“About 10 years ago, while I was on a mission trip, I got a compulsion to put Psalm 1 to music,” he said. He liked the tune, how the words were straight Scripture, and that it was different from the typical modern worship song. “I got this delusional idea to try to do them all,” Heilman said. But he quit almost immediately, stumped by tangled Hebrew idioms and uneven meters.
Contemporary music choruses rely heavily on phrases from the Psalms: “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” from Psalm 96:4, “Bless the LORD, oh my soul” from Psalm 103, and the “Cornerstone” from Psalm 118:22 are all among the top 20 worship songs this month.
But recently, a spate of albums have been going one step further, and recording entire psalms.
In April 2015, singer-songwriter Sandra McCracken released an album simply titled Psalms. Back in 2001, the Texas-based group Shane & Shane dropped Psalms; its sequel, Psalms, Vol. 2, came out in 2015. The Robbie Seay Band has two LPs on the Psalms, released in 2013 and 2015. And Sons of Korah, an Australian worship group that began releasing albums in 2000, sing only psalms.
The songs on these albums attempt to capture the sense, and in some cases the words, of the entire chapter.
“It’s becoming somewhat of a trend,” said Shane Heilman, who started The Psalms Project. Heilman is also a high school principal and the president of Way Deeper Ministries, which equips people to follow the spiritual disciplines such as meditation, prayer, and fasting.
The three-volume collection by his band, The Psalms Project, has been streamed, downloaded, and purchased more than 1 million times since the first was released in 2011, Heilman said. The collection, which includes 30 psalms so far, pops up first on a Google search of “psalms” and “music.”
“Some of it is a dissatisfaction of the superficiality of modern worship lyrics,” he said. “These psalms have something to them if you’re brave enough and crazy enough to turn them into modern songs.”
Turning All 150 Psalms into Music
Heilman wants to put all 150 Psalms—in their entirety—to music.
“About 10 years ago, while I was on a mission trip, I got a compulsion to put Psalm 1 to music,” he said. He liked the tune, how the words were straight Scripture, and that it was different from the typical modern worship song.
“I got this delusional idea to try to do them all,” Heilman said. But he quit almost immediately, stumped by tangled Hebrew idioms and uneven meters.
Years later, while memorizing Psalm 2, he kept thinking, This would be such a cool song because it’s such a powerful message, a political message.
So he did it—and the next day started work on Psalm 3.
“I started to get the hang of setting weird Hebrew poems to music. Once I got through five, I thought, Why can’t I get through 150?”
Where Did the Psalms Go?
Modern worship songs often snip out phrases of praise from Psalms, leaving on the cutting floor the complaining, arguing, and uncomfortable imprecatory language, said Michael LeFebvre, pastor of Christ Church Reformed Presbyterian in Brownsburg, Indiana. Many psalms include both, sometimes switching from one extreme emotion to another.
“It takes you out of the box as a songwriter because you have to match the emotion and theology of the psalm to music,” Heilman said.
This match is often difficult, especially because he didn’t want to use the cadence of hymns but something more modern “that could be on the radio.”
“The idea that really intrigued me was: If this was the songbook of God’s people for hundreds, thousands of years, why is so little of this in our modern worship?”
Why Did They Leave?
The use of Psalms began to decline when Isaac Watts and others began writing hymns in England in the early 1700s.
“He started to write new songs because the people were tired of singing psalms,” LeFebvre said. “He was trying to make them more accessible and approachable.”
He was also trying to tweak their theology, Stephen Marini wrote in his book Sacred Song in America.
While he granted that David was unquestionably a chosen instrument of God, Watts claimed that his religious understanding could not have fully apprehended the truths later revealed through Jesus Christ. The Psalms should therefore be “renovated” as if David had been a Christian, or as Watts put it in the title of his 1719 metrical psalter, they should be “imitated in the language of the New Testament.”
Over the last 40 years, churches shifted again, this time away from hymns and toward praise choruses, Larry Eskridge wrote for Christian History. Starting with the Jesus People in the 1970s, Christians with guitars began writing their own worship songs. And while the Jesus People movement faded, the influence on corporate worship remained, sparking the now-waning “worship wars.”