Reading and Singing the Psalms


Anne Hibbard

Throughout the centuries, many different Christian prayers and hymns have been written for people to use in their devotional and worship life as individuals and in community.  However, through history, the importance and treasure of the Psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures as the primary song and prayer book has been discovered and lost and rediscovered several times.

Oliphant Old (2002, 33-36) describes the regular use of Psalms in Hebrew or Jewish worship from at least the time of King David.  During the burning of the sacrifice, psalmody had primacy in worship).  After the second temple was built following the exile, there was a regular pattern of psalm singing relating to the day of the week. During Jesus’ lifetime, the worship in the synagogues began and ended with set psalm singing.  Jesus himself quoted the psalms even upon the cross. (Mark 15:34).

The early Christian church also sang psalms, as referenced in Acts 4:23-31 and 1 Corinthians 14:26 along with other hymns .  Following the New Testament time, psalm singing was encouraged within the Christian church (Old 2002, 36, 40) and in the West was almost exclusively used until Ambrose of Milan (ca. 339-97).  In the fourth century, Athanasis (328-373) wrote a letter explaining to Marcellinus to describing how important the Psalms were.  Athanasis writes,

“to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure.  Within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul” (cited by Prayer Foundation). 

Chrystostym (349-407) also speaks of the daily pattern of psalm reading in the ancient church.  He said they divided up each day into four, and at the end of each daily section they glorified God with “psalms and hymns (Schaff, 1886)              

Gregory the Great cultivated psalmody with organ music with what we call today the Gregorian chant. The focus of psalm singing began to be within the monastic life with only some psalmody in the cathedrals and at mass.  During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Psalmody and hymn singing continued to flourish, but it was in Latin and the common people could not join in or understand it (Old 2002, 40, 42).

With the advent of the Reformation, the Reformers wanted everyone to be able to sing the songs.  Easier tunes and use of their own languages, psalm singing and hymns were composed. Luther revitalized psalm singing by writing more than thirty hymns with several of these based on German Psalms. Calvin also collected French metrical psalms. Martin Bucer (1491-1551) focused back on the original Hebrew text of the Psalms. During the reformation, says Oliphant Old (2002, 45) the texts of the psalms became the “prayers of the people”.  During the eighteenth century Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote not only hymns but metrical psalms translated or paraphrased into English.  Following this time, even with the Presbyterian church for over a century psalm singing was given only a secondary place in Christian hymn books with focus being on the vast array of other songs and hymns that had been written during the revivals (Old, 2002, 42, 43, 45, 47).

The Eastern Orthodox Church however continued even through this time to hold the Psalms as primary. In some of the eastern churches, says Bonhoeffer (1970), memorizing the whole of the Psalms was a requirement of becoming a priest.  The Eastern Orthodox church continue to use an ancient rite called “Kathisma” or seat.  The psalms as shown in the psalter for prayer (Mitchell James 2011) are divided into twenty different Kathisma.  They are spoken daily, evening and morning with the whole Psalter being read most weeks and twice a week during Great Lent. 

However, a few individuals in the western church rediscovered the gem of the Psalms as a primary song and prayer book for the church during the twentieth century.  One of these was Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) who rediscovered the psalms in the darkest of places, Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer spoke of the importance of protecting the psalms. He called them a priceless “treasure” (Bonhoeffer 1970, 25), for it is only this systematic day by day reading of the Psalms that one can truly find the psalms as a prayer book.  He explained that when you read the psalms infrequently rather than in a regular rhythm, an individual can find the psalms daunting and unpalatable. But anyone who begins to read the psalms “seriously and regularly” can agree when they come across other kinds of written prayers with Luther.  Luther wrote,

“Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter. It tastes too cold and too hard.” Luther (cited by Bonhoeffer 1970,25)

Listening to Bonhoeffer today, encourages us to find this gem of reading the psalms once again.  He wrote:

“Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church.  With its recovery will come unsuspected power.” (Bonhoeffer 1970,26)

Billy Graham is also another individual in the twentieth century and early twenty-first, who has encouraged the recovering of the primacy of the Psalms.  He gives the example of his own devotional life as an encouragement for others to rediscover the importance of the psalms. Over many years he made it a practice to read five Psalms and a chapter from Proverbs every day.  This meant that every month Billy Graham would completely read the whole of both Psalms and Proverbs. He describes how the Psalms “tell us how to get along with God” whilst the book of Proverbs “tell us how to get along with our fellow man”.  (Billy Graham, 2014 foreword).

There has begun a recovery of the Psalms through biblical scholarship, discovering again the history of psalms as prayer.  This has also included not only metric psalmody but also more contemporary Christian music psalms, put to music with guitars with easy tunes for people to sing (Old 2002, 56, 58). However, there is a move away from this more recently due to the complications of copyright and the bible and psalmody having a only a very minor place amongst the majority of Christian contemporary songs in the twenty first century.

Throughout history as has been seen, the primacy of the psalms as a song and prayer book for the whole Christian church has been discovered, lost and rekindled several times over.  In contrast, the Eastern Church this primacy has been more stable.  In the early church the psalms were sung by the people which continued for a few hundred years.  But through the middle ages it became unattainable for the masses, being written in Latin and sung in very difficult choral pieces. During the Reformation the Psalms once again were released for the people to sing but was lost again as a primary mode of worship with the great influx of hymnody during the revivals. However, during the twentieth century psalmody was again brought the fore through such individuals as Bonhoeffer and Billy Graham but is still to be fully rediscovered for the treasure that it is in the twenty first century among the majority of the Christian Western Church. 


Bonhoeffer , Dietrich.  Psalms, The Prayer Book of the Bible.   Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1970.

Constantinou, Jeannie .  The Eastern Orthodox Approach to the Bible. February 24, 2013    accessed 3rd April 2016

Graham, Billy  (2014)      foreword  to Words of Wisdom: A life-changing journey through psalms and proverbs  by  George M. Wilson.   Tyndale  2014  

Schaff, Philip,  The Life and Work of St. John Chrystostym  John Homily XIV.  1 Timothy v. 8  1254  1886,  Kindle Edition.

Mitchell James, David  A Psalter for Prayer  New York, 2011, Holy Trinity Publications 

Oliphant Old, Hughes, Worship, Revised and Expanded Edition: Reformed According to Scripture   Kentucky, 2002, Westminster John Knox Press

Prayer Foundations,   Athanasius, Praying the Psalms.  Pray! Magazine, Issue 8, Sept/Oct 1998.   accessed 16th April 2016