Psalms for All Seasons

Psalms for All Seasons: A Complete Psalter for Worship; Joyce Borger, Martin Tel, and John D. Witvliet, Editors; Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, Faith Alive Christian Resources,and Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 2012

I heard one of the editors of this impressive volume say at a recent worship conference that Psalms for All Seasons was “not born out of market research.”  No one, he said, has been asking the editors, “When is there going to be a new psalter?”

Yet, here it is, in its third printing in about as many months.

Psalms for All Seasons may not have been “much anticipated” (in the breathless language of some pre-publication blurbs), but it is nevertheless welcome, clearly filling a need, and telling us a great deal about where the American church is today.

I grew up singing the psalms in a denomination that has historically valued psalm singing and that sang out of a “psalter-hymnal,” but I don’t think I discovered the power and importance of the psalms until I was well along in my ministry.  Today it would be impossible, for example, to plan for a memorial service without making ample use of the Book of Psalms.  No other book of the Bible expresses what needs to be expressed during such a service quite like the Book of Psalms.

I started out in ministry as an associate pastor in a large church, and I quickly discovered that the senior pastor loved the psalms.  Trained early on to sing opera, he continued to sing following ordination by using the psalms in personal devotions.  I would arrive at the church early in the morning and hear him behind the closed door of his office singing the psalms, many of which he metered for singing with familiar hymn tunes.  (Several of his psalms, in fact, can be found in this volume.)

Writing this review, I thought, called for a different kind of preparation from other book reviews I’ve written. To give an example, I worked with the lead musician on my church’s staff, and together we have now selected several of the psalms in Psalms for All Seasons for use in worship.

On one recent Sunday, when Psalm 23 was the psalm of the day in the Revised Common Lectionary, the congregation sang three different settings of this psalm – from the stately and traditional to the lively and contemporary.  The adult choir sang yet another setting for a total of four very different experiences of this psalm.

What was the effect of all this attention to Psalm 23?  I would like to think that this particular psalm’s message, meaning, and beauty were fully on display – and perhaps that my congregation caught a little of the rich diversity of music now being sung in American churches.

Psalms for All Seasons contains settings for all 150 psalms, including 11different settings for Psalm 23 (only one setting for Psalm 101, but generally several settings for each psalm).  The settings follow a reproduction of the psalm in its entirety (from the New Revised Standard Version), a brief prayer (or collect), and a paragraph of commentary about the psalm.  Outlines of morning prayer, noon prayer, evening prayer, and prayer for meetings and classes are given toward the end of the volume, making it valuable for personal use and meetings as well as corporate worship.

The settings (where there is more than one) range from old to new and are thoughtfully selected to include all or most of the arrangers and writers at work today in the American church.

Here’s a prediction for pastors and worship leaders who select music each week for use in worship: in this volume you will find at least 200 psalm settings that you would never, under any circumstances, think to use, but that means you will find hundreds more that would fit nicely with your worship preferences. The range is sometimes startling, though that would also be a good description of worship life in the American church today.

What the editors of this volume have revealed is perhaps what we’ve known all along – namely, that the psalms have long had, and continue to have, an important place in the worship life of the church.

Companion CDs are available which offer a sampling of the psalms found in Psalms for All Seasons and which give the listener and worship planner an idea of how the setting might sound in worship.

Having sung a great many of the settings in this volume both with my congregation and in other settings, I can testify to not only its usefulness, but to its wonder. What an unexpected and timely gift to the church.

(a book review for Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought, a publication to which I’ve contributed for than 20 years)

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.
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