On Singing New Songs

Anyone who spends time reading the Psalms will notice the common refrain to sing a new song to the Lord. There are six occurrences of this exhortation in six individual psalms. In all but one case (psalm 144) it either opens the psalm or is a central part of the psalm’s opening. All six occurrences are reproduced, from the ESV, below:

Psalm 33:1-3
Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!
Praise befits the upright.
Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
Sing to him a new song;
play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 40:1-3
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Psalm 96:1-3
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!

Psalm 98:1-2
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made known his salvation;
he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.

Psalm 144:9-10
I will sing a new song to you, O God;
upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,
who gives victory to kings,
who rescues David his servant from the cruel sword.

Psalm 149:1-3
Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of the godly!
Let Israel be glad in his Maker;
let the children of Zion rejoice in their King!
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre!

Psalm 33 is often classified as a hymn. It is a straightforward call to praise Yahweh for both who he is and what he has done. It is, in Brueggemann’s terms, very much a psalm of orientation-the psalmist is in a place of equilibrium where all is well in the life of the psalmist and in their relationship with God. Psalm 40 is a more complex psalm. The opening reflects on an occasion when the psalmist found a new place of orientation from a place of disorientation (the miry bog). So already from these two uses of ‘new songs’ we see that it is appropriate in the context of the steady life of faith or in moments of more extreme experience where life has been transformed.

Psalm 96, like psalm 33, is a hymn, a call to celebrate Yahweh’s person and deeds from a place of communal certainty in the truths being proclaimed. Similarly, psalm 98 is also a hymn focusing on Yahweh’s salvation of Israel and his future righteous judgement of the world. Psalm 144 and 149 are also both hymns, although the former is perhaps not fully a song of orientation as it seems to look forward to singing a new song at a later date, rather than actually doing so (see verse 11).

Many readers, singers and scholars of the Psalms will simply see these references to new songs as a poetic way for the author to refer to his action in writing a psalm. The reason behind the need for a new song has variously been connected with a festival or military victory. Psalms 144 and 149 especially seem to have something of this militaristic feel about them. Either or both of these occasional needs might well be the inspiration for a new song. However, I want to suggest we might be missing the point if we assume that a new song is primarily a matter of novelty within the psalm itself. Many of us live in a culture where new songs appear weekly and even in popular Western Christian culture there is an industry of musical innovation. Perhaps some of those in this industry might even claim a biblical mandate of promoting new songs! I want to suggest that this is not what singing a new song is about. Rather singing a new song is more about the act of being in a new place before God. Whether it is about military victory for a king or the nation, an individual’s recovery from illness (the miry bog?) or recognition of God doing some other new work, this is the focus not the novel words of praise and song that follow.

How do I come to this view? The first piece of information supporting this view is something peculiar about psalm 96. After reading its threefold exhortation to sing a new song to Yahweh, the reader (or perhaps more aptly, the singer) expects something fresh and innovative. What else might a new song be? Psalm 96 is remarkable for the way in which it is anything but a new song. It is a hodgepodge of verses and ideas from other psalms. As Robert Alter puts it:
‘In point of fact, it is a weaving together of phrases and whole lines that appear elsewhere.’

This lack of originality or innovation is not a failure, rather it is precisely the point of a new song – it is newly composed, but informed by what has been there all along.

This alone is rather minimal evidence. In addition to this reuse or recycling (or in more scholarly terms, Midrash), the Psalter contains some other examples of psalm reuse. The two most obvious and extensive cases are:

1. Psalms 14 and 53 are almost identical to each other.
2. Psalm 108 combines large parts of psalms 57 and 60 (verses 2-6 strongly parallel 57:8-12 and verses 7-14 are virtually identical to 60:6-14).

These canonised examples of reuse encourage us to do the same. On the basis of Psalm 96 being anything but a new song in terms of originality and the two examples above, I suggest that the Psalter encourages us to sing and pray new songs; songs and prayers reflecting newness before God, whose words are informed by the Psalms themselves. I am not suggesting that all songs and prayers will simply be a mishmash of psalm verses. Rather I am hoping that we can see that the canon itself demonstrates that the Psalter is a vocabulary and resource for our prayers and worship, not a rigid ruleset. In this way the Psalter is instructional as psalm 1 indicates. Importantly this vocabulary goes beyond just the words to the experiences of the life of faith that underpin them. We are not meant to construct new songs which are just a one-dimensional pastiche of the bits of the Psalter we like. Let’s sing new songs which reflect the movements of the life of faith as we experience all of its offerings of orientation, disorientation and reorientation.

Robert Alter (2007), The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, New York: W. W. Norton.

My Favourite Psalms of Ascent Tweets

Pause:
The Songs of Ascents (psalms 120-134) are pilgrimage songs.
Why not make your own 15 day ‘pilgrimage’ with them?

Psalm 120:
The Life of Faith is often opposed by lying lips.
It is the way of peace in the midst of hostility.

Psalm 121:
Yahweh is with us on our pilgrimage.
Look to him on the journey and you will not stumble.

Psalm 122:
Pilgrims arrive with joy in Jerusalem.
How much more will this be true when we enter the heavenly city?

Psalm 123:
Yahweh, how your servants look to you in need.
We lift our eyes to you.
Grant us grace.
Lord, grant us grace.

Psalm 124:
The Lord is for His people.
We are like birds that can tweet in freedom, having escaped captivity.

Psalm 125:
Stirred not shaken!
Trusting in Yahweh means not being shaken.
Looking to Yahweh means being stirred to do his work.

Psalm 126:
The Lord has done great things for us.
For our tears will turn to laughter.
We are children of the dream.

Psalm 127:
Both God’s house and our homes need to be built by God.
Both can be broken by human vanity.

Psalm 128:
Blessed is everyone who fears Yahweh; those who walk in His ways.
The Lord bless you from Zion.

Psalm 129:
A reminder to pray for those ploughed into the earth by others.
The ploughed will reap, rather than those who plough.

Psalm 130:
Cry, wait, hope.
Heard, loved, redeemed.

Psalm 131:
A content weaned child.
The ultimate goal of intentional Christian spirituality.

Psalm 132:
The Psalms contain many themes.
David and Zion are key and in this psalm their stories intertwine.

Psalm 133:
Living together as God’s united people is good.
It is the pleasant way into Yahweh’s blessing from Zion.

Psalm 134:
Praise the Lord.
Lift your hands.
May Yahweh bless you from Zion.

Psalms for the New Year

The Christian life has many challenges. One of the common problems encountered, in our devotional life, is a lack of passion and enthusiasm for finding time to spend in prayer and Bible reading. This malaise rarely appears overnight. More usually it is a slow process helped by a self-deception that does not want to admit that all is not right in our relationship with God.

One way of addressing such a problem is to attempt something new. I cannot claim that the Psalms are in any sense a panacea to address spiritual malaise, but they are a sensible choice. If is not without reason that so many believers have found comfort and sustenance in these songs, prayers and poems.

This New Year why not try something new with the Psalms? It might be worth making the psalms the centre of your devotions, or simply to supplement a more established devotional pattern. The attraction of the Psalms is that they can just as well be used for a season or for a longer period.

Some might find it refreshing to read and reflect on the whole Psalter in a month, or so. This is perhaps rather demanding and not to be undertaken unless a serious amount of time can be given over each day. Others might want to take a more leisurely 150 day pilgrimage. A psalm a day for 5 months. It sounds like a long haul, but it passes with surprising speed. I am strongly of the opinion that reading the Psalms in canonical order has a number of advantages, not least because it seems that there is some purpose in their order (see some previous posts here). The slow journey of a psalm a day is perhaps too slow for those unfamiliar with the Psalms. If you are new to the Psalms then three a day might be better.

My experience with the Psalms has been that ongoing cycling through them is rewarding. Rather than ‘familiarity breeding contempt’ they become a world, a series of familiar prayers and poems. They also retain vitality; frequently a fresh insight is gained or a new depth encountered.

The advantage of starting out with the Psalms afresh in the New Year is of course the simplicity of keeping an eye on ones progress. Whilst legalism is not the normal recipe for escaping the spiritual doldrums, self-deception and a lack of personal accountability are no friends to spiritual recovery either.

Psalms 1 and 2 are both, in very different ways, marvellous prayers to start the New Year. They are arguably nothing less than central parts of the worldview of the Psalter. This worldview will stretch our mind, heart and spirit so that we might learn to see freshly and aright this creation in which we dwell before our gracious creator who imparts life through His word.