My Daily Soundtrack

Often, my daily life is filled with a soundtrack of my own choosing. When I sit for long periods of time to do something rather mundane, like reconcile the checkbook, pay bills, or clean up the ever growing email account, I am accompanied by Spotify. On a particularly nostalgic day, I rifle through the music of my adolescence, the Cure, Def Leppard, Michael Jackson, or the Cars. At other times, the influence of my Country loving eldest daughter moves me towards Zach Bryan and Morgan Wallen, but most days, I listen to jazz, especially Chet Baker. For me, there is nothing more soothing than hearing Baker’s smooth trumpet playing and equally velvety voice singing any number of standards. His song, “That Old Feeling,” usually transports me to a good heart and head space. 

Unleashing a Firehose of Pent Up Emotion 

Songs are the poetic expression of the soul. Having tried my hand over the years at writing both a handful of poems and songs, I know how they express something that is often not easily articulated in prose. They can unleash a firehose of pent up emotion and thoughtfully express the subconscious. Poetry, with or without instrumental accompaniment, has a musical flavor all its own. I can read a Shakespeare sonnet, such as Sonnet #15, “When I consider everything that grows…” and hear the sound of life’s ebb and flow, the increasing strength and might of youth and the setting in of decay and decline, all with the hopeful ring of love and relationship that defies the passing of time. The Psalter packs a playlist of the great standards of human experience, both the peaks, the valleys, and the plateaus in between.

The first page of the book of Psalms.

The Ancient Fake Book of Israel

The Psalter was the Fake Book (book of jazz standards) for the musicians of Israel. It was the entire Spotify playlist of the Jerusalem temple and its people. The Psalms each featured a moment of Israel’s life and liturgy, from the poetry of David to the songs of Ascent. Imprecatory songs, hymns of thanksgiving, choruses for mercy, and anthems of triumph make the Psalter’s list. Any and all human emotion and experience are conveyed somewhere throughout the 150. They would become the songbook of the church and the prayerbook of countless families. 

The Collection of Songs for My Family 

The Psalms played an integral role in the life of my family. They still do. They are our playlist for the road trip of life. As a kid, most of my friends’ fathers had hobbies like woodworking, automotive tinkering, and golf. While my friend Sean was working with his dad on a model car, mine was sharing the collection of the Psalms with my sister and me, a rather unique alternative to baseball cards. As a Hebrew Bible scholar whose academic focus was on Wisdom and Prophetic Literature, he gravitated to the Psalter. But it was not merely to study it objectively. It spoke to his soul. It still speaks.  

Our family devotional time included the singing of the Scottish Psalter of 1929. Some of you may be familiar with its split level pages, musical notation on the top and scripture on the bottom. It sometimes made for an awkward sing-along when one didn’t know the tune, having to look up at the music and down to the lyrics. Each of our four family members had a personal copy of the Psalter. I still have mine. Scribbled on the front page of the Psalter is my attempt to write my name in cursive as a seven-year old child along with some awkwardly written words in print, “Goodness and mercy all my life. This is the best song.” We tended to sing Psalm 23 rather frequently!

Over the years, certain Psalms have inserted themselves into the moments of my life. But, for me, Psalm 91 became the family song when my father and mother moved us to Jerusalem, Israel in 1980 for a brief stint, “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty…” At the tailend of the pandemic, my family traveled to Chicago to see my parents and my father’s desire for us each evening was to sing “Night’s terrors will not cause alarm,” an 1842 paraphrase from Thomas Hastings of Psalm 91 in The Book of Psalms for Worship of the Reformed Christian Church. There was something mystically connective about singing those words in a particular time of uncertainty knowing that countless generations have sung or prayed the same Psalm in the particularly trying times of their own age. It was also a comfort knowing that this Psalm had been a faithful traveling companion for the Bullock family over the span of four decades. 

A Psalm Says a Thousand Words

Folks say a picture says a thousand words, but a Psalm does the same. Sure, the analogy is not perfect, since, unlike a picture, a Psalm is made up of words and sometimes a thousand of them, 2445 to be exact for Psalm 119. What I mean to say, is that the Psalms convey theological truth often more succinctly than doctrinal statements written in theological prose. They clearly express who God is,

A young woman in athletic clothes listening too music on her phone.

who humans are, and what it means to find redemption, restoration, and wholeness in life. 

In his new book, Theology of the Psalms: The Story of God’s Steadfast Love, my father, Hassell Bullock, who has made studying the psalms his life’s work, shares how the Psalter teaches us the truth about God. He is the one who introduced me to the Psalter. He prayed it for me and sang it over me—he used to sing Psalm 133 in Hebrew to me, as I, too, have done for my own son, Hine ma tov…. He employed the psalms with mourning families in small farm towns in northern Illinois where he pastored. He taught it and read it to the stream of students that passed through his classroom over the years. And over all that time, he lifted its words in his heart, mind, and mouth.

A Psalter indeed says tens of thousands of words in the life of the one who makes it his own, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the way of the wicked or stand in the path of sinners or sit in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2). 

I do hope you will see the impact of the Psalter in our greater understanding of God, humanity, and redemption and perhaps if it hasn’t already, may the Psalter become a playlist for you on the road trip of life!

Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.

For Further Reading

Scott’s father, Hassell Bullock, emeritus professor of Hebrew at Wheaton College, has sung, studied, and taught the Psalms for forty years. In Theology from the Psalms, he leads the reader through how the Psalms convey the grand story of creation and redemption, Scripture’s two theological ends, and the underlying story of God and humanity in relationship. He draws textual connection between the Psalms and other Scriptures, which help us make connections between Old and New Testament teachings.

He shows how the Psalms are examples of applying wisdom and Scriptures to personal and national issues and of how God interacts and intervenes in real-life situations, which help us apply the Bible today.

Theology from the Psalms is available for pre-order now. It comes out on October 17, 2023.

The cover of C. Hassell Bullock's Theology from the Psalms.

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