The Theological Significance of the Psalms in Worship

The biblical Psalter is the most important prayer book in both Jewish and Christian worship. The Psalms have shaped both the language used in Christian worship and the very idea of what worship is. This article describes the conception of worship implied in the Psalms. The Psalter can help a Christian community realize its full potential for worship in Jesus’ name.

Christ, the Sacrifice of Praise, the Reign of God

In quoting from Psalm 110, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews demonstrates that this ancient, messianic psalm has been fulfilled in Jesus. At the same time, we are given here a “liturgical theology” that provides a threefold framework for understanding the place of the Psalms, the liturgy, and all Christian prayer in the economy of salvation. The framework consists of (1) a Christology (who is this Christ?), (2) a doxology (what does it mean to offer praise?), and (3) an eschatology (where is all this leading?): All Christian prayer is offered through the Messiah who has taken his seat at God’s right hand. Although his offering has already perfected those who are being sanctified, we continue to offer the sacrifice of praise while he waits until his enemies are placed beneath his feet. Until that time, all acceptable worship, including the liturgical praying of psalms, is a sacrifice of praise offered through Christ.

Psalms in Israel’s Worship. This liturgical theology may have roots in the worship of Israel where the Psalter originated. Walter Brueggemann, in summarizing the work of Sigmund Mowinckel, notes that in the early period of the Jerusalem temple, the king supervised an annual festival in which “Yahweh was once again enthroned as sovereign for the coming year.” The Davidic king “played the role of Yahweh and was enthroned on his behalf,” legitimizing the Davidic monarchy “which was also liturgically renewed in the festival.” Eschatology, as “a projection of hope into the future out of a cultic enactment that never fully met expectations,” was also manifest in this liturgy:

The cultic act, which is an act of liturgic imagination in and of itself, opens to a future that is in tension with “business as usual.” … Cult and eschatology together mediate an alternative that critiques the present world and invites liberation from it. (Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology [Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress Press, 1988], 4-5)

Brueggemann suggests that Mowinckel’s insight here is of paramount importance: worship is “world-making”; liturgy is “constitutive and not merely responsive” (Ibid., 6–7). This has immediate relevance for the use of the Psalms in the Christian liturgy: “If the subject of the liturgy is kingship—of Yahweh, of David, or derivatively of Jesus—then the liturgy serves to authorize, recognize, acknowledge, coronate, legitimate the ruler and the order that belongs to that ruler.” While the world may look upon this as “subjective self-deception,” nevertheless “the assembly … knows that the reality of God is not a reality unless it is visibly done in, with, and by the community” (Ibid., 10).

Fulfilled in the Paschal Mystery. Since for Israel the Psalms derived from liturgical acts in which the praise of God, Davidic (Messianic) sovereignty, and eschatological expectation all converge, it was only natural that the earliest Christian communities should see in Jesus the fulfillment of all these things of which the psalms speak: he is the Messiah who sits at God’s right hand.

In Matthew 22:41–46, Jesus himself fulfills the messianic interpretation of Psalm 110:1 that was common in his day when he asks, “If the Messiah is David’s Son, why does David call him ‘Lord’?” Hebrews 10 goes further: Jesus is not only Messiah (David’s son and Lord); he is also the fulfillment and perfection of all worship in the old dispensation—its sacrifices, its priesthood, its singing of the Psalms. Christ himself is the new liturgy. In the perspective of the Letter to the Hebrews, we can now comprehend all the Psalms—indeed the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures and worship—within their “truest” setting, that of the paschal mystery. When the Christian community prays the psalms, Christ is in our midst glorifying the Father and sanctifying us who have already been perfected. All prayer in Christ is the praise of God, which transforms us and the whole world.

The Psalms and Liturgical Prayer

Thus far, only a single verse of a single psalm has been considered, but the whole Psalter can be understood from the Christological, doxological, and eschatological perspective that we have seen in the Letter to the Hebrews. The Psalms concretize for us what it means to pray through, with, and in Christ; to offer praise to God; to acknowledge and be transformed by the order of God’s reign. Worship, as Brueggemann noted, is both responsive and constitutive, a reply to God’s self-revelation and a “world-making” event. In prayer, we respond to God and in so doing are transformed—whole and entire—into the image of Christ.

Through, with, and in Christ. The Psalms, as part of sacred Scripture, are the Word of God, God’s revelation to us. Responsorial psalmody—“receiving” the refrain and giving it back—gives sacramental form to this theological dynamic. We can only return what God has first given to us as an utter gift: “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me? The cup of salvation I will take up, and I will call upon the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12–13, nab). The recognition that God is the prior, original mover of all prayer is the essence of every act of praise and thanksgiving: “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise” (Ps. 51:17, nab). In the words of the General Instructions on the Roman Missal and on the Liturgy of the Hours, “Through the chants, the people make God’s word their own” (General Instructions on the Roman Missal, 33 hereafter referred to as GIRM). “Our sanctification is accomplished and worship is offered to God in the liturgy of the hours in such a way that an exchange or dialogue is set up between God and us, so that ‘God is speaking to his people … and the people are responding to him both by song and prayer’ ” (General Instructions on the Liturgy of Hours, 14, hereafter referred to as GILH; cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 33, hereafter referred to as SC). But Christ himself—God’s perfect word to humanity and the perfect human response to God—is the incarnation of this divine-human dialogue who “introduced into this land of exile the hymn of praise which reechoes eternally through the halls of heaven” (Paul VI, Laudis Canticum). Our participation in the Psalms is nothing short of our participation in the eternal, divine-human dialogue of Christ and the Father. We pray through him as the one high priest, the only mediator; we pray with him as head of the body whose members we are; we pray in him since his offering alone is acceptable once and for all.

Offering the Sacrifice of Praise. The many psalms of praise and adoration are what Thomas Merton calls “psalms par excellence.… They are more truly psalms than all the others, for the real purpose of a psalm is to praise God” (Bread in the Wilderness [New York: New Direction, 1953], 27). “I will praise your name forever, my king and my God” (Ps. 145:1). “My soul give praise to the Lord and bless his holy name” (103:1). “Let the peoples praise you, O God, let all the peoples praise you” (67:4). “Alleluia! Praise God in the holy dwelling-place! Praise God with timbrel and dance, strings and pipes! Let everything that lives and that breathes give praise to the Lord. Alleluia!” (Ps. 150). The doxological character of all the Psalms—even the laments—must have been uppermost in the minds of the ancient temple liturgists who collected them into the Psalter which in Hebrew is tehellim, “songs of praise” and in Greek, πσαλμοι, “songs to be sung to the psaltery (lute or harp)” (see GILH, 103). Doxology—the praise and glorification of God and acknowledgment of God’s reign—is the origin and the fulfillment, the “primary theology” of all Christian life and prayer. In singing the Psalms with Christ, we articulate explicitly that sacrifice of praise that is the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.

The Transformation of Ourselves and the World. While “we wait in joyful hope” for all things to be subjected to him, put under his feet, (i.e., to acknowledge and be transformed by the order of God’s reign) the Psalms give us the words with which we subject or surrender ourselves—mind, heart, body—to God, that we may participate ever more fully in the dialogue of Christ and his Father, the praise which is sung forever.

Our minds—our cognitive powers—our intellects are freely submitted to Christ in the many psalms which focus on the law, the “way of life”: “O search me, God, and know my heart, O test me and know my thoughts; See that I follow not the wrong path and lead me in the way of life eternal” (Ps. 139:23–24); “Lord, make me know your ways, teach me your paths; Make me walk in your truth and teach me for you are God my savior” (Ps. 25:4–5); “I will ponder all your precepts and consider your paths; teach me the demands of your statutes and I will keep them to the end” (Ps. 119:15, 33). But Christ is the Way and the fulfillment of the law. Pondering the precepts of his Gospel means training our minds to think as Christ thinks.

Our hearts and feelings, too, must come under his rule. The great variety of psalms permit us first to admit the entire array of emotions that are ours as human beings and then express them before God: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy” (Ps. 126:3); “Be merciful, O Lord, for I have sinned” (Ps. 51:3); “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps. 22:2); “Like a deer that longs for running streams, my soul thirsts for you” (Ps. 42:2); “I am afflicted and in pain; let your saving help, O God, protect me” (Ps. 69:30); “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty” (Ps. 131:1); “How great is your name, O Lord, our God, through all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1). Jesus, who shared fully in our humanity, shared likewise all our emotions. Yet his feelings and the expression of them were free from sin—that is, they were kept within the sphere of his loving, obedient relationship to God. It is precisely our expressing of these emotions in prayer that transforms them into Christian affections. Our surrender of anger, frustration, sinfulness, fear, hope, joy, or wonder to God is itself an act of faith. I can pray, “I hate them with a perfect hate and they are foes to me” (Ps. 139:22), and I can pray, “May the Lord bless you from Zion all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children in a happy Jerusalem!” (Ps. 128:5–6) with equal honesty because, in prayer, my desire for either revenge or blessing is surrendered to God; in prayer, it is transformed into praise. This holds true even for the liturgical psalms that do not happen to match our personal feelings at any particular time; for in the liturgy, we pray the prayer of Christ whose heart embraces the affections of the entire human race: “Those who pray the psalms in the liturgy of the hours do so not so much in their own name as in the name of the entire Body of Christ” (GILH, 108). With him, we articulate the frustrations, hopes, sorrows, and joys of everyone, and we offer this “world-transforming” sacrifice “for the life of the world.”

Our bodies and senses are not excluded; they are caught up together with mind and heart in the surrender of praise: “Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices, even my body shall rest in safety” (Ps. 16:9); “Let my prayer arise before you like incense, the raising of my hands like an evening oblation” (Ps. 141:2); “All peoples, clap your hands … ” (Ps. 47:1); “Come in, let us bow and bend low, let us bend the knee before him” (Ps. 95:6); “Let them praise his name with dancing and make music with timbrel and harp” (Ps. 149:3); “Look towards him and be radiant, let your faces not be abashed” (Ps. 34:6); “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 34:9); “Your robes are fragrant with aloes and myrrh” (Ps. 45:9); “O that today you would hear his voice!” (Ps. 95:7).

Even our ability to pray must be handed over. The Psalms dispose us to move beyond cognitive, affective, and physical activity to contemplation: the absolute stillness of being, awaiting God’s self-manifestation. Merton writes:

The psalms are theology. That means that they place us in direct contact with God, through the assent of faith to His Revelation. It is because of this theological and dynamic effect that the psalms are steps to contemplation. This theological effect depends ultimately on a free gift of God.… If we chant the psalms with faith, God will manifest himself to us; and that is contemplation (Bread in the Wilderness, 14–15).

The Psalms “rehearse” us in the attitude of absolute faith, openness to God’s will, total surrender to God’s presence: “The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want … he leads me near restful waters to revive my drooping spirit” (Ps. 23:1–2); “I have set my soul in silence and peace; a weaned child on its mother’s breast” (Ps. 131:2); “Lord, you search me and you know me, you know my resting and my rising, you discern my purpose from afar” (Ps. 139:1–2); “What else have I in heaven but you? Apart from you I want nothing on earth” (Ps. 73:25); “You do not ask for sacrifice and offering, but an open ear … not holocaust and victim, instead here am I” (Ps. 40:7–8). God gives us the ability to pray; we respond in prayer. God enables us to surrender even our response; we find God waiting there for us.

The whole of creation, the tangible, physical world is also involved with us in being transformed, placed under his feet. In the praying of the Psalms, we are “tuned in” to the silent song in which “the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows forth the work of God’s hands … no speech no word, no voice is heard yet their span extends through all the earth, their message reaches the utmost bounds of the world” (Ps. 19:2–5). We hear too, “The Lord’s voice resounding on the waters … the Lord’s voice shattering the cedars of Lebanon … shaking the wilderness … rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare … the God of glory thunders, in his temple they all cry ‘Glory!’ ” (Ps. 29:3–10). In return, we lend our voices to the praise of “sea creatures and all oceans, fire, and hail, snow, and mist, stormy winds that obey his word; all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars, beasts wild and tame, reptiles and birds on the wing” (Ps. 148:7–8) and articulate creation’s wordless groaning for the fulfillment of all that has been promised.

For the Sake of the World. Our surrender of self and our voicing of the praise of creation is not without repercussions for the rest of humanity. We celebrate the liturgy and “make music to our God Most High” (Ps. 92:1) in order that all peoples may come to acknowledge the glory of God: “O sing to the Lord, bless his name. Proclaim God’s help day by day, tell among the nations his glory, and his wonders among all the peoples” (Ps. 96:2–3); that “the gentiles themselves should say, ‘What marvels the Lord worked for them!’ ” (Ps. 126:2) and “all nations learn your saving help” (Ps. 67:3). Our sacrifice of praise is accepted as one with the sacrifice of Christ.

These ancient, inspired, liturgical songs thus concretize the deepest truths of Christian prayer. Like the liturgy itself, the Psalms invite and enable us and the world in which we live to “authorize, recognize, acknowledge, coronate, legitimate the ruler” of the universe “and the order that belongs to that ruler.” When all peoples and all creation join us together with all the angels and saints in that hymn of endless praise which Christ introduced and sings forever, then all opposition to his rule will be placed under his feet.

In the meantime, we would do well to follow the advice of St. Benedict: “Let us consider how we ought to behave in the presence of God and his angels and let us stand to sing the psalms in such a way that our minds are in harmony with our voices (Regula 19.6–7).

We can paraphrase the words of Benedict in light of the Christological, doxological, and eschatological perspective with which we have examined the liturgical use of the Psalms: “Let us consider who we are in the midst of those who praise God unceasingly; we should conform all our gestures, words, and actions to the voice of the liturgy—its psalms in particular—so that ours may be the mind, heart, and body of Christ.”

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