Brench’s Weekly Psalter explained

A couple weeks ago I posted a bunch of different orders for reading (praying) through the Psalms: https://leorningcniht.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/on-reading-the-psalms.  As I stated in a subsequent comment, I quickly discovered that the “monastic style” one that I made was a bit wonky – a couple psalms appeared twice, and there were probably a missing one or two as well.  Plus the balance wasn’t quite what I wanted, so I re-did it, and replaced it in that post.

But what I want to do now is share some of the logic behind it, since there was a lot of thought that went into it, and a lot of research under-girding my design.  The Psalter table is at the end of this post.

First of all, I put all the psalms into categories.  There are a number of ways that people have categorized them in the past; the two major sources that I worked with was a Catholic Resource website where the Psalm work is published by a Jesuit, Dr. Felix Just, and the book How to Read the Bible for all its worthco-authored by one of my seminary professors, Dr. Doug Stuart.  For the most part they agreed on how to categorize the Psalms, but I did some harmonization between them, mainly finding homes for the “miscellaneous” Psalms.  The resulting eight categories are Psalms of Zion, Psalms of Yahweh, Psalms of Lament, Psalms of Thanksgiving, Trust Psalms, Royal Psalms, Wisdom Psalms, and Psalms of Praise.

Psalms of Zion are a topical category, focusing on the theme of Zion, the city of promise where humans meet with God, and a common Christian typology among them is seeing images of the Church and the Heavenly City.  Because of this, I put most of them on Sunday morning: the time the Church gathers together in the celebration of the Eucharist – her identity in Christ.  Zion Psalms include Psalms 15, 46, 48, 50, 76, 81, 84, 87, 122, and 134.

Psalms of Yahweh are also a topical category, dwelling particularly on the Name of God: YHWH (formerly translated as Jehovah, now typically translated as Yahweh).  They also have an emphasis on God’s kingship over creation, over Israel, over the nations, and thus also over the Church in our New Testament era.  YHWH Psalms include Psalms 24, 47, 93, 96, 97, 98, and 99.

Psalms of Lament are a category of literary genre.  They typically contain six basic elements: address, complaint, deliverance plea, assurance, and trust.  A very large portion of the Psalter (about a third!) is lament: Psalms 4, 5, 6, 7, 13, 14, 22, 25, 26, 27, 31, 35, 38, 39, 40, 42, 43, 44, 51, 52, 53, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 63, 64, 69, 70, 71, 74, 77, 78, 79, 80, 83, 85, 88, 89, 94, 102, 106, 109, 120, 123, 126, 130, 137, 139, 140, 141, and 143.

Psalms of Thanksgiving are another genre category.  Typically, they give thanks for specific sorts of things such as deliverance from enemies, or a particular attribute of God’s character.  Oftentimes Psalms of Lament have elements of thanksgiving in them, in anticipation of God’s answer to the lament, so there are markedly fewer Psalms specifically about thanksgiving: Psalms 9, 10, 30, 32, 34, 41, 65, 66, 67, 68, 75, 92, 107, 116, 118, 124, 133, and 138.

Trust Psalms are very similar to Psalms of Lament.  Generally, they have the same six elements, except instead of focusing on the complaints these focus on the expressions of trust and assurance.  So while they are structurally similar, they have quite a different atmosphere to them.  Because going to sleep at night is a liturgical picture of death, and traditional Night Prayers involve handing oneself over to God for protection during the night, I put at least one of these at the end of each Night (Nocturne) group.  Trust Psalms include Psalms 11, 16, 23, 62, 82, 91, 115, 121, 125, 129, and 131.

Royal Psalms are somewhat similar to the Psalms of Yahweh, except rather than focusing on God’s kingship, they focus on the earthly king who reigns in His stead.  They are distinctly Messianic in nature, many of them being used by the Apostles as prophecies of Jesus.  Royal Psalms include Psalms 2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 101, 110, 132, and 144.

Wisdom Psalms are another distinct genre, but I also included with them the commonly-identified “Torah Psalms” category, which usually are said to include only Psalms 19 and 119.  They fit in with Wisdom Psalms because they share a focus on God’s law, making good choices in life, and contrasting the good from the wicked.  Together, these Torah and Wisdom Psalms include Psalms 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127, and 128.

Psalms of Praise, finally, are also known as Hymn Psalms.  Similar to Thanksgiving Psalms, Praise Psalms celebrate particular aspects of God’s nature, or particular works that He has done, especially the work of creation and the work of redemption.  Thus they fit into the liturgical idea of the morning being a picture of new life, which is cause for celebration.  The Psalms of Praise include Psalms 8, 29, 33, 95, 103, 104, 105, 108, 100, 111, 113, 114, 117, 135, 136, 145, 146, 147, 148, 149, and 150.

With these 8 categories defined, I then grouped them into different days of the week and times of day to create a sense of coherence that supports the traditional liturgical rhythms…

Morning Prayer every day begins with Psalms of Praise and and Psalms of Zion.  Most of the Psalms of Zion are on Sunday morning, but about three of them are mixed in with the Praise Psalms on other days.  Psalm 95, because it’s the traditional invitatory psalm for the morning office, is at the very beginning of the week.  A number of Thanksgiving Psalms are included in the Morning Prayer groups as well.

Mid-Morning and Noontime Prayer together have all the Psalms of Yahweh and Wisdom Psalms.  Both of those slots on Sunday have Yahweh Psalms, the Monday slots are a mix of both types, and the rest of the week’s Mid-Morning & Noon Psalms are wisdom.  The main feature of this part of the order is the reading of Psalm 119 bit by bit.  For one thing, it’s far too long to pray in one sitting (unless you’ve got some serious gift of prayer!), and also, it makes for a good meditation.  The idea of the Mid-Morning and Noon (and Compline) offices are to be short breaks in the course of your day to refocus on God’s Word, and that’s why the Wisdom Psalms are particularly appropriate for these parts of the day.

Evening Prayer, then, is the primary home for the Laments.  The traditional liturgical emphasis of Evening Prayer is one of penitence and intercession, so the Lament Psalms help support that, giving us words to say as we reflect back on the day and recognize our sins and struggles.  In particular, five of the classic “seven penitential psalms” are on Friday, since in the liturgy of the week every Friday is a picture of Good Friday, just as every Sunday is a picture of Easter.  It’s not all doom and gloom, though: each Evening group ends with a Thanksgiving Psalm.  Yes, laments do include some expression of trust and hope, but just as confession lead to absolution, so too laments should lead to thanksgiving in God’s mercies.

Compline, like the Mid-Morning and Noontime offices, is here intended to be a fairly short break from regular life.  There are a couple different types of Psalms at work here: on Sunday there’s a Royal Psalm, on Monday through Wednesday there’s a mix of Royal Psalms and Lament Psalms, on Thursday and Friday there are just laments, and Saturday has a solitary Wisdom Psalm.  The liturgical idea here is simply toying with the idea that as Sunday gets farther away, the celebrations peter out and awareness of sin increases, until finally on Saturday a re-visitation of God’s wisdom is in order to prepare for the celebration starting anew the next morning.

Night Prayer, or Nocturnes, start with Lament Psalms finish with Trust Psalms (just like how Evening Prayer moves from lament to thanksgiving).  As already noted in describing the Trust Psalm category, going to bed at night is liturgically appropriated as an act of entrusting oneself to God’s care, so the Trust Psalms lend themselves quite well to the role.  A further note about the Night laments is in order: about 18 of the Lament Psalms can be sub-categorized as “Community Laments”  while the other 37 are more individualized in voice.  These Night laments are mostly community laments, and more sparsely individual.  The reason for this is that as we entrust ourselves to God’s care, we’re pointing away from ourselves and more towards the Body of Christ, with which we died & rose again in Baptism.  With sleep as a liturgical picture of death, that corporate identity seems to be a natural feature to anticipate in the laments, even before the actual Psalms of Trust.

So, finally, here’s my Monastic Style Psalter, covering all 150 in the course of one week:

EDIT: Of course, I still managed to make one mistake!  So here’s how to fix it:

  • Remove Psalm 17 from Thursday Compline (it’s already in Tuesday Evening).
  • Move Psalm 6 from Friday Evening to Thursday Compline.
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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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One Response to Brench’s Weekly Psalter explained

  1. Pingback: Praying through the Week | Leorningcnihtes boc

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