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Posts Tagged "Psalms":

‘Reading The Psalms As Poetry’: Alexander Ryrie


An image of Psalm 23 (King James’ Version), frontispiece to the 1880 omnibus printing of The Sunday at Home via Wikimedia

Today’s reading is taken from ‘Deliver Us From Evil: Reading the Psalms as Poetry’ by Alexander Ryrie  published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 2005.

The Psalms as Poetry

The Psalms of the Old Testament have been a spiritual resource for people of different religious traditions for thousands of years. During this time, methods of interpreting them have kept changing…Although it has always been known that the Psalms were written in poetic form, their special character as poetry has in the past often been overlooked. They have been read, and sometimes printed in translation, as if they were simply prose….seeing them as poetry enables us to understand them in a fresh way and to find in them new, and perhaps deeper, forms of truth…Cecil Day Lewis speaks of a poetic truth which ‘is not, like a scientific truth, verifiable’, but which operates upon us to bring about a ‘furtherance of life…The truth is the passion’…

Poetry is not simply a matter of form. To qualify as poetry, a piece of writing must possess not only formal features but also certain qualities which it is less easy to define…These include…loftiness of thought, the expression of sentiments which are not trivial…mundane or banal, but serious, imaginative, potentially inspiring and above the level of our common thoughts. Along with this goes intensity of emotion…Both these qualities are found in large measure in the Psalms… But…there are two other distinctive qualities…which are important for the interpretation of the Psalms. One is a certain ambiguity of meaning which leaves words or phrases open to different interpretations…In these ways the psalmists…leave scope for readers to exercise their own imagination in interpreting it.

The other significant characteristic of the poetry of the Psalms is its use of imagery. The Psalms are particularly rich in…metaphors and similes, some of which have too often been understood in an excessively prosaic and literal fashion. Imagery is not simply a stylistic device, but a means of…pointing to deeper truths than can be stated in non-figurative language.

Addressing God

The very large majority of the psalms are addressed, in whole or in part, to God…the Psalms give powerful expression to a great variety of human feelings and thoughts, and so have provided a vehicle by which people throughout the ages have presented their own thoughts and needs to him. Whereas scripture as a whole is often thought to be a means by which God speaks to us, in the psalms it is human beings who speak to God. Thus, [they]…speak for us rather than to us…They give unique expression to some fundamental aspects of the human relationship with God which could not be expressed in any other way….What cannot be comprehended by human reason can in some measure by pictured by the imagination, described in images, understood by the heart and wrestled with in prayer.

Poetic Truth

Reading the psalms as poetic texts requires a more explicit acknowledgement than is sometimes made that one is offering a subjective interpretation, which brings together the words of the psalms and the viewpoint and life situation of the reader. There is no escape from this, and no apology for it is required….

A Mystery

Psalms use a great variety of images to point to evil as a suprahuman power, hostile towards God and humans, which, in spite of God’s victory and supreme power, continues to act with stealth and seduction to entice people into wicked deeds and thoughts, to separate the world and its people from God and draw them down to the realm of death and God-forsakenness. These images point beyond themselves to something transcendent, to a mystery which cannot be explained by processes of thought, or expounded in rational prose. Confronted by this mystery, the psalmists can do nothing but cry out to God to be present and deliver them. And perhaps it was the very vehemence and urgency of this cry that provides a clue to the question of the proper human response to evil, and to the nature of deliverance….

Securing God’s Protection

The concern of the psalmists, as of most of the other biblical writers, was ‘not to explain [evil] away but to call upon God to blast it away’. Evil was a mysterious, inexplicable and unavoidable reality, finding expression in many forms but describable only through image and myth. The only answer to evil was the presence of God, and the only way to be delivered from evil was to cry out to him, and to seek that presence with their whole heart….

The Individual and the Community

In addressing God in this way, [the psalmists] not only brought themselves into God’s presence, but also engaged with God in a relationship in which both individuals and members of the community could find their true selves as persons, and know themselves to be held and bound and kept by God.

Deliver 001I must apologise to the author of this book, Alexander Ryrie, for this rapid run through his fascinating book. The first extract above is to be found on the first page, and the last extract is on the last page. In between are 135 pages (followed by endnotes etc).  But my justification for doing this is to whet your appetite for a longer read, and to highlight some of Ryrie’s points.

Although I realise that this book was not written in any connection with those who offer public intercessions, I did find much to value in it in this context. To some extent, we are latter-day psalmists, as we pray on behalf of the community but speaking from our own perspective. This book also encourages me in my instinct that these prayers should be ‘not trivial…mundane or banal, but serious, imaginative, potentially inspiring and above the level of our common thoughts‘, as he says. Easy to say, possibly harder to achieve, but a goal to be aimed at nevertheless?

Rediscovering The Psalms In Our Churches: David Lee


How long, O Lord, will we forget?

We all know the theory. That all scripture is inspired by God for teaching truth and for refuting error, so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. Those of us from evangelical or non-conformist traditions place a very high emphasis on the supremacy of scripture. While most of scripture is basically God speaking his message to us, the Psalms by contrast are the very model of our imperfect message to him: of Christian worship, praise and intercession.

But when we plan our routine weekly service patterns and when we debate our choices of hymnbooks and songbooks for our churches, is our uppermost thought how we can use scripture’s own such resource, the Psalms?

What fraction of our churches today make a conscious effort to sing from the Psalms in some form, any form, in all their variety, on a planned, weekly basis? The typical local church in recent decades seems almost entirely to have let slip their systematic use: an alarming contradiction penetrating right to the heart of the life, worship and mission of our churches, which ought to worry us profoundly.

Why are Psalms no longer regularly sung in today’s churches?

Why do Christians, who love singing hymns and songs, so astonishingly fail to use scripture’s own provision? On those occasions when we do use the Psalms, is not our choice heavily biased towards the “nice” ones, those of obvious and overt praise and worship, the “triumphalistic tendency”? What about those of anguish and despair, which so naturally reflect our human condition? Despite our ideals of theology, our experience is often of the perceived absence of God, a dichotomy which the Psalms directly and realistically acknowledge and address.

In the English language the texts of the Psalms, whatever the translation, are in irregular patterns. They do not marry well with any of the sorts of music we encounter day by day, whose patterns are almost always regular, whether baroque or hard rock, classical or country, symphony or soundtrack.

The Psalms have come down through the ages to us in words-only form. We have no original music. But this is to our advantage: it gives us the opportunity to create a vehicle of direct relevance to our own expressions of praise, despair, frustration and worship. Yet still we try to be “churchy” even with these most human scriptures, the Psalms, wanting organists and chant forms which are respectively unavailable and culturally alien. When the pious-music bathwater has drained away, we find the Psalm baby has gone.

How may the Psalms be recovered in our local churches?

If we are to own the Psalms, we need to root their use firmly in our own cultures. For our western society we therefore need to consider versions of the texts and styles of music that are congruent to our own literature, poetry and theatre and even to magazines, television, cinema and video.

If they are to be recovered as part of our regular, weekly pattern of gathered worship, we need to recognise and respond to their variety. This requires a large number of tunes. It would clearly be a Herculean and impractical task for a small congregation to learn an entire new setting each week, but it is vital that the typical congregation usually take some active part in the Psalm singing.

Most of our churches today are quite small; their musical resources are limited. A responsorial form of psalm singing gives the congregation a short, highly singable and quickly teachable tune as a refrain. The singers and instrumentalists handle the more intricate work of the verses, learned in their regular practices. This form effectively employs the complementary strengths of each party.

The settings given here are specifically intended for the modest resources of the small church, for the average church pianist, organist or guitarist and a singer leading the congregation. Of course much larger resources may be used if available. They are unashamedly biased towards music-group rather than organ and four-part choir. That said, most can be adapted to many styles to suit local resources.


Copyright © David Lee, 1998


David Lee (b. 1956) was brought up in Didsbury, Manchester, and sketched his first hymn-tune while at primary school. He has been active in church music since his early teens, accompanying the local Crusader (now “Urban Saints”) youth group, and playing the piano and organ at All Hallows Church, Cheadle, Cheshire. During summer months in 1975 and 1976, he was Abbey Musician at Iona Abbey, which provided a sharp contrast to, and widened outlook from, his earlier largely conservative-evangelical background.

While an undergraduate at Durham (1975-78) he was a founder of the music team at St. Nicholas Church under its vicar, George Carey. Following a postgraduate year at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne (M.Sc., Computing Science) he returned to Durham to work in the University’s Computing Service, and rejoined St. Nicholas where he later became deputy leader of the music group…

…In 1995 the family settled at St. John’s Church, Nevilles Cross, Durham, where these strands and ideas of writing were actively encouraged and began weaving together. In particular these included recovering the psalms (which, worryingly, are almost entirely lost to corporate evangelical and charismatic worship) in ways sympathetic to music-groups and small churches, but still teachable with minimal liturgical intrusion, week by week.

In 1998, he was invited to present a paper Top-down or bottom-up: restoring the balance to the World Church Music Symposium in London, pleading for a recognition of the importance both of the “small church” and also of a range of music for all churches.

Following that, he was invited to join the Durham Diocesan Liturgical Committee music subgroup (and the local RSCM education group) where he is fostering a short course to give “small church” musicians a basic confidence-building grounding in music for worship.

David is a member of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, and from 2007 is serving on its executive committee. He was also an early encourager of the Christian Songwriting Organisation email group.

Various periodicals (e.g. Deo magazine, Stainer & Bell’s Worship Live and MWF’s Sing a New Song) take some of his settings from time to time. Recent entries in the St. Paul’s Cathedral Millennium Hymn Competition and RSCM competitions have been highly placed. More formally, he has had tunes published in Stainer & Bell’s Sound Bytes and was among the major contributors to the Methodist Wesley Music for the Millennium project. In 2006, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod published his new tune Elvet Banks in their new hymnal. In 2011 the Methodist Church published four tunes of his tunes in the new Singing the Faith hymn book and in 2012 the combined Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA) and Reformed Church in America (RCA) published seven tunes in their Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship.

‘With My Whole Heart’

Reflections on the heart of the psalms

The Rt Revd James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, has written a heartfelt and heartening book about the psalms. The word play is catching, as both title and text play on the literal and metaphorical meaning of the word ‘heart’. Bishop James may perhaps be forgiven for this as he was inspired to write the book during his preparation for, and recuperation from, a heart operation in June 2011. Turning for spiritual sustenance to the psalms in the Book of Common Prayer, he found references to the heart in 71 of the 150 psalms. This book contains his ‘musings’ on these psalms.

He writes well, mostly in simple prose but at times his language soars. He had me hooked in his fifth paragraph, with

‘the Book of Common Prayer, whose poetry adds fathoms to their theological depth’.

That ‘adds fathoms’ is masterly: I knew I was in for a treat.


 Not a book about the psalms

This is not, however a book about the psalms. Its scope is much more wide-ranging than that. It is a book for anyone who asks: ‘Tell me, how should I live?’ The author offers his own ten reasons for belief in God (pp xi-xiii), all beginning with the letter ‘c’. He then goes on to suggest ideas for living a Christian life, our relationship with God, and our worship.  In some ways, it is simply a book about prayer. I am tempted to say that the book is ‘deceptively simple’. It must be difficult to write such a book, if you are a bishop, without sounding preachy or patronising. That he succeeds in this is, I think, partly due to his honesty and humility in describing his fears around the heart operation. It reads like a letter from a friend. You will not need to look any words up in a dictionary, but nor do you feel he is talking down to you. It is full of  (to me) new insights. One example (p.6):

The character of God feels to me at times as if it were kept under a soundproof blanket. Just as well! He shudders in indignation at the unjust desecration of his creation and at the wanton destruction of any of his creatures. Yet we do not hear it. For if God did not contain his pain and remain silent, which of us could bear to hear the roar of outrage that would deafen our universe? We often bemoan the silence of God, but perhaps it is the necessary and merciful condition of our survival in a world traumatized by evil and flawed by sin.

I think Bishop James’s undoubted gifts as a communicator, both oral and written, probably explain his early career as a teacher. Schoolboys are notoriously less polite than congregations as an audience, and this experience must have honed these skills. Here is a short extract from something he said which will give you a flavour of what I mean:

Enigmas and Riddles

Like all good teachers, Bishop James raises more questions than he gives answers. The book cover itself, designed by Sarah Smith, is an enigma. Does it depict this book, which we are recommended for holiday reading on a beach? Or does it hint at that bourne from which no traveller returns, starting point and inspiration for the author’s meditation on the psalms? Perhaps both, perhaps neither. You decide.

Cor ad Cor Loquitur

In 2010 the Pope took as the theme for his visit to Britain Cardinal Newman’s motto, Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart shall speak unto heart). The phrase was said in the Catholic Herald to be a description of the personal relationship between God and man achieved through prayer. This is what Bishop James Jones offers us in his new book, which I highly recommend.



To be published by SPCK on 17 May. The publisher says:

The heart is mentioned over seventy times in the psalms. It is the focus for the whole range of human emotion, from praise to lament, wisdom to wickedness. As they speak to the heart and of the heart, the psalms reveal to us the heights and depths possible in our relationship with God. 

When he had major heart surgery, the Bishop of Liverpool turned to the psalms in the Book of  Common Prayer as he wrestled with his fears and struggled through his convalescence. In this beautiful book, each mention of the heart in the psalms is quoted and followed by a reflection arising out of the Bishop’s daily meditations and a suggestion for prayer. These reflections are for all who at any time have found themselves reaching out for faith.


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