The singing of psalms spans thousands of years of church tradition. Today’s songwriters and worship leaders mine these texts for words and inspiration as they craft new songs for the church.
For the past three years, Jesse and Leah Roberts—who perform as the duo Poor Bishop Hooper—have sung every word of every psalm and are hoping to help revive widespread interest in the singing of Scripture.
Their project joins a history of singing psalms that spans centuries, from monastic recitation to contemporary songwriters and worship leaders who mine these texts for words and inspiration.
“We should have songs that are not only upright but holy, that will spur us to pray to God and praise Him, to meditate on His works so as to love Him, to fear Him, to honor Him, and glorify Him,” wrote John Calvin in his preface to the 1543 Geneva Psalter, which guided Reformed churches in the practice of singing unaccompanied metrical psalms.
“Though we look far and wide we will find no better songs nor songs more suitable to that purpose than the Psalms of David.”
For the monk in the medieval monastery, chanting all 150 psalms each week, the psalms “were his daily bread, words always on his lips, the foundation of his life of prayer,” wrote musicologist James Dyer.
Chanting the entire Book of Psalms each week required total devotion, a rhythm of life built for prayer. Releasing an original song based on a chapter in Psalms each week—as Jesse and Leah Roberts have done with their recent EveryPsalm project—required its own kind of creative focus and commitment.
For the past three years, the Psalms have been musical and spiritual sustenance for the Robertses. Since January 2020, they have written an original song every week, releasing the new recordings Wednesdays on YouTube and music streaming sites.
They finish their collection of musical settings for the psalms with Psalm 150, which releases on November 9. The modern-day psalter is meant as a resource for Christians and churches.
The process of creating the songs has reminded them that there is a psalm for every moment, affect, and impulse to call out to God.
“There’s so much permission in the Psalms to approach the Lord in so many different ways,” said Jesse Roberts. “If you look at the top [worship] charts, how many songs ask a question and don’t answer it? That has been so influential for me as I go to the Lord in prayer. To be able to ask those questions, to ask them and sit in the mystery.”
The musical settings by Poor Bishop Hooper include meditative ballads, exuberant praise choruses, and blues-inflected songs. The uplifting arrangement of Psalm 5 features sparkling instrumentals and layered vocals in close harmony. Psalm 11 is treated as a quiet, peaceful ballad with unexpected chromaticism.
Some arrangements, like Psalm 23 and Psalm 148, are simple and tuneful, suited for congregational singing. Others are more complex and vocally demanding, inviting engagement through meditation and listening. The duo has also recorded and released instrumental versions of some of the more intricate arrangements.
The EveryPsalm project did not start as a pandemic project, but it did end up spanning those unexpectedly difficult, chaotic years. Sustaining creative energy and commitment week after week was not easy.
“Our twins went to kindergarten, but everything went online, so we homeschooled,” said Leah Roberts. “Particularly in that season, we would put the kids to bed, and then every night Jesse and I would go to the studio and it’s like, ‘All right, put your game face on! It’s 8:30, and we’ve gotta record a couple of psalms.’”
“I definitely had fleshly moments where I thought, ‘This is going to be a waste of time,” Jesse Roberts said. “‘No one’s going to listen, we’re going to do it for three years and they’re all going to sound the same.’”
People did listen: Psalm 1 has over 700,000 plays on Spotify, and the video for Psalm 1 has 69,000 views on YouTube.
Even through the difficulties of finding time, space, and energy to carry on with the project, Jesse and Leah remained resolute in their commitment to covering a psalm every week. And the weeks that were most difficult were often the most rewarding.
“Those were the ones that it was such a privilege to, in the shallowness of my offering, say, ‘Take this offering unto you and let it be pleasing … because I just want to go to sleep right now! But let my worship be a pleasing offering, a pleasing sacrifice,” said Leah Roberts.
“Even if it didn’t make sense to me or look like it was going to be a real ministry to anyone,” added Jesse Roberts.
Many Christians can likely relate to the experience of coming to worship in the midst of mental or physical exhaustion, especially over the past three years. Some found it difficult to offer praise while streaming a virtual service, feeling detached and lonely. Others are still struggling to feel comfortable in a congregation again.
Even though EveryPsalm didn’t begin in response to the pandemic, it became clear to Leah and Jesse that it was a timely undertaking that could lead to the creation of a valuable resource. In a time of uncertainty, loss, and longing, it seemed right to rely on the Psalms as sustenance, words of prayer, and praise when they are hard to generate.
Eugene Peterson wrote of the Psalms, “They are not provided to teach us about God but to train us in responding to him.”
The practice of chanting the Psalms, over and over, week after week, is training in lament, thanksgiving, praise, questioning, and even anguish before God. “We will expect,” Peterson wrote, “to find the experience of being human before God, exposed and sharpened.”
As with monks who recite every psalm, regardless of the circumstances that come with any particular day or week, honoring their commitment to the weekly psalm allowed Jesse and Leah to approach God for a kind of dialogue as they listened and responded to every unique text.
Singing a psalm of lament when one has no person to mourn, for example, can be an exercise in openness and sensitivity to the suffering of others.
“When I sing the laments, even when everything in my life is great, it opens my eyes to intercessory prayer. To see that the world is a broken world,” Jesse Roberts said. “There will always be something that I can lament over.”
Millions of Christians in the global church sing and recite psalms every week as part of corporate liturgy and in personal devotional worship. For those in traditions or denominations in which psalm-singing or recitation is not a weekly practice, Jesse and Leah hope that EveryPsalm might spark new interest. They are already receiving requests for resources from worship leaders and church musicians.
“We get requests nearly every day for chords,” Jesse Roberts said, noting that they are working on making chord charts for each song freely available.
The EveryPsalm music and other resources like Golgotha, an album that reflects on the stations of the cross, can be accessed on the Poor Bishop Hooper website for free. Eventually, the Robertses hope to release a bound version of some of the songs from EveryPsalm.
“Our hope is to continually bless the church, to continue to resource the church to use God’s Word and love it, and long for it,” Jesse Roberts said.