Circling the Psalms

From the earliest days, the Psalms have formed the backbone of Christian prayer and worship. Under the instruction of the apostles, the New Testament churches carried over the practice of psalm-singing from the Temple and synagogue worship to their own assemblies (eg., Eph. 5:18-19). In the medieval monasteries, St. Benedict’s rule instituted the practice of praying through the psalter once a week as a community. The Reformed churches have always felt strongly about psalm-singing, producing dozens of metrical psalters and proscribing their use in both public and private worship.

       Like poems, the Psalms have invited and inspired Christians throughout history to respond to them in poetry of their own. For instance, the poetic paraphrases of Isaac Watts continue to be popular hymns sung by the church today, including “Our God Our Help in Ages Past” (Ps. 90) and “Joy to the World” (Ps. 98). The list of poets who were formed by the Psalms could go on and on - Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Newton. Every Christian poet or songwriter is inspired in some way by the Psalms.

       In his new collection David’s Crown: A Poetic Companion to the Psalms, Anglican priest and poet Malcolm Guite has carried on this tradition by responding to each of the 150 psalms in refreshingly contemporary poems. Even readers who do not normally read much poetry will find themselves blessed, challenged, and inspired by this collection.

       Guite describes his project as a “kind of poetic prayer diary” borne out of his own daily reading of the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer. His poems respond freely to the text, drawing on each passage’s leading themes and images. The poems themselves are composed of fifteen lines divided into five tercets written in terza rima, a form of three-line iambic rhyming stanzas popularized by Dante. Together, the poems form a corona (not the virus!) or crown of poems in which the last line of one poem is repeated as the first line of the next. In this way, the poems are naturally woven together, taking the reader on an emotional journey through the Psalms. Combined with simple and pointed language, this style makes Guite’s poems highly readable and engaging.

       Throughout the sequence, Guite makes many contemporary applications from the Psalms. Written during the year 2020, the poems clearly reflect the events and headlines of the COVID-19 pandemic (hence the decision to write them as a corona). For many Christians, the pandemic confronted them with their own mortality for the first time. In the midst of lockdowns and uncertainty, Guite found his refuge in the God of David. Drawing on the Psalms’ own language, themes of injustice and the cries of the oppressed are prevalent throughout. Feelings of inadequacy, frustration at corrupt politicians, and denunciations of Twitter trolls all find their way into Guite’s reflections. By this, the reader is reminded that the ancient truths of Scripture still speak today. But even as he applies the Psalms to contemporary matters, it is clear by Guite’s allusions to others such as John Donne, John Bunyan, and Julian of Norwich that he is aware of the need to cherish the wisdom of the past.

“Even readers who do not normally read much poetry will find themselves blessed, challenged, and inspired by this collection.”

      Guite’s interpretation and reflection of the Psalms is guided by a deeply Christological reading of Scripture. He makes connections to Christ everywhere, seeing Him as either the explicit or implicit fulfillment of the psalmist’s words. This is especially evident throughout the Messianic psalms (like Psalm 22), but Guite shows that Christ’s presence within the psalter is by no means limited to these. He reads them as inspired prophecy concerning the inner life of the Lord and of His sharing in humanity in order to be our high priest (Heb. 4:14-16).

       All in all, David’s Crown is a wonderful poetic reflection of the Psalms and a great addition to the catalogue of Christian poetry. Whether read straight through or as devotional readings alongside the Psalms themselves, Guite’s poems are sure to challenge and illuminate. By reading them, many will be inspired by the Psalms to glorify the Lord afresh - if not in poetry, then at least in prayer and praise.

Malcom Guite, David's Crown (Canterbury Press Norwich, 2021), 160pp.

Jacob Bier (MDiv, 2021) is Youth Director at the church where he grew up, ministering to 7th–12th grade students. You can read more from Jake at his person blog:

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