The lost music of the Psalms

As you may know I’ve been thinking about the Psalms lately and wondering if I can track down some singable and contemporary arrangements. It is proving to be a slightly frustrating quest. As this post from In Touch ministries explains, much has been lost in the translation of the Psalms – our English versions simply cannot convey the original lyrical structures, making them difficult to craft into song. But while we must enjoy them more as poetry, the Psalms still provide encouragement for us today. God’s voice still speaks through them, and in them His Spirit works.

Lost in Translation -Though silent, the book of Psalms still resonates.

by Jamie A. Hughes

There are few things worse than sitting in a crowd of laughing people when you don’t get the joke, but that’s exactly what happened to me when I saw the play Cyrano de Bergerac performed in French. The title character is a force of nature, a brash swordsman as well as a gifted musician and poet. However, there’s something else that sets him apart—an enormous nose he describes as “a monument open to the public.” Cyrano feels no one could love him because of his appearance, so he uses his words to win friends and wound enemies. That’s why it’s important to understand exactly what he’s saying if you want to keep up. I had seen the play performed in English several times, but when I heard the rhyming dialogue flowing from the actor’s mouth like a melodic river, I realized I’d never experienced the play the way it was meant to be enjoyed. Then as now, I understand just enough French to follow a basic conversation, but the finer points of the language are lost on me.

I’ve learned that the same is true of Psalms, the prayer book of Israel and what many call the central, beating heart of the Old Testament. The word “psalm” is a derivative of the Greek term psalmos, which means “song,” but these scriptures are read like poetry today rather than sung with accompaniment. The music may be unknown, but the beautiful words retain a certain melodic quality of their own. That’s why the poet Naphtali Herz Imber says, “In [the psalms] one finds the deep heartbreaking tones of a Beethoven . . . the silent, sweet whisper of love’s longing, as well as the wild galloping hallelujahs suggestive of Wagner.”

“Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” wrote David in Psalm 139. “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me” (vv. 7-10). We can savor these majestic, encouraging words and know our God is always near, but without the melody, can our hearts ever totally understand what “the man after God’s own heart” was trying to express (1 Sam. 13:14)? I can’t help but wonder if phrases like “ascend into heaven” and “take the wings of the morning” climbed a bright and brilliant scale that lightened the heart and lifted the eyes. I imagine Levitical choirs singing of hell and the “uttermost parts of the sea” in rumbling bass tones, a picture of bleak places painted with sound.

In another psalm, the author uses a simile to describe his yearning for the Lord’s presence: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God” (Ps. 42:1). Beautiful verse to be certain, but we can’t fully appreciate it without knowing the melodious sounds of the instrument for which it was crafted.

This is an ache words alone cannot express, but music helps articulate such an emotion effectively. How much better would we understand this prayer if we could participate with our ears as well as our eyes?

Though the psalms are exquisite, we can’t experience them in the same way the people of Israel did. But when we reach our eternal home, perhaps we’ll hear these prayers as songs for the first time and understand what Isaiah meant when he said, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing” (Ps. 35:5-6). In that moment, we’ll know more fully the extent of God’s goodness, beauty, and delight. And we will rejoice.

As is the case with God’s creations, there will always be more to learn about the psalms. His handiwork is breathtaking in depth and scope, and this is why a scripture mulled over one hundred times can still surprise on the one hundred and first reading. Or why a story that seems insignificant in times of jubilation is the only thing that sustains us when trouble comes. So while there’s no way of knowing exactly how the 150 musical prayers of praise, lament, wisdom, and thanksgiving should sound, we can still read and delight in them—and rejoice in what they (and we) will be one day.

All Scripture quoted is from the New King James Version. 2013 In Touch Ministries, www.intouch.org.

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7 thoughts on “The lost music of the Psalms

  1. While they don’t do the Psalms in the original instruments, The Sons of Korah do many of them wonderfully and they are beautiful. There is probably no way to know how they were originally sung, but they are still beautiful! God bless you, great post!

  2. Hi Ros – you could try Matt Searles (http://mattsearles.bandcamp.com/). Check out “O King” (Psalm 45), that one would be immediately accessible. I reviewed his album earlier this week on my blog too (http://www.chongsworship.com/2013/11/25/album-review-from-the-river-to-the-ends-of-the-earth-by-matt-searles/). Matt writes from the Free Church of Scotland tradition which is rich in psalm singing and setting them to new texts.

    I love Sons of Korah to listen to but most of their melodies (except for a few hooks) aren’t congregationally friendly. The only one we tried at our church a few years ago was “More Than the Watchman” (Psalm 130), which went OK.

    Don’t forget too that quite a few hymns are just psalms:

    – Joy to the World (Psalm 98)
    – From the Depths of Woe (Psalm 130 – our church LOVES this one)
    – Praise My Soul the King of Heaven (Psalm 103)

    The Townend crew have also done a few psalms that are quite congregationally accessible:

    – Psalm 62 (My Soul Finds Rest)
    – Psalm 23 (The Lord’s My Shepherd)

    If you find any good psalms please let me know!! 🙂

    • Thanks yes that is great. I have started compiling a list of all the suggestions people have made and ones I have realised are in fact psalms….hymns especially, strangely enough. Will eventually write a blog post on it and then start scheduling more of them on our.roster!! Thanks

  3. Pingback: The Lord is My Shepherd #3 | A Needed Word

  4. Pingback: The Story behind the most famous Christmas carol | sevennotesofgrace

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