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"Psalms as a songbook"

We had a friend staying this weekend, who’s a music teacher and a worship leader (indeed she played at our wedding), and she was relating a story about a conversation she’d had with one of her students.

Said student spotted the bible on her piano, and said something like “Miss – so do you use the psalms like a songbook or something?”, to which the reply was “Well actually, yes!”.

But it’s an image that really grabbed me – quite often our piano at home will have a songbook on it, or perhaps some sheet music (the Moonlight Sonata is a fave, not that I can play it mind). In many ways this is exactly what the Psalms were… our equivalent of Hymns Ancient and Modern – except the music hasn’t survived as long as the words (or at least, it hasn’t as far as I know). But the image of having the Psalms open on your piano music stand, and using it as a songbook is an evocative one. Clearly it requires a certain level of musicianship to be able to ad lib a song in this way, especially as much of the poetic structure has been lost in the translation. I’ve written one or two songs that have “cherry-picked” bits and pieces from a couple of psalms – perhaps most of our worship songs and hymns do this – but this is not the same, somehow.

I realise that there is a long tradition of singing, or at least chanting, the psalms in the church (with a robed choir for instance), but even this doesn’t seem quite the same as sitting down at a piano and singing a psalm, on your own, just for God.

It’s interesting because at my work we meet once a week to pray, and we start the meeting by looking at a Psalm together. Typically one of us will read it out aloud, and then another will have prepared a short exposition/reflection on it. It’s especially relevant as it’s my turn to prepare the Psalm this week (we’ve got to 51). What a very different way to interact with a psalm by using it directly as a worship song.

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