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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sing Unto the Lord a New Song

In his introduction to Reflection on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis writes, “Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.”[1]
By nature, poetry is much different than prose. Its purpose is different. As Lewis reminds us, the way it is read and interpreted must also be different. J.P. Fokkelman writes: “What a poet undertakes does have a lot to do with creating “density.” Poetry is the most compact and concentrated form of speech possible. By making the most of his or her linguistic tools, the poet creates an immense richness of meaning, and this richness becomes available if we as readers know how to handle the density: how we can cautiously tackle complexity, probe the various layers one by one, and unfold them.”[2]
            As the language of the Psalms is poetry, the Psalms are able to effectively communicate truth, feeling, and experience. The poetic language enables readers to feel something of the psalmists' pain, frustration, longing, or joy. It connects the mundane to the divine. Use of poetic language in psalms suggests that the proper focus of worship is both cognitive and emotional, addressing the needs of the whole person in worship. Andrew Rumsey writes, “The poet’s first response to the world is stillness and wonder, passive reflection before active exposition. Poetry ‘takes in’ before it ‘gives out’ and considers itself addressed by creation, called to attention.”[3] The nature of poetry is to gather attention and focus. Thus, the Psalms, as poetry, allow for a cognitive and emotional ascent simultaneous of a spiritual ascent to the presence of God in worship.
The exact process by which most of the Psalms came into being is not known, and determining the authorship of each individual Psalm is even more difficult.[4] Donn Morgan, in Between the Text and the Community, writes that the literature of the Psalms is the product of “sages, scribes, singers, prayers, community builders, visionaries, and storytellers.”[5] Though Morgan’s statement is a broad and very generalized categorization for authorship, it points out how the Psalms arose from the array of the people who worshipped through them. Loren Crown writes that it is important to recognize that “the appropriation of folk songs and traditions was a powerful rhetorical tool for the worship of the Israelites.”[6]
By and large, a comparison can be drawn between the Psalter and hymnbooks of today. Hymnals contain many types of songs written by an assortment people in various countries over a period of centuries. These songs have been preserved within a particular community due to the way they communicate truth in a memorable way. For instance, songs such as Charles Wesley's “And Can It Be” have become important confessions of faith to denominations with a Wesleyan heritage. Similarly, the Psalter grew out of life within a community of faith as people voiced worship to God through song and poetry.
Unlike other writings in the Old Testament, the Psalms were not thundered down in a voice from Sinai or received through a vision. The Psalms were prayers and praises of God's people preserved by and shared within a community of faith and thus have the identity of being a community collection. Yet, as such, they have remained authoritative for God’s people as a guide for worship, an example of honesty before God, and a demonstration of the importance of prayer and meditation through artistic form. John Witvliet writes, “Thoughtful, prayerful use of the Psalms in both public worship and personal devotion requires theological poise, pastoral perception, and artistic imagination – all grounded in the text themselves.”[7]
            These aspects of the Psalter urge the contemporary church to a particular action. Through biblical refection, historical awareness, and contemporary significance, worshiping communities should continue to form songs, prayers, and expressions of worship that are reflective of their knowledge of and relationship with God. These songs should be compiled both from the deep heritage of music left to them, (such as those found in hymnbooks, etc), as well as new songs that the community has identified with. Furthermore, we do a disservice by not allowing new expressions of worship through music, lyrics, and liturgy to arise from within the worshiping community. As the Book of Psalms gives insight into the unique speech in worship by the people of Israel through utterances of praise, lament, celebration, protest, and rage, they also provide a structure for worship in a specific worshiping community. Though our own creations of new songs, psalms, prayers, and liturgies, we are able to join in this mode of worship, providing a language by which the community can find a unique voice in worship to God.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms: The Celebrated Musings on One of the Most Intriguing Books of the Bible (New York: Harcourt, 1986), 3.
[2] J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 15.
[3] Andrew Rumsey, “Through Poetry: Particularity and the Call to Attention,” in Beholding the Glory: Incarnation through the Arts, ed. Jeremy Begbie (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 52.
[4] See Nancy L. deClaisse-Walford, Reading from the Beginning: The Shape of the Hebrew Psalter (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997), 32.
[5] Donn F. Morgan, Between Text and Community: the “Writings” in Canonical Interpretation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990) 5.
[6]  Loren D. Crow, The Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134): Their Place in Israelite History and Religion (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1996),  , 187.
[7] John D. Witvliet, The Biblical Psalms in Christian Worship (Grand Rapids: The William B Eerdman's Publishing Company, 2007), 15.

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