The Psalms


The psalms, or certain psalms at any rate, have had a regular place in the daily prayer of Christians from earliest times. They constitute the nearest thing to a Jewish ’hymn book’ that exists and phrases of the psalms were on the lips of Jesus. This has given them a particular place in the unbroken tradition of Christian prayer which stems from Jesus himself.

The Book of Common Prayer preserved the monastic tradition of reciting the whole Psalter, over the course of a month. This gives a random selection, rehearsing the different moods and experiences of human beings before God. But reciting the whole Psalter in course was not the primitive practice, nor does it take any account of the suitability of certain psalms to certain days or seasons, let alone their traditional points of reference.

So alongside the tradition of reciting the psalms in course has developed a pattern of ’special psalms’ – of choosing certain psalms for certain days and seasons, to help reinforce the mood and rhythm of the liturgical year. This is a pattern which has re-emerged in recent years for a number of reasons. It is clear that the early forms of Morning and Evening Prayer used only a limited number of psalms and used them appropriately to the time of day, if not to the season. A vestige of this survives in the traditional psalms for Night Prayer – 4, 91 and 134 -- and for good reason: if the same psalms are repeated frequently, they can be learnt by heart (which was a necessity in the case of Night Prayer, as it was said in the dark) and then prayed rather than read.

However, it is not just for archaeological reasons that we are proposing to move to a more selective pattern. If we are serious about encouraging the whole Church to pray the Office, then we must consider the appropriateness of the chosen psalms as well as the quantity. For a start, there are certain psalms which are repeated regularly each day of the week, or each season: each Thursday morning, for example, and each day in Epiphanytide, begins with Psalm 67. Then there is a regular repetition of certain psalms in certain seasons: Psalms 33, 105, 114, 118 and 136 come round regularly in the weeks of Eastertide, but in the weeks of Advent, 50, 70, 76, 80, 94 and 130, repeated each week, give a different flavour and enable the worshipper to become familiar enough with them to pray them.

These are only examples, but they serve to illustrate a different emphasis in using the Psalter. Not every psalm is used and several psalms are used more than once. This may sound strange to those who are used to reading the Psalter through in course, but no one would dream of singing all the hymns in the hymn book, let alone do that in numerical order; instead, we choose appropriately to the day and season.

Our principle in choosing the psalms for regular recitation is to select only those which help us to worship God. Some psalms are omitted entirely as being unsuitable for worship, of which the cursing psalms are an obvious example. Also omitted are a number of the longer historical psalms, whose narrative style makes them unwieldy in full and difficult to divide, without giving an incomplete story. Others are linked so strongly with a particular day (Psalm 22, for example) that they only appear once a year.

None the less, the whole Psalter is printed, together with appropriate psalm prayers, so that those who wish to make a more traditional selection or those who wish to use more psalmody can readily do so. Provision for doing this in Ordinary Time is given in the table on page 688.