Reviewed by Eric J. Tully
One does not have to read long in the Old Testament to encounter God’s people dealing with earthy, difficult, painful circumstances. They are weary, tempted by evil, lonely, and sometimes struggling to have hope. They often wonder where God is and are afraid in the face of terrible enemies. They also joyfully praise God for his provision, watch as he powerfully works for them and in them, and reflect on his great saving work. These conflicting emotions are the experience of the people of God today as well. But a visitor in our churches might not know this because, in my experience, our churches tend to be mostly “happy” places full of smiling, praising people. How can our churches help us give voice to our dark thoughts and emotions as well as the light ones? How can we help each other to situate our struggles within our faith instead of implying, by our church ethos, that struggles are in conflict with faith?
The book, Forgotten Songs, suggests that one answer to this question is a rediscovery of the psalms which are too often a neglected treasure of the Church. They are of great help in guiding our worship, shaping us in our devotion to God, and sometimes giving us the very words to express ourselves in all of our conflicting emotions. The book comes out of a planned worship conference at Union University in 2008. On February 5 of that year, a tornado destroyed much of the Union University campus and injured a number of people. In response to the disaster, the conference was redesigned as a series of lectures and events with a theme of “how the psalms guide us in our worship in danger and delight” (xiii).
Following a brief introduction, the book consists of two main parts and three appendices. Section 1 deals with “Biblical and Historical Foundations.” These six chapters discuss the intention of the psalms and how they were received and used in the early church. Section 2, “Practice,” has seven chapters dealing with very practical suggestions about appropriating the psalms both in one’s private devotional life as well as in the life and worship of the local church. Almost all of the contributors to the volume are from Reformed and Baptist institutions and churches. Thus, whereas some denominations have a significant history of using Psalms (i.e. Anglicans), the title of this book indicates that it is directed at a constituency which may need to remember and reclaim the psalms for Christian worship.
Biblical and Historical Foundations
In Chapter 1, “Words to Grow Into: The Psalms as Formative Speech,” John D. Witvliet discusses the distinctive nature of the psalms. Unlike other scriptural texts, they are not primarily intended to challenge worshippers with new ideas. Rather, “they are placed on worshippers’ lips as texts to be prayed — texts that worshippers are challenged to embrace as their own” (7). Witvliet uses the helpful illustration of teaching children to say “thank you” by making them repeat it in the right circumstance. Though they may not even feel thankful initially, they will learn good manners as well as gratitude over time by saying the words. Likewise, using the words of psalms in worship helps us to “grow into” beliefs and attitudes about God (9). Therefore, worship is not just expressive, it is formative (14).
Chapter 2, by C. John Collins, is called “Always Alleluia: Reclaiming the True Purpose of the Psalms in the Old Testament Context.” Collins argues that the proper life setting of the biblical psalms is not the prayer journal but the hymnbook. He writes that public worship is the proper life setting of all of the biblical psalms (19). After briefly discussing the different types of psalms, he suggests that the psalms enable the faithful worshiper to bring the full range of life experiences to God (28).
In Chapter 3, “Ancient Songs and Apostolic Preaching: How the New Testament Laid Claim to the Psalms,” Ray Van Neste examines early Christian liturgical use of Psalms. He begins by exploring Jesus’ use of the psalms in his preaching (e.g. John 6), singing (e.g. Matt 26:30), and praying (e.g. Matt 27:46). Likewise, the early church prayed and sang the psalms (Col 3:16). He concludes that the psalms were central to the life of the early church and that the church today ought to follow the same pattern.
Chapter 4 is “Prepared for Prayer: The Psalms in Early Christian Worship.” Here Craig A. Blaising examines the use of psalms in the early church, from the time of the New Testament through the early church fathers. He gives examples from Chrysostom, Basil, and Augustine, among others, demonstrating how they used the psalms to teach their churches to pray. Blaising concludes the chapter by showing how the New Testament clearly connects the psalms to Christ. He writes, “Be prepared to pray [the psalms] and do so with an understanding of the richness of all that God has given to us in Christ, revealed to us in the Scriptures” (63).
Chapter 5 considers “Biblical Poetry in a Postbiblical, Postpoetry World.” Douglas Bond argues that we live in a “postpoetry” world. When, after all, is the last time we gathered on a Friday night to read Lady of the Lake? (Assigned readings for high school do not count) (66). Bond states that we have a decreasing appetite for words and we have been anesthetized by technology. The antidote is timeless, universal poetry in the psalms. Bond writes that the poetry of the psalms “speaks through the ages to everyone in every condition of life.” He concludes by giving seven reasons to sing the psalms: we learn to pray better, psalms keep joy and fear in harmony in worship, psalms free us from our present slavery (i.e. the folly of the moment), the majesty of the psalms quickens our imaginations to enter God’s courts, psalms given us theological discernment, they raise the bar for all new worship poetry, and in singing them we unite with the vast throng of worshippers throughout the ages (77-78).
Chapter 6, “Delighting in Doctrine: Word and Worship in Psalm 1” is a short treatise on how Psalm 1 challenges our defective worship. Ray Ortlund, Jr. writes that the psalm “boldly declares the existence of a larger moral order towering over the entire human race and all its cultural constructs” (85).
In Chapter 7, James H. Grant, Jr. tells us “How I Introduced Psalm Singing to My Church…Without Getting Fired!” The chapter introduces the idea of psalm singing. Grant describes the biblical basis for singing the psalms and then gives very practical advice about the choice of a psalter, tunes, copyright laws, meter structures and matching different psalms with different tunes.
In Chapter 8, C. Richard Wells tells us his experience with using the psalms in pastoral prayer. The chapter is entitled, “Reclaiming the Psalms in Pastoral Prayer: A True Story.” Here he tells a personal story about entering the pastorate after life in academia and discovering the need for serious prayer in public worship. The chapter is conversational and describes the challenges in making the psalms a more central part of the church.
Chapter 9, “Reclaiming the Psalms for Private Worship” is by Leland Ryken. Ryken advocates the use of the psalms in the private devotional life of the individual. He writes, “The feelings the psalmists express are ones we need to ‘own’ for ourselves…the psalms give us forms for our feelings. Thus, the sentiments and feelings the psalmist expresses become normative for us” (130). Ryken uses Psalm 23 as a test case, exploring the poetry, imagery, and personal experience of the psalmist and how those aspects of the psalm contribute to our understanding of its meaning.
In Chapter 10, Calvin Seerveld continues the practical discussion with “Why We Need to Learn to Cry in Church: Reclaiming the Psalms of Lament.” Seerveld states that he often wishes that he could cry in church over weaknesses and sins, petitioning God over the troubles of fellow believers, and crying out for an end to the cruelties of neighbors and governments. The biblical psalms of lament are “God’s wonderful provision for crying in church” (140). After a short discussion of the so-called “imprecatory” laments which are full of curses, Seerveld notes that darkened pubs are places where lonely people feel free to confess their sins and woes because church worship services are too brightly lit and “happy” (152).
Chapter 11, “Performing the Psalms: Reclaiming the Psalms for Corporate and Communal Worship” is written by James Richard Joiner. In this short chapter, Joiner describes his pilgrimage in the use of the psalms in corporate worship and describes the challenges and opportunities within various denominations and megachurches.
Chapter 12 is called, “The Cry of the Heart and the Cure of the Soul: Interpreting the Psalms for Pastoral Care.” Here C. Richard Wells uses Psalm 137, which speaks of bashing babies against the rocks, as a case study for the potential of the psalms for pastoral care and counsel (167). The character of the psalms is such that they can be used for the cure of souls.
Chapter 13, “The Psalm of the Cross as the Psalm of Christ” is also by C. Richard Wells. Wells describes how Psalm 22 is “unreal” in the sense that it does not fit its own historical and compositional context. Rather, it functions as a “script” for Good Friday. It teaches us why God gave us the psalms: to teach us about Christ.
Wells also draws the book to a close in the “Conclusion.” He writes, “…there are special reasons for neglect of the psalms. The language of poetry doesn’t easily connect in a sound-byte culture. The psalms call for time, not tweets — time to read, ponder, pray, digest. It’s easy to be too busy for the psalms. Then again, the strong emotions of the psalms make many modern people uncomfortable — which is ironic since our culture seems to feed on feelings. For pastors the psalms don’t lend themselves easily to preaching and teaching…On top of everything else, strange to say, the psalms are just so…well…God intoxicated. We are fascinated with ourselves; the psalms are fascinated with God” (203-4).
There are three appendices at the end of the book. The first is an interview with songwriter Marty Goetz, the second provides examples of new metered psalms for singing, and the third is an annotated bibliography of resources for the recovery of the psalms in the life of the Church.
I have two very slight critiques of the book. First, perhaps because of its origin in conference presentations, there is some overlap between the essays. On the other hand, there is some value to hearing on the same subject from different voices. Second, a few of the chapters are a bit unfocused and cover a number of topics in only a few pages without a clear argument. But, the book reads more like a field guide (in the best way) anyway, so this is not a serious drawback.
I found this book to be encouraging and challenging. It is very practical and almost devotional at points with an emphasis on getting the psalms into the life of the church and learning from them. As a result of this book, I have been challenged to incorporate the psalms more significantly into my own devotional life and into my teaching at church and in the classroom. It is an excellent resource with honest assessment, realism, and wisdom. Any pastor (especially worship pastors!) or seminary professor who teaches future pastors would benefit from the practical advice and the call to reclaim something critical in worship which has been mostly lost in some of our denominations. And everyone can benefit from the call to read the psalms with great expectation for the ways that they shape and mold us into true worshippers of God, with all of our emotions and experiences intact. Ray Van Neste concludes chapter 3 with this, “May we be inspired by the pattern of our Lord and His apostles to reclaim this wonderful treasure of prayers and songs, not as tedious duty, but as a delightful opportunity to grow and be strengthened” (50).
Eric J. Tully is Assistant Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Book Review Editor for Old Testament here at Books At a Glance.
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Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming The Psalms For Christian Worship