Each day of every week, psalms are prayed, chanted or sung. What are these psalms and why are they so important? Sarah Adams is our guide.
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.
Each day of every week, psalms are prayed, chanted or sung. For clergy and religious communities throughout the world, they form a significant part of the rhythm of their daily prayer. For church goers psalms are experienced through the readings at Mass or other liturgical services. But what are these prayers, and why have they become such a significant and popular part of our Christian prayer and worship?
The psalms, which are firmly rooted in the Jewish tradition, are a rich and diverse way of expressing the deepest of experiences. The people of Israel found solace in poetry, prayer and music and the psalms that grew out of the community, sought to give voice to their journey through life in its complexity and beauty. Although tradition suggests that the psalms were written by David, to appreciate the nature of the psalms, it is better to see them as the thoughts and feelings of a community of faith who composed, collected and passed on their prayers, songs, and liturgy. It was their experience of living life as the people of God.
The psalms reveal to us different moments and experiences in Israel’s history. For example, when the Israelites were delivered from Egypt, they sang and danced about their triumph over Pharaoh and their new found freedom. Yet when they were exiled in Babylonia after the fall of Jerusalem, all they could do was weep. They could not sing songs to the Lord in a foreign land, as their captors wanted them to. Thus Psalm 137 speaks not of joy but of misery and frustration.
There are 150 psalms in the book of psalms (known as the psalter) often grouped into different categories which can be helpful to us when we are in a particular frame of mind and wanting to pray with words that help us in our need. These categories include psalms of lament, thanksgiving, hymns of praise, prayers of wisdom and historical psalms which focus on God’s saving actions on behalf of his people. Although we may pick and choose what psalm we wish to pray at any one time, for the Jewish people they were used primarily within the context of worship to provide a structure in which they could express their concerns.
It is possible to look at the psalms from an analytical perspective. Looking analytically can help our understanding and appreciation of what a particular psalm was an expression of at the time, such as Hannah’s song of dedication of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10). However, the most important reason for going to the psalms lies in the means they offer us to pray and meditate. Having a place to express thanks, hurts, praise and grief honestly to God is helpful for all of us. The psalms convey a range of emotions and experiences and at the same time are unifying in their expression. They give us a voice when we do not know how to express what we might be thinking or feeling.
In this series of reflections I will be turning to those psalms which have touched me in my life and helped me to grow in my relationship with God. Taking a small selection of psalms and reflecting on their meaning for me will, I hope, lead you, the reader to reflect on the psalms that have touched your life. By offering some ‘pondering’ questions at the end of each reflection, I hope it will offer you some food for your own prayer and nourish you as you continue your journey of faith.
Sarah Adams is Director for the Department of Adult Education and Evangelisation, Clifton Diocese.