Introducing Congregations to the Songs of Zion

James Grant, at In the Light of the Gospel, has a post today on how to introduce congregations to older hymns (HT: Justin Taylor). In it he gives some excellent strategies for teaching old songs to new congregations. In an age when “Shine, Jesus Shine!” is now a “classic P&W” song or even a “traditional hymn,” one can imagine that re-introducing congregations and older hymns to one another might be seen as radical but still one wonders: is radical enough?

Imagine if we changed the noun from hymns to psalms. After all, if we really want to re-connect the church to the historic songbook of the church, if we really want to embrace catholicity, if we really want to overcome cultural barriers, if we really want to overcome the theological problems inherent in many hymns, if we really want to transcend parochialism, if we really want to move beyond the argument over taste and style then there is one, simple, elegant solution: sing God’s Word.

The first problem that arises with the introduction of older hymns to contemporary worship (sometimes called a “blended” service) is that we are simply adding  older religious subjectivity to contemporary religious subjectivity. Just as someone, somewhere has written the contemporary songs sung by so many congregations and those songs reflect contemporary religious experience, so someone somewhere wrote the old hymns. The old hymns reflected the religious experience of the 19th or 18th or 17th or even 16th century.

Can we escape subjectivity? Yes and no. Yes, we do not have to be trapped by modern or contemporary or even ancient Christian religious subjectivity but no we cannot escape living in some time or place and writing out of experience. David and other psalmists wrote the psalms and Matthew, Paul, Luke, and other NT writers recorded the NT canticles. They wrote in a time and place. They reflected their experience. Yet there’s a great difference between the subjectivity of a 19th-century hymn writer and a canonical actor in redemptive history or a canonical writer of redemptive history: it’s the adjective “canonical.”

It’s odd for folk who so often yell about sola Scriptura that we (Reformed and evangelical) folk often abandon that principle when it comes to worship. There are historical reasons for that move but we can, if we will, recognize the mistakes made in the past and correct them now.

Further, there is a difference between subjectivism and subjectivity. The latter is unavoidable, the former is quite avoidable. There is a distinction to be made between the divinely inspired record of redemptive history, however, of which we have been graciously made participants and the record of private religious experience which is hymnody.

The actors in redemptive history, and the record of those acts of that revelation are unique. They acted for us. Those are not just their stories. Those are OUR stories, and OUR songs. When David writes of his own struggle with sin and his deliverance from his enemies, he is singing for us and we are singing with him. More than that, as often as not the real singer in the psalms is not David or some other psalmist but God the Son himself. Perhaps one reason why we no longer sing the songs of Zion is because we stopped reading them properly under the influence of dispensationalism? If “that was then and this is now” then why bother singing songs that belonged to another time and place? The problem is that NT Church did not read the psalter that way! No other passage is quoted or alluded to more frequently in the NT than Ps 110. The book of Hebrews is arguably a sermon on Ps 110. How often we do we sing Ps 110 in sacred worship? Have you ever sung Ps 110 in your life? Indeed, the only songs that we know with certainty that the assembled NT church sang were psalms. There is not a shred of evidence that the NT Church sang anything other than God’s inspired Word.

That’s objectivity. The Songs of Zion take us out of ourselves and out of our experience and out of our time and they allow us to identify with the salvation accomplished once for all by God in Christ. That objectivity  is a central reason why psalmody declined in the modern period. Ours has been an incredibly self-absorbed time. Christian hymnody has, for the most part, reflected that turn to the self. The Christ of the Psalms is a Prophet, Priest, and King. The Christ of modern hymnody walks with us in the garden while dew is still on the rose. They are two different figures. Perhaps the chief survival strategy among evangelicals, since the 18th century, has been to re-cast the faith in terms of personal religious experience precisely because it avoids the problem of history. If the question in the 16th century was, “What has Christ done for me, the question of the 18th century became, “What is Christ doing in me?”

There is a great and laudable desire in our time to reconnect with the church in all times and places. We cannot do that without singing from the same songbook and the songbook from which the canonical and post-canonical church sang was the psalter (and the NT canticles). The psalms dominated Christian worship from the first century through the 17th century. It was only in the 18th century that the psalms began to give way to hymns. Today, the psalter seems to be completely lost to most “evangelical” congregations. I know this from my travels, I know this from my students. Few of them have ever sung Psalm 23. The Psalter is a strange country for them.

Every post-canonical song that one re-introduces to a contemporary congregation carries with it cultural baggage, whether from 19th-century frontier America or 18th-century colonial America or from German pietism, Romanticism, nationalism etc. In other words, when we re-introduce a hymn to a congregation we’re also re-introducing an older culture. When we sing the older hymns, we’re not just preserving a theology but a culture.

Once again, the psalms and NT canticles come to us from cultures, but they are the cultures in which God accomplished redemption, in time, in history. If we are to re-introduce our congregations, in divine service, to songs that have embedded in them a culture, why not re-introduce them to the songs of Zion, that God gave us, that transmit with them the culture into which he spoke and in which he acted? Why do we prefer to transmit post-canonical cultures as a part of worship over the canonical?

Yes, psalms and NT canticles have be set to some meter and to some tune. We do not have inspired tunes and we do not have a record of inspired meter. Fine. As far as I know we have always regarded things such as tunes and meters as circumstances of worship determined by the light of nature. Some time back I argued that we need better tunes for the psalms than we have currently. If we want to marry the present with the past, we might begin with the great riches of historic psalm settings, many of which remain quite singable. To those we should add well-crafted, thoughtful, contemporary tunes that are intended for and appropriate to congregational worship.

The idea of re-introducing congregations to the Christian past is a good one. We need to select which past which we intend to re-present. If we’re simply re-presenting our grandparents’ past then young people (and boomers) might have some reason to chafe. If, however, we are re-introducing the songs of Zion, God’s very own word, the divinely inspired, inerrant, infallible Word, the history of redemption, the honest struggle with doubt and temptation, the honest rejoicing in deliverance, the earnest expectation of salvation and the hope of consummation that is recorded in them then we are not imposing anything upon anyone. Rather, we are re-connecting Christians to their own history, the history of salvation hoped for and accomplished, the history in which, by God’s grace, we have been given the privilege of sharing.

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  1. Agreed. There’s still a bizzare reluctance to sing the 150 songs God put in the Bible in churches. Paul writes to new covenant people and tells them to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

    I’m still convinced that we are supposed to sing extra-canonical songs in corporate worship but whatever your view on that, we’re not singing enough Psalms.

  2. Yep. I always say, no matter what you think Paul meant when he wrote, “Sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” what he didn’t mean was, “You can forget about those dusty old covenant psalms!”

  3. Wholeheartedly agree.

    You know, I think there would be less of a debate, or at least less heated, about exclusive psalmody and extra-canonical hymnody if reformed churches, _actually_ utilized the 150 psalms _principally_, as stated in the URC church order for example. In this day and age, the preponderance belongs to extra-canonical hymns and a single psalm is sung to mollify those who prefer to sing and hear God’s word alone.

    By the way, Dr. Godfrey said this in a Sinners & Saints radio show not too long ago:

    “I think it’s really ironic, that there are all these churches who talk about how important the Bible is, but then when it comes to singing they turn away from the Bible.

    If we really believe that the Bible is important, and we really believe that the Psalms are an important part of the Bible, why wouldn’t we all be clamoring to sing more Psalms instead of running away from them?”

  4. Amen! The more I sing the Psalms, the more I am forced to search the Scriptures to understand the history of redemption. My “personal testimony” is Abraham’s story, Moses’s story, Israel’s story… Christ’s story. That’s better than any subjective experience “in the garden.”

  5. Great post Dr. Clark,

    you said:

    Perhaps one reason why we no longer sing the songs of Zion is because we stopped reading them properly under the influence of dispensationalism?

    This of course is true but we can grow in our understanding of the psalms as we sit under the preaching of a good minister building line upon line,

    What is hard now for a lot of folks in reformed circles who sing a mixture of psalms and hymns, is that the so-called psalms that we sing are intensively paraphrased and cut up. It seems they have been re-written to sound like hymns. We are told that we should appreciate the singing of psalms but you can hardly make out where you are in the psalm as you compare it you the your English bible. I’m referring specifically to the “psalms” in the blue psalter / hymnal that the URC and the CRC uses.

    I came into the URC after singing from the Scottish Psalter in church and in family worship for 30 years. And when i put myself in the place of the brothers and sisters I worship with, I can understand why there is little or no interest or motivation to sing more psalms. They are simply just like the hymns that we sing. So, what is all the fuss about, they will say.

    Dr. Clark, I love to hear you promote the psalms in worship. It is a great service to the church. I am whole heatedly along side you; may I also plead with you to see fit to promote the best English translation of the psalms for the church as well. (which of course is the 1650 Scottish Psalter) The words that we sing ought to be our first concern, not the tunes. We want to sing words that we can trust are God’s words. Simply saying that this song which we are about to sing was “taken from psalm 50” is not good enough. We need the word of Christ to dwell in us richly. No more paraphrases! away with them! We are spiritual people in Christ, let our praises be Spirit filled.

  6. Thanks for your Post Dr Clark,

    I’m one of those YRR types who, through this blog, the White Horse Inn, and a couple of other things is becoming more receptive to the Confessionally Reformed way of doing things. I’d admit to not being presently convinced of the exclusive Psalmnody position, but with all the problems the church is having at the moment, I’d join Carl Trueman in wondering what planet you’d have to come from to object to singing more Bible in our services.

    Just two questions: I think I’ve probably only ever sung Psalm 23, 25 and 40. I follow the Psalm reading programme from the Book of Common Prayer, so the Psalms are a part of my daily life, but are there any resources (specifically, a psalter) in particular that you could recommend? Is there any way someone not massively musically accomplished could get recordings of the tunes, for example?

    In addition, I’d love to get to know and understand the Psalms better, are there maybe two or three books (either introduction or commentary, of any length) you’d recommend to help me?

    Thanks for your work here, even on the occasions when I disagree, you’re almost invariably thought provoking.


    • Just to underline the virtue of the 1650 Scottish Psalter as the best English translation of the Psalms in meter, I give you David Silversides , minister of the Gospel recommending it:

      “The Procedure within the Westminster Assembly

      The Assembly was divided into three committees, each responsible for the scrutiny of 50 Psalms. All 150 were subsequently read line by line before the whole Assembly. The Assembly included some excellent Hebrew scholars, such as John Lightfoot, famous for his knowledge of oriental languages and rabbinical writings. The revised versions were sent in batches to Scotland for further examination by the Scottish church.”

      While we are introducing the Psalms we may as well start with the best.

  7. Dr. Clark,

    I thought you said circumstances could only refer to time and place of worship, and that’s why instruments can’t be a circumstance. But now you say that tunes and meter are a circumstance. That seems a very fine, possibly even arbitrary distinction to make. If tunes and meter are a circumstance, and yet it remains painfully obvious that instruments can’t be a circumstance, then I clearly have no understanding of just what a circumstance is at all.

    But I know what you’re gonna say: read RRC. Ok. It’s on my list.


  8. Echo,

    I certainly don’t presume to speak for Dr. Clark, but as I understand it, circumstances are any sine qua non of worship. Thus, you can’t have a worship service without a time and a place, and you can’t have singing without a tune. You can, however, have singing without instruments, hence they’re not a circumstance. Hope that helps.

  9. E,

    David R. is right. Time and place are the most often listed. It’s a very short list. I don’t know what else I would add to the list. What we don’t want to do is to use circumstance as a trojan horse by which to import anything we want into the service or to create mischief as JMF and RJG have done.

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