Christianizing the Psalms

One of the main points I was careful to mention during my recent articles about psalm-hymns had to do with the relationship between the New Testament and the Old.  I pointed out that many psalm-hymns interpret the psalms in light of the New Testament in a way that literal psalm settings cannot.  In his excellent book Singing and Making Music, Dr. Paul Jones (organist and music director at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) makes a similar point about hymns and psalm paraphrases.  I can’t resist inserting a few quotations from his book here.

“At the same time, psalms are not the only appropriate worship songs of the people of God.…From New Testament examples, worship should also include our Christian response to the finished work of Calvary.  This response could be characterized as a ‘Christian interpretation of the psalms’ through hymns and canticles as well as biblical songs and hymns of the present day.  According to [Hughes Oliphant] Old, ‘The doxology of the earliest Christians kept psalmody and hymnody in a dynamic balance.’  Without Christian hymns, our praise of God through the psalms would still be rich, but it would be missing our acknowledgment of and gratitude for the manner in which Christ has redeemed us and fulfilled what the Old Testament promised.”

A little later in the same chapter, Dr. Jones refers to the work of Isaac Watts, an eighteenth century English song-writer whose works are still widely sung in churches today.  Dr. Jones explains:

“Isaac Watts authored psalm paraphrases and hymns with a related purpose—a quest to ‘Christianize’ the psalms.  Like Luther before him, Watts wanted believers to benefit from psalm singing, so that it would not be an intellectually or culturally remote activity, but one from which they would learn and with which they could associate.…Watts abbreviated lengthy psalms and avoided potentially confusing metaphoric language.  Further, he makes direct reference to Christ or the gospel within at least one stanza in most of his psalm paraphrases.…

“While we understand that many of the psalms have their prophecies fulfilled in Christ, the psalm texts do not refer to Jesus or the gospel by name.  Some of the psalms (such as Psalm 45) were understood even in Old Testament times to be messianic.   Watts wanted to make Christ’s fulfillment of them evident: ‘In all places I have kept my grand design in view; and that is to teach my author to speak like a Christian.’  He instructed congregants to carry psalm books with them and asked the clerk to read the psalm aloud before it was sung so that people might better understand what they were to sing.  In so doing, he restored Christian praise to its rightful place in the worship of the Dissenting Church of the early eighteenth century.”

I’ve given enough of my own thoughts on this topic in the past few posts, so I’ll let these quotations speak for themselves.  Overall, though, this book, Singing and Making Music, is a great resource.  If I had to recommend a single all-around “church music manual,” this would be it.  Dr. Jones thoroughly discusses the purpose, history and structure of church music—and some of the controversies that plague it—in a very personable and helpful manner.  In fact, it’s more than likely that you’ll see some more quotes from his book on this blog in the future.

Singing and Making Music by Dr. Paul S. Jones is available from Amazon.com, about $12 for the paperback and $8 for the Kindle version.  Or, if you’d prefer to support Dr. Jones’s ministry directly, you can buy the book for $17 from Paul Jones Music, Inc.

The quotes are from pages 101, 102, 105 & 106 of the paperback edition.

Blessings!

–MRK

P.S.  A busy weekend is ahead, entailing a Classis Eastern US meeting, a weekend with a visiting URC pastor, a piano competition, and, of course, a welcome day of rest on Sunday.  I hope to rejoin you at the beginning of next week!

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2 Responses to “Christianizing the Psalms”


  1. 1 justsinner99 March 15, 2012 at 9:30 am

    May have to get that book. Thanks for the tip! (And I knew I liked Watts for a reason.) 🙂

    • 2 Michael Kearney March 15, 2012 at 2:54 pm

      Absolutely! Isaac Watts is definitely one of my favorite hymn-writers. Just by looking at his list of texts on Hymnary.org, I see about 1800 entries under his name. Unfortunately, the Psalter Hymnal doesn’t always give him credit for some of the psalm settings he wrote, like “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (Psalm 90, number 176) and “Let Children Hear the Mighty Deeds” (Psalm 78, number 150). Still, Watts has had a huge impact on the history of church music.

      –Michael


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