The Modern church has earned a dubious distinction: we live in the most psalm-less period in the history of the church.
A Quick History Of Psalmlessness
We know that the Jews sang psalms. We know that our Lord sang psalms with his disciples at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:30). Many English translations inaccurately supply the noun “hymn.” The text says, “After they had sung…”. What they sang was one of the Hallel Psalms (113–18). We know that the New Testament church sang psalms (1 Cor 14:26). The ancient post-apostolic church sang psalms with very little competition until the 4th century—claims about ancient non-canonical hymnody are easier to make than to prove—but even that development was controversial. At least one Spanish synod, the Council of Braga (AD 563), ruled that non-canonical songs were not permitted. In certain quarters, the addition of non-canonical songs was controversial. The creation of an enormous number of Gregorian Chants helped to push the singing of the Psalms toward margins of worship to some degree, but the monks continued to sing and memorize the psalms. The Protestant Reformation came about, in part, because of Luther’s lectures on the psalms, and both the Lutherans and the Reformed sang psalms. Indeed, the singing of the Psalter became identified with the Reformed churches.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, paraphrases of the psalms and then hymns pushed the psalms farther to the margins among many American ecclesiastical traditions, but even so there were pockets of resistance. The Dutch Reformed immigrants in the mid-19th century were psalm singers and they remained so for a century. They did not add hymns to their Book of Psalms until the early 1930s.
A Dubious Swap
Today, however, the singing of the Psalms, God’s inspired song book, has fallen on very hard times indeed. For most American Christians the Psalms are virtually a lost songbook. Experience tells me that it is likely that most Christians today have never sung a psalm in a public worship service. This state of affairs would shock the conscience of virtually any Christian from most traditions and most centuries before ours. It would certainly shock our Reformed and Presbyterian forebears who worked diligently to get the Psalms translated into the language of the people and set to meter so that they could be sung by the congregation. Our Huguenot brothers and sisters sang the Psalms (especially Psalm 68) on the way to the stake and the gallows. Sometimes, their Romanists torturers cut out their tongues to keep them from singing the Psalms.
It is not so for us. We have given them up without so much as a whimper, and in their place we have gems such as “O How He Loves Me,” which features the stanza,
We are His portion and He is our prize
Drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes
If grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking
So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss
And my heart turns violently inside of my chest
I don’t have time to maintain these regrets
When I think about the way….
A Modest Proposal
Contemplating this state of affairs recently, it occurred to me that we might find help in an unlikely place: the church order of my federation of churches (denomination). A church order is an agreement among churches as to how they are going to do things. It has less authority than the confessions, which themselves have less authority than Scripture. Nevertheless, less does not mean none.
In article 39 we agree:
The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches. Hymns which faithfully and fully reflect the teaching of the Scripture as expressed in the Three Forms of Unity may be sung, provided they are approved by the Consistory.
The United Reformed Churches are bound to give to the 150 Psalms the “principal place” in the singing of the churches. We allow (but do not require) the use of non-canonical hymns. This allowance goes back to the Church Order of the 1619 Synod of Dort (art. 69), which said,
In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the 12 Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon shall be sung. It is left to the option of the churches whether to use or omit the song, O God, who art our Father.
As one can read, it was the conviction of the Reformed Churches that God’s Word is to be sung in public worship services. They permitted one hymn. Their pragmatic decision to allow the nose of one steer through the fence has led to an entire herd of cattle in the front yard. Nevertheless, in both cases, the churches committed themselves to sing primarily God’s Word.
As a matter of practice, in URCNA congregations, art. 39 tends to mean that, at the end of the year, if the congregation sang more psalms than hymns, they are in compliance. That is probably not the best reading of the Church Order.
The question here is, what does it mean to say, “principal place?” What does the word principal mean? According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, principal is an adjective (a modifier) that means, “first in order of importance; main,” as in “the country’s principal cities.” The root of our word is the Latin adj., principalis, “first,” or “chief.”
For those who adhere to the Church Order, the sense is, “the first choice in picking a song in which the congregation is going to respond to God’s Word, should be a psalm.” It has less to do with a statistical majority than it does a disposition (habitus). Our first choice in responding to God’s Word should be God’s Word. Scripture is enough. For my part, I have yet to see the advantages of singing something other than God’s Word in responding to his Word, since it is certainly sufficient for the public worship of the churches, but for the sake of this argument it is enough to say that the habit, the disposition of the churches, should be to think of the psalms before anything else.
Those with no relation to the URCNA, however, may also benefit from this discussion. In an age when most Christians and most congregations might be on the verge of practically losing the use of the Psalms in public worship, now would be a good time to reject that trend and for congregations to recommit themselves to the singing of God’s Word and especially the psalms in response to God’s Word.
For some, this means becoming more familiar with the psalms. How about reading through Psalms in an adult (Sunday School) class? Bob Godfrey’s introduction to the Psalms, Learning To Love The Psalms would be a great way to learn them.
Despite the general decline of psalmody in our time, there is some good news. In recent years we have seen the publication of several psalters, perhaps most notably the joint URCNA/OPC Psalter-Hymnal. There are lots of wonderful psalters now including the RPCNA’s The Book of Psalms For Worship. There are more psalters listed in the resources below.
What if those who plan worship services familiarized themselves with the Psalms and with one or more of the several excellent psalters? If God’s Word is sufficient for worship, the Christian faith, and the Christian life (sola Scriptura!) then what better collection of songs could there be for God’s people to sing to the same God who delivered his people through the flood, the Red Sea, the Jordan and the cross? If there is really one covenant of grace with multiple administrations, why would we not sing the songs that God, by inspiration, gave his church under types and shadows, in light of their fulfillment in Christ? How are non-canonical songs superior to God’s Word? Does any other collection of songs connect us so widely and so deeply to Christ’s people in all times and places? The answers to these rhetorical questions all lead us to the psalms.
It is late in the day. General literacy is declining. Biblical literacy is declining. Instruction in the biblical languages is declining. Psalmody also seems to be in the balance. Should we fail to make a conscious decision now to recover psalmody and even to give the Psalms the principal place in public worship, we face the very real prospect of losing one of the most wonderful gifts that God gave to his church.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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