The Bedell/Boyle Lecture 1997

Psalmody: A Living Tradition of Worship

Margaret Daly-Denton


Dr. Fergus O’Ferrall


First Published (1998) by

National Bible Society Of Ireland,

41 Dawson Street,

Dublin 2.

Copyright © (1997) National Bible Society of Ireland

ISBN 0-9518735-7-1


The Bedell/Boyle Lecture Series

The National Bible Society of Ireland has inaugurated an annual lecture series known as the Bedell/Boyle Lecture. It is intended that the series will provide an opportunity to promote the Bible and the effective use of the Holy Scriptures. Each year a speaker of stature will be asked to lecture on a topic relating some aspect of the Bible to current developments. It is hoped to publish each Lecture.

The Lecture series is named in honour of William Bedell (1571-1642) Bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh, because of his commitment to the translation of the Bible into Irish. Linked with Bedell’s Irish Bible, published for the first time in 1685, is Hon. Robert Boyle (1626-1691) who ensured the publication of Bedell’s Bible. Boyle was very committed to Bible distribution and he was a distinguished scientist known for Boyle’s Law. Thus key elements of modern Bible Society work — translation, publication and distribution — were foreshadowed by these two men.

The 1997 Lecture was given by Dr. Margaret Daly-Denton on 11 November 1997 in Marianella, Dublin. Dr. Daly-Denton is a church musician, liturgist and biblical scholar. A published composer and editor of liturgical music, she currently serves on the Advisory Committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. She teaches scripture at the School of Hebrew, Biblical and Theological Studies in Trinity College, The Milltown Institute and the Kimmage Mission Institute.

The Response was given by Dr. Fergus O’Ferrall, Director of the Adelaide Hospital Society and Vice-President of the National Bible Society of Ireland. We are pleased to publish the complete text of the Lecture and the Response and believe that this will aid our reflection and response to the living Word of God in the Holy Scriptures.

Judith Wilkinson


Also in this series:

Alive and Active Dei Verbum and Ireland Today’,Most Rev. Donal Murray (1992)

The Bible in World Evangelization‘, Rev. Tom Houston (1993)

Why the Old Testament — then or now?‘, Rev. Terence McCaughey (1994)

Lectio Divina in the Monastic Tradition‘, Rt. Rev. Christopher Dillon (OSB) (1995)

The Bible — God’s Word for Today‘, Rev. Selwyn Hughes (1996)



Psalmody: a Living Tradition of Worship

A common theme in medieval Jewish writings is that the psalms were stolen from the Jews. In one medieval Hebrew poem, the Book of Psalms is personified as an exile kidnapped from its Jewish homeland. Alluding to the biblical story of Joseph sold into Egypt (cf. Gen 40:15), the Psalter is imagined as lamenting:

“Stolen, I was.
Yes, stolen from the land of the Hebrews.”

This may reflect the belief that while poetry seems to have originated among the Arab peoples, they actually took it from the Jews who had it first, but later forgot it.[1] However, it must also indicate a certain unease with the extent to which Christianity has taken over the Psalter from Judaism

It is true that Christians have given psalmody a greater role in their liturgy than it ever had in Jewish public worship. That in itself would not have been a problem for Jews. The parting of the ways comes in the area of interpretation, in what modern literary theorists call reception. To take an example from our own experience today, most Christians, hearing the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Ps 22:1), will think immediately of Jesus dying on the cross (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). The verse, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Ps 118:25-26) is inextricably linked in the Christian consciousness with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of acclamation and waving of palm branches (Matt 21:9; Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38; John 12:13). Yet these psalm passages had a life and a meaning of their own long before they were appropriated by Christianity and they still have for Jews today.

From the earliest period, Christians have claimed that the praises of Israel, traditionally attributed to King David, find their full meaning on the lips of Jesus. According to Paul, for example, the words from Ps 69 — “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me” — are about Jesus’ sufferings. Paul uses this line from the psalms as part of his argument that the Hebrew scriptures were written “for us,” i.e., for Christians (Rom 15:3-4). Luke uses similar reasoning in the famous Emmaus story where the risen Jesus draws particular attention to the psalms. “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms had to be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Luke takes his idea that the psalms are “about” Jesus even further. When David wrote “You will not abandon my soul to Hades nor let your holy one see corruption” (Ps 16:10), he was not referring to himself. Rather, since he was a prophet, David was referring to the resurrection of his descendant, Jesus (cf. Acts 2:25-31).

In these few examples, we discover the early Christians listening to the psalms as spoken by Jesus — as prayer, lament, or thanksgiving addressed by Jesus to God his Father. This line of interpretation is a Christian outgrowth of the traditional Jewish attribution of the psalms to David. There is, however, another way in which the early Christians received the psalms. This reading is more subtle, even cryptic, in that one needs to be able to recognise New Testament allusions to the psalms which are often quite fleeting. When, for example, Paul writes to encourage the persecuted community of Christians at Thessalonika, he directs their gaze towards the day of their vindication, when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven. On that day, according to Paul, Jesus will be “glorified in his holy ones” and “wondered at in all who have believed.” Here Paul has slipped into the language of the psalms — “Wonderful is God in his holy ones” (Ps 68:35) or in another translation, “Wonderful is God in his saints.”[2]

What does Paul’s allusion tell us about his (and his hearers’) understanding of the psalm? Here we come to the aspect of the Christian reception of the psalms which represents the most radical break with Judaism. This is the point at which the psalms really were, as the medieval Jewish poets would say, “stolen from the land of the Hebrews.” Paul takes the psalm’s imagery — God riding on the clouds “with mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand, thousand upon thousands,” God as a fire that melts sinners like wax, the earth quaking at God’s presence — and applies it to Jesus. The psalm’s metaphors referring to the self-revelation of the God of Israel, the giving of the Law at Sinai, the manifestation of God’s presence in the Temple are now received as descriptions of the day “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire” (2 Thess 1:7). The implication is that when Jesus is revealed “on that day,” his divine status will be clearly seen. Interestingly, Paul is not the only NT author to use this very imagery from Ps 68. The author of the Letter to the Ephesians quotes from the same psalm –

When he ascended on high
he made captivity itself a captive;
he gave gifts to his people.

For this early Christian author, the psalm speaks of Jesus who, at his resurrection from the dead, ascended far above all the heavens and gave various gifts to the Christian community, that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, etc. Again, we find the imagery of the psalm applied to the glorified Jesus. To use the psalms in this way is to profess the divine Lordship of Jesus. This is every bit as daring as what “doubting Thomas” does in his profession of faith when he addresses to Jesus words which the Psalter reserves for God. Thomas’ psalm-inspired words have become a favourite Christian prayer, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28. Cf. Ps 35:23).[3] Similarly the prayer of the dying Stephen is modelled on the dying Jesus’ prayer from Ps 31:6 — “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jesus imparts a filial tone to the prayer — “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Stephen’s echo of this prayer, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” comes at the peak of a carefully orchestrated crescendo of offence to Jewish ears. When Stephen commends his spirit to the Lord, it is to the Lord Jesus whom he has just declared to be standing at the right hand of God — an allusion, of course, to another psalm passage, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit on my right and I will make your enemies your footstool” (Ps 110:1).

So we find in the New Testament evidence that “the Lord” addressed or described in the psalms is sometimes the God and Father of Jesus and other times the Lord Jesus himself. In this second and more radical mode of reception, the glorified Lord Jesus is identified with “the Lord” praised and marvelled at in the Psalter.

The Psalms in Christian Worship

Christian liturgical tradition has preserved fascinating information about the “techniques” which the Church has used over the centuries to stake its particular claim to the Psalter. First of all, the association of particular psalms with Christian rituals has much to tell us about how these psalms were understood. For example, the deer thirsting for flowing streams of Ps 42, depicted in catacomb art, represented the catechumens’ longing for the great night of their baptism. The allusion to Ps 34:8 in 1 Pet 2:3 — “You have tasted the goodness of the Lord.” — most certainly reflects Christian initiation which included both baptism and eucharistic sharing. There may even be a pun on the Greek word for “good”, chrestos, which sounds quite similar to the Greek word for Christ — “taste and see that chrestos/Christos is the Lord.”[4] In light of this, it is fascinating to find that the earliest description we have of the singing of Christians as they approach the eucharistic table identifies their song as Ps 34.[5]

Then there is, of course, the whole tradition of liturgical preaching on the psalms which came to full flowering in the great commentary on the psalms by St Augustine. There is the custom, which originated in monastic circles, of using psalm collects — short Christian prayers to be said after the singing of each psalm as a prayerful response to the word of God heard in the psalm. These were well established in general liturgical use by the 8th century.[6] There are the musical forms which developed as the Christian liturgy evolved — Introit, Graduale, Antiphon, Responsory, etc — all outgrowths of psalmody. Here we are going to concentrate on just three “techniques” — Christian adaptations of the psalms, Christian titles to the psalms, and one of the musical forms: Christian antiphons. While each of these is a point of divergence from Judaism, there is, as we will now see, a real sense in which they are in continuity with the Jewish interpretive tradition.

Christian Adaptations

Most of us think that Cinderella wore a glass slipper. Actually, it was an ermine slipper. Somebody somewhere along the line mistook the French vair for verre. This illustrates what can happen with translation. So, for example, Jews who knew the psalms in the Greek (Septuagintal) version heard David praying to be saved from attack by the unicorn, an animal unheard of in the Jewish scriptures until they were translated into Greek (Ps 22:21) by Hellenistic Jews who had cultural contacts with Greek mythology.[7]

Sometimes what happens to a text is not so much mistranslation, as simply a matter of the scribe’s received interpretation finding its way into the text. It could and did happen, even when the scriptures were being copied in their original Hebrew. For example, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (11QPsa, possibly written during Jesus’ lifetime) contains a collection of psalms. The compilers of this anthology are very interested in the attribution of the psalms to David. So much so that they credit him with a prodigious output of 4050 psalms! The scribe of this scroll is so convinced of David’s authorship of the psalms that he often uses singular pronouns instead of plural ones. So, for example, where the biblical text of Ps 122:2 reads — “Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem,” the Qumran version has — “My feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.” There is a section of Ps 119, the long psalm of devotion to the Law, which has been significantly changed. The biblical version of v. 152 reads — “Long have I known from your testimonies that you have founded them for ever.” The Qumran scribe has written — “Long have I known from knowledge of you that you have founded me for ever.” It seems that this part of the psalm was understood in the circle that produced this scroll as a prayer of David referring to God’s promise, through the prophet Nathan, that God would establish his dynasty for ever (cf. 2 Sam 7). Whether the scribe did this intentionally to strengthen the impression of David’s authorship, or whether it is a case of scribal error arising from a presupposition that David wrote the psalms, it is difficult to say.

In the Judaism contemporary with New Testament Christianity, the synagogue reading of the scriptures in Hebrew was no longer understood by the ordinary people. So an Aramaic version, the Targum, was proclaimed after the reading. We know that a Targum to the psalms existed in NT times. Matthew portrays Jesus as using it when he cries out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (Matt 27:46).[8] It did not reach written form, however, until several hundred years later. Still, knowing the Jewish esteem for tradition, it is likely that the written Targum to the psalms, as we have it, contains very old interpretations. Parts of the Targum are a fascinating mixture of text and commentary as the following example shows. Clearly Ps 118:22-24 is envisaged as sung by David in connection with his anointing by Samuel (cf. 1 Sam 16).

The boy that the builders rejected, who was one of the sons of Jesse,
was worthy to be made king and ruler
This was done in the sight of the Lord, said the builders.
It is marvellous in our eyes, said the sons of Jesse.
This is the day the Lord has made, said the builders.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it, said the sons of Jesse …[9]

When we consider that in the ancient world most people experienced the scriptures only through hearing them read, this glimpse at the Targum gives us some idea of how the text would have been received — very much coloured by interpretation.

The New Testament authors worked with the biblical text in much the same way. Let us look at a couple of examples of psalm adaptation. A favourite psalm of the early Christians was Ps 110 which begins:

The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit and my right
and I will make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’

The psalm gave the first Christians the language with which they could begin to express their faith in Jesus’ resurrection. However, quite often they “misquote” it slightly. They seem to get Ps 110 a bit confused with Ps 8 which says, “You have put everything under his feet.” The apparent confusion is an interesting example of the early Christian tendency to modify the scriptural text in slight but significant ways.[10] A second example — the author of the Fourth Gospel saw Jesus’ outburst in the Temple as fulfilment of the line in Ps 69, “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” He had no qualms about adapting the scripture, just a little, making it future tense — “Zeal for your house will consume me” — in order to emphasise that the psalm is a prophecy of Jesus’ eventual death.

There is also the fact that the text was in danger of being corrupted merely by being copied, since there was always the possibility of scribal error. Sometimes an explanatory note written in the margin was copied by a later scribe who thought it was part of the “official” text. We call these additions which have crept into the text glosses. There are several very early examples of Christian glosses to the Psalter. For example, Ps 96:10 reads, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns’.” A Greek version of this psalm quoted by Justin Martyr (mid 2nd century CE) reads, “Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns from the tree’.” For the Christian scribe responsible for this gloss, the Lord who is greatly to be praised, before whom all the earth must tremble, who comes to judge the earth, is obviously Jesus lifted up on the cross. Similarly, an early version of Ps 51:7 reads “Sprinkle me with hyssop from the blood of the cross.” Thus the forgiveness of God, as described in the psalm, the blotting out of transgressions and the restoration of the broken-hearted sinner to the joy of salvation is, in the Christian reception, attributed to the Lord Jesus whose body was given and whose blood was poured out for the forgiveness of sins.

We might be tempted to accuse the early Christian authors and scribes of surreptitiously slipping their little Christian “twists” into the biblical text and thus behaving somewhat tendentiously, if not even dishonestly. What we have seen of the Jewish transmission of the text, however, may help us to understand that this was quite normal practice. We may even be surprised to find that this is exactly what we do ourselves every time we sing the well known metrical paraphrase of Ps 23 by Henry Williams Baker (1821-77), “The king of love my shepherd is.”[11]

The first verse is fairly close to the psalm —

The king of love my shepherd is
Whose goodness fails me never.
I nothing lack if I am his
And he is mine for ever.

A believing Jew could sing that without any difficulty. Not so the continuation of the metrical paraphrase, however. Towards the end of the second verse we begin to notice some significant adaptations –

Where streams of living water flow
To rest my soul he leads me:
Where fresh and fertile pastures grow,
With heavenly food he feeds me.

The feeding with heavenly food, of course, recalls the “bread from heaven” the manna. We are still, strictly speaking, within the boundaries of Jewish faith, but the “heavenly food” will soon be interpreted as the Christian eucharistic bread. As the psalm progresses, we find that the Lord God, the shepherd of the psalm has become the shepherd of Jesus’ parable who left the ninety-nine sheep to go looking for the stray. The next verse is thus a Christian commentary on the line, “He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.”

Perverse and foolish have I strayed,
But he with love has sought me,
and on his shoulder gently laid
and home, rejoicing, brought me.

By the time we reach “death’s dark vale” in verse 4, we are in no doubt but that the Lord addressed in the psalm is Jesus. So we are not surprised to find that, as well as his rod and staff to comfort us, there is his cross to guide us.

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill,
with you, dear Lord, beside me;
your rod and staff my comfort still,
your cross will ever guide me.

The banquet prepared, with its cup that “runneth over” is clearly the Christian eucharist. The whole new Christian context for the psalm now imparts to the anointing with oil a distinctly Christian sacramental resonance —

You spread a banquet in my sight
My head with oil anointing,
And let me taste the sweet delight
From your pure chalice flowing.

By the end of the metrical paraphrase, we have been led to recognise the divine shepherd of the psalm as Jesus, “the Good shepherd” (cf. John 10:11).

And so through all my length of days
Your goodness fails me never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing your praise
Within your house for ever.

Christian Titles

In the Hebrew Bible, seventy three of the psalms are entitled “A Psalm of David.” When the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek, fourteen more of the psalms were attributed to him, including Ps 137. This is the well-known psalm which begins: “By the waters of Babylon.” It refers to the Babylonian Exile, so it could not have been written before 587 BCE. Clearly we are dealing here with quite a different concept of authorship to ours. Even more psalms are attributed to David in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[12]

Once David was established in Israel’s imagination and memory as author of the psalms, it was natural that people would wonder when exactly he wrote each one. So we find in the Hebrew Bible thirteen psalms which later editors of the Psalter have associated with particular incidents in David’s career, e.g., for Ps 3 — “A psalm of David when he fled from Absalom his son,” or for Ps 34 — “A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech.” As the scriptures were translated into Greek, more of these titles were composed. This development is the product of the Jewish penchant for searching the scriptures in order to bring out deeper levels of meaning that were believed to be hidden in the sacred text.

As we move into the Christian era we find even more of these titles added to the psalms. Some of them are well within the Jewish line of interpretation, e.g., one for Ps 22 in an early Christian copy of the psalms in Syriac — “Said by David when he suffered persecution by Absalom.” Others are clearly Christian. Ps 2, for example, is entitled, “A prophecy of everything that was done by the Jews in the passion of the Lord.” Ps 66 is entitled, “A psalm about the resurrection.” The psalm allows the Christian reader to hear the voice of the risen Jesus —

Come and hear, all who fear God,
I will tell what he did for my soul;
to him I cried aloud
with high praise ready on my tongue.
If there had been evil in my heart
the Lord would not have listened.
But truly God has listened;
he has heeded the voice of my prayer.[13]

The Christian title for Ps 2 has a strong New Testament basis, particularly in the Acts 4:23-31 scene where the early community offers a prayer closely modelled on Ps 2. The title, “A Psalm about the Resurrection” for Ps 66 is, perhaps, more significant in that it reflects a certain autonomy in the Christian interpretation of the psalms. The Christian title does not need to be “justified” by specific New Testament quotations or allusions. We can see in the development of these Christian titles for the psalms the continuity with the Jewish tradition and yet, again, the decisive break with that tradition. For Christians, David was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write prophetically the words that would eventually find their full meaning in Jesus. In the psalms are heard “The voice of Jesus speaking to the Father,” “The voice of the Church,” “The voice of the Apostles.” Ireland, incidentally, played a significant role in this development. Perhaps the oldest manuscript of the psalms containing Christian titles is the 6th century Cathach of St Columba, preserved in the Royal Irish Academy.


So far we have looked briefly at two ways in which Christians have expressed their conviction that the psalms are “about” Jesus: textual variants in Psalters copied by Christian scribes and titles linking the psalms with Jesus. Now we will explore one of the ways in which Christians have traditionally sung the psalms.

We can safely assume that the numerous Jews who had come to faith in Jesus would have brought their musical traditions with them. Our information about Jewish music in the first century CE is sparse, but certainly the hymns of praise in the Psalter which lent themselves to popular participation were intoned and led by a cantor with the people joining in with refrains such as “Alleluia” or “For God’s love endures for ever.” Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls preserve copies of psalms with other refrains written into them, e.g., a version of Ps 145 with the refrain “Blessed be the Lord and blessed be his name for ever,” after every verse (on the model of Ps 136, presumably). The music itself seems to have been melodic formulae, stock melodies which could be used, with minor adaptations, for different psalms.

Greek musical theory also influenced the way the psalms were sung in early Christianity, particularly as belief in Jesus spread throughout the Greco-Roman world. The choral singing of the Greeks was normally introduced by an instrumental prelude which established, for the performers and audience alike, the tone or mode of the piece to be sung. This was important, as each of the various modes was believed to have its own ethos, the capacity to inculcate a particular state of mind — lamentation, religious ecstasy, manliness and strength, peacefulness, even lasciviousness! In early Christianity, there was considerable opposition to the use of musical instruments in worship because of their association with pagan rituals, spectacles, contests, sports events, etc. Interestingly, the organ was especially unwelcome. So the role of the instrument was transferred to a soloist and the instrumental prelude was transformed into a sung piece. Sometimes it was a vocalisation establishing the mode,, using the four syllables of the word “Alleluia.” Sometimes the introductory notes were set to a verse from the psalm. These vocal preludes came to be called antiphons.[14] They were repeated again at the end of the psalm as a concluding formula and were frequently used as a refrain after each verse of the psalm.

The antiphon, therefore, was not something invented by the Christians. We find its forerunners in the biblical text itself where several psalms have a verse at the beginning which is repeated at the end, e.g., in Ps 8, “How great is your name, O Lord our God, through all the earth!” The specifically Christian development was at the level of interpretation — the reception of the psalms as spoken by Jesus, or addressed to Jesus as Lord that we have already explored. From that, it was a short step to the gradual introduction of antiphons drawn from or inspired by the New Testament. This meant that when a Christian sang a psalm, the Christian antiphon pointed her/him towards an interpretation of the psalm which saw Jesus as the speaker or the one spoken of. The antiphon acted as a lens through which a Christian might view the psalm in a new, Christian light. The melody to which the antiphon was sung entered the consciousness of the worshippers, coming back to them at unexpected moments in their daily lives, bringing with it the memory of the prayer they had shared and the word they had heard in the liturgy.

As the Church’s prayer developed, antiphons for the New Testament were chosen to reflect the various feasts and seasons of the liturgical year. During Eastertide the antiphon might be, “The stone was rolled away from the door of the sepulchre, alleluia.” During Advent, “The angel Gabriel was sent to the virgin Mary who was betrothed to Joseph.” At Pentecost, “A sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind …”

Gradually the antiphons received more and more elaborate treatment, both musically and textually. The music, particularly for psalmody sung at the eucharist, became so ornate that it could be performed only by accomplished musicians. Textually, the antiphons tended to become weighed down with theological precisions which had developed in the heat of controversy, as the following example shows. This is an antiphon for 1 January from the Eastern strand of Christianity:

Today a wonderful mystery is announced:

something new has taken place;
God has become man;
he remained what he was and has become
that which he was not:
and though the two natures remain distinct, he is one.

As the people were progressively deprived of participation in the Church’s worship, their prayerfulness found an outlet in a devotion modelled on psalmody. Instead of the 150 psalms, there were the 150 “Hail Marys” of the 15 decade rosary. The “mysteries” stood in for the antiphons, unfolding the story of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. Small wonder that the 16th century reformers decided to omit the antiphons altogether as part of their project of returning the Church’s prayer to the pure source of its biblical origins.

The Roman Rite Today — A Living Tradition of Worship

In conclusion, I would like to look briefly at my own Roman Catholic Church as a particular “living tradition of worship,” and see how it continues in the tradition of the Christian reception of the psalms.

As we have seen, many of the liturgical music forms in the Roman Rite are outgrowths of psalmody — the chants traditionally sung at various stages of the eucharist — Introit, Offertory, Communion, Gradual, Alleluia, Tract — and the musical forms in the Divine Office or, as we now call it, The Liturgy of the Hours or the Prayer of the Church. Centuries of a clericalized liturgy celebrated in Latin have, however, taken their toll. The situation which our recent liturgical reform had to tackle was as follows — in the case of the eucharist, the only remaining vestige of the people’s psalmody was the antiphon sung in Latin by a choir and a “token” verse of the psalm to which the antiphon was originally intended to be a refrain. In the case of the Divine Office, the purpose of antiphons became entirely obscured in that before the psalm only a few words of the antiphon were sung. So, for example, at Vespers/Evensong on a Sunday, the antiphon before Ps 110 was, “The Lord said.” It wasn’t until the antiphon was repeated at the end of the psalm that the full sentence was sung, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand.”

Happily we are on the verge of a renewal of psalmody. English-speaking Catholics now have a new Psalter “intended primarily for communal song.”[15] The new Antiphonary for the eucharist is ready for publication in the Revised Sacramentary. While the general policy as regards the text of the psalms would be to use faithful renderings of the original Hebrew, there are some instances where the new I.C.E.L. antiphonary uses a version which can more easily alert the worshipper to the New Testament resonances in a particular psalm. An ancient Entrance antiphon for Easter Sunday, for example, is a Christian adaptation of Ps 139 in which the risen Lord is envisaged as addressing his Father:

I have risen, I am with you once more, alleluia.
O God, you laid your hand upon me, alleluia.
How marvellous your wisdom, alleluia!

Responsorial psalmody of the people after the Old Testament reading at the Eucharist has also been restored. The thematic linkage between the Old Testament reading and the Gospel in the Sunday Lectionary means that the psalm will inevitably take on a Christian colouring.[16] The tradition of Christian titles is continued in the Prayer of the Church where, for example, Ps 1 is headed with a little commentary by an anonymous second century Christian author, “Blessed are those who have placed their trust in the cross of the Lord and descended into the waters of baptism”. In a similar vein, Ps (104)105 appears under a title from St Athanasius: “The apostles tell the peoples of the wonderful deeds God wrought in Jesus’ coming to us.”

As regards The Prayer of the Church, we now have the entire Psalter spread over a four week cycle. We have seen not only the full antiphon before the psalmody restored, but an enrichment of the whole corpus of antiphons for psalmody. A beautiful feature of this enrichment is the choice of sentences from the gospels as antiphons to go with particular psalms.[17] When the antiphon is sung, it has a tremendous capacity to make the scriptures “repeat” on us. The metaphor from the digestive process is used intentionally. We are supposed to be ruminants, “chewing the cud” of the scriptures. In this we are true to our Jewish roots. For as Ps 1, part of the prologue to the Psalter, puts it — Happiness is delighting in the word of the Lord and murmuring it ( even humming it!) day and night.

You are invited to experience for yourself what an antiphon can do to a psalm. There follow some verses from Ps 69 with a New Testament antiphon for singing before and after them — or after each stanza, if you wish.[18] You will also find in italics some passages of this psalm which have been taken up by New Testament writers and applied to Jesus. In the Roman Catholic “Liturgy of the Hours” this psalm appears with the title, “I burn with zeal for your house” and the commentary, “They gave him wine to drink mixed with gall” (Matt 27:34).

The antiphon provided here is inspired by the story of Jesus’ angry outburst in the Temple as told in Chapter 2 of the Fourth Gospel. In the story, the disciples, aghast at what is happening, are reminded of the line from the psalm, “Zeal for your house will devour me.” Meanwhile the Jews demand that Jesus produce a sign to show his authority for what he is doing. Jesus replies with the enigmatic words, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” The evangelist intervenes to tell us, the readers, firstly that Jesus meant “the temple of his body” and secondly that it was not until after the resurrection that the disciples understood the scripture (“Zeal for your house will devour me.”) and Jesus’ words about the destruction of the Temple. The antiphon takes Jesus’ words and uses them as a lens through which to view the psalm. If you can manage to sing it, and especially if it becomes familiar enough to come back into your mind unexpectedly some time during the day, then the antiphon will have done its work.

Ps (68)69:1-3.5. 8-10. 21-22. 30-33.

Save me, O God;
for the waters have risen to my neck.
I have sunk into the mud of the deep
… and the waves overwhelm me.

… More numerous than the hairs on my head
are those who hate me without cause. (John 15:25)
Those who attack me with lies
are too much for my strength

It is for you that I suffer taunts,
that shame covers my face,
that I am a stranger to my kin
rejected by my own mother’s children, (cf. John 7:5)
I burn with zeal for your house (John 2:17)
and taunts against you fall on me. (Rom 15:3)

I looked in vain for compassion,

for consolers; not one could I find.
For food they gave me poison;
in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. (Matt 27:48;
Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36; John 19:28-29)

As for me in my poverty and pain
let your help, O God, lift me up.
I will praise God’s name with a song;
I will glorify him with thanksgiving
The poor when they see it will be glad
And God-seeking hearts will revive.[19]


Dr. Fergus O’Ferrall

It is a great pleasure to respond to Margaret Daly-Denton’s marvellous Bedell-Boyle Lecture ‘Psalmody : a Living Tradition of Worship’. In March 1993 I had the enormous privilege of spending a full week led by Margaret and Fr. Eltin Griffin at Gort Muire reflecting on the Psalms. Because of this I am very aware of Margaret’s superb scholarship and of her wonderful ability to convey so engagingly the rich heritage we share in the Psalms.

Margaret’s lecture greatly assists our understanding of how the writers in the New Testament found words in the Psalms to express their understanding of Jesus as Risen Lord. She also expertly traces the Christian adaptations of the text of the Psalms, the giving of Christian titles to the Psalms and the use of Christian antiphons. She is the first Bedell-Boyle Lecturer to have the audience sing part of the lecture!

In the Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist traditions the Psalms have always been central to worship and continue to be a living tradition of worship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer when directing the Confessing Church’s seminary between 1935 and 1937, wrote a marvellous little book The Psalms Prayer Book of the Bible.[20] Bonhoeffer teaches us that we learn to pray in the name of Jesus Christ through the Book of Psalms:

‘if we want to read and pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, our first question must not be what have they to do with us, but what have they to do with Jesus Christ ….. It is a wonderful gift of the grace of God that He should teach how to commune with Him in words. We can do this by praying in the Name of Jesus Christ. The Psalms have been given us for the very purpose of teaching us to pray in that Name’.

Margaret has traced how from the beginning Jewish Christians and other Christians saw the fulfilment of the Psalms in Christ which Bonhoeffer makes so explicit in respect of prayer. For Christians the Bible is read in the light of Jesus. For example in a popular little book The Bible Made Easy, published in 1997, twenty-two prophecies from the Psalms are related directly to their fulfilment in Jesus Christ: for example, Psalm 16 : 10 and the prophecy “He will be raised from the dead” is related to Mark 16 : 6-7.[21] Such popular works continue to the very present a living Christian tradition whose origins Margaret has so expertly traced for us in her lecture.

In the Presbyterian tradition the Psalter has been absolutely central, even dominant, in worship often to the exclusion of more modern hymnody. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer built worship around translation of the Psalms in the marvellous words of Coverdale who in turn had been influenced by Tyndall’s translations. Right from the early years of Methodism John Wesley produced for the use of all Christians A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1741) which in various editions was employed in worship for generations. Its lineal descendant is Hymns and Psalms A Methodist and Ecumenical Hvmn Book published with permission of the Methodist Conference in 1983. In the Protestant tradition the Psalms were so closely associated with the New Testament that pocket editions of the New Testament often include the Psalms for devotional reading.

The literary influence of the Psalms is attested in the recent anthology The Psalms in English edited by Donald Davie (Penguin Books, 1996) which collects Psalms in English translation since the Reformation. In the light of Margaret’s lecture it is interesting to read what Donald Davie says in his Preface:

‘There is no way now to off-load the ideological cargo that this body of ancient poetry has been made to carry. Any attempt to reconstruct the society of ancient Israel, or to imagine the office of these poems in that society, runs at once — if we consult the best authorities — into a labyrinth of dubiety, conjecture and supposition. There is no ‘real’ or pristine Psalter that we can hope to hack our way back to. This body of poems lives only in the fact of its transmission over centuries’.

Margaret illustrates the ‘Christian twists’ given to the Biblical texts through Henry Williams Baker’s version of Psalm 23. Indeed there is a marvellous anthology of 102 versions of this ‘universal favourite’: Psalm Twenty-Three An Anthology versions collected and annotated by K.H. Strange and R.G.E.Sandbach (The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, Revised and extended edition, 1987). This vividly illustrates the potential of the Psalms to be transposed to different cultures and settings and yet to speak powerfully to the human condition in the light of an eternal destiny.

The significance of the Psalms in human experience throughout history has been traced in a book frequently reprinted: Rowland E. Prothero’s The Psalms in Human Life (John Murray, London, 1903, 4th enlarged edition 1913 ). Prothero states:

‘The Psalms… are a mirror in which each man sees the motions of his own soul. They express in exquisite words the kinship which every thoughtful human heart craves to find with a supreme, unchanging, loving God, who will be to him a protector, guardian, and friend. They utter the ordinary experiences, the familiar thoughts of men; but they give to these a width of range, an intensity, a depth, and an elevation, which transcend the capacity of the most gifted. They translate into speech the spiritual passion of the loftiest genius; they also utter, with the beauty born of truth and simplicity, and with exact agreement between the feeling and the expression, the inarticulate and humble longings of the unlettered peasant.’

It is for all those reasons that love of the Psalter can unite Anglican and Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist and every Christian Church. With Thomas à Kempis we too may learn The Imitation of Christ through the enduring words of the Psalter.

John Brook in his brilliant little book The School of Prayer An Introduction To The Divine Office for All Christians (Harper Collins, London 1992 ) demonstrates how, as an evangelical Protestant, he was guided by his friendship with a Roman Catholic chaplain Father Leo Curry to use the Divine Office to resolve some persistent difficulties in prayer. The Psalms form a major part of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Divine Office and Brook’s little book provides a lovely expository guide to A Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer the Psalter of the Divine Office (Collins 1983). Both little books provide a very rich treat for those who wish to base their daily worship and devotions on the Psalms.

The popularity of the psalms as the source of our worship and our conversation with God is reflected in the liturgical renewal movement which has affected all Christian Churches in recent decades. It is also seen in the flow of publications which help make the Psalter more accessible to people in this generation.[22]

We owe a great debt to Margaret for her Bedell-Boyle Lecture ‘Psalmody: a Living Tradition of Worship’. She has helped us appreciate the transmission of the Psalms in the Christian tradition and given us the background to appreciate them and the encouragement to use them in our worship and devotions. This is an ecumenical gift which Christians of every background should receive with thankfulness and joy.

[1] These ideas are found in the Takhemoni of Al-Harizi (12th century) and in the Hebrew writings of the 13th century Italian-Jewish poet, Immanuel of Rome. They may be compared to the claim that the Greek philosophers got all their best ideas from Moses, found in the writings of Philo, a Jewish contemporary of the New Testament authors.

[2] As Paul’s audience would have received it, the text actually reads, “Wonderful is God in his holy (adjective plural) … Most modern Bible translators fill in the missing word as “places,” understanding “holy places” as a reference to the Temple. Paul’s use of biblical- style parallelism in 2 Thess 1:10 suggests that he understands the plural adjective “holy” as referring to “holy ones” or “saints.” His allusion to Ps 68:35 has inspired the address to Christ as “wonderful in his saints” found in both Eastern and Western Christian liturgical tradition.

[3] It is sometimes suggested that this prayer is also a Christian reaction to the cult of the Roman Emperor who was addressed as “Lord and God,” and therefore a statement that Jesus, not Caesar, is king.

[4] In the early centuries of the Christian era, the Greek vowels iota and cla were pronounced like “ee” in tile English word “feet”. This frequently led to a form of scribal error commonly called itacism. Ill one quite early manuscript tradition, the text of 1 Pet 2:3 reads, “You have tasted and seen that Christ is the Lord”.

[5] Jerome, writing in the 4th century, reminds Christians that every time they are satisfied with the heavenly bread, they sing, “Taste and see that the Lord is Rood.” (Commentary on Isaiah, 1. II) The singing of Ps 34 during communion is also mentioned in The Apostolic Constitutions, VIII, dated 2nd to 3rd Century CE.

[6] A collect for Ps 118, following in this tradition, from the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (I.C.E.L.), reads — “Lord God, you have given us the great day of rejoicing: Jesus Christ, the stone rejected by the builders, has become the cornerstone of the Church, our spiritual home. Shed upon your Church the rays of your glory that it may be seen as the gate of salvation open to all nations. Let cries of joy and exultation ring out from its tents to celebrate the wonder of Christ’s resurrection.”

[7] The unicorn is mentioned by Aristotle in his Hisuiria Animalium, 499 b 16 and De Partibus Animalium 663 a 18ff.

[8] In the quotation from Ps 68 in Eph 4:8 , mentioned above, there are traces of the oral traditions which were eventually to become the Targum.

[9] The Targum to the Psalms is not yet available in English. This is a translation of the Latin version found in Brian Walton’s Polyglot Bible (London: Thomas Roycroft, 1637).

[10] The reading of Ps 110 in the light of Ps 8 is evident in Mark 12:36, Mart 22:44, 1 Cor 15:20-28, Eph 1:20-22 and Heb 1:13; 2:8

[11]  The text used here is a slightly updated version.

[12] E.g., Pss 104 and 123 are attributed to David in 11QPsa and Ps 82 in 11QMelch.

[13] Ps (65)66:16-19, The Grail Psalms: An Inclusive Language Version Translated from the Hebrew (London: Collins, 1986).

[14] The word antiphon originally referred to the singing of psalmody in two alternating choirs which characterized early Christian worship. Anti = opposite; phone =sound / voice. It seems to be a Greek tradition which found its way into Judaism (Philo describes it in his De Vita Contemplativa). The earliest reference to an antiphon as something distinct from a psalm is in the travel diary of a fourth century nun called Egeria who went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and described the liturgy she experienced there. Her description is a little vague. We find more clarity in the monastic rule of John Cassian. By the 6th century, the antiphon is a sentence set to music sung before the psalm itself. The word came to be explained as derived from ante-ponere (to place before) and even mis-spelt as antefona in some manuscripts of the Rule of St Benedict.

[15] The Psalter: A faithful and inclusive rendering from the Hebrew into contemporary English poetry … offered for study and comment by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1995).

[16] An improved form of the Roman Lectionary known as The Common Lectionary is gaining widespread acceptance by other Christian churches.

[17] E.g., “I am the vine; you are the branches” for Ps (79)80 which contains the passage, “You brought a vine out of Egypt…”; “Let not your hearts be troubled: you believe in God, believe also In me,” for Ps (61)62 which begins, “In God alone is my soul at rest …”; “Whoever is humble, like a little child, will be great in the kingdom of Heaven” for Ps 130(131 which begins, “O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes.”

[18] This antiphon is part of a setting of the Divine Office commissioned from Margaret Daly-Denton by three Cistercian Monasteries in Ireland: St Mary’s Abbey Glencairn, Mount Melleray and Mount St Joseph’s, Roscrea.

[19] The Grail Psalms

[20] D. Bonhoeffer The Psalms Praver Book of the Bible ( Translated by Sister Isabel Mary SLG and Published by SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres, Oxford, 1982)

[21] Mark Water The Bible Made Easy ( Hunt & Thorpe, New Alresford, Hampshire, 1997) pp 18 – 19

[22] (i)         The Grail Psalms An Inclusive Language Version (Collins. 1986)
(ii)        Martin Israel A Light on The Path An Exploration of Integrity Through the Psalms           (DLT, London, 1990)
(iii)        Leslie F. Brandt Psalms/Now (Concordia Publishing House, Paperback edition,                  1986)
(iv)        Walter Brueggemann Praying The Psalms ( Saint Mary’s Press, Winona, MN, USA,             1993)
(v)        Mark Link S.J. The Psalms For Today Praying an Old Book in a New Way (Tabor                 Publishing, Allen Texas, 1989


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