Focus On The Reformed Tradition: The Psalter

©2001 by Richard D. Adams

Reprinted with permission from Sabbath Rest:  A Semi Occasional Publication of Sabbath House, Vol. 4, No. 2, Fall 1999, pp.11-19.  For permission to reproduce this essay, contact Elizabeth Liebert at

It is hard to express in words what varied and shining riches these treasure contain: Whatever I am about to say I know will fall short of the word of the Book of Psalms.  But because it is better to give a taste, however slight, to my readers than to remain utterly silent, permit me to touch briefly on a matter whose importance cannot be completely explained.  Not without reason is it my custom to call this book An Anatomy of All Parts of the Soul since there is no emotion anyone will experience whose image is not reflected in this mirror.  Indeed, here the Holy Spirit has drawn to the life all pains, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, anxieties - In short - all the turbulent emotions with which [men's] minds are commonly stirred.  The rest of the scriptures contains the commandments that God enjoined upon his servants to announce to us.  But here the prophets themselves speaking with God uncover all their inner feelings and call, or rather drag, each one of us to examine himself.  Thus is left hidden not one of the very many infirmities to which we are subject.  Not one of the many vices with which we are stuffed.  A rare and singular achievement it is when, all recesses laid bare, the heart, purged of hypocrisy (most baneful infection of all), is brought into the light of day.  In short, if calling upon God is the greatest bastion of our salvation, since in no other place can one seek a better or surer rule for it than in this book, it follows that, as each [man] best advances in understanding it, he will attain a good part of heavenly doctrine. [1]

Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms, John Calvin, at Geneva 22 July 1557

Capable of shaping our life

They are God's word: take them not in they mouth in vain.

Lewis Bayly

                The preface to Calvin's Commentary on the Psalms does provide a description of the Psalms  - An Anatomy of All Parts of the Soul - but a further reading reveals that its primary concern is with the use of the psalms.  In Calvin's words "God's promises are presented to us ...the principles of proper prayer are found scattered throughout this whole work ... this book is crammed with all sorts of precepts capable of shaping our life holily, piously, justly ... general praises of God's goodness are recounted to teach us to rest in him alone..." [2]   The psalms were useful, useful to instruct a person in true piety - whatever is necessary to know to make one wise unto salvation.

                A visitor to Geneva in 1557 left this account: A most interesting sight is offered in the city on the weekdays, when the hour for the sermon approaches.  As soon as the first sound of the bell is heard, all shops are closed, all conversation ceases, all business is broken off, and from all sides the people hasten to the nearest meeting house.  There each one draws from his pocket a small book, which contains the psalms with notes, and out of full hearts, in the native speech, the congregation sings before and after the sermon.  Everyone testifies to me how great a consolation and edification is derived from this custom.

How great a consolation and edification

                The two great contributions to the use of the psalms in the Western Church were by the Benedictines who chanted the psalms and by the Reformed who sang metrical psalms.  It is the use of the psalms that has left its mark on Reformed piety and practice - and not just any use but the use of the Psalter in song - out of full hearts, in the native speech, the congregation sings ....

                The beginnings of reformed psalmody can be traced to a little book published at Strasbourg Psalmen, Gebet und Kirchenbung (1526) - the Strasbourg Psalter - the work of Catherine Zell and Matthias Greiter. [3]   In 1539, a French Psalter appeared in Strasbourg containing versions of the texts of 12 psalms by Clement Marot and five attributed to Calvin.  Marot, who was a poet at the court of King Francis I, began translating psalms into French verse.  Popularized by the Catholic court, these metered psalms were quickly taken over by the Huguenots.  In 1542, Marot published 30 psalms in a single volume, the Huguenots began to sing them.  Forced to flee France, Marot went to Geneva.  He stayed only a year, but produced for Calvin a book containing 50 metrical psalms.  This was expanded by Theodore Beza with the help of the excellent musician Louis Bourgeos to contain all 150 psalms.  The first edition of the Geneva Psalter also contained metrical versions of the Song of Simeon, the Lord's Prayer and the Creed.

The practice of versifying psalms spread quickly.  Thomas Sternhold began the practice in Edward VI's court in England.  Peter Dathenus translated the French Psalter into Dutch (1566), Ambrosious Lobwass into German (1573) and the Hungarians also developed a Psalter.

The Scottish Psalter

                The psalms were a part of Scots piety before the Reformation.  One of the earliest and perhaps most famous Psalters was Ane Compendious Buik of Godlie Spirituall Sangis: colledt furthe of sundrie parts of Scripture, commonly known as the Guide and Godlie Ballates or the Dundee Psalms a production of the Wedderburn family of Dundee.  James Wedderburn had three sons, James, John and Robert, each of whom played a part in the movement, which culminated in the Reformation.  John Knox wrote in his discipline: ... men, women and children would be exhorted to exercise themselves in the Psalms, that when the Church conveneth, and does sing, they may be the more able together with common heart and voice to praise God. [4]

                The Scottish Psalter 1559 had metrical versions of all 150 psalms, accompanied by prayers for each individual psalm.  There was the Anglo-Genevan Psalter (1561), then the Scottish Psalter 1565, amended in 1646 and recommended for use by the six Commissioners from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to the Westminster Assembly.

The Directory

                The Westminster Directory - which was to bring Reformed theology, Presbyterian government and Puritan worship to the British Isles says this ..."It is the duty of Christians to praise God publiquely by singing the psalmes together in the Congregation, and also privately in the Family.  In singing of Psalmes, the voice is to be tunabley and gravely ordered: but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with Grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.  That the whole Congregation may joyne herein, everyone that can read is to have a Psalme book; and all others not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to reade.  But for the present, where many in the Congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the Minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other Ruling Elders, doe read the Psalme, line by line, before the singing thereof." [5]

                In the Directions for Family Worship (1647), we read ... under secret worship - everyone apart and by themselves be given to prayer and meditation, and under private worship it prescribes, prayer and praises ... the reading of scripture .... catechizing.

                The form of private worship according to the Westminster Directory included the singing of metrical psalms, the reading of scripture and a lengthy prayer.  You will notice that Robert Burns' Cotter's Saturday Night mentions three psalm tunes, Dundee, Martyrs and Elgin.  These psalm tunes traditionally were joined to psalms that were used at evening worship.  Elgin was sung with Psalm 42, Martyrs with Psalm 43 and Dundee with Psalm 90.

From the pocket a small book

                Calvin's Le Forme de Prieres (1542) and the Geneva Psalter are both pocket-sized.  Most Psalters were pocket sized and they did not contain music.  It was not until the late 18th Century and into the 19th Century that "hymnals" had tunes included.  In 1831 the Presbyterians in the United States issued their first book of praise, Psalms and Hymns Adapted to Social, Private, and Public Worship.  The second edition printed in 1843 contained all the psalms in various meters, plus 680 hymns, 22 doxologies, the Form of Government, Directory for Worship and the Shorter Catechism.  Since there was no musical score, the texts were printed in a pocket-sized volume.  The Presbyterians had to wait until 1866 for their first hymnbook with music.  In many churches in Scotland and England today worshippers still find text-only hymnals.  The "text only Psalter" served Public Worship, Private Worship and Secret Worship - it served as songbook and prayer book.

                Archibald Alexander was dissatisfied with the new 1831 hymnal published by the Presbyterians.  It was found to be impracticable to include in one convenient volume all the variety of hymns, which might be needed for every purpose and occasion.  That selection was therefore made with a special view to public worship; and hymns not adapted to the object, however excellent, were, for the most part, omitted.  Alexander's' dissatisfaction led him to select and publish a text-only collection of 742 hymns to aid the pious in conducting the devotions of the closet, the family and the prayer meeting.

                The hymnbook became a "tool" for the public worship of God; it increased in size, and included music.  The preface of the new Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) says, the aim of the committee has been to provide a book for congregational singing ...  The first working guideline of the hymnal committee was that each hymn chosen be singable and playable.  The Hymnal contains 70 psalms.  Some, like the 23rd Psalm are presented in six versions.  We have moved from Psalter to hymnal.

Thoughts on Family Worship

                Although the Psalters contained all 150 psalms in metrical form, not all of them were singable or sung.  The 1929 Scottish Psalter, which has all 150 psalms, lists only 85 as suitable for singing in public worship.  Of those 85, I would imagine the actual repertoire for most congregations was considerably less.  It is interesting to note that the new Presbyterian Hymnal contains 70 psalms, and 56 of them relate to the praise of God. [6]  The Book of Common Worship / Daily Prayer has a Psalter with this note, the psalms which follow are for use in corporate worship.  One hundred twenty-seven psalms are represented, including all the psalms displayed in the Daily Lectionary.  They are presented in a form that invites a variety of uses. [7]   The criteria for inclusion is public worship. [8]

                There are still three tunes from the 1615 Scottish Psalter (Abbey, Dundee & Dunfermline) and two tunes from the 1635 Scottish Psalter (Caithness & Culross) in the new Presbyterian Hymnal (1990).  "What if" ... these tunes survived because they were the "most" singable according to the guideline for the inclusion of hymns -  singable and playable.  These tunes have traditionally been associated with the following psalms.

Psalm  4: 1, 6-8                      "Give ear unto me when I call"  (Abbey)

Psalm 16:5-11                        "God is of mine inheritance"  (Dunfermline)

Psalm 31:19-20, 23-24                        "How great's the goodness thou for them"  (Caithness)

Psalm 78:4b-7                                     "The praises of the Lord our God" (Caithness)

Psalm 89:8-9,13-14                  "O thou that dwellest in the heavens"  (Culross)

Psalm 90:1-2, 14-17                 "Lord thou has been our dwelling place"  (Dundee)

Psalm 106:1-5                         "Give praise and thanks unto the Lord"  (Dunfermline)

Psalm 126:                              "When Sion's bondage God turned back"  (Abbey)

Psalm 147:1-7                         "Praise ye the Lord for it is good"  (Dunfermline)

                Look at what was sung ... thou only me to dwell in safety, Lord dost make (4:8), thou wilt show me the path of life, of joys there is full store (16:11), how great's the goodness thou for them that fear thee keepes't in store (31:19), that they might set their hope in God, and suffer not to fall his mighty works out of their mind, but keep his precepts all (78:7), O thou that are the Lord of hosts ... mercy, accompanied with truth, shall go before thy face (89:8,14), O with thy tender mercies, Lord, us early satisfy; so we rejoice all our days, and still be glad in thee (90:14), give thanks and praise unto the Lord, for bountiful is he (106:1), When Sion's bondage God turned back, then fill'd with laughter was our mouth (126:1), praise the Lord for he is good (147:1).  Again and again the goodness of God is lifted up.

                If we add Psalm 23  the Lord's my shepherd, I'll not want, and Psalm 100  the Lord our God is good, his mercy is forever sure. - the central motif is clear, the benevolence of God, the affectionate, devoted and caring parent and the fountain of all good.

                We have come full circle, not back to the preface to Calvin's Commentary on the Psalms (1557) but to his definition of faith in the 1559 Institutes, "Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God's benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit." [9]

                The major contribution of the Reformed tradition to the psalms is their use in metrical form - we were psalm singers.  For a time we were also psalm prayers - the metrical psalms formed a prayer book of familiar and cherished phrases.  Although we claim the guidance of scripture in all things - in reality we operate with a "selective canon", nowhere is this more clear than in our use of the Psalter.  The singableness of certain tunes that were married to particular psalms meant that those psalms were the "used" psalms - the familiar and known.  Those psalms — if my brief excursion through the singable tunes and the psalms traditionally connected with them is "more or less true" — placed primary emphasis on the bountiful mercy of God.  Our Psalter canon was particularly slanted toward God's great kindness, or as Calvin would say, God's benevolence toward us.  This is true of the Presbyterian Hymnal; of the 70 psalms in the Hymnal, 56 relate to the praise of God's goodness, bounty and care.

This is good news and bad news

                On the positive side, what does a spiritual practice look like from the inside that has as its continuing and surrounding atmosphere the Psalter - specifically those psalms that hold up the praise of God's abundant mercy?  Remember the acronym A-C-T-S — the ACTS of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.  We rush through adoration to get to the important stuff— confession and supplication. What if adoration is prayer — the whole of it — theologically and psychologically?  How does one read and hear scripture in this selective Psalter context — between the praise of God's goodness?  How does one pray in this Psalter context — between the praise of God's goodness?  In our age of excessively individual forms of spirituality that are basically need driven, what would it look like to take on a practice that had as its continuing context the praise of God's goodness, to pray in context where God's mercy is for ever sure.

                Have we stumbled on the center of our Reformed believing — not the sovereignty of God's power but the priority of God's goodness — by an uncritical and uninformed acceptance of singableness as the central criteria for the Psalter?  (answer this)  Again, to quote Calvin ..."it will not suffice simply to hold that there is One whom all ought to honor and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of every good." [10]

                On the negative side, what have we done to ourselves by developing a selective canon of praise?  The old Psalters contained all 150 psalms - the difficult psalms, the nasty psalms, the angry psalms, and the sad psalms.  The selective cannon of the contemporary Psalter is heavy on praise.  The church can rejoice but can it cry?  It can speak of God's present and merciful help but can it speak of its own and God's pain - the dark places where no voice of mercy is heard?  By eliminating darkness have we trivialized goodness?  It would appear that we have seriously compromised our faith by allowing the corrosive elements of modernity to assure us that the positive is more responsive to the market.

                Walter Brueggemann raises this question in Israel's Praise ... "the claims of royal theology want to have the world of Yahweh's Kingship, but without the transformative tales that are at the same time energizing and troublesome.  The world of Yahweh can be administered as an orderly world of humanness, but the tales and their concretness are troublesome because they characteristically call into question every administered arrangement." [11]   By royal theology, Brueggemann means a conspiracy of smoothness in which the reality of pain and the unadministered reality of transformation are tamed and put in the service of the reigning consensus.  If Brueggemann's analysis of the psalms is true, we have shortchanged ourselves by using mainly praise psalms.  The whole counsel of God calls us to hold as fundamental truth the move from pain to joy, death to resurrection without denying our placement in pain and death.  Have the psalms of joy denied the church its legitimate voice of lamentation in prayer and song?  It would appear that in the psalter we have the real means of weeping for the deathlyness that our time continually thrusts before us.  We may comment on these events, analyze them but never publicly weep.  There is an alternative.

                The early Psalters were right, we need the witness of the whole of the Psalter, all 150 psalms — even  psalm 88

                But, Lord, to thee I cry'd; my pray'r at morn prevent shall thee.

                Why, Lord dost thou cast off my soul, and hid'st thy face from me?

                Distressed am I, and from my youth I ready am to die;

                Thy terrors I have borne, and am distracted fearfully.

                The dreadful fierceness of thy wrath quite over me doth go:

                Thy terrors great have cut me off, they did pursue me so.

                For round about me ev'ry day, like water they did roll;

                And, gathering together, they have compassed my soul. [12]

It takes all 150 psalms to allow us to say as Calvin did that the Psalter is An Anatomy of All Parts of the Soul.  Since there is no emotion anyone will experience whose image is not reflected in this mirror.

Using the Psalms

There are a variety of ways we can incorporate the psalms into our prayer life.

1.  Include a psalm reading in your daily prayer and scripture reading.

                Most lectionaries include the psalms in their list of daily readings.  The Book of Common Worship Daily Prayer has a lectionary with a two year cycle that suggests a psalm for morning and evening of each day.  You may want to use the lectio contunia method, begin at Psalm 1 and read a psalm a day through Psalm 150 and then start over again.  Singing  (or reading) the psalms over in order is Lewis Bayly's first suggestion in the Practice of Piety.  Some of the longer psalms, Psalm 119 for instance, are perhaps better used in sections.  As an alternative Bayly offers a list of psalms ,"more fit for some times and purposes." [13]  Psalms 3, 5, 16, 22, and 144 are listed for the morning, and 4, 127 and 141 for the evening.  On the Sabbath one is to read psalms 19, 93 and 95.  He also lists psalms for particular times or seasons: for mercy, 51 and 103; in sickness or heaviness, 6, 13, 88, 90, 91, 137 and 146; after recovery, 30 and 32; for spiritual solace, 15, 19, 25, 46, 67, 112, and 116, and finally after wrong and disgrace received, 42, 69, 70, 140, and 144.

                There are a number of Psalters available from the traditional language of the King James Version to Psalters with feminist sensitivities that make a point of using inclusive language.  Go to your local "Christian" bookstore and get yourself several Psalters.

                I have enjoyed using the metrical psalms.  The Church of Scotland still publishes The Psalms and Church Hymnary, a small text only Psalter and hymnbook four by five inches — pocket size — that contains all one hundred fifty psalms in meter. [14]  Go rummaging around in your local used bookstore and you will probably find a number of old hymnbooks on the shelves.  Some of these are Psalters and will contain all the psalms in meter.  I found one in an antique shop, which contained all the Psalms of David, and had a section of family prayers at the end of the pocket sized volume.  A note on the cover page reads, "Allowed by the authority of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, and appointed to be sung in congregations and families." [15]

2.  Listen to the psalms.

                There are a number of tapes and disks that feature the psalms.  Use one or more of the psalm settings as an introduction to family worship.  Begin your time of prayer by gathering together while the tape or disk is playing.  Use the music as an introduction to silence and prayer.

3.  Sing the psalms.

                If you are musically inclined or there is a musician in your family circle or prayer group, sing the psalms.  Most contemporary hymnbooks have a fairly broad collection of psalms and psalm tunes.  The settings of Joseph Gelineau are interesting as well as the traditional settings from the Scottish Psalter.  If the tune is unfamiliar, take time to learn the song before prayer.

4.  Use the language of the psalms.

                As you read the psalter notice the words or phrases that attract your attention.  Write them down.  Pray those words and phrases by repeating them, savoring them, resting with them.  Allow the words or phrases to penetrate your prayer.  Use those words and phrases again and again as you pray.  They will become yours.


Domestic psalmody is promotive of devotion.  It is an exercise in which the voices of all join in the expression of sentiments, which should be experienced by all.
James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Family Worship

Every Christian is to awake with God in the morning: as David when he awoke was ever with God, Psalm 139:18, at his awaking times in the night, by thinking of God; so chiefly when he awoke last, when the night was past, with all the dangers of it, and day dawned, then the morning-star of meditation arose in his heart. Nathanael Renew, Solitude Improved by Divine meditation


[1]Ford Lewis Battles, The Piety of John Calvin, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), 27-8.


[2]Ibid., 28f.


[3]Elsie Anne McKee, “Reforming Popular Piety in Sixteenth-Century Strasbourg: Katharina Shütz Zell and Her Hymnbook,” Studies in Reformed Theology & History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Theological Seminary, 1994).


[4]The Book Of Discipline, John Knox's History of the Reformation in Scotland, 314.


[5]The Directory, 32.


[6]The most recent edition of the Psalms and Church Hymnary (1992) of the Church of Scotland contains all 150 of the Psalms of David in meter.  The new Christian Reformed Church Psalter Hymnal (1987) contains all 150 psalms but not in metrical form.  The CRC Hymnary drew upon the old United Presbyterian Psalter Hymnal, which contained both metrical psalms, and "composed" hymns which represented the thematic concerns of the particular psalm.


[7]Book of Common Worship / Daily Prayer, (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 167.


[8]Psalms missing in BCW/DP - 3, 11, 21, 44, 58, 60, 61, 64, 74, 75, 76, 83, 87, 101, 109, 120, 129, 140.  By my count I get 138 psalms in the BCW/DP!


[9]Calvin, Institutes (1559) III/2/7.


[10]Ibid., I/2/1.


[11]Walter Brueggemann, Israel's Praise, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 90.


[12]The Scottish Psalter (1929), (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 110.


[13]Bayly, The Practice of Piety, 155.


[14]The Psalms and Church Hymnary, 3rd Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).


[15]The Psalms of David in Metre, (London: T. Nelson & Sons. 1858).