The Code of the Psalms

A Message in the Organization of the Oldest Hymnal  

Someone has said that the average churchgoer carries more theology around from the hymns they have sung than from all the sermons they have ever heard. I would not be surprised. Not only do the echoes of hymn melodies reinforce religious feelings, familiar phrases repeatedly sung slip into the vocabulary of faith. The hymnal is a faith resource.

If we study a hymnal we will find not only the content of individual hymns but their organization says something about our faith. No hymnal that I know of organizes its hymns alphabetically or chronologically. There is some theological motive at work.

hymnal-paperSome denominational hymnals begin with Advent hymns and proceed with others according to the church year. Others seem shaped by an order of doctrinal topics: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, church, etc. And so the1940 Broadman Hymnal began with Christ: (“All Hail the Power of Jesus Name”), while the Baptist hymnals ever since have started with the Trinity (“Holy, Holy, Holy”). You know you are looking at a Methodist hymnal if the first hymn is Wesley’s “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” One interdenominational hymnal begins with creation, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” while another emphasizes joy, “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The Moravians’ decided to explain first why we are at church at all, “To Thy Temple I Repair.” What hymn would you use to introduce the others in your collection?

Chagall, " David"

Chagall, ” David”

Whatever other hymnal we use, Psalms is one hymnal we hold in common.  For centuries monastic communities have sung the hours with them in every service from waking up to late evening. A few Protestants will sing nothing else.  Isaac Watts broke new ground by versifying psalms, giving psalms “a beat.”  In recent decades many congregations have gone back to chanting the psalms, breathing them together, which is one way to slow the reading down and allow time to think about the words.  Previous generations committed them to memory and were able to call them up in their private prayers.  My grandparents were able at table or on a mountain walk, or in nighttime devotion, to quote from the psalms. Whatever other hymnal we use, the psalms deserve a special place.

So is there a theology in the organization of the Psalter as there is in our hymnals? I think it can be discerned in the choice of which psalm it put first and which last. And the results are worth mulling.

While our hymnals commonly begin with praise of God, the Psalter begins, interestingly, with its eyes on earth. It begins with the basic human question: “How can a person be happy? How can I have a life so good I could wish it would last forever?” “Blessed is the human who…” The topic is anthropocentric, not theocentric. You will not find happiness, the psalmist begins, with sinners. Refuse to be part of their action. Refuse to hang out with them. Refuse to join them in mocking folks who take God seriously. Instead, the psalmist continues, happiness starts with an individual’s often lonely decision to take God’s word seriously, allowing it to sink in slowly and deeply.roots-with-verse-psalm-1-3

Meditating on that word we become like a tree planted by a stream. We stay green regardless of the changing weather. Sinners have cut themselves off from this deep resource. They wither and are blown away when the winds are parching. They are forgotten. But God remembers the righteous.

So the Psalter begins and the psalms that follow cover everything that can be part of faithful living: pain, anger, historical memory, private grief, complaint, thanksgiving, individual confession and corporate confession, coronation songs, and dirges from exile. There is a psalm for every occasion that may befall the one who has decided to follow God. But see where the hymnal suggests that spiritual path ends.

Jan van Eyck, detail, angels singing

Jan van Eyck, detail, angels singing

The book that began with the individual ends with congregation. It begins with righteousness and ends in wonder. It moves from the profound silence of meditation to a loud, wild chorus of pipes, cymbals, and trumpets. From stillness to dance. What began with sober words ends is shouts. “Let everything that hath breath praise the LORD!”

I do not know which hymn you sing first. Take your pick. But the Psalter is right. A proper theology ends up with Hallelujahs. This is the deepest meaning of all hymns and the reason they are set to music. God is more than good and true. Religion is more than walking the straight and narrow and having correct ideas about God. It is about more than blameless deeds and right speech, because God is not only good and true. God is beautiful.

And the beauty of God calls forth something in addition to our mind and will. It demands the fullness of our humanity. Let the body join the will and mind using art and senses, using “everything that hath breath” for a might self-forgetful dance of ecstasy in God. If we are not captured by the beauty we have not seen the goodness or the truth.

Whatever word is first about faith, “Hallelujah” is the proper last word.

“Let everything that hath breath praise the LORD! Hallelujah!”



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