Owning and Being Owned by the Psalms

Creating a Devotional Psalter

It was an audacious statement: “I know every one of the psalms by heart.” How could this be true? I knew there were 150 psalms, and I had read each of them a number of times. Yet I couldn’t possibly “know” all 150 by heart! A few favorites, maybe. But all of them?

I wasn’t of a mind to challenge the veracity of the person I was talking to. This was my dear friend Bastiaan. I had been his pastor for more than ten years, and he had been alive for nearly ninety years. Anyone who knew Bastiaan would say that he was good for an entertaining story, but he wouldn’t lie about his faith walk.

Both Bastiaan and I grew up in a denomination with Dutch Reformed roots. He was born and raised in the Netherlands and immigrated to a new life in California in his thirties, after World War II. I was born and raised in western Michigan in the Christian Reformed Church. I found my way to California as a pastor in the 1990s and became friends with Bastiaan and his wife, Marie. It would be hard to find a more delightful elderly couple, and my pastoral duties enabled me to visit them regularly.

I asked Bastiaan, “How did you get to know all 150 psalms?” I confessed my amazement at his claim. He told me of growing up in a family that had the habit of singing a psalm at the dinner table every day. Combined with an active engagement in a church that sang only the psalms, these precious words were imprinted in his heart. We talked about how the psalms nurture us, comfort us, express our frustrations, embolden our confidence, and bring us into God’s presence. We wondered together whether we might sing the psalms in heaven. Bastiaan spoke with a tear in his eye and a familiar smile as he testified that although his eyesight was fading and he could no longer read, the psalter in his heart remained vivid, active, and cherished.

Bastiaan’s testimony touched and challenged me. He was “owned” by the psalms even as he “owned” them. Although the true owner was his faithful Father, yet the cherished psalter provided a set of tunes and texts that had become part of his very being.

In my own life, I have encountered God and grown in my faith through the psalms. Indeed, like Bastiaan, the psalms have been forming my life from my youth. In preschool at church, there were psalms and psalm verses that we committed to memory. These included Psalm 23, Psalm 100, and the opening words of Psalm 46. As I grew through elementary school, the list of familiar psalm verses was both reinforced and broadened. In a Christian school setting, they became imprinted on my heart. I recognized that my faith formation in church was heavy and rich with the psalms. The first church songbook I encountered had a red cover with a gold-lettered title: the Psalter Hymnal. This red book was replaced in my elementary school years with a new book with a blue cover with the same title, this time in silver. These books had a carefully selected set of psalm-based songs supplemented by other songs that I came to know as “hymns,” with texts for various occasions. The blue book was later replaced by a new one, now with a gray cover but still having the familiar title: Psalter Hymnal.

Back in my college years I attended an InterVarsity conference in Urbana, Illinois. One of the keynote speakers was Billy Graham. During a Q&A session, Graham was asked to describe his devotional life. He said he read five psalms every day. With 150 psalms, he was able to read the entire psalter each month. I was impressed enough to still remember the comment more than fifty years later, but at the time such a task felt impossible for me. I tried for a while but didn’t succeed.

In my early years of ministry I was given A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, a book by Eugene Peterson. It’s a series of meditations on each of the fifteen Psalms of Ascent (120–134)—songs sung by the Israelites as they traveled to Jerusalem for religious festivals. Peterson describes them as songs of the pilgrim and demonstrates their relevance to modern Christians. I assume it was the Spirit of God that started to pick away at my resistance to owning (and being owned by) the psalms. 


How to Encourage Being “Owned” by the Psalms

Write a sermon series on Psalms.
Choose a psalm of the month. Use it each week in worship and encourage the congregation to memorize it.
Include a psalm in every worship service, using it where it fits best.
Hold an adult Sunday school class where you learn to sing a new or old psalm each week.
Have a workshop on art journaling through Psalms.
Gather writers and word lovers to versify a few psalms so your congregation can “own” them in a very personal way.
Search ReformedWorship.org for resources for using the psalms in worship.

So often in pastoral care, in personal devotional life, and in corporate worship, it is the psalms that quickly come to mind. They are indeed tools from God. They speak what the heart needs to speak. They root us in a story that is ours—even though we might not immediately recognize it as such. 

Long ago I discovered that memorizing words was easier for me if the words were tied to a tune. As I reflected on my intimate and animated conversation with Bastiaan, I was primed for the challenge that came to my heart: get to know the psalms better. Own them, and be owned by them.

Thus convicted, I started making space in my life to carefully read each psalm and to select a single verse from each that I would seek to commit to memory. Recognizing the power of marrying tunes and texts, I started a research project in which I listed all the songs available to me for each of the 150 psalms, making use of the three Psalter Hymnals I had on my shelf. By the time this project was in full gear, I added two new books to my shelf: Psalms for All Seasons and Lift Up Your Hearts. They became valued tools for me as I sought to select a single song to learn for each of the 150 psalms.

My project started giving me more energy than it took. I became better acquainted with the text of each of the 150 psalms. In matching text to tune, I tried to ensure the words included my memorized key verses from each of the 150 psalms. In some cases, this meant composing a song verse that fit the selected tune.

The result is a one-of-a-kind psalter. My personal psalter includes tunes from a variety of centuries and texts to match each tune. I’m happy to share my worksheets with others as a place to start. Creating your own version would be more than worthwhile for anyone who wants to “own” these precious texts or imprint them onto one’s heart.

My devotional life now includes regularly singing each psalm. I’m not yet to the point where I could make the profession made by my dear friend, Bastiaan. He’s singing the psalms in heaven now.


Where to Start

1. Focus on the 15 Psalms of Ascent (120–134)
2. Focus on the Christmas psalms (89, 96, 97, 98, 147, and 148  are a good place to start. Also consider Christmas carols whose words are based on these Psalms.) 
4. Focus on “The Final Five” (146–150 offer a wonderful finale to the psalter)
5. Make your personal “top ten” booklet of favorite psalms.

Rev. David Koll is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.  Ordained in 1981, he served two congregations, In Flushing, MI and in Anaheim CA.  He then served in a denominational role coordinating the ordination process for pastors.  He has been retired since 2021, and lives in southern California.  He and his wife enjoy close proximity to their six grandchildren.

Reformed Worship 152 © June 2024, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.