The Psalms in Worship

Too many churches never sing the psalms in public worship. Despite the fact the two direct injunctions that relate to singing in the New Testament place psalms at the head of the list of what Christians ought to sing as they ‘make music in [their] heart to the Lord’ (Eph 5.19; Col 3.16), these expressions of praise are strangely absent from many orders of service.

It would be interesting to explore the reason for this. It may well be because of straightforward ignorance on the part of many. The form and content of worship have gone through many phases over the years and important elements of both have often been lost only to be rediscovered by later generations. The use of structured liturgy is one example. So it may also be the case that churches that do not sing the psalms do so because they have never had exposure to them. But it needs to be asked what led to these omissions in the first place. What caused so many churches to move away from more formal liturgy and why did it so often coincide with a departure from psalm singing in the process?

The answer in broad terms is found in God’s pronouncement on Israel’s worship through the prophet Isaiah. ‘These people worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Isa 29.13). The forms may have been canonically correct, but the personal engagement with God they were intended to express were quite literally on a different planet. When worship degenerates in this way – ceasing to satisfy the worshipper, let alone please God as the recipient of praise – those who worship tend to reach for novel alternatives. (In the case of Israel in the prophet’s day, this meant idol worship.) But for the church through the ages – especially for many evangelical and professedly Reformed churches, it has meant embracing less biblically crafted expressions of praise.

Another reason for the lapse in psalm singing – especially in the last fifty years and longer – is by way of reaction to the intra-church debate over the form they should take and the way they should be sung. Should they be sung to musical accompaniment, or a capella? Which Psalters are ‘approved’ and which are not? (The same debates that have raged around Bible versions and different hymnbooks have engulfed the use of Psalters as well!) When such debates become too inward looking and pedantic they quickly become counter-productive in making their case. And the insistence by some church groupings that psalms are the only acceptable form of sung praise may also have led to an over-swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction for churches that disagree.

The debate surrounding so-called ‘exclusive psalmody’ is both interesting and important. It revolves in large part around the idea of there being a ‘Regulative Principle’ in public worship and how it ought to be understood and implemented. In terms of its impact on what is sung, much of the debate focuses on the meaning of ‘hymns’ and ‘spiritual songs’ in Paul’s command to sing in the New Testament. But this focus has tended to eclipse an even greater issue: namely, the way sung praise evolves in Scripture following the flow of progressive revelation. So for those who are committed to a ‘psalms only’ position, although they argue strongly and rightly for a Christocentric understanding of the psalms, they can never sing the name of Jesus. And although they are fully Trinitarian in their theology, they can never acknowledge the Blessed Trinity in song using the fuller language of New Testament revelation. Even though both these facets of worship define the praise offered by angels, heavenly beings and the spirits of the righteous made perfect (He 12.22-24) – and the church on earth shares in their worship – it creates what David Garner has described as an unusual kind of ‘unrealised eschatology’ for those whose worship is shaped only by the Old Testament.

The key to appreciating the depth and richness of New Testament worship is seeing that it neither appears out of nowhere, nor does it stand alone. Just as the New Testament would be meaningless without the Old, so too New Testament worship ends up being superficial if it is not self-consciously rooted in its Old Testament antecedent.

In that sense, the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament served not only as the backbone of sung praise for the New Testament church, it also provided the template for individual hymns and spiritual songs, and also for their entire corpus.

The beauty and value of the psalms can be seen at many levels. They are the only expressions of sung praise that are canonically inspired and carry all the attributes of Scripture itself. Though this does not mean that there is not a divine factor in the composition of good hymns and songs. Edmund Clowney helpfully points our that Paul’s directives on the use of hymns are found in the context of his teaching on being filled with the Spirit.

They are also a form of sung praise that not only speaks to us, but also speaks for us. The sheer range of life situations they cover is unparalleled in any hymnbook ever produced by the church. They articulate praise for the believer in the darkest depths of life’s experiences as much in their highest heights. So when we cannot find appropriate words ourselves for such situations, we can reach for the words God has placed at our disposal.

They express the whole spectrum of the dimensions of praise from personal, to corporate, to national and even to global and cosmic outpourings of adoration to God. (Those who complain about too many hymns that use first person singular language should look again at how many such psalms do so!)

There is also a logic, flow and interconnectedness about the Book of Psalms. They do not merely reflect the personal preferences of a Jewish worship committee tasked with compiling it from what was available at that time; they were inspired, brought together and ordered under the direction of the Holy Spirit himself. In that sense they should give at least some pause for thought for those who choose and arrange the wider range of sung praise used in churches today.

The greatest reason for loving the psalms and for using them for worship and to aid us in the ongoing task of composing hymns and spiritual songs through every generation is that Jesus loved them. He loved them because they were all about him as previews of his incarnation, life and work. He loved them because they provided a musical route map to the course his life had to follow in order to secure salvation. He loved them because they led through death to resurrection and the eternal glory of the world to come. He proved that he loved them because he was forever singing and quoting them – even in his darkest hour. And if he loved them, then we his children should love them and dig deep into their content to appreciate what made them special. When we do that, it will not only deepen our appreciation of the psalms, it will also enrich the quality of the hymns and songs the church produces for God’s glory and his people’s joy.

Mark Johnston