The Psalms have always been incredibly relevant, but they have special value to anxious and uncertain times like ours.
That’s just one reason I’m glad to review and recommend The Psalms Project’s latest offering, Volume 4: Psalms 31–38. I’ve shared about the Psalms Project before. The project is Shane Heilman’s brainchild. You’d think that a project as ambitious as putting all 150 Psalms to song would start quickly out of the gates and lose steam as time goes on, but as you’ll read in the Q&A I did with him after this review, he’s more energized than ever.
Heilman’s approach to the Psalms differs from many groups (like Shane and Shane) in that he covers each verse of the Psalm, basically word-for-word. The production quality is excellent and the songs well put together. (Heilman studied music at Belmont University in Nashville.) It’s not easy taking poetry originally written in Hebrew and making them sound great and natural in English, but Heilman and his crew do just that.
A few highlights
Let me cut to the chase: I love this album. It will be hard reading these Psalms in the future without hearing them sung by the talented musicians Heilman uses!
All songs are strong, but the song that impacted me the most was “Psalm 32 (Blessed Is the One)” featuring Maddie Michaelson (whose voice reminds me of Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer fame). How many desperate sinners need the glorious truth of Psalm 32 verse 1 playing continually in their minds?
Blessed is the one // whose transgression is forgiven //
whose transgression is forgiven // whose sin is covered
“Psalm 34 (Taste and See that He is Good)” featuring Bethany John & Daniel Brunz is another personal favorite. The piano-driven ballad puts my soul at peace and inspires me to worship.
Have you ever heard a song on an imprecatory Psalm? I don’t know if I did before listening to “Psalm 35 (Awake, O Lord)” featuring Jon Degroot. (That’s the benefit of working through all of the 150 Psalms; you can’t skip around!) Our burdened world needs Holy Spirit-inspired lyrics to give godly vent to our angst.
“Psalm 37 (Delight Yourself in the Lord)” is another personal favorite, the Psalm and the song based on it. Here you hear Heilman sing himself. He did a fantastic job crafting a catchy song through 40(!) verses. It clocks in at about 12 minutes, but guides listeners through the rich passage, inspiring trust in our Creator even when the wicked prosper.
Overall, I highly recommend The Psalms Project’s Volume 4: Psalms 31–38. It has enriched my reading of these Psalms by giving them a top-notch soundtrack and helped me let the Word of Christ dwell in me richly (Colossians 3:16).
I’m not very musical (apologies to my junior high cello teacher) and so I can’t comment on details of the musical production, but the music speaks for itself. Heilman has put together an impressive list of contributors for this project, several of whom have won Grammy and Dove Awards. It’s no wonder The Psalms Project’s music has been downloaded or streamed over 1 million times!
In a world with too much superficial and self-centered worship music, listening word-for-word to the Psalms is incredibly refreshing, even more so with quality songs. While not every song on the album is ideal for congregational worship, certain ones may provide a rich change of pace for your church and could greatly compliment a sermon series on the Psalms. (Heilman has provided lyrics and chords on his site for free.)
If you’re looking for Scriptural encouragement in our crazy world or just want some good new music to draw you near the Lord, I give my highest recommendation to The Psalms Project’s Volume 4: Psalms 31–38 (along with One, Two, and Three).
Listen to a sampler of the album
Q&A with Shane Heilman, the Creator of The Psalms Project
You’ve been writing songs based on the Psalms for years. What has been the most surprising thing about the project?
How invigorating and fresh the project still feels, even after eleven years. When I started, I figured I would eventually enter another season of writing, or the Psalms would begin to sound the same, or the long Psalms would begin to wear me down. Just the opposite has happened. The creative process of studying these Psalms and interpreting them creatively through music has only become more exciting, and opened up more ideas and possibilities. I’m honestly obsessed at this point. I don’t think I could stop if I tried. I’m having a total blast. Even the long Psalms, like 18 (50 verses) and 37 (40 verses) haven’t slowed me down much at all. Those were really fun Psalms to write, and two of my favorites. There’s something really epic about the longer Psalms that makes writing and recording them especially satisfying.
What are your favorite songs that you’ve done and why?
What Psalms are you most looking forward to and why?
I’m honestly really looking forward to Psalm 42, which I’m just about to start. Most people think of “As the deer pants for the water…” when they think of Psalm 42, but that psalm is really about spiritual depression, and visits some really dark and raw places while never losing hope. It’s such a powerful psalm. I’ve been looking forward to that one for a long time. I’m also really looking forward to Psalm 57, which is one of my favorites because of how focused David is on worship and God’s glory even when he’s been forced into hiding by his enemies. You see how worship really was his lifeblood during those times. I might even skip ahead to write that one. I can’t even wait.
How has this project impacted you spiritually?
It’s absolutely increased my joy in God. It has also greatly matured my understanding of two things: 1.) God’s sovereignty and 2.) the Psalms being about Jesus. God’s sovereignty over life’s struggles is all over the Psalms. The Psalms club you with it over and over again. You can’t miss it. This has been an enormous comfort to me during stressful times, seeing how the psalmists dealt with situations much more stressful than mine by declaring God’s sovereignty and promises. It was their bulwark through those times, and even transformed their outlook to celebratory by the end of the psalm. They know that nothing will happen to them that God does not decree for His own purpose and glory, and that’s a tremendous joy to them. Also, it’s been impossible to miss the degree to which the Psalms speak about Christ and reveal his character. Even besides the Messianic Psalms, which clearly speak of a future reality beyond David’s situation, we see the psalmists taking their grievances to God rather than seeking petty retaliation or vengeance. In Psalm 3, David prays for blessing upon Israel even while he is being driven out of his palace by his own son’s rebellion. Even in the darkest imprecatory psalms, like Psalms 35 and 109, David declares that he loved, prayed for, and even fasted and prayed for his enemies. That is an ethic much different than the world’s ethic for how to handle mistreatment.
You have a unique approach including many different artists (including many award winners). Why did you decide to take that approach?
I wanted this music to be as God-glorifying as possible, and that meant humbling myself to allow other singers and musicians to step in where they could achieve the sound that was needed better than I could.
Initially, the main reason was because I thought the project would be much more listenable and appealing if each psalm had its own “voice,” it’s own lead singer that was right for that psalm’s message and style. I knew that if I sang every Psalm, it wouldn’t make the Psalms sound as diverse as they really are. Plus, getting amazing singers on the albums that are much better vocalists than I am is always a good thing! Along with that, I wanted this music to be as God-glorifying as possible, and that meant humbling myself to allow other singers and musicians to step in where they could achieve the sound that was needed better than I could. I’m not sure to whom this quote should be attributed, but it sums up my leadership style: “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.” I didn’t want any glory for this project – I wanted all the glory to belong to Him. And I think incorporating the very best gifts and talents in the church that God would bring my way is a powerful testimony to the unity of the church and the diversity of gifts. In my opinion, it’s the way the church is supposed to operate. I love that we’ve had 70 musicians and singers contribute to these albums, all playing and singing as one, despite any disagreements we may have in secondary areas. The pure Word of God unites the church. It was awesome to see so many incredible musicians jump behind this project. It’s so clear that they see the vision and believe in it. And it has been a huge thrill to work with Jeff Deyo and Phil Keaggy, two musicians who have greatly impacted my walk with Christ.
I appreciate the care you take of matching a song to the Psalm’s tone. Certain Psalms change tone throughout (Psalm 22 and 31 for example). How does the change in tone affect your songwriting process?
The drastic changes in tone within the text make songwriting more fun, in my opinion. It pulls me out of the box. It allows us to switch keys, tempos, or arrangements mid-song, without completely abandoning where we’ve been. It’s very unlike modern songwriting style, which rarely takes a song through several complete turns emotionally. But that’s the way life with God is sometimes – we can be on the brink of depression one minute and exulting in His presence the next. It’s real. It’s not manufactured. And His deliverance can be sudden and forceful. You don’t hear that in songwriting very often. Usually it’s either someone struggling with no answers, or sounding like they’ve never struggled and have all the answers. The Psalms take us through all that in the course of one song. I think it’s fascinating, and a great songwriting challenge.
How do you think the book of Psalms uniquely speaks to our secular culture?
Wow, so many areas. First of all, the Psalms proclaim a message of hope and joy that our secular culture sorely needs. They present a vision of having fullness of hope and the fullness of joy despite truly horrific circumstances. That’s a unique and revolutionary message. The Psalms give real answers without in any way minimizing the profound misery that this life can bring. There is no document more honest, and also no document more joyful and hopeful than the Psalms. The fact that those two realities can live side by side without being contradictory is a powerful message. Also, the Psalms speak primarily about justice. Over and over again in the Psalms, the speaker is pleading with God because of an injustice he is experiencing, and he is trusting that God will vindicate him. In a world so rightly concerned with justice, the Psalms present to us a God who loves justice (Psalm 11:6) and will work justice for those who are mistreated in this life. Also, and perhaps most importantly, the Psalms point powerfully to Christ and the work He will perform to reconcile the world to Him and establish justice. Psalm 16, Psalm 22, Psalm 110…these Psalms add important validation to the Gospel by predicting what Christ would do thousands of years before it happened – die for our sins, rise from the dead, and ascend to subdue all enemies under His feet. As Jesus says at the end of Luke, “All things which are written about Me in the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). The Psalms are ultimately about Jesus, and the hope of justice that only He can bring.