Why We Sing Old Testament Psalms

The Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America opens its article on what is to be sung in its churches (art. 39) with this assertion: “The 150 Psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches.” Member congregations of this federation of churches are committed to the principle that we are psalm-singing people. Why would we make this commitment, especially in today’s church culture with the predominance of contemporary Christian music (CCM)? Singing the Psalms, also known as the Psalter, seems to be a foreign practice.

A Survey of Psalm-Singing

Songs of Israel

We sing the Psalms because the people of God have been doing so since the time of Moses, who composed Psalm 90, and especially during the days of David, when the Psalter became the “hymnal” of Israel. When we sing psalms, we identify with our most ancient forefathers and offer transcendent praise that is applicable in all times and places.

Songs of Jesus

We sing the Psalms because Jesus sang them. As a Jew, Jesus was “born under the law” (Galatians 4:4), which meant he was required to live according to all God’s commandments. One such commandment was that every male Israelite was to assemble three times a year at the holy sanctuary for public worship (Leviticus 23; Numbers 28–29; Deuteronomy 16:1–17). At the temple Jesus would have heard the singing of the Psalms as, for example in 1 Chronicles 16:8–36. Jesus also would have learned to sing psalms in weekly synagogue services, which he still attended as an adult (Luke 4:16–21). As well, at the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). This gathering was for the Passover observance (Exodus 12:1–28, 43–51; 13:3–16). Although the practice was not commanded in Scripture, Jewish tradition used a section of the Psalter known as the Hallel (“praise”) Psalms (113–18) during that feast. It is likely that these are the “hymns” Jesus and his disciples sang.

Songs of the Apostles

We sing the Psalms because the apostles sang them. Though the modern church overlooks this, in the New Testament and throughout church history, the Psalter continued to serve as the hymnal of the Christian church.

After his ascension, Jesus’s church continued the practice of utilizing the psalms in their prayer and praise to God. When the early, persecuted church “lifted their voices together to God” in prayer, Luke records them reciting Psalm 146:6 and Psalm 2:1–2 (Acts 4:24–26). Paul commended the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” as a means of praise to God and edification of one another as brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). James commands those that are downcast in soul to pray and those who are cheerful to “sing praise [or, psalms]” (psalletō; James 5:13).

Songs of the Historic Church

We sing the Psalms because the historic church has always sung them. In the words of the ancient historian Eusebius (263–339), “The command to sing Psalms in the name of the Lord was obeyed by everyone in every place: for the command to sing is in force in all churches which exist among nations, not only the Greeks but also throughout the whole world, and in towns, villages and in the fields.” One of the creative and meaningful things early Christians did in their singing of the Psalms to signify that the Old Testament songs of Israel were the songs of the new covenant church was to sing the Gloria Patri after each psalm: Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.” This is a statement that the God of the Psalter is the Triune God.

Though the ancient church had a rich heritage of psalm-singing, over time, it was the exclusive practice of monasteries by the Protestant Reformation. What was revolutionary about the Reformation was the restoration of psalm-singing to the public worship of God. This was so vital that Louis Benson, an expert in the history of Christian singing, said, “The singing of Psalms became the Reformed [worship], the characteristic note distinguishing its worship from that of the Roman Catholic Church,” and, “The family in the home, men and women at their daily tasks, were recognized as Huguenots [Reformed Christians in France] because they were heard singing Psalms.” To show that they were reviving this ancient practice, the English Reformers included the Gloria Patri at the end of every psalm read and sung in its services of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer.

Why Sing the Psalms?

A Love for God’s Word

First, we sing the Psalms because we love the Word of God. We believe God commands us to sing the Psalms, and examples of his people doing so are found throughout his Word. He has given us this collection of meditations, prayers, and songs to use in our praise of him. As Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

This is such an important point, because if we as Christians truly claim to believe that the Bible is the Word of God—his speech to us (2 Timothy 3:16)—then we need to put that principle into practice. As a congregation and as believers we are seeking to implement our doctrine of Scripture in practical way. In public worship, the reading and preaching of the Word is central. In personal and family devotions we read, meditate on, and memorize Scripture. And together, we are doing this in the songs that we sing publicly and privately.

A Spirit-Filled Sanctification

Another reason for singing the Psalms is because this is a means that the Holy Spirit uses to sanctify us—that is, make us more and more like Jesus (Romans 8:29). We learn in Scripture that there is an intimate connection between the Holy Spirit and the Word, and the Psalms in particular. In Hebrews 3:7 the apostolic author introduces his citation of Psalm 95 with “as the Holy Spirit says.” And Paul exhorts us to live a wise life in the midst of evil days (Ephesians 5:15–16), warning us, “Do not get drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). What does it look like to be Spirit-filled in contrast to the spirit of the world? Paul goes on to say, “Addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:19).
What this means is that the Spirit’s sanctifying work in our hearts is linked to our singing psalms to him with our hearts. In the parallel passage in Colossians, Paul teaches that singing such songs is the means by which “the word of Christ [will] dwell in [us] richly” (Colossians 3:16). When we sing the Psalms, then, we are engaging the Holy Spirit and the Word, and Jesus said this is how we are sanctified (John 17:17). John Chrysostom (347–407), known as the greatest preacher of the ancient church, explained how to achieve this Spirit-and-Word-filled life:

Do you wish to be happy? Do you want to know how to spend the day truly blessed? I offer you a drink that is spiritual. This is not a drink for drunkenness that would cut off even meaningful speech. This does not cause us to babble. It does not disturb our vision. Here it is: Learn to sing Psalms! Then you will see pleasure indeed. Those who have learned to sing with the psalms are easily filled with the Holy Spirit.

A Holistic Humanity

A third reason we sing the Psalms is that, by doing so, we exercise all our affections, emotions, and passions in our relationship with God. The Psalms are a complete guide for spiritual life. And since in Christ we are being renewed in the original image of God in which we were made (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10), the Psalms assist us in finding and expressing a holistic humanity.

Again, this is so important in our day when much of modern Christianity focuses on one aspect of our humanity: happiness. But deep down inside we should know better; our humanity is more holistic. In the Psalter God teaches us how to express the entire range of our emotions and experiences. As the ancient theologian Athanasius (296–373) said:

Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Savior’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.

The Psalms present authentic, even raw, humanity before the face of Almighty God. They express the exuberance of praise:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
(Psalm 103:1)

They express the pain of persecution:

Even my close friend in whom
I trusted,
who ate my bread, has lifted
his heel against me.
(Psalm 41:9)

They express the hope of heaven:

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness;
when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.
(Psalm 17:15)

They express the plea for justice:

Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
(Psalm 82:3–4)

One last beautiful quotation from John Calvin (1509–1564) summarizes this:

I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, “An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul”; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated. The other parts of Scripture contain the commandments which God enjoined his servants to
announce to us. But here the prophets themselves, seeing they are exhibited to us as speaking to God, and laying open all their inmost thoughts and affections, call, or rather draw, each of us to the examination of himself in particulars in order that none of the many infirmities to which we are subject, and of the many vices with which we abound, may remain concealed.

How Can We Sing The Psalms?

One final issue is this: Since the Psalms were written before the coming of Jesus Christ, how can we as Christians sing them? The answer is found in Jesus’s own words to the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). The Old Testament Scriptures are a witness to the coming of Jesus Christ—Israel’s Messiah and “the hope of all the ends of the earth” (Psalm 65:5). As Luke records, after his resurrection, Jesus taught two of his disciples on a road, saying, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27; also see v. 44).

When we sing the Psalms, then, we are singing about Jesus Christ, who is at the center of the Psalter. We sing of his

•    eternal divinity
(Psalm 45:6–7)
•    work of creation
(Psalms 33:6; 102:25–27)
•    birth (Psalm 40:7)
•    life of obedience to the law of God (Psalms 40:7; 45:7)
•    facing the opposition of the world (Psalm 2:1–3)
•    entry into Jerusalem (Psalm 118:19–26)
•    crucifixion
(Psalms 22:1–21; 118:27)
•    burial
(Psalm 16:10)
•    resurrection
(Psalms 2:7; 16:10; •    22:21–31)
•    ascension
(Psalms 24:7–10; 47:5–7; 68:18)
•    present reign from heaven
(Psalms 47:8; 110:1)
•    worship by all nations
(Psalms 22:27–31; 47:1; 66:1; 67; 72:5–11)
•    coming again to judge
(Psalms 96:13; 98:9)

When we sing the Psalms we are also singing the very words of Christ in his agony (Psalms 22:1–21; 69:1–29; 88) and ecstasy (Psalms 16:11; 17:15; 22:21–31). Putting his words on our lips means that we are uniting ourselves to him by faith and identifying ourselves with his sufferings and glories. Commenting on Psalm 139, Augustine (354–430) said, “Our Lord Jesus Christ speaketh in the Prophets, sometimes in His own Name, sometimes in ours, because He maketh Himself one with us.”

As we sing the words of Christ in faith, the Psalms are the songs of the church militant. Almost every psalm speaks of the spiritual warfare between the church and the world and the righteous and the unrighteous. and of all the sufferings the church goes through in this life.

The Psalms also speak of the sufferings the church goes through in this life. Through the “vale of tears” (Heidelberg Catechism, question 26) of this present life, the rays of light of eternity inspire us to believe in the ultimate triumph of God’s cause.

Conclusion

Why we sing Old Testament Psalms, then, is based on the teaching of the Word of God and the practice of his people throughout millennia. In a brief preface to one of the early Reformation songbooks, John Calvin summed it up like this:
We shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. . . . When we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if He Himself were singing in us exalt His glory.

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde © 2013


Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
(ThM, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary) is the Pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA. He is the author of ten books, including God in Our Midst, Welcome to a Reformed Church, Why Believe in God, and Jesus Loves the Little Children. In addition, he serves as Adjunct Instructor of Systematic Theology and Missions at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and is a member of the Advisory Council for Word & Deed.

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