Why a Metric Psalter?
The Book of Psalms, which was the prayer book and hymn book of the Hebrew people for centuries before Christ, continued to be the prayer book of the Christian church, providing the core foundation for Christian worship throughout the church’s history. It was Jesus’ prayer book which he quoted even from the cross, and it has sustained the church throughout 2,000 years and across cultures throughout the world. Because the nature of Hebrew poetic forms (parallelism, alliteration, acrostics, chiasms, etc.) are not readily seen as poetry in English, (which is primarily rooted in meter and rhyme), the Metrical Psalter seeks to bring the words of the psalms into a metered form that can be easily sung to familiar tunes. Singing the psalms, not just reading them, is a practice that the Christian church maintained for most of its history, for the process of singing engages our hearts and affections in a different way than studying or reading does. The psalms were meant to be sung – many of them are introduced with the phrase “for the director of music,” and quite a few are designated with specific tune names or musical forms. When we sing, pathways of formation are laid into the soul and impressed into our memory. Moreover, singing helps our hearts to be reoriented with a proper perspective of God and of life. Finally, singing reaches into the spirit and trains us to trust God’s purposes and ways. Whether we are currently experiencing what the psalmist is expressing or not, the tracks are being laid for trusting God through whatever circumstances come into our lives, or into the lives of those we know.
In the psalms, the Lord’s character is displayed in all its fullness; His interactions with His people are remembered and rehearsed; and the lens through which we perceive and process all that we encounter in life is established. There is a catechetical and formative purpose in singing the psalms that transcends the expression of our own words to God. We often think of the psalms as the means by which we may express every range of emotion to God – His gift to us of expressing every imaginable feeling or need which has come upon humanity – and they are that, but they are more than that. In addition to the psalms being our words of prayer, praise, lament, remembrance, warning, imprecation, confession, complaint, celebration, etc., they are also in a mysterious way, God’s words which form and mold us, strengthen and exhort us, comfort, teach and empower us as we sing them in the company of the Holy Spirit and the community of the people of faith. They are “sung Torah” – God’s law being written on our hearts as we sing.
Metrical Psalters have nourished the life of the church and Christian believers for centuries, and it is only in the past hundred years or so that the singing of psalms has almost disappeared from many churches, overtaken by hymns and choruses. Hymns and choruses are wonderful, but the psalms function differently, for they lead us on a meditative journey which tutors our soul in our life with God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power” (Bonhoeffer, “Psalms – The Prayer Book of the Bible,” page 26). The longstanding practice of singing the psalms as a crucial foundation of our worship needs to be reclaimed, and this Metrical Psalter is offered as one contribution to the wonderful resurgence of psalm-singing which is springing up throughout many corners of the church today.
The metrical versions in this psalter are derived from a variety of sources. Some are adaptations of traditional settings found in the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter, one of the most widely used and well-loved of the many metrical psalters produced during the Reformation period and beyond. Others of these are new metrical settings written specifically for this Seedbed Psalter by Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, and his wife Julie Tennent, who have found the practice of daily psalm singing to be one of the most formative spiritual disciplines in their lives as Christians. And one, Psalm 119, is a setting by Charles Wesley, who brought this grand acrostic psalm into a singable form with his beautiful gift of poetic verse and lens of the gospel of Christ. As Christians, we read all Scripture in the presence and light of the Risen Christ Jesus; as you sing all of these psalm settings, may you find Christ’s voice and presence on every page.
– Julie Tennent