This Sunday we will be singing one of the most famous lines of the Bible as part of the Responsorial Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Having just received the Sacred Scriptures into our hearts, we acknowledge and respond to the Word of God with an acclamation from the poetry and prayer book of ancient Israel—the Psalms.
Most of the Psalms were meant to be sung, not read. The Greek word Psalmos, the origin of the English word Psalm, is a translation of the Hebrew word mizmor which means a song sung to musical accompaniment.
Many of the Psalms are prefaced by superscriptions which often contain musical notations such as “with stringed instruments” appearing above Psalm 4, and “with wind instruments” appearing before Psalm 5. In addition, some superscriptions display the names of Korah and Asaph— the heads of major guilds of Temple singers.
The Church also prefers that the Psalm be sung:
“It is preferable for the Responsorial Psalm to be sung, at least as far as the people’s response is concerned.”
—General Instruction of the Roman Missal #61
The book itself is a collection of 150 sacred poems, hymns and prayers that embody Israel’s faith. In Jewish tradition, the Psalms were sung in front of the Wilderness Tabernacle. Then, during the reign of King Solomon, when the Temple was completed, they were sung from the steps of the Temple.
In Palestine of Jesus’ time, the Psalms played a central role in both synagogue service and temple worship. As a devout Jew, Jesus would have been very familiar with the Book of Praises or Tehillim (ִִּםילְהת in the original Hebrew).
In fact, Jesus quotes from the Psalms more than any other Old Testament book. He even quotes the first line of Psalm 22 from the cross:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—Psalm 22:1
In the New Testament, there are 116 direct references to the Psalms. Many of these passages attest to the use of Psalms in the public worship of the early Church. The Apostle Paul clearly envisioned believers encouraging and edifying one another through the recitation of the Psalms:
“When you assemble, one has a psalm, another an instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Everything should be done for building up.” —1 Corinthians 14:26
The Psalms have a long and venerable history in the life of the Church. The 150 sacred hymns have been intoned in public worship and private devotions for millennia.
The Psalms encompass all human emotions and are as relevant in the 21st century as they were in the first. Although the Psalms were authored in Palestine over one thousand years before Jesus, they bridge time and culture and poignantly convey the feelings of anger and despair, of desolation and loneliness, of hope and redemption that are common to every people, of every generation, of every nation.
The Psalms have been translated into more languages than have any other songs in the history of the world. Yes, even more than the Beatles or Elvis.
So when you intone “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want” this Sunday, know that you are part of a history of worshipers who have joyfully sung that line for millennia!
Do you have a favorite Psalm? Has one in particular accompanied you through tough times? Share and let’s learn together!