This article was first published in the Standard Bearer. For the original source link click here.
Previous article in the series: December 1, 2012.
Singing the Psalms as we have them in our Psalter is of immeasurable value to the child of God. This is not surprising if we bear in mind what was brought out in the first article of this three-part series of articles on psalm-singing. In our first article we demonstrated that God has called His church to sing the Psalms. He gave us the Psalms as part of the inspired Scriptures and then, in those same Scriptures, commanded us to sing them. The Lord calls His church only to those things that are of spiritual value and benefit to her. Therefore we can conclude that if the Lord instructs His church to sing Psalms, it is because He knows the great value of this activity for His church and calls her to this wise practice in order that she may enjoy the multifaceted benefit of psalm-singing.
Throughout her history, the church has recognized her calling to sing the Psalms and has obeyed that calling, faithfully singing the Psalms her Lord has given her. This historical reality we demonstrated in our second article. And in the way of her singing the Psalms, the faithful church has also known and enjoyed the many benefits of psalm-singing.
But there have always been those who have not appreciated the value of psalm-singing for the church and have raised objections to this practice. Objections are certainly raised today. Many have been persuaded by these objections or have been unable or unwilling to answer them, with the result that other songs have replaced the Psalms in most churches today—to the detriment of those churches.
Especially in light of this powerful trend in the church-world today, we need to be able to answer these objections when we encounter them. We need to be able to answer them, whether they arise from without our own churches, or even within our own minds. We answer some of these objections to psalm-singing in this article.
But our goal is not purely negative, nor even primarily negative, but primarily positive. Our main goal is to remind ourselves of the great value of singing the Psalms. It is not a lofty goal to stand for psalm-singing simply for the sake of psalm-singing. But our goal is, following our Lord’s calling, to sing the Psalms for the many positive benefits they afford us. So before we go on to answer some objections to psalm-singing, we will first consider several benefits of singing the Psalms.
The Psalms teach us rightly what to believe. The life of the Christian is a life of faith, a life of believing right doctrine for the comfort of his soul, for guidance for his life, and for the glory of God. And the Psalms are right doctrine. When we sing versifications of them we sing what is true, we sing sound doctrine. As we sing from the heart, contemplating the meaning of the words, we learn. We are taught by the Psalms what rightly to believe. Songs that are frequently used for worship, but are not based on the inspired Scriptures, as the songs in our Psalter are, often suffer from doctrinal error and at least suffer from a lack of doctrinal depth. Often these songs are shallow, simplistic, and repetitive and therefore do not serve to instruct the singers of them in good doctrine, as the Psalm-based songs in our Psalter do so superbly.
The Psalms also teach us how to pray. Look through the book of Psalms and notice how many are prayers, or include prayers, of the inspired psalmist to God. If one desired to do a study of Scripture to learn how to improve his prayer-life, he would be well-advised to spend a good deal of his time in the Psalms, studying the examples of the psalmists’ prayers. One could learn much about prayer from the Psalms, but the same is true of our Psalter as it puts these prayers to music. As we thoughtfully sing from the Psalter, we pray to our God with song. And we lift up good prayers to Him, prayers that He Himself gave to us to offer back to Him again. But as we do so, using, as it were, these form prayers, we also learn better how to lift up before the Lord our spontaneous prayers in the various and ever-changing situations of our lives.
Another value of psalm-singing is that when we sing Psalms we sing songs that are God-centered. This is not an unimportant point. The Scriptures are God-centered, the Reformed faith stands out as a God-centered system of theology, and the child of God is commanded to live a God-centered life by the “first and great commandment” of Matthew 22:37-38. Then the favored songs of the Christian must be God-centered. But this is not the norm today. Much modern religious music is man-centered. As we live in a world in which the Antichristian kingdom of MAN continues to rise in power with ever-increasing speed, let us recoil from any unbiblical emphasis on man and wholeheartedly sing the God-centered Psalms.
To say that the Psalms are God-centered is also to say that they are Word-centered. To emphasize the Word of God is to emphasize God Himself. The Psalms, too, then, are Word-centered. One way in which this is manifest is the high regard for the Word of God that is expressed in the Psalms, especially as the Word is praised for its gracious, saving power. Specific examples of this would include Psalms 1, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119, to name only a few, but this is a general theme that is woven throughout the Psalms. When we sing the Psalms, we sing praise for the Word that instructs us, guides us, and quickens us. And at the same time we are reminded of the importance of holding that Word of God in highest esteem in all of our life.
It follows that if the Psalms are God-centered and not man-centered, they teach a proper perspective of man. This, perhaps more than a lack of God-centeredness or Word-centeredness, is what is most conspicuously lacking in religious music that is not based on the Psalms. So many songs invented by men do not mention man’s sin, his temptations, his enemies, his weakness, the frailty and brevity of his life, the trials on his earthly pilgrimage, and his constant need as entirely dependent upon God. The Psalm-songs, on the other hand, speak poignantly of these matters and put them upon our lips. By singing the Psalms, then, we are reminded of the true reality of our situation, kept humble before our God, and enabled to cry out to the Lord, our only strength.
Despite these great benefits of Psalm-singing (among others), there are objections raised against singing the Psalms. One of these objections is that the Psalms are simply obsolete, outdated, not well suited for today’s worship by today’s Christians. This general idea may come to be expressed in several different ways.
One objection that is raised against singing Psalms is that the Psalms are outdated as to their content. One might object that the Psalms are too cold, dead, and doctrinal, and not emotional or expressive enough for today’s Christian. We respond by pointing out that the Psalms are, in fact, incredibly expressive and that they express every emotional state of the child of God. John Calvin has called the Psalms “the anatomy of all parts of the soul.” Just as a med school anatomy book contains descriptions of all the physical parts of the human body, so the Psalms do for man’s emotional life. About this aspect of the Psalms Calvin writes, “There is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn . . . all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated” (Preface to Calvin’s Commentary on the Psalms).
We should point out in this connection that here again we see the value of singing the Psalms. Not only are they valuable in that they give us words whereby we can express every emotion of our hearts, but they are also valuable in that they provide a guide and measure for these emotions. How do I know what to express to the Lord? How do I know how to respond to the various emotions that course through my soul? How do I know what is holy Christian experience? We turn to the Psalms and sing them, letting them shape our experience and give holy voice to our experience as the part of God’s Word that is perfectly adapted to that purpose.
Many also dislike the Psalms because they are antithetical. They claim that it is not fitting for the New Testament Christian to sing of God’s anger against sin, and of His righteous judgments upon unbelievers; nor, certainly, is there any place for us to sing the Psalms’ imprecations against our enemies. They argue that these belong to the more severe Old Testament and do not reflect the spirit of the more gentle, peaceful, and kindly New Testament.
To this kind of thinking we must give no place. First of all, Scripture is one. The same antithetical spirit is found as much in the New Testament as in the Old Testament, as any careful, honest study of Scripture clearly reveals.
Secondly, both Old Testament and New Testament saints are called to be holy. To be holy means not only to be consecrated to God in love, but also to be zealously opposed to all that stands opposed to God. To be holy, then, is to be antithetical. The antithetical Psalms are fitting songs for the holy New Testament child of God.
Third, as follows out of his calling to be antithetical, the New Testament saint is called to be militant. We are called to fight, to engage in warfare against our three-fold enemy: our sinful nature, the ungodly world, and the devil (e.g., I Tim. 6:12; II Tim. 2:3, 4). So long as she remains in this world, the church is engaged in warfare. She must then be characterized by a militant spirit. This is no less true in the New Testament than it was in the Old Testament. The Old Testament Psalms, full of the energy and zeal of the warrior, are perfect for the New Testament saint engaged in the battle of faith.
Some of the greatest benefits of singing the Psalms are found in that they are antithetical and militant. As we sing the Psalms we are reminded that we are in the midst of a battle, which, sinfully, we are always so prone to forget. We are taught to be holy, to be antithetical. We are energized to continue to fight the daily battle, and we are given courage and emboldened by the promise of victory and the assurance that we go in the strength of the Lord. In fact, even as we sing the inspired Psalms, we fight. We fight by taking into our hearts and upon our lips the Word of God, which is the weaponry and armor of our spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:11ff.). Singing the Psalms helps to keep us militant, antithetical, and holy.
One of the most common objections to singing the Psalms is that we do not sing of Christ in the Psalms. The idea is that Christ is not spoken of in the Psalms, therefore we who now know of Christ through the New Testament Scriptures ought to create songs by which we can sing of Him.
But this is ignorance of the Scriptures. Christ is spoken of throughout the Psalms. Jesus Himself said so. In Luke 24:44, Jesus speaks of the things “which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” One who holds that the Psalms do not speak of Christ must be instructed to grow in his understanding of Old Testament prophecy, types, and shadows. He must be taught that the Psalms are the very Word of Christ that, we are told, dwells in us richly when we sing them (Col. 3:16). That the Psalms are the Word of Christ is true of all the Psalms, but it is undeniably evident for example in Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” and in Psalm 31:5: “Into thine hand I commend my spirit,” where we find the very words our Savior spoke as He suffered and died for us. When we sing the Psalms, we sing of Christ.
And yet some might say: “But what of evangelism?” Won’t those who visit one of our church services lose interest in our church when they discover that we don’t have solos, praise bands, or at least sing familiar hymns? Won’t they lose interest in us when they see us engage in old-fashioned congregational singing—and that, the singing of Psalter numbers? Does not our singing of Psalms stand in the way of our doing effective evangelism?
There is no reason it cannot be today as it was with the French exiles who came to Geneva in Calvin’s day, so that perhaps the most striking (and attractive) thing to a visitor to one of our congregations’ worship services might be our congregational singing. Especially should this be true today when a visitor may expect some musical “performance” at the front of the auditorium or a congregation struggling halfheartedly through yet another unfamiliar new hymn. Instead, upon visiting one of our churches, let a visitor find himself in the midst of a congregation heartily singing the Psalms together, from the young child to the oldest saint, each one meaningfully and sincerely joining his full-throated praise to a united crescendo of unashamed adoration of the God whom they love, the God who has saved them. Visitor or not, let this be an accurate weekly description of our psalm-singing.
Let us sing the Psalms as God has commanded. Let us sing the Psalms with the church of the ages. And let us sing knowing the great value of singing the Psalms.
Our Psalter has served well the saints who have used it to sing the Psalms these past 100 years (1912-2012). May it be, if the Lord should tarry, that it serves us and our generations as well for the next 100 years.
Rev. David Overway (Wife: Rebecca)
Ordained: September 2002
Pastorates: Covenant, Wyckoff, NJ - 2002; Doon, IA - 2005-2013; Hope PRC-GR 2013-2020