A Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholar looks at the Bible and culture…

The Many Uses of the Psalms

Thanks to all those who responded to my call for Psalms stuff. Here, I report on the array of objects we handled in our first Psalms class.

Not surprisingly, there were an array of musical settings of psalms. These included psalms marked for chanting within Christian and Jewish services, as well as those made into hymns for congregational singing.


Psalm-based performance pieces ranged from anthems and chorale pieces to contemporary praise music to Psalms passages in Coolio and U2 lyrics.  We looked at hymnals from various denominations, as well as CD’s and could have watched youtube clips of contemporary artists.  Among our collection were loans from the the rare book collection of the Lancaster Theological Seminary library:

1. Sternhold, Thomas and John Hopkins. The Whole Booke of Psalmes… London: Company of Stationers, 1625. The first English language version of metrical Psalms in use from at least 1562.

2. Tate, Nahum and Nicholas Brady. A New Version of the Psalms of David. Amsterdam: Henry Gartman, 1772. This version of the Psalms with music notation (first published in 1696) replaced the earlier Sternhold and Hopkins psalter in use most of the 17th century.

3. Lobwasser, Ambrose. Die Psalmen Davids... Budingen: Joh. Friedr. Regelein, 1733. With music notation. Lobwasser prepared this version of the Psalms for German Reformed churches. It was popular in both Germany and the U.S. and reprinted many times through the first quarter of the 19th century.

4. Lobwasser, Ambrose. Neu-vermehrt und vollstandiges Gesang-Buch worinnen sowohl die Psalmen Davids…  Marburg; Frankfurt: Heinrich Ludwig Bronner, 1797. An edition of Lobwasser’s expanded hymnal with the Psalms bound in a decorative vellum binding.

We admired several children’s books illustrating the 23rd Psalm–one with a bucolic setting, another in an urban context.

We looked at visual images drawn from Psalm texts–the Psalm illustrations from the St. John’s Bible and images on one of the seminary president’s stoles.

I brought in bulletins from weekly services as well as my dad’s funeral that utilize Psalms texts as parts of the liturgy–call to worship, assurance of pardon, etc.

Many students were drawn to the pictures I’d downloaded from the internet of Psalm verses on jewelry and tattoos.  We imagined ways this body art might function–for protection, for advertisement, as identity markers.  (This use of Psalms reminded me of the tiny psalters I saw at the Walters Art Museum, described in an earlier post.)

We considered Psalters designed for private devotions, both those in devotional booklets and in David Ker’s Cyber Psalms project.

The books I’d brought in from the library reminded us that psalms are used to reconstruct the worship practices and daily lives of ancient Israelites.

And we recognized that there are important aspects that didn’t show up in the objects: Psalms as poetry and Psalms as the basis for doctrine and theology.

I’m sure we’re missing other major uses of Psalms, but we were struck by the many different ways in which Psalms as a book and as individual pieces have been used and continue to be used. We look forward to exploring different aspects of the Psalms as the class unfolds.


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