Tell Me Again, Why Don’t We Sing The Psalms?

Only it appeared to me to be requisite to show in passing, that this book makes known to us this privilege, which is desirable above all others — that not only is there opened up to us familiar access to God, but also that we have permission and freedom granted us to lay open before him our infirmities which we would be ashamed to confess before men. Besides there is also here prescribed to us an infallible rule for directing us with respect to the right manner of offering to God the sacrifice of praise, which he declares to be most precious in his sight, and of the sweetest odour. There is no other book in which there is to be found more express and magnificent commendations, both of the unparalleled liberality of God towards his Church, and of all his works; there is no other book in which there is recorded so many deliverances nor one in which the evidences and experiences of the fatherly providence and solicitude which God exercises towards us are celebrated with such splendor of diction, and yet with the strictest adherence to truth, in short, there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.

Moreover although The Psalms are replete with all the precepts which serve to frame our life to every part of holiness, piety, and righteousness, yet they will principally teach and train us to bear the cross; and the bearing of the cross is a genuine proof of our obedience, since by doing this, we renounce the guidance of our own affections and submit ourselves entirely to God, leaving him to govern us, and to dispose of our life according to his will, so that the afflictions which are the bitterest and most severe to our nature, become sweet to us, because they proceed from him. In one word, not only will we here find general commendations of the goodness of God, which may teach men to repose themselves in him alone, and to seek all their happiness solely in him; and which are intended to teach true believers with their whole hearts confidently to look to him for help in all their necessities; but we will also find that the free remission of sins, which alone reconciles God towards us and procures for us settled peace with him, is so set forth and magnified, as that here there is nothing wanting which relates to the knowledge of eternal salvation.

John Calvin | John Calvin’s Preface to the Commentary on the Psalms (HT: Matt Crutchmer)


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3 comments

  1. I just began attending a Pres. Reformed church (RPCNA), with serious consideration to join, and they told me right away, “We only sing Psalms here.” I replied, “That’s why I’m here.”

  2. Yes. And better to compromise on style of singing than on accuracy of translation. From this point of view the anglican practice of chanting has much to commend it. And had the charismatic singers/composers who sang psalms in prose disciplined themselves against “The Spirit” to carry on to the end of a section rather than stop where they ran out of “inspiration” (One example is the lady whose setting of Psalm 98 finishes at the end of verse 4), their work might also have been of real value in this respect.
    Metrical versions seem to me in some places to be antidynamic equivalents with long-drawn-out translations of phrases simply in order to achieve rhyme and rhythm. And sometimes the translation excludes the more important meaning of a phrase, such as in “The brook that runneth in the way With drink shall him supply …”, which completely obliterates the connection with Philippians 2:8-9 ( I favour “He shall drink of the lowly brook That in the way doth lie …”, but that’s not perfect). And sometimes supplied phrases are incorrect, as “Give thou his greatest enemy, Ev’n Satan leave to stand”. Satan is OUR greatest enemy, but he isn’t the greatest enemy of the impenitent wicked, only their second greatest. Still, they’re better than nothing. Perhaps the French metrical version is better – certainly it’s easier to find rhymes in a latin language (considering the Petrarchian versus the English sonnet).

    Actually the answer to “Why don’t we sing the Psalms?” is “because, frankly my dear, we don’t care about Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16”.

  3. A very good question. My own guess is that a custom gets established somewhere along the line, and by the time of the grandchildren of those who established it, they think “we’ve always done it this way”…

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