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Making sense of psalm numbering

PUBLISHED 20 November 2021

Why does the responsorial psalm of the day sometimes have a different number in the Catholic Lectionary from the one in the Bible? Fiona Dyball sheds some light on this sometimes perplexing question.

The numbering of the psalms in the Catholic Lectionary and in Catholic missals, as compared with the Bible, can be a cause of confusion for music ministers. Why are these numbers sometimes different? Elizabeth Harrington from Liturgy Brisbane gives us a clear explanation as to why this occurs, using the popular psalm ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ as an example. This psalm is listed in most current translations of the Bible as Psalm 23, but it is listed in the Catholic Lectionary as Psalm 22:

The problem comes about because, since the promulgation of the Latin Bible (Vulgate) in the 6th century, the Roman Catholic Church has for some reason followed the numbering and division of the psalms used by the Greek translation of the Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) whereas the scriptures used by other Christian traditions follow the division and numbering of the psalms in the Hebrew text.

Psalms 9 and 10 in the Hebrew text were combined into one psalm in the Greek Bible, so from Psalm 9 onwards, the Roman Catholic psalm numbers are one less than those in other versions. Because Psalm 147 of the Jewish psalms is split into two separate psalms in the Septuagint, the total number of psalms in both finishes up being the same—150. However, only the first 8 and the last 3 psalms agree in numbering.

Elizabeth Harrington, ‘The Problem with Psalms’, Liturgy Lines, Liturgy Brisbane, 21 August 2015 

Even though the numbers may sometimes be different, being aware of the numbering system helps music ministers to choose the right psalm of the day with confidence and insight. Music collections and hymnals will often show the number of the psalm as it is in the Bible (the Hebrew numbering), not as it is in the Catholic Lectionary.

It’s important to sing the psalm of the day if possible, and not just read it aloud (seasonal psalms help with this), as these texts are meant to be sung, even if it is just the refrain with the verses spoken (Lectionary for Mass: Introduction, §21). The General Instruction of the Roman Missal calls the responsorial psalm ‘an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word which holds great liturgical and pastoral importance, because it fosters meditation on the word of God’ (GIRM, §61).

Our shared singing of the responsorial psalm brings the Word alive in a different way, producing a more heightened experience than can be achieved by simply speaking the text. The sung responsorial psalm was restored to the Mass in the new liturgy after Vatican II; indeed liturgist and liturgical music composer Lucien Deiss CSSp names this as one of the most significant reforms contained in the new liturgy. It is also anchored in the practices of the early church (Lucien Deiss CSSp, Visions of Liturgy and Music for a New Century, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996, p. 98). Let’s continue to take up that song—a song that is ever ancient and ever new.  

Fiona M. Dyball works extensively in adult and youth faith formation, and in music ministry. She is Music Leader (Voice) at Marcellin College in Melbourne, a member of the Australian National Liturgical Music Council, and works as a consultant around Australia in liturgy and liturgical music.

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