The Psalter Should be Woven into the Fabric of Worship

This has always been the position of the Christian Church, and from an historical perspective the present situation in evangelicalism is appalling. The early liturgies of the Church, which are still used in Episcopal and Lutheran worship, are laced with psalm phrases. The early hymns, such as the Te Deum and the Gloria in Excelsis, are built up of phrases from the psalms and the New Testament. Chanting of several psalms was integral to worship as an act of covenant renewal.

When I was in college, and became a serious “Bible-believer,” it seemed only logical to me that we should sing the Bible in worship. When I found out that the Church used to do it, and then stopped, I was amazed. I’ve been amazed for forty years. I’m still amazed.

I’m amazed at the opposition that the suggestion that the psalms be sung arouses in “Bible-believing” evangelical and Reformed circles. If you want to sing an occasional metrical psalm as a curiosity, that’s fine. If you want to have a psalm-sing on Sunday afternoons, that’s okay. But if you want to make psalmody a normal part of Lord’s Day worship, be prepared for opposition. (And yet, I really think most Christians would love to sing psalms in worship. The main problem is with the leadership, formal and informal, in the Church.)

My wife likes the color red. If I want to buy her clothing, I look for red. That’s because I have taken the time to notice what she likes, and I want to please her.

God likes psalms. He wrote them, and He likes to hear them sung. If we love Him, we will make the effort to learn them, all of them, and sing them to Him before His throne on His day.

Psalms are good for us. There is a lot of talk today about Body Life in the Church, and that is good. We are indeed “means of grace” to one another (John 7:38-39). One of the ways we stimulate one another to love and good works is when we come together and sing. Another way is through conversation and encouragement. Ephesians 5:19 says that we are to speak “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” We don’t need even to discuss what “hymns and spiritual songs” are, because we have not yet mastered the psalms. Once we know all 150 psalms, we can then decide what are appropriate hymns and spiritual songs.

Metrical psalms are no substitute for chanted psalms, sung straight from the text. Text psalms preserve the poetic parallelism of the Scripture, and thus accentuate the dialogical and antiphonal theology of the psalter. Moreover, metrical psalms must of necessity be “dynamically equivalent,” rephrasing ideas, omitting certain words, emphasizing others, substituting other names for God in order to make the rhyme come out, etc. Metrical psalms are like Biblical paraphrases – useful, but no substitute. Metrical psalms are one application of the psalter, but they are not a substitute for the psalter.

Bad money drives out good, and in the history of the Reformed churches, metrical psalms drove out pure psalmody. Then psalm paraphrases (Isaac Watts) drove out metrical psalms. Then hymns drove out psalm paraphrases. Then gospel refrain songs drove out hymns. Now we see praise choruses drive out gospel refrain songs. What’s next?

I’m not against all praise choruses, refrain songs, spirituals, hymns, psalms paraphrases, and metrical psalms. I believe that these have their place, and some have a place in “close” worship. There is, however, a standard, and that standard is the psalter, precisely translated.

The chanting of complete psalms should suffuse our worship. We can use a psalm as a call to worship (e.g., 21, 24, 27, 29), another for confession (6, 25, 38, 51), another for praise for our deliverance into the kingdom (5, 8, 9, 11, 18), another as an exhortation to hear the Word or as a preaching text (1, 14, 15, 19, 37), another as a communion mediation (16, 23, 36, 45, 48), and another as a commissioning dismissal at the end of worship (2,47, 72, 82, 110, 149).

We can chant (or read responsively) a psalm, and then immediately sing a metrical version of it. We could make it a rule that we don’t sing metrical psalms without reading or chanting them through first. We could make it a rule that there must be more psalms and other Bible songs than uninspired hymns in worship.

If Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians can chant, then so can evangelicals. It is nothing but Pharisaical prejudice and laziness that prevents us from learning to do so.

I was speaking with a minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church a while back, and he told me a revealing incident that happened during his ordination examination. An older clergyman asked him if the psalter were an important part of prayer, and thus of counseling and worship. When my friend replied in the affirmative, the older clergyman asked him to give the theme and gist of every psalm, starting with the first and ending with the 150th. My friend, who had spent some years in Episcopalianism and thus knew some of the psalms, struggled for a while, but finally had to give up. The older clergyman opposed his ordination, maintaining that my friend should master the psalter before presuming to lead God’s people.

Amazing? Surprising? I think not. In fact, I think that the older gentleman’s position is absolutely correct. I think this is a great ordination question – though I confess that I would fail it. After all, I’ve spent twenty years in hard-core, Bible-believing, tough-as-nails, Reformed, evangelical Presbyterian churches, so I barely know the psalter. I only know what I’ve studied on my own.

Here’s a question for you: Given that our theological seminaries have chapel services daily, or at least several times a week, how many of them teach the students to sing all 150 psalms during chapel? How would you like to have a pastor who went to seminary where the psalms were taken seriously? A pastor who was taught to sing the psalms, and who was familiar with all of them?

How would you like for your children to go to a Christian school that had 15 minutes of chapel every day, and where all 150 psalms were being taught? Your child, upon graduating from the eighth grade, would be familiar with all 150 of them. He or she would have vast parts of God’s prayer library memorized. Would you like that?

You and I would like these things, but like Joshua and Caleb we’ve been wandering in the wilderness with a generation led by people who don’t. We know that there are riches across the border, but others don’t want them. So, we’re all going to miss out, and we shall die outside these riches. Maybe our children will be members of a better generation. I hope so.

Knowing the psalms not only gives us an internal prayer-library, it also opens the Old Testament to us. The psalms are the key to typology and typology is the key to the Old Testament. The psalms speak of the Rock, of the King, of the enemy, etc. When we become familiar with the symbolic language of the psalter, we learn the language of the Bible. We become able to see Jesus throughout the Old Testament in its rich symbolism. Thus, if we want to learn more of the “names” of Jesus, and more about Him, the thing to do is chant the psalms.

Psalms reshape piety. There is nothing in hymnody or gospel refrain songs to match the language of Psalms 58 or 149. No mere man would dare write such things. Consider: virtually the only places in the Bible that discuss hell are in the gospels, because God entrusted that awful subject to no less a person than His Son. It is as if God knew we would never hear it from any lesser being. If we drift from the gospels, we shall drift from the doctrine of the wrath of God.

Just so, if we drift from the psalms – the war chants of the Prince of peace – we shall drift into an easy and lax piety. The inner warfare will be de-emphasized, and the warfare for the world will disappear. The focus of hymns tends to be on matters easier for us to talk about, such as suffering and happiness. How many hymns, etc., do you know of that ask God to judge the enemy? I can think of one, by Luther, and it is psalm-based. In the face of abortion, pornography, rape, drug addiction, Islam… nothing less than psalms will do. The fact of the matter is that the present generation of American Christians will either learn to sing psalms, or it will die.

Beyond the 150 psalms, there are many other songs in the Bible that we should chant and that should become part of the warp and woof of our being, such as the Song at the Red Sea (Ex. 15), the Song of Moses (Dt. 32), the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2), the Prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2), the Song of Habakkuk (Hab. 3), several songs in Isaiah, the Song of Mary, the Song of Simeon, the Song of Zechariah, several songs in Paul (Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:13-20; 1 Timothy 3:16), and songs in Revelation.

All of Western “classical” music grew out of the Church, out of plain-chant psalmody that evolved into Gregorian chant, and out of the music of the liturgy. The psalms produce music. They produce culture. They provide a legacy to our children. Let us sing them!

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This piece originally appeared as a “Rite Reasons” newsletter to members of Biblical Horizons. 

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