I will life up my eyes to the hills—from whence comes my help?
The Psalms are some of the oldest sources of worship, praise, and theological thinking. These devotional poems, many of which are associated with King David, were from the outset conceived as songs. Psalm 120, the first verse of which is quoted above, is in a series of Psalms labeled with the title, “Song of Ascents.” Already in the Jewish tradition, the Psalms were used liturgically: scholars have suggested the fifteen psalms which together make up the “Psalms of Ascent” were used as pilgrims walked toward Jerusalem or that Levite singers sang them as they went up the fifteen steps of the Temple. Today, the Psalms continue to be used in Jewish worship, with Psalms being read at the beginning of Sabbath prayers, for instance.
Scholars have debated the extent to which early Christian liturgy was dependent on Jewish worship, with the scholarly consensus changing over time. The great Orthodox Christian theologian Alexander Schmemann, writing in the 1980s, was convinced that “practically all” of the forms of early Christian worship “can be traced back to Jewish antecedents.” Today, liturgical historians know that the influence wasn’t quite so direct. However, like Jewish worship, Christian worship has looked to the Psalms since the very beginning. In Ephesians 5:19, St. Paul encourages believers to speak to each other with “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” As Christian liturgy developed, the Psalms always remained crucial to worship. Egeria, a fourth century pilgrim to Jerusalem, describes the use of Psalms for worship in Jerusalem in the account of her pilgrimage. This is one of the first accounts of Christian worship we have—and the Psalms are central to that worship!
Used for millennia in worship, these beautiful songs, these devotional poems, collected as the Book of Psalms, are often called the Psalms of David, though not all the psalms are even attributed to King David. St. David, the “Prophet-King” is commemorated by the Armenian Apostolic Church this Monday, December 24th, on the eve of Western Christmas and in the Armenian period of Hisnag, the fifty-day time preceding Christmas. In the opening lines of the Book of Matthew, we read the genealogy of Christ from Adam. This genealogy is visually depicted in the image at the beginning of this article, and it includes King David, the midpoint of Christ’s genealogy and the earthly ancestor of Christ most often referred to in prophecies. Commemorating King David near Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, reminds us of the earthly source of Jesus Christ as well as the context out of which Christianity emerged. Just as King David is the earthly ancestor of Jesus Christ, the devotional beauty of the Psalms of David has been a continued source for Christian liturgy and theological reflection.
|Girk‘ Saghmosats Dawt‘i||One of several beautiful Armenian printings of the Book of Psalms, titled Book of the Psalms of David, in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center. Printed in Constantinople in 1870.|
|Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann||A collection of writings by the noted Orthodox Christian theologian (and professor at St. Vladimir’s Seminary), addressing the history and form of Christian worship. At St. Nersess.|
|Diary of a Pilgrimage||Detailing Egeria’s travels in the Holy Land, including detailed observations of fourth century Christian worship in Jerusalem which made extensive use of the Psalms. At St. Nersess.|
Like the earliest Christian communities in Ephesus who received the epistle of St. Paul or the fourth century worshippers in Jerusalem described by Egeria, Armenians also worship with the Psalms. Indeed, the Psalms are also a foundational source of the Armenian liturgy. Open the large Adeni Jamakirk¸ the Book of Hours of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and almost the first thing you will find is all of the Psalms, divided into eight sections of similar lengths. Called canons, the eight-fold division of the Psalms at the beginning of one of the primary liturgical books of the Armenian Church attests to the liturgical use and centrality of the Psalms. In Armenian monasteries, monks would chant the Psalms in the middle of the night, often before the Kisherayin Jam, the Night Office often offered in our churches on Sunday morning. By chanting a canon every night, in just over a week, the monks would have read through the entire Book of Psalms. This practice attests to the centrality of the Psalms for Armenian liturgical practice.
We don’t know exactly what it would have sounded like for these Psalms to have been chanted in the monasteries. Today, only a couple of melodies survive. The most common is heard throughout the daily offices and in other liturgical services. Psalms are chanted at various points in these services, and much of the rest of the daily hours are built up around core selections of chanted psalms. These are chanted in a simple melody, holding on a single note and then rising or falling at the end. Usually, the psalms are chanted antiphonally, back and forth between two sets of chanters. Another, more ornate melody survives in the Kisherayin Jam, the Night Office, when the Ganonaklukh (lit. “head of the canon”), the final portion of one of the eight canons is sung. You can hear examples of the Ganonaklukh here, at the St. Nersess Armenian Seminary website.
In addition to this primary liturgical use, the Book of Psalms is also a major source of theological reflection for Armenians. Much of this theological reflection occurs liturgically, in the daily services of the Armenian Apostolic Church. While there are many commentaries on Scripture, including commentaries by great vartabeds of the Armenian Church on the Book of Psalms, and even commentaries on the daily services themselves, some of the most sophisticated Armenian theological thought occurs in the church services themselves.
Where is this theological reflection and how does it relate to the Psalms? This theological reflection can be found in our hymns, especially the particular class of hymns known as sharagans. Sharagans, usually with three or five verses, expand on and offer commentary on passages which precede them. Sharagans are found in almost all of the daily offices—the one you might know the best the is Jashoo Sharagan sung during Badarak just before the Gospel processional and Surp Asdvadz. In the Evening Office, after chanting a series of psalms, Psalm 120 (the first line is above) is chanted antiphonally. Then, depending on the day, the appropriate Hampartsi Sharagan is sung. The sharagan is named for the first word of the Armenian version of Psalm 120, hampartsi, meaning “I lifted up.” While the sharagan varies from day to day, it always begins with the same first line, taken from Psalm 120. You can hear some of the Hampartsi Sharagans, here, on the St. Nersess website. In this way, sharagans are actually exegetical—that is, they comment and expand on the text, providing further theological insight into the original text. For many of the sharagans, a psalm is the inspirational text for the sharagan’s commentary. The Book of the Psalms of David, then, is a source for liturgy and theological reflection!
|Studies in Christian Liturgy and its Context||By Gabriele Winkler, one of the great scholars of Eastern Christian liturgy, this collection of essays presents elements of liturgy, including the use of the Psalms.|
|Armenian Sacred and Folk Music||This collection of essays by the famous Armenian priest and musicologist Gomidas Vartabed includes an essay detailing the different kinds of Armenian liturgical songs.|
|The commentary on the Armenian Daily Office by Bishop Stepʿanos Siwnecʿi (735)||A critical edition, translation, and discussion of this influential Armenian commentary on the daily services by V. Rev. Fr. Daniel Findikyan. The book includes discussion of the use of the psalms in Armenian worship.|
Follow the Zohrab Information Center on Instagram @zohrabcenter for images of King David the Prophet-King from Armenian printings of the Book of Psalms in the collection of the Zohrab Information Center! Come visit the Zohrab Information Center and see all of our early Armenian printings of the Book of Psalms!
By Christopher Sheklian