The Emergent Psalter

The Emergent Psalter

by Isaac Everett


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Grounded in the liturgical tradition and scholarship, the author explores what he calls the "new traditionalism" that notes the recent resurgence of interest in ancient forms of liturgy and spiritual practice. Everett communicates the seriousness with which he approaches his subject by offering a brief history of psalms and an exegesis of selected psalm texts. As a composer, he speaks clearly about the process of capturing the essence of each psalm in the brief, but beautiful antiphons that accompany them.

The psalter itself consists of musically notated antiphon melodies with chord symbols followed by the printed psalm textwhich is read aloud...

Many alternative and emerging church communities have begun exploring ancient music and liturgical traditions despite a lack of high-quality, published liturgical music, which does not require (or even desire) an organ and a four- part choir. The Emergent Psalter serves to provide that resource. Featuring music written for two emerging communities (Transmission in New York and Church of the Apostles in Seattle), this book is an excellent resource for anyone producing alternative worship service or thinking of starting one.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780898696172
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/01/2009
Pages: 278
Sales rank: 657,278
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Emergent Psalter

By Isaac Everett

Church Publishing

Copyright © 2009 Isaac Everett
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-89869-617-2

Chapter One

New Traditionalism in the Emerging Church

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in ancient forms of liturgy and spiritual practice, especially within the emergent church, although analogous trends are occurring within Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, and even American Judaism and Islam. My generation has been given credit for the renewal of all sorts of liturgical practices, including lectio divina, praying the rosary, and consulting spiritual directors. As a recent article in U.S. News and World Report stated:

You see this [trend] quite clearly in the so-called emergent communities, new, largely self-organizing groups of young Christian adults who meet in private homes, church basements, or coffeehouses around the country. So free-form that many don't even have pastors, these groups nevertheless engage in some ancient liturgical practices, including creedal declarations, public confession, and Communion. They may use a piece of a bagel as the body of Christ, but the liturgy is a traditional anchor in services that may include films, skits, or group discussions of a biblical topic.

This return to ancient practice does not necessarily coincide with a return to theological orthodoxy. In fact, emerging Christians are discovering that the mystery and ambiguity of ritual meshes with a postmodern worldview in a way that their past experiences of worship haven't. This renewal of tradition doesn't signify a renewed commitment to religious institutions, either, which are often mistrusted by emerging Christians. Rather than adopt a single liturgical tradition wholesale, emerging Christians are drawing from a variety of traditions to create a personalized, a la carte spiritual practice, and I've seen emergent communities rediscovering everything from incense to altar calls. One common thread, however, is an emphasis on practices that "integrate body and spirit," focusing on actions rather than words, which engage an entire community in collaborative, interactive worship.

This kind of liturgical innovation is vital to the continuation of any tradition. As Tom Driver writes, "The ability to innovate while at the same time echoing ancient custom is what keeps any tradition alive." Ritual doesn't thrive on endless repetition or on preservation for its own sake, and religious communities that "tenaciously hold to all traditions and refuse to accommodate to the changing environment" are often the quickest to disappear.

The emerging church, of course, is not an organization—it is a loose network held together through word of mouth, blogs, and personal relationships, so there isn't any corporate infrastructure that can facilitate or fund liturgical exploration. Communities frequently lack professional leadership of any kind, whether musical, pastoral, or administrative, and very few emerging Christians have the time and training necessary for creating original music. Additionally, communities that meet in homes tend to lack access to musical instruments, and the only way music is incorporated into worship is by playing canned music in the background. As a result, most of the liturgical output of these communities is in the form of prayers, litanies, and reflections; with a few exceptions, the emerging church has yet to create a musical identity for itself.

It is my sincere hope that this situation will change, for communal singing exemplifies emergent values; it is an ancient practice, it is a physical practice, and it is a communal practice. This project grew out of a desire to address that need, to make an ancient musical practice accessible to small groups of Christians who meet in homes, cafes, and subway tunnels and who don't have the benefit of a choir, an organ, a sound system, or printed bulletins. My own rediscovery of psalm singing came through Transmission, a small emerging house church that meets in upper Manhattan, and Sanctuary, an alternative worship service held by an Episcopal Church on Manhattan's East Side, and most of the music in this book was written for them over the course of the past five years.

The translations of the psalms in this volume are about 80 percent from the Book of Common Prayer and about 20 percent my own. The versification most closely adheres to the Bible. I have also put the psalms into inclusive language as much as possible without destroying the original meaning.

A Brief History of Psalms and Antiphons

Christians have been singing psalms in worship since the very beginning of Christianity, and the practice began even earlier, at least as early as the Second Temple Period (536 BCE –70 CE). Many of the psalms contain evidence of musical origins, declaring the psalmist's intention to sing and play for God, and making references to psalteries, harps, and other instruments. Although the psalm's superscriptions are a later addition, the fact that many of them refer to the psalms as a [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (a song or a hymn) suggests that they were written to be sung.

It is likely, in fact, that the biblical Psalter was not compiled merely for personal devotional use, but rather as a hymnbook for the second temple. Echoes of liturgy can be found within many of the psalms, especially those which record rituals for entry into the temple, such as Psalms 15 and 24. Further, numerous psalms contain repeated refrains that might have been written as congregational antiphons, such as Psalms 42–43 and 135. It is possible, of course, that not every psalm was written for liturgical use in the temple; for example, Psalm 30 seems to have been originally written as the celebratory prayer of an individual, likely in response to a recovery from illness. The superscription of the psalm, however, suggests a liturgical use "at the dedication of the temple," which the Talmud associates with the Temple Dedication Festival, i.e., Chanukah. It is unclear whether this psalm, and others like it, were originally written for individual use and were absorbed by the temple cult or whether they were first written by professional poets on behalf of the Temple. In either case, by the time the biblical Psalter had been compiled, the majority of them had been co-opted for liturgical use.

The Mishnah contains even more accounts of psalms in temple liturgy, reporting that one psalm was assigned for recitation in the temple for each day of the week:

These were the Psalms which the Levites used to recite in the Temple; on the first day of the week they used to recite The Earth Is the Lord's (24); on the second day, Great Is The Lord (48), on the third day God Standeth In The Congregation of the Mighty (82); on the fourth day, God of Vengeance (94), on the fifth day, Exult Aloud Unto God Our Strength (81), on the sixth day, The Lord Reigneth (93), and on the Sabbath, A Psalm, a Song for the Sabbath Day (92).

Although the Mishnah was compiled in the second century, the Septuagint echos five of these seven assignments (days three and five are absent), suggesting that they actually reflect Second Temple Era liturgy and are not later additions. The Mishnah further agrees that the psalms were sung, not read, and adds that the Levites would blow trumpets after each section.

There is less written in the Mishnah about synagogue worship, but we are told that the Hallel Psalms (113 through 118) were occasionally used in morning services. More importantly, The Jewish Encyclopedia states that, rather than being sung by priests,

In the synagogues the Psalms were chanted antiphonally, the congregation often repeating after every verse chanted by the presenter the first verse of the Psalm in question. "Halleluyah" was the word with which the congregation was invited to take part in this chanting. Hence it originally prefaced the Psalms, not, as in the Masoretic text, coming at the end. At the conclusion of the Psalm the presenter added a doxology ending with "and say ye Amen," where-upon the congregation replied "Amen, Amen."

Psalms were also important and recognizable to the early Christians—the New Testament contains no fewer than ninety-three quotes from more than sixty of the psalms. Luke depicts Jesus quoting Psalm 110 from memory, Peter quoting Psalms 16, 132, and 110 from memory, and Paul quoting Psalms 2, 16, and 89, also from memory. Paul observes that when the church at Corinth gathers, "each one has a Psalm, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation," implying that the psalms were used in early Christian worship.

The first explicit mention of psalms in Christian liturgy, however, is made by Tertullian, who in his second-century Treatise on the Soul describes a charismatic woman in his church and says, "Whether it be in the reading of Scriptures, or in the chanting of Psalms, or in the preaching of sermons, or in the offering up of prayers, in all these religious services matter and opportunity are afforded to her of seeing visions." Tertullian doesn't, however, indicate how the psalms were chanted. For this we must turn to the Apostolic Constitutions, which describes antiphonal psalm chanting in almost exactly the same way that the Mishnah does: "But when there have been two lessons severally read, let some other person sing the hymns of David, and let the people join at the conclusions of the verses."

The earliest use of psalms in eucharistic liturgies is as a gradual, a text chanted between other scriptural readings. The gradual seems to have been done antiphonally, with a leader chanting the main text of the Psalm and the congregation responding after each verse, or each group of verses, with a fixed refrain. This method of chanting is also attested in the fourth century by Athanasius, who reports, "Now I considered that it would be unreasonable in me to desert the people during such a disturbance, and not to endanger myself in their behalf; therefore I sat down upon my throne, and desired the Deacon to read a Psalm, and the people to answer, 'For His mercy endures for ever,' and then all to withdraw and depart home."

In fact, by the fourth century, after Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire and Western Christian practice began to be standardized, psalm singing was widespread throughout the church. Eusebius comments on this, saying, "The command to sing Psalms in the name of the Lord was obeyed by everyone in every place: for the command to sing is in force in all churches which exist among the nations, not only the Greeks but also the barbarians throughout the whole world, and in towns, villages, and in the fields." In a remarkably detailed account of fourth-century liturgy, Egeria's Diary of Pilgrimage notes that "among all these matters takes first place, that proper psalms and antiphons are always sung. Those sung at night or towards the morning, those sung by day at the sixth and ninth hours or at the vespers, continually they are proper and have a meaning pertinent to what is being celebrated." The association of psalms with antiphons was so strong that the fifth-century Armenian Lectionary of Jerusalem, which pairs psalms with corresponding readings from the New Testament, identifies the psalms by antiphon rather than by number or by reprinting the entire text.

During the next few centuries, liturgical use of psalms gradually increased, especially in monastic practice. Egyptian monasticism concluded each day with two services, vespers and nocturns, each of which consisted of singing twelve Psalms. By the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia had expanded this to eight daily offices in his rule for monastic life, and he arranged the 150 psalms within these offices such that the entire biblical Psalter would be sung each week. This tradition slowly influenced the practice of the secular clergy, and by the ninth century all clerics were required to observe the full round of daily offices. Throughout this process, however, it became less and less common for a congregational antiphon to be interspersed throughout the psalm; instead, an antiphon was sung only at the beginning and the end of the text. Throughout the rest of the Middle Ages, the liturgical prominence of the psalms gradually diminished as they were omitted, replaced with canticles, and truncated down to versicles.

Psalms received new life during the Reformation when the appearance of vernacular Psalters allowed the canonical book of Psalms to be reinstated as a congregational hymnal. John Calvin went as far as to declare that psalmody was the only biblically allowed form of liturgical singing. This resurgence was initiated by the publication of La Forme des Prières et Chants Ecclésiastiques in 1542, a vernacular Psalter that placed thirty-nine of the psalms into meter, enabling them to be sung to commonly known folk tunes (previously, psalm-singing was limited to arrhythmic chant tones). John Calvin later expanded this into the Genevan Psalter, the final edition of which contains all 150 psalms in rhymed, metrical form. As a liturgical innovation, the Genevan Psalter had far-reaching influence: Sternhold and Hopkins' Psalter, published in the late 1540s, was included in most versions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and the Bay Psalm Book, another English-language metrical Psalter, was the first book published in America in 1640.

As American Protestantism developed, however, singing traditions such as Wesleyan hymns, shape-note singing, and gospel music quickly eclipsed psalmody as the primary vehicle for liturgical singing. Today, the biblical Psalter is rarely used as a hymnbook, and the tradition of psalm-singing has been relegated nearly exclusively to the world of "high liturgy."

A metrical Psalter, in the tradition of Protestant reformers, would be impractical for us in emerging communities because metrical Psalters set the entire psalm to music, retooling the text into stanzas. Singing the psalm like this requires every participating member of the community to a copy of the text. Instead, the responsorial tradition seems more appropriate—in other words, only one verse is selected and set to music, and the congregation can pick it up by ear. Historical accounts imply that the text of the psalm was typically sung or chanted by a cantor in between congregational refrains, but at Transmission we've found it much easier to only sing the antiphon, reading the text of the psalm over improvised music. We try to avoid paper bulletins at Transmission, since we don't have a photocopier, and following this model all we need is a single copy of The Emergent Psalter for the entire community.

Goals for the Psalter

The Melodies Must Be Simple.

These antiphons are intended for congregational singing rather than for performance by a trained cantor, so they need to be doable by people who have no formal training in music. Although any group who wishes to use these melodies will need to have at least one person who can read musical notation, most communities don't have the luxury of a professional musician. Ideally, the melodies will be simple, elegant, and intuitive enough to be learned by ear after a few repetitions.

Following this rule puts me in continuity with the historical traditions of congregational psalmody, which have rarely included melodic virtuosity. According to Mowinckel, the first melodies for the psalms were likely extremely simple, more akin to a recitative than a song, and Augustine reports that Athansius "had the reader of the Psalm utter it with so slight a modulation of the voice that he seemed to be speaking it rather than singing it."

The Antiphons Must Make Use of Modern Musical Vocabulary.

I'm not merely trying to resurrect a dead tradition, I'm trying to creatively adapt that tradition for my own community. In 1942, Suzanne Langer famously claimed that music is, in fact, a language. Just as the Alexandrian Jews needed to translate the biblical Psalter into Greek, the Roman Church into Latin, the Reformers into French, and the Anglicans into English, so too must we translate them into our musical context. To do otherwise would be to deny the truth of Pentecost, that the Spirit can and will speak to us in our native tongues, and the truth of incarnation, that traces of God are manifest in our world and in our culture.

More pragmatically, there would be no point in merely imitating past musical styles, since communities who wish to perfectly reconstruct traditional psalmody could simply purchase a copy of the Genevan Psalter or any number of plainsong and Anglican chant Psalters that are still in print. Not only is there no need for another such Psalter, but an attempt to recreate the style of earlier Psalters would be a denial of my own cultural context and would neglect the playful innovation that Tom Driver suggests is so vital to healthy ritual traditions.


Excerpted from The Emergent Psalter by Isaac Everett Copyright © 2009 by Isaac Everett. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


New Traditionalism in the Emerging Church....................1
A Brief History of Psalms and Antiphons....................3
Goals for the Psalter....................7
Psalm 22: A Psalm of Individual Lament....................11
Psalm 23: A Psalm of Confidence....................14
Psalm 119: A Torah Psalm....................18
Psalm 148: A Psalm of Praise....................22
Book I....................27
Book II....................94
Book III....................144
Book IV....................176
Book V....................206

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