What if I told you that it’s possible to sing the very songs that Jesus sang in worship? What if I told you that a man recently discovered those very songs? It’s true. Joe Holland, Pastor of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) tells the story at 9Marks (HT: Aquila Report). Like a lot of other evangelicals, Joe came to seminary without much awareness of the Psalms. He knew hymns and contemporary worship songs but not the Psalter. His Greek prof, however, required him to pick up a copy of the Trinity Psalter for class. Joe was puzzled. What hath the Trinity Psalter to do with New Testament Greek? Much in every way! As part of class they began with a psalm (a capital idea!) That was his introduction to the Psalms, Jesus’ songbook/hymnal. Our Lord used no other songbook.
Joe spent some time in the Peruvian mountains where he came into contact with a Presbyterian pastor, who explained to him why Reformed folk sing God’s Word in worship. He reports:
We had a long conversation about why this was their practice, but one reason stood out to me. He was fighting heresy in the churches he pastored. False teaching slipped into his churches through folk songs adjusted for worship. Psalm singing was his attempt to guard his people from heresy sung to a familiar tune. Psalms served that growing community of churches as a biblical bulwark against encroaching syncretism. Reflecting on that conversation, I realized that I had become a psalm singer through missions.
Joe lists six benefits of singing from Jesus’ songbook:
- When you sing psalms you literally sing the Bible.
- When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology.
- When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture.
- When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy.
- When you sing the psalms you sing with the full range of human emotion.
- When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ.
He also gives four steps toward recovering Jesus’ songbook:
- Find a Psalter you can sing (he gives some good options)
- Know your Bible.
- To sing the psalms well you must understand how the psalms direct us to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
- The fourth thing you and your congregation will need is the willingness to try something new.
You will want to read the whole article for yourself. It’s a great and encouraging story of discovery, Reformation, and recovering the Reformed confession. It’s also a terrific counter-point to a quite disappointing essay that recently appeared in the pages of New Horizons, the magazine of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, in which a minister attempted to make a case not only against the biblical and historic Reformed practice of singing the entire Psalter in worship but even of collecting the psalms together for singing.
In case the gentle reader thinks that I exaggerate, read it for yourself:
Rather than embracing the “total psalmody” view of a Psalter-Hymnal, I’m convinced we ought to continue our venerable practice of using carefully selected metrical psalms, psalm versions, and paraphrases for sung praise and prayer in our corporate worship, along with scripturally faithful hymns.
Why? Briefly—and maybe too bluntly—not all the psalms as originally written are suitable for corporate Christian praise and prayer. Let me explain. We need to recognize that the Psalms flow out of and reflect the “old,” that is, the Mosaic, covenant understanding and expression of biblical faith. Now, the old covenant reveals much that remains forever true: the existence and power of the Lord God, who is worthy of all praise and thanksgiving; God’s mighty works of creation, providence, and redemption, which deserve our admiration and gratitude; the sin and desperate guilt of fallen humanity; the way of salvation by divine grace through faith in a redeemer; the reality of answered prayer and the forgiveness of sins; and so on.
You should probably read this essay too. Why?
1. It illuminates the way some, perhaps many, read Scripture. Rather than allowing the New Testament not only to interpret Scripture for us and rather than allow the NT to teach us how to read the Hebrew Scriptures, this essay knows a a priori that at least some of the Psalms are unsuitable for Christians. Remarkably, the Christian church didn’t get this memo until the 18th century.
2. It illustrates the deep hold the modern (post-eighteenth-century) approach to worship has upon the imaginations and affections of Reformed folk. Again, had this piece not appeared in the pages of the New Horizon we might have thought that it had appeared in a mainline Presbyterian publication from the 1940s.
3. It demonstrates one tremendous obstacle to the Reformation of worship: love of the familiar, the status quo. As a historical matter, as I argued in Recovering the Reformed Confession, the form of the original (blue) Trinity Hymnal was quite remarkable when viewed in light of the history of Reformed worship. Judged by the history of Reformed and Presbyterian worship, one might not have known it was a Presbyterian songbook. Mr Murray battled valiantly to recover the historic Reformed practice of worship but was outvoted by the committee. Mr Murray’s theological legacy is venerated in the OPC but apparently his psalmody is not venerated quite as much.
4. Christian freedom. One of the first things the Reformed churches did in Geneva, France, the Netherlands, Germany, and the British Isles was to begin to translate and compile a Psalter for use in public worship. Calvin worked diligently on a Psalter from the very beginning of the Genevan Reformation. It took decades but, by the grace of God, they were able to set all the Psalms to tunes, in French, so that the congregation could sing them in public worship. Now, finally, after centuries of bondage and darkness, God’s people were free to respond to his Word read, preached, and made visible with his very own Word, the songs that our Lord Jesus took to his holy lips, with which he praised his heavenly Father, which pointed to him and which he fulfilled in his actively suffering obedience. Now, finally, God’s people were worshipping our Triune God with the words that the holy catholic church had used for centuries, before the corruption of worship—even so, the Psalter remained the songbook of the church through the middle ages and the Reformation.
5. We live in the most psalm-free period of Christian history. This essay illustrates how we got here. It is our practice for faculty to lead devotions once each semester. When it’s my turn we always sing a psalm a cappella (usually Psalm 23 or 100). It is not unusual to hear from incoming students that not only have they never sung a cappella but that they have never before sung a Psalm. Ever. Think about that. The current versions of the Trinity Hymnal have so successfully hidden the psalms that there circulates a sort of underground list of singable psalms in the Trinity Hymnal (see below).
Do the Psalms present hermeneutical challenges for the Christian? Yes but they are not insurmountable. They were not too great for the disciples and the early church. Has the church confronted and addressed them? Yes. Certainly ministers should explain to congregations how to understand a psalm as we sing it but the Psalms are God’s holy Word and they were given to us to use in public worship, not to be scattered, hidden among hymns or, God forbid, omitted altogether. Bryan Estelle and I recently discussed this very question here. At the time of our discussion I was not aware of the existence of this essay but I was aware of the sentiment it represents.
The essay by Holland is a source of great encouragement. I trust that it represents a renewed enthusiasm among young people (readers of 9Marks) and others to recover the biblical and historic practice of singing God’s Word in public worship. The New Horizons essay is a bracing reminder of our far Reformed worship has drifted from historic practice even within the NAPARC world and how difficult it will be to recover the Reformed confession and practice of worship even within the walls of the Reformed world.
I don’t know the original source of this document. —rsc
Trinity Hymnal – Psalms with tunes widely known.
1 – Psalm 100 – well known
6* – Psalm 103 – well known
9 – Psalm 22 – well known
11 – Psalm 72 – singable
12 – Psalm 135 – well known
16* – Psalm 98 – well known
35* – Psalm 113 – Singable
40* – Psalm 46 – well known
51 – Psalm 5 – Well known
57* – Psalm 146 – well known
59 – Psalm 119 – well known
62* – Psalm 96 – well known
64 – Psalm 93 – well known
79 – Psalm 22 – singable
87*– Psalm 23 – well known
99* – Psalm 89 – well known
110* – Psalm 148 – well known (Better in BPW)
126 – Psalm 104 – singable
148 – Psalm 119:9-16 – singable
169* – Psalm 45 – well known
316* – Psalm 50 – well known
349* – Psalm 80 – well known
360* – Psalm 126 – well known
364 – Psalm 78 – well known
366 – Psalm 78 – well known
368 – Psalm 22 – well known
400 – Psalm 134 – well known
437 – Psalm 67 – well known
438 – Psalm 66 – well known
439 – Psalm 72 – well known
486 – Psalm 51 – well known
551 – Psalm 32 – well known
552 – Psalm 130 – well known
614 – Psalm 124 – well known
626* – Psalm 30 – well known
635 – Psalm 92 – well known
657 – Psalm 73 – well known
671* – Psalm 37 – well known
717 – Psalm 128 – well known