I am often asked about the manner of reciting the psalter.  In public worship the psalms normally are sung.  In the introduction to their magisterial book, A Commentary on the Psalms, John Mason Neale and R.F. Littledale, note four methods traditionally used in the Church’s singing of the psalms:

The first, when the whole Psalm is sung by the whole choir without any response or variation.  This was called the Cantus directus…

The second method of singing is the Antiphonal:  when the choir, divided into two sides, sing alternately.

The third method is where the Psalm is sung alternately between the precentor and the choir; and this is the Responsory method.

Lastly, the fourth way is when the whole Psalm or anthem is sung by a single voice; and this is called the Tract.  It is needless to observe that the present Tract of the Roman Missal has retained the name only, but not the character of its predecessor.[1]

While this note refers to methods of singing the psalms, the same methods certainly apply to saying them.  That is, the verses may be said in unison by a congregation, alternately by sides of the church, alternately between an officiant and congregation, or by a single reader. 

Each verse of psalms (and canticles) in Anglican prayer books contains a dividing asterisk or colon.  The division is to help orderly group recitation.  In general each half verse is recited at a uniform pace, neither rushed nor overly deliberate.  The recitation ignores internal punctuation and natural pauses for clauses.  At the asterisk all pause (for three silent beats such as ‘Our Father’ or ‘Hail Mary’), after which the recitation continues to the end of the verse, again ignoring internal punctuation and pauses.  That is the say, the psalms are not to be read ‘with feeling’ (whose feeling?), but in a structured manner.  When people first begin such recitation it usually seems artificial.  But it quickly becomes second nature and is the best method to help a group recite in unison and at the same pace.  Even when saying the psalms alone, this method helps check the tendency to rush through the psalms at breakneck speed and smooths the differences in pace which different readers have.  Furthermore, the break represented by the asterisk or colon usually comes at a natural point.  The central element of the poetic style of the psalms is parallelism, and the asterisk or colon usually divides the verses into their constituent ‘versets’, to use Robert Alter’s term for the half verses. 

When the psalms are sung, the dividing asterisk also serves a musical purpose.  Most plainchant and Anglican chant tones have two parts.  The shift from the first to the second occurs at the asterisk.  If the tone is firmly in mind, even people who cannot read music or do not have the psalm set to music before them can still know when the tone makes its chief shift simply by having the Prayer Book Psalter before them with its verse divisions marked by asterisks or colons.

Also in the first post I referred to Saint Augustine’s commentary on the Psalter.[2]  This volume is in the public domain and is available electronically as well as in inexpensive book form.  The translation dates from the mid-19th century and a great flowering of interest in the Church Fathers that was sparked by, among others, the Oxford Movement. 

A few other volumes will be noted here.  First, the remarkable Robert Alter has made a modern translation of the psalms with commentary.[3]  This volume is less useful for our purposes than much of Alter’s work.  Alter’s translation is inevitably inferior to the Coverdale Psalter as a work of English literature.  It is true that Alter works from superior Hebrew texts and has far more knowledge of the Hebrew text than was possible in the 16th century, so that his translation is much more literally accurate.  Nonetheless, Coverdale is a classic of English literature, while Alter is merely a solid modern translator.  Alter’s greatest strength is his extraordinary sensitivity to the nuances of stories – character, the development of narrative, the significance of word choice and leitmotifs, and the like.  Such strength is of less significance in the psalms, which are episodic and diverse in authorship and purpose, than in a continuous narrative such as Genesis or the David stories.  Nonetheless, Alter’s work is useful for anyone interested in further study of the psalms, and its introduction is helpful on matters such as the organization and assembling of the book and the nature of Hebrew poetry. 

Secondly, in addition to Augustine’s commentary and to the many ancient and medieval commentators cited, often at length, in Neale & Littledale, there are two volumes of selections on the psalms from ancient commentators in the series Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.[4]  These volumes do what Neale and Littledale do in a more modern form.  Augustine, Neale & Littledale, and these ACCS volumes provide premodern commentary on the psalms sufficient for any lay student or devout reader. 

Thirdly, C.S. Lewis has a well-known and helpful book called Reflections on the Psalms.  I will refer to this book later in these postss. 

While these posts mostly will not consider historical-critical issues, anyone interested in such can find relevant material in any standard one volume historical-critical Bible commentary or historical-critical study of the psalms.[5] 

Here we will add a few points of information.  Alter notes that while the title for the book in Hebrew, Tehilim, means ‘Praises’, the name for the individual psalms is mizmor, meaning ‘something sung’ (Alter, p. xx).  A mizmor probably refers to a particular kind of song, never meaning a dirge but always ‘praise or jubilation’ (ibid.).  Mizmor quite possibly also refers to a song with instrumental accompaniment.  While many of the individual psalms are not particularly joyful or jubilant, the overall quality of the book befits the titles Tehilim and mizmor

While we are not very interested in the question of the history of the formation of the book as a whole or of its individual psalms, it may be useful to note Alter’s suggestion that after formation of the canonical Torah in the fifth century before Christ, the psalms were gathered into five books from previously existing collections (Alter, pp. xviii-xix), with doxologies at the end of the first four books and Psalm 150 serving as a doxology for the fifth book and whole collection.  The existence of preexisting collections would help explain the otherwise very odd repetition of Psalms 14 and 53 – and also the repetition of Psalm 70 in vv. 14-8 of Psalm 40 (Alter, p. xix).  It also would explain why the end of the second book (Psalm 72) refers to the conclusion of the prayers of ‘David the son of Jesse’, while further psalms ascribed to David follow in the subsequent parts of the Psalter. 

Many scholars believe that one of the collections of psalms that antedates the final version of the Psalter that we have is the so-called Psalms of Ascent, Psalms 120-134.  These psalms are commonly believed to be songs sung by pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem. 

There are two other categories of psalm worth mentioning here.  First, several of the psalms, most notably Psalms 1, 19, and the longest of all the psalms, 119, are preeminently psalms in praise of God’s law.  The theme occurs in many of the psalms, of course, such as Psalms 111 and 112.  But in 1, 19, and 119 it is the central theme of the hymn.  These psalms are not grouped together, so they were evidently not a collection that antedates the final version of the Psalter.  The other category of psalms to be mentioned here are historical psalms, all of which are much longer than average and which reflect strongly on Israel’s history.  These psalms are grouped together:  Psalms 102-107 may be seen in this light, particularly if the first in this group is understood to be a lament from the Babylonian exile for the sad pass to which Israel has come through its history.

One final observation may be very helpful as one views the Psalter as a whole.  That is that there is

…a noticeable…tendency of laments to cluster in the first half [of the book] with psalms of praise predominating in the second half.  This movement from lament to praise in the final canonical psalter mirrors the same shift from complaint to praise that is the basic structure of the commonest type of poem in the collection, the lament psalm.  (JBC, 2nd ed., p. 524)

An obvious illustration of this movement from lament to praise within an individual psalm is Psalm 22.


[1] A Commentary on the Psalms:  from Primitive and Mediaeval Writers; and from the Various Office-books and Hymns of the Roman, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, Gallican, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac Rites.  London:  Joseph Masters & Co., 1874-1888.  Four volumes.  Vol. 1, p. 58.  This mammoth work was reprinted in Denver in 1999 and is available from Anglican Parishes Association.  It is a vast treasury of commentary on the whole of the Psalter from ancient and medieval sources with reflections and notes by two great writers of the Oxford Movement.  The work will hereafter be referred to as ‘Neale & Littledale’ with volume number in Roman numerals and then the page number.  So this page would be referred to parenthetically in the text as ‘Neale & Littledale, I.58’.

[2] Expositions on the Book of Psalms in The Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church.   A. Cleveland Coxe, editor of this volume.  1888, reprinted by Eerdmans in 1979.  This is a condensed edition, which nonetheless comprises 700 pages.  Cited as ‘Augustine’ with page number or citation of psalm commented upon.    

[3] The Book of Psalms:  A Translation with Commentary.  New York & London:  Norton, 2007.  Hereafter cited as ‘Alter’ with page number.

[4] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.  Old Testament.  Volume VII:  Psalms 1-50.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2008.  Edited by Craig A. Blaising and Carmen S. Hardin.  Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.  Old Testament.  Volume VIII:  Psalms 51-150.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2007.  Edited by Quentin F. Wesselschmidt.  These volumes will be cited hereafter as ACCS OT VII (or VIII) with page number. 

[5] For example, ‘Psalms’ by John S. Kselman and Michael L. Barré in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1990.  2nd edition.  Pages 523-552,  This article cited as ‘JBC 2nd ed.’ with page number.

3 thoughts on “On the Psalms: 2. Some notes on bibliography and the Psalms in the liturgy

  1. In order to follow along with the series you are about to open, do you recommend – of those resources listed above – one that we should have as we follow along with you? Thanks!

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