The Psalms in Christian Worship

By Viv White

Children singing and playing music, illustration of Psalm 150.

New Testament references show that the earliest Christians used the Psalms in worship, and the Psalms have remained an important part of worship in most Christian Churches. Churches have always made systematic use of the Psalms, with a cycle for the recitation of all or most of them over the course of one or more weeks. In the early centuries of the Church, it was expected that any candidate for bishop would be able to recite the entire Psalter from memory, something they often learned automatically during their time as monks.

Paul the Apostle quotes psalms (specifically Psalms 14 and 53, which are nearly identical) as the basis for his theory of original sin, and includes the scripture in the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 3.

Some Psalms are among the best-known and best-loved passages of Scripture, with a popularity extending well beyond regular church-goers….

  • Psalm 22 is of particular importance as a Psalm of continued faith during severe testing.
  • Psalm 23The LORD is My Shepherd, offers an immediately appealing message of comfort and is widely chosen for church funeral services, either as a reading or in one of several popular hymn settings;
  • Psalm 51Have mercy on me O God, called the Miserere from the first word in its Latin version, is used in the sacrament of repentance or confession, and in other settings;
  • Psalm 82 is found in the ‘Book of Common Prayer’ as a funeral recitation.
  • Psalm 103Bless the Lord, O my soul, is one of the best-known prayers of praise;
  • Psalm 137By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, is a moody meditation   upon living in slavery, and has been used in a well-known reggae song;
  • Psalm 119 is the longest psalm as well as the longest chapter in the Bible. It is referred to in Hebrew by its opening words, “Ashrei temimei derech” (“happy are those whose way is perfect”). It is the prayer of one who delights in and lives by the Torah, the sacred law. With its 176 verses, Psalm 119 has more verses than 13 Old Testament Books and 16 New Testament Books.

Let’s read a few verses from Psalm 119 (Contemporary English Version):

  • Psa 119:1  Our LORD, you bless everyone who lives right and obeys your Law.
  • Psa 119:2  You bless all of those who follow your commands from deep in their hearts
  • Psa 119:3  and who never do wrong or turn from you.
  • Psa 119:4  You have ordered us always to obey your teachings;
  • Psa 119:5  I don’t ever want to stray from your laws.
  • Psa 119:6  Thinking about your commands will keep me from doing some foolish thing.
  • Psa 119:7  I will do right and praise you by learning to respect your perfect laws.
  • Psa 119:8  I will obey all of them! Don’t turn your back on me.
  • Psa 119:9  Young people can live a clean life by obeying your word.
  • Psa 119:10  I worship you with all my heart. Don’t let me walk away from your commands.
  • Psa 119:11  I treasure your word above all else; it keeps me from sinning against you.
  • Psa 119:12  I praise you, LORD! Teach me your laws.
  • Psa 119:13  With my own mouth, I tell others the laws that you have spoken.
  • Psa 119:14  Obeying your instructions brings as much happiness as being rich.
  • Psa 119:15  I will study your teachings and follow your footsteps.
  • Psa 119:16  I will take pleasure in your laws and remember your words.
  • Psa 119:17  Treat me with kindness, LORD, so that I may live and do what you say.
  • Psa 119:18  Open my mind and let me discover the wonders of your Law. 
  • Psa 119:30  I am determined to be faithful and to respect your laws.
  • Psa 119:32  I am eager to learn all that you want me to do; help me to understand more and more.
  • Psa 119:34  Help me to understand your Law; I promise to obey it with all my heart.
  • Psa 119:36  Make me want to obey you, rather than to be rich.
  • Psa 119:37  Take away my foolish desires, and let me find life by walking with you.
  • Psa 119:45  I have gained perfect freedom by following your teachings,
  • Psa 119:50  When I am hurting, I find comfort in your promise that leads to life.
  • Psa 119:55  Even in the night I think about you, LORD, and I obey your Law.
  • Psa 119:56  You have blessed me because I have always followed your teachings.
  • Psa 119:57  You, LORD, are my choice, and I will obey you.

Awesome ‘spiritual food’, isn’t it?

Jesus, dying on the cross, twice expressed himself in the words of Psalms (22:1 and 31:5),

“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

“Into Your hand I commit my spirit;”

And his disciples, in trying to explain his life, quoted from Psalms more than any other book. They appear to have meditated on the psalms often as they considered the meaning of Jesus’ life.

In the Psalms they could see that even the best men–even David, the great king–suffer agony and feel abandoned.

Living by faith is not easy. It was not for David; it was not for Jesus either.

In the Psalms we find the most powerful poems of praise and worship, some of the most beautiful ever written, offer no magical formulas to make troubles go away. Yet, while real-life questions, struggles, and discouragements have a strong voice in these poems, more powerful still is the voice of joy and security in the strength and fortress of Israel: the LORD Himself. Praise God, our Father!

The richest lessons from Psalms may come from particularly difficult poems you must read again and again until you begin to see what the author had in mind. The best way to read the psalms is also the most common way: to make these ancient prayers your own and speak them directly to God. So many of the poems catch such deep human feelings that you can’t help being moved by them.

Psalms capture the innermost thoughts and prayers of Old Testament people–and they still speak directly to our needs.

For every emotion and mood you can find a psalm to match. The Psalms wrestle with the deepest sorrow and ask God the hardest questions about suffering and injustice. Their voice is refreshingly spontaneous. They do not tip flowery compliments toward God: they cry out to him, or shout for joy before him.

After reading the Psalms, you can’t think of the Old Testament as dry and rule-bound. Nor is the Old Testament God distant and impersonal. In almost every Psalm you find the presence of God, not as a philosophical principle, but as an active, strong, and loving ruler–a God who makes a difference in life.

Psalms merely ask–and reward–time and close attention. Read and reread them. They grow richer with careful study, and will help to strengthen your personal relationship with our Heavenly Father.

Note: Many of the psalm titles refer to David, you may find it helpful to refer to his life story. It is found in 1 Samuel 16-31, the whole book of 2 Samuel, and the first two chapters of 1 Kings.

God bless.