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Creative prayer: The Psalms and music

Lynne Baab • Thursday August 15 2019

Creative prayer: The Psalms and music

The Psalms have often been called the prayer book of the Bible. They help us pray even when we don’t feel like it, and they teach us to pray in new ways. They bring us into God’s presence in whatever mood we’re feeling. They are honest, vivid and sometimes raw.

I wrote last week about my friend Steve Simon’s wonderful book, Holy Walks. (I’m linking to the book on amazon. For my overseas readers, it’s also available at the Book Depository with much cheaper postage.) In the book, Steve describes the way he memorizes psalms as he walks his dog and then prays the psalms he has memorized.

I want to suggest that music can be a wonderful accompaniment to praying the psalms. While walking, sometimes I sing a psalm or hymn based on a psalm – aloud or in my head. I also listen to musical versions of the psalms in my car, and I sing them in my head at night when trying to get to sleep.

I have three suggestions for music to accompany praying the psalms.

1. An Australian band, the Sons of Korah, who sing the psalms word for word. I have all their CDs and have listened to them in the car so much that I find myself singing the words to various psalms using their tunes.

The leader of the band, Matthew Jacoby, has a PhD in philosophy and theology, and has written a book, Deeper Places: Experiencing God in the Psalms.

My favorite Sons of Korah song is Psalm 93, “The Seas have Lifted Up.” On YouTube, you can listen to their recording of the song here, or watch them playing a longer version in concert here.

Some of my other favorite Sons of Korah songs are Psalm 17, Psalm 51, Psalm 91, and Psalm 99. You can find many others on YouTube. Check out their website for more information.

2. Hymns that are paraphrases of psalms. The well-known hymn, “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven,” is a paraphrase of Psalm 103. There’s an additional verse of the hymn that is left out of almost every hymnbook, which summarizes verses 15 to 19 of the psalm and should be the fourth verse, before the verse about angels. I think it’s crazy to skip this verse, because the flow of the psalm is interrupted. Besides, I love the imagery of the flower flourishing, then it is gone.

Frail as summer's flower we flourish,
Blows the wind and it is gone;
But while mortals rise and perish
God endures unchanging on,
Praise Him, praise Him,
Praise Him, praise Him,
Praise the High Eternal One!

Another wonderful hymn is the “The Spacious Firmament on High,” which paraphrases Psalm 19:1-4. I love the concluding line: “The hand that made us is divine.” I always want to shout those words!

Some hymnbooks are explicit about which hymns are connected to psalms.

3. Praise songs that paraphrase psalms or sing them word for word. I looked around on YouTube, searching for some of my favorite psalms, and I found a wide variety. Here’s a version of Psalm 139 that illustrates a common pattern: some of the words are directly from the psalm, some are paraphrased, and some are added. For Psalm 23, here’s a version that uses the words of the psalm without changing them or adding to them. If you do a search for some of your favorite psalms, you’ll find an astonishing – and fun – array of musical styles.

Music helps us remember words, so that alone is enough reason to seek out musical versions of the psalms. Music also captures so many moods, and since the Psalms express so many different emotions, it’s interesting and sometimes enlightening to see which mood musicians choose to express when they write tunes to the words of psalms. And for many Christians, music is a heart language for prayer. Why not sing the Psalms when we draw near to God?

Next week: creative prayer using color. Illustration is the cover to Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms (available from amazon and also the Book Depository, with cheaper overseas postage), which I highly recommend. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column (for laptops).  

Some previous posts on the Psalms:

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