faithful witnesses throughout the ages. The words you speak have been spoken thousands–even millions–of times before: in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, English, and a myriad of other languages. As you read or sing or pray, off to your right stand Moses and Miriam, in front of you David and Solomon kneel down, to your left are Jesus, Peter and Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, while from behind come the voices of Jerome, St. Augustine, Theresa of Avila, Luther, Calvin, and more–so many more!

 

Thanks to Zondervan for review copies of each of the above, given to me with no expectation as to the content or trajectory of my review. Find the Revised EBC volume here (Amazon) or here (Zondervan). The NIVAC Psalms volume is here (Amazon) or here (Zondervan).