The Psalms are some of the world’s oldest and most universally-known pieces of poetry. There’s never a time when you won’t scream out in pain or shout out in joy in ways that can’t be expressed in the Psalms. They are fully human in a way that most religious writing isn’t. Even when I’m sick of the rest of the Bible, I can enjoy these hymns – they’re full of doubt, raw humanity, pleas for justice, and hope.
As such, the Psalms are powerful for most of their hearers. You can love them whether you’re religious or not.
Others have noted* that this poetry has translated remarkably well to English, in part because it doesn’t rely on rhyme. Instead it uses parallelism and repetition that helps them to stick. One thing hasn’t survived the translation is the music. Many of these were songs written by a lyre player – the famous Israelite king David – and all were meant to be sung, not just read as static poems. But much of the original music of these psalms would have been lost in the two destructions of the Jewish Temple (Babylonian and Roman) and the exile of the Jewish people since.
Fortunately, there have been some attempts to put these amazing hymns to music again. Some are misses. There are a few hits. Here are some of my favorite King David covers:
SIERRA HULL – “WINGS OF THE DAWN” – PSALM 139
Mandolinist Sierra Hull adapted Psalm 139 (and possibly another version of Psalm 139 also called “Wings of the Dawn”) beautifully for her 2016 album Weighted Mind.
This is simply my favorite Psalm ever. For me, it captures the right understanding of our relationship with ultimate reality/truth – it’s unescapable, and it’s good.
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
JON FOREMAN – HOUSE OF GOD FOREVER – PSALM 23
Jon Foreman is the king of putting the Bible to music (see: “Your Love Is Strong“) In “House of God Forever,” he adapts one of everyone’s favorite Psalms, Psalm 23. In the studio version of this version, fiddle player, songwriter, and former Nickel Creek member Sara Watkins joins him on harmony vocals.
This Psalm is unforgettable and comes back to me in times of trouble, particularly when I feel like I’m going through situations which could destroy me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
JON FOREMAN – WHITE AS SNOW – PSALM 51
Jon Foreman is back (again with cello!) to sing one of the more repentant Psalms, perfectly appropriate for anyone feeling in need of redemption – which is pretty much everyone at some point.
According to tradition, this is a psalm King David wrote after he was confronted about the rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. These are some of the most poignant words ever written about the desire for a fresh start and a renewed spirit.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
THE CORNER ROOM – PSALM 13
The Corner Room is a more recent discovery for me. They have created whole albums of Psalms set to music, some good and some not so spectacular. But this rendition of Psalm 13 is spot on, bringing a stomping visceral bluegrass vibe to one of the more gutwrenching Psalms.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
As you can tell, the psalmist ain’t playin around, and neither is The Corner Room.
I need more of these – send me your favorite Psalm covers!
*Intellectual Credit: I’ve been heavily influenced by the great work Rob Bell and C.S. Lewis have done in analyzing and relating the Psalms.