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Sing the Psalms, Part Deux

May 9, 2006

Yesterday I was at The Office reading a new book called “Interpreting the Psalms”. It was tremendously affirming to me that my obsessive studies in the psalms over the last decade have not been off track.

One insight that made me shout aloud was in an article by Michael Lefebvre on Psalm 1. He points out that the word for “meditate” (hagah) always involves vocal activity. It can’t mean silent contemplation. It must mean something like reciting from memory, or reading aloud, or praying aloud to God, or at least talking to yourself about the psalm.

This wasn’t the part that was new to me. I’ve preached this before and my favorite cross-reference to cite has been Isaiah 31:4 “As a lion growls[hagah], a great lion over his prey…” So when you go to read the Bible, growl over the text looking for food.

But what was new is that when the psalmist calls us to meditation he may be commending the practice of singing the Word of God.

Psalm 63:6-7 when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

Psalm 71:23-24 My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed. And my tongue will talk[hagah] of your righteous help all the day long.

Consider also that when Moses gave the torah to Joshua and the priests in Deuteronomy 31, he also wrote a song for the people. It was as though singing that song was the way the common folk meditated on the torah.

So over the years as I’ve learned all this psalm-chanting and inflicted it upon my loved ones, I may not have been so wack after all. There’s a good argument made by more people than just me that says this is the way the author of psalm 1 tells us to make use of the book if we are to know the blessing of flourishing like a tree planted beside streams of water.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2006 3:18 pm


    don’t sell yourself short…

    “I may not have been so wack after all”

    What would the rest of us do without you, my excellent pastor and friend, to be wack for Jesus, and force us to sing praises to our God?

    Stay wack, man… stay wack!

  2. May 10, 2006 3:27 pm

    I’ve never been able to make sense of the Psalm singing. It always feels forced and artificial, and I could never understand why things were the way they were and I could never guess how it was supposed to be.

    Maybe I should just try to make up something of my own. I suppose that it would work just as well for me, and I’d only be lacking a shared reference point with others.

  3. May 10, 2006 5:27 pm

    I bet both are good for the soul.

    Shared reference points are really very helpful when trying to comunicate with others. And in a gathering of Christians, they can allow the group to enter into His presence corporately. The most obvious of this is language, and then a certain amount of iconography can be useful. (treading lightly here because I don’t want to get into the “no representations of Jesus” discussion right now…)

    It seems to me that musical melody can be similarly useful in this regard.

    And yet, if you want to “make up something ” of your own, that would be good and beneficial as well, IMO. There probably aren’t many “wrong” ways to sing the praises of our God, always understanding that our best worship is paltry compared to what He is truly worthy of.

    That being said, I also had trouble with the “congregational Psalm singing” that I participated in on Sunday mornings. But I did not attent the Sunday School where they recieved intentional instruction, (I was busy teaching during that time) so I always assumed that THAT was the problem for me, a lack of understanding and familiarty that left me feeling confused and on the outside looking in.

    But, the more we do it, the easier it becomes to participate. And as an extrovert, participation is important to me.

    And even the physicality of singing is good for my mind and body, and when the words are telling of the goodness and mercy of our God, for my soul as well.

  4. May 10, 2006 6:24 pm

    Try to think of these psalm chanting moments in church not as substitutes for praise songs, but as improvements upon responsive readings. The reason we sing them is that they are the very word of God and singing helps us memorize them. You don’t really enjoy them until you do it many many times. Then it’s memorized. My kids can recite four or five psalms from memory now and it’s just from singing. Surely that’s worth something even if you find the melodies anachronistic or unappealing.

  5. May 10, 2006 7:02 pm

    That’s actually very helpful, and give assurance to my hope stated earlier, that with increased practice I will benefit even more.

    It is helpful to see it is melodic memorization, and not look for the emotions that usually go along with singing for me. Singing is a fun physical experience, especially if the music is fun and quirky, and the words are true and powerful. And especially if I am performing for an audience, offering the song, the voice, the face, the body, all to the Lord for the encouragement of His church body.


    But memorization is just work. The benefit is totally worth the work, but work it remains. So the idea of singing as a way to keep connected while I do the work is a good one. Because in my Romans memorization I can actually space out while I’m reciting, whereas the singing would keep me better tuned in, active, physically exerting myself to some small degree, not just sitting and trying to remember whether this verse starts with “therefor” or not.

    Thanks for the clarification…

  6. May 11, 2006 10:03 am

    thanks for sharing the references in the psalms. I enjoy the chanting, but that may be because I am a toadie. Hopefully it is due to the Word having sway.

    are you avoiding the illegitamate totality transfer/bait bucket hermanutic w/ hagah since singing is part of the context in all these verses? (i’m probably oversimplifying here)

    also, i think you’re pretty wack dude. :)

  7. May 11, 2006 10:07 am

    Sigh. Due to the limitation of Blogger, I cannot tell if your comment was directed at Egana or myself. I’ll reply as though it was me. :)

    There’s no aesthetic problem with the psalm chants, just that I cannot determine how they should work. Therefore my only hope is to memorize each Psalm with someone who knows how it works, and I don’t have enough exposure for that to happen. But without understanding, my “private” chanting would soon develop quirks where I unknowingly altered something.

    And this is after attending many of the classes where they were taught.

  8. May 11, 2006 10:34 am

    Well Mathauer,

    My class starts Monday at noon at the TCBC CE bldg. if you want more exposure. :-)

    If you can’t make that you can find “An Introduction to Gregorian
    Psalmody and Psalm Tones” at this website

    This is where I got the handouts for my Sunday school class.

  9. May 12, 2006 12:01 pm


    what’s a toadie?

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