In 2018, an unusual Bible made national news. Published in 1807, the so-called “Slave Bible” offered Caribbean slaves a highly edited edition of the KJV. The editors presumably cut out parts of Scripture that could undermine slavery or incite rebellion.
If you want a pro-slavery Bible, it’s unsurprising you’d get rid of the exodus story or drop Paul’s declaration that in Christ “there is … neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28). But why did the creators of the “Slave Bible” cut out the Book of Psalms? After all, the portions that tend to be well known and well-loved draw our minds toward well-tended sheep sitting by quiet waters.
Yet upon closer inspection, Psalms is obsessed with the Lord’s liberating justice for the oppressed. And because the book offers us prayers and songs, it doesn’t just tell us how to think about justice—it offers us scripts to practice shouting and singing about it.
But when I recently took a quick look at the lyrics of the first 25 songs listed in the “CCLI Top 100” worship songs reportedly sung by churches and compared them to the way the Psalms sing about justice, I realized that we don’t necessarily follow that script. Here’s what stood out:
There is only one passing mention of the word justice in the Top 25. By contrast, just one of the Old Testament’s words for justice (mishpat) shows up 65 times in 33 different psalms. The oldest title for the Book of Psalms is simply “Praises.” When you ask what the Psalter says we should be praising God for, though, the Lord’s justice stands at the top of the list. The Psalms shout for joy to the “Mighty King, lover of justice,” who has “established equity” and enacted “justice and righteousness in Jacob” (Ps. 99:4, NRSV).
There are zero references to the poor or poverty in the Top 25. But Psalms uses varied language to describe the poor on nearly every page. Psalm 146 declares that the Lord deserves praise because he is the one “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry” (v. 7, NRSV).
The widow, refugee, and oppressed are completely absent from the Top 25. By contrast, these victims of injustice are everywhere in the Psalms.
References to enemies are rare in the Top 25. When they are mentioned, they appear to be enemies only in a spiritual sense. By contrast, the psalmists constantly pray to God about the way the wicked prosper by exploiting or betraying their neighbors (Ps. 73).
Maybe most devastatingly, in the Top 25, not a single question is ever posed to God. When we sing the Top 25, we don’t ask God anything. By contrast, prick the Psalter and it bleeds with the cries of the oppressed, pleading for God to act.
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor. (10:1–2, NRSV)
Protesting to and even raging at God about injustice is central to the hymnal God himself gives his people (Ps. 44:23–24). The Book of Psalms recognizes that suppressing feelings of anger and rage in situations of extreme violence does more harm than good. Humans need spaces to process the full range of our emotions, especially when we or our loved ones have been victimized. For the Psalter, worship is that safe place. But such language is completely lacking in the Top 25.
We need those who write worship music to help us sing the psalms, and to write new songs that echo the psalms’ outcry against injustice. Many are already doing so, including groups like Porter’s Gate, Poor Bishop Hooper, Sons of Korah, Urban Doxology, and others. But we can’t put all the responsibility on songwriters.
After all, the Top 25 isn’t a list of what our worship leaders write—it’s a list of what, broadly speaking, we like to sing. Even if the psalms were our only songbook, our desire for Top 25-like worship suggests that we might still only sing the “restore my soul” lines of Psalm 23. Likewise, if we rely exclusively on the Top 25, our worshiping lives will be fundamentally impoverished.
Our hymnals aren’t much better. Soong-Chan Rah shows that the major hymnals of mainline and evangelical churches downplay or outright refuse to lament. Even the lectionary doesn’t solve the problem. According to Brent Strawn, more than a third of the psalms get cut out of the Revised Common Lectionary’s weekly readings, and nearly half of those that are included get excerpted.
And what is it that gets edited out of our Psalter? Often, it’s the psalms that plead with God over injustice and demand that he do something about it. For white evangelicals at least, maybe that’s because we often place the affluent, middle-class American experience at the center of the choir, while the book of Psalms frequently centers the economically poor.
Worship that doesn’t sing like Scripture fails to relate to God the way God himself demands we relate to him. And because worship has a unique power to transform hearts and minds, when we refuse to sing Scripture’s justice songs, we reject one of God’s strategies for discipling us to become just ourselves.
Worse yet, we deny the poor and oppressed what Ellen Davis calls the “First Amendment for the faithful” that Psalms offers them. Meanwhile, by refusing to sing like the psalms do, those of us who are not poor and oppressed refuse to learn how to mourn and protest alongside them. We complain that our suffering neighbors sound too angry, rather than discovering the angry rage of the poor in the face of extreme injustice on nearly every page of Holy Scripture’s hymnbook.
Addressing our failure to sing justice the way the psalms do requires a long-term, significant investment by contemporary congregations. At the very least, our best first step is to reclaim the psalms themselves as scripts we use in prayer and song and then to evaluate other hymns and songs against the measuring stick of the Psalter itself.
White evangelicals like myself have tended to be particularly guilty of rejecting Scripture’s justice songs, but we can look for help on this journey from others. We can learn from traditions that continue to chant the psalms regularly and fully in worship and from traditions whose worship songs echo the language of the psalms. For instance, if we listen to the way the “Sorrow Songs” of the Black church tell “of death and suffering and unvoiced longing,” as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, perhaps we can learn what it might sound like to sing Scripture’s cry for justice in a new key.
Because we’re out of the habit of singing for justice, because many congregations are ill-equipped to understand the psalmists’ rage at injustice, and because the angry psalms can be dangerous if misused, we also need extensive teaching and preaching on the Book of Psalms.
We’re talking about a revolution in the way we sing and pray, a revolution driven neither by smoke machines nor by the theological flavor of the week but by the very scripts God has given us to use in our life with him. Sounds like a lot of work. But if we embrace it, we might find ourselves singing our way toward the justice that our God loves and our world longs for.
Michael J. Rhodes is an Old Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College and an assistant pastor at Downtown Church. He is the co-author of Practicing the King’s Economy, and is currently writing a book on justice-oriented discipleship (IVP Academic).
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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