A Psalm-Singing Resurgence
We are experiencing something of a Psalm-singing resurgence in our day. Resources abound online for people who would like to learn more about psalm singing. Churches are making strategic plans to train their members in singing the psalms. Blogs buzz with excitement over the Psalter. It is undeniable that the church is waking up to that which once marked it--the passionate singing of psalms. I am a child of this movement.
So, how does someone set about the task of rediscovering the psalms? First, you must keep the benefits that God attaches to worshiping with the psalms before you. Second, you must decide practically how you will begin singing psalms in private, family, and corporate worship.
What benefits should you expect from singing Psalms?
When you sing psalms you sing the Bible. The hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is a moving meditation on the cross of Christ. No hymn matches "For All the Saints" in its contemplation on the communion of the saints. But neither of these hymns are the actual words of the Bible. They are reflections on it. Forgetting for a moment that we are not singing the psalms in Hebrew, we are still singing the very words of God. The versification, themes, and content of the psalms are the inspired word of God for his church in every age. When you sing a psalm you sing the Bible.
When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology. Martin Luther said of the Psalter, "that it might well be entitled a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended." The 150 psalms cover the span of theology. To learn the psalms is not just to learn a specific topic of theology. It is to learn about every area of theology. Anthropology, theology proper, a theology of Scripture, Christology, soteriology, eccleisiology, and eschatology are all covered in the Psalter. Take for example Psalm 19 and its two part contemplation of God's revelation in creation and in the Bible. Or consider John Calvin's observation of God's attributes in Psalm 145, "in which the sum of all his powers is so precisely reckoned up that nothing would seem to have been omitted." The psalms provide a thorough exposure to the fullness of theology.
When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture. An important part of Christian maturity is the ability to recall passages of Scripture at need. Educational circles have long advocated the use of music to aid memorization. Music has a way of impressing truth into the mind in ways that reading alone cannot. This is no accident; it is the providential hand of our Creator God. He wants you to memorize his word and has provided a mnemonic for easy memory--the Psalter as Scripture set to music.
When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy. Andrew Fletcher said, "Let me write a country's songs, and I care not who writes its laws." He was on to something. Songs drive information deep into our hearts. However, this power can be used for ill means. As long as the church has existed, songs have been used to inculcate heresy. There is an assumption that if you can sing it then it must be true. How shall we guard against sung-heresy? Sing psalms.
When you sing the psalms you engage a collection of songs that address the full range of human emotions. Godly anger, heart-wrenching sorrow, dark depression, effulgent joy, honest questioning, and exuberant praise are just a sampling of the emotional range covered by the psalms. Most churches sense the burden of teaching their people how to think. Very few consider their responsibility to teach their people how to feel. Christians do not struggle with feeling. Feeling just happens. But our feelings must be trained by the gospel as much as our minds must. The psalms serve as the class room of our affections.
When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ. One of the most ignorant statements a Christian can make against psalm singing is, "I don't sing psalms because they aren't about Jesus." Too many evangelicals--having unwittingly drunk deep of the Marcionite heresy--have ceased to see the Old Testament, and especially the psalms, as a masterpiece of redemptive history telling in types, shadows, and rituals the person and work of Jesus Christ. When the earliest Christians wanted to sing praise to God for the redemption wrought by Jesus' atoning death they turned to the psalms. It is sheer biblical ignorance and chronological snobbery to assume we can write better songs about Jesus than are provided in the psalms through the lens of the New Testament. To sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.
When you sing the psalms you are training for spiritual warfare. As my Peruvian friend insisted, the psalms are militant. They are filled with images of war, divine conquest, and righteous triumph. Are those themes no longer needed in our day? As we watch men leave the church in droves dismayed at the feminization of worship is their no need for masculine, militant spirituality? As we watch Satan and his legions pillage congregations and hold Christians captive in doubts and error do we not need songs of war? J. C. Ryle understood this crucial element of Christian worship when he said, "true Christianity is the fight of faith." What songs will the armies of God sing to steel courage and embolden spiritual warfare? When we sing the psalms we sing the songs of war against sin, the world, and the devil.
When you sing the psalms you are engaging the communion of saints. The psalms were composed over a certain period in Israelite history. But they are not relics. They have been sung by the covenant people of God in each successive generation up to today. They will be sung until Christ's return. This touches on the doctrine of the communion of the saints. There is a solidarity in Christ for all who have been bought by his blood. That solidarity extends across cultures and generations. The psalms are rooted in the covenant identity of all God's chosen race. To sing them is to confess the communion of saints.
How can you learn to sing the Psalms?
First, find a Psalter you can sing. Notice I didn't simply say, "find a Psalter". Just as the best Bible translation is the one you read so the best Psalter is the one you sing. Different Psalters are suited to different musical abilities--congregational and personal. Some set each psalm to a particular tune while others simply provide the suggested meter allowing you to choose the tune. Don't buy a Psalter you can't sing.
I own three Psalters. The Trinity Psalter (Crown and Covenant) was developed for my denomination for use in congregational worship. It provides a single suggested tune for each psalm and breaks long psalms up into suggested portions. The Book of Psalms for Worship (Crown and Covenant) also suggests tunes for each psalm but provides multiple settings for each psalm taken from different historic Psalters. This method provides you with more options--helpful if you don't know a particular tune or prefer a different versification. The third and most used psalter I own is The Psalms of David in Metre (Trinitarian Bible Society). This is the version that follows the 1650 Scottish Psalter. It provides each psalm in the common meter. While lacking in musical sophistication this version is imminently singable.
Secondly, you must know your Bible. Devote special study to the background of the Psalms. Ask your pastor to suggest good commentaries on the Psalms. Purchase a Bible with cross-references and note where Psalms are quoted in the New Testament. Let the authors of the New Testament teach you how to apply the psalms to Christian worship and life.
Let me also add the suggestion that you read a good book on redemptive history. Graeme Goldworthy's According to Plan is a great place to start. A good foundation in the Bible's overarching plan of redemption and how it culminates in Jesus Christ is essential to singing the psalms well. For example, what are you singing about when you ask God, "to let you dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Psalm 27:4)? Should you set up a cot in your local church? Or, what does it mean to praise God for his protection of Jerusalem (Psalm 51:18)? By Jerusalem, do you mean geographic Jerusalem or the Christian church? A good background in redemptive history--sometimes called biblical theology--is essential to answering these questions and others as you seek to sing the psalms with understanding.
Third, to sing the psalms well you must understand how the psalms direct us to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Again, a Bible with cross references is valuable in this type of study. Many psalms are directly fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. The authors of the New Testament regularly draw on the psalms to describe what was accomplished on the Cross. The beauty of the psalms is magnified as they are placed in the setting of God's redemptive work in Jesus Christ. The psalms are thoroughly Christian--being centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. We sing the psalms at the foot of the Cross.
The fourth thing you will need is the willingness to try something new. Psalm singing can be difficult for someone who has been raised solely on a diet of Reformation and post-Reformation hymns. Psalm singing can be downright alien for someone who has only known modern praise songs. But the promised benefits--briefly mentioned above--are immense. It is not easy work but it is good work. It is not quick work but it provides long-term, lasting joys.
A church that refuses to sing the psalms places itself on a restricted spiritual diet that will result in spiritual malnutrition. Psalm singing is a staple in Christian worship no matter what your view on hymns. If you want to read more on the interface of hymns and psalms throughout the history of Reformed worship let me suggest to you chapter 4 of Hughes Oliphant Old's book, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture.
*This is an adaptation of an article originally published at Ref21 in June of 2008.