There have been many questions and a few objections to the article on why the whole church should sing psalms. In todays follow-up article we look at the main objections and then at some further practical principles to help us Sing Psalms.
Objections to Singing Psalms
- They are OT – This is usually said by those who have a view of the Old Testament as some kind of pre-Christian document with little direct relevance to the NT Church. Ironically these self-styled ‘New Testament’ Christians are going against New Testament Christianity which used the Old Testament as its Bible – they added to it but they never took away from it – and they never regarded it as a sub-Christian document. There is also no NT replacement for the Psalms.
- They are hard. – So are many things in the Bible. Are we only going to accept what we find easy in the Bible? Besides which that is a sweeping generalisation which is not true.
- They don’t fit with contemporary worship bands. If that were true then get rid of the contemporary worship bands before you get rid of the songs God has given you to sing! But it’s not true. Some of the psalms may not fit with some of the tunes and styles – so what? Have some more variety in your worship. Not everything needs to be uniform.
- They are not the Word of God. This is a strange one. Because they are put in verse form or translated, some argue that it is not the literal word of God and that therefore we have no need to sing them, or we should just chant the prose. But are we to say that because we don’t say the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic we are not praying the Lord’s Prayer? If you read the Bible in English and not Hebrew or Greek, are you no longer reading the Word of God? Translations remain the Word of God. Translations of the Psalms in singable form remain the Word of God.
- They are white, Northern European, male symbols of the patriarchy! Ok. I made that one up. But I have heard something coming close to that. I won’t insult your intelligence by pointing out that it is difficult to conceive of songs written 3,000 years ago in the Middle East by non-whites as being Northern European White Supremacist. But in todays wacko world you can make anything mean what you want it to. The only faint semblance of truth in this statement is when people confuse the style of singing with Psalm singing. I love Gaelic Psalm singing but I don’t assume it is the only way to sing the Psalms!
(having mentioned Gaelic Psalm singing – have a listen to this….if it don’t move you, you ain’t got no soul!)
Principles of Psalm Singing
There is a place for individual artists using psalms as a base for their songs and being inspired by them. Sons of Korah are probably the best exponents of this I have come across. But most of the Sons of Korah psalms are for band performance not congregational worship. I can listen to them and appreciate them, but not really sing them. What we are talking about here is the use of the Psalms in congregational and family/personal worship.
1.Sing Songs that are based on the Psalms or are paraphrases of the Psalms, but dont’ neglect to sing the Psalms themselves. Songs like 10,000 reasons (based on Psalm 103) , or paraphrases of the Psalms like those of Isaac Watts and Timothy Dudley Edwards are excellent. But they should not replace the Psalms themselves. The Psalms are a fountain for numerous other songs, poems, prayers and reflections. But lets not forget the source.
2. Have one book of psalms put in settings for singing that the whole congregation can use. We use Sing Psalms, but there are several others such as the Trinity Psalmody and that of the Reformed Presbyterians. I like Sing Psalms because they are a translation from the original Hebrew into ‘NIV’ English which means they sound less dated and because they are in familiar metres can be sung to many well-known hymn tunes. The problem for me with the 150 versions in the Praise song book is that some of the psalms are translations, others are paraphrases and others are really songs based on the Psalms. A great advantage of having one book that is consistently used is that you quickly learn the words. If you keep chopping and changing that does not happen. In an ideal world it would be great if the whole church had just one book that was used so that there could be a uniformity of worship – but I guess we ain’t going there.
3. Sing systematically through the Psalms. I do this in my private worship and we are currently reading through and singing all the psalms in our congregational morning worship. In my view there is only one small section of one psalm that is not suitable for congregational singing today (you can work out for yourselves which one that is!). I have found this practice to be enormously helpful.
4. Be as varied as the Psalms themselves – I love the acapella singing of the psalms but to only do that seems a bit odd given that the word ‘psalm’ itself means to sing with a stringed instrument! The psalms are set up for lament (Ps 51), responsive singing (Ps 136) and full on orchestra and praise band (Ps 150). However you do it make sure that the instrumental accompaniment is good – and is an accompaniment not a show!
5. Set the Psalms in a Christological Context – In other words occasionally take time to explain to the congregation what they are singing and how it fits in with Christ. All the Scriptures point to Christ.
6. Don’t sing Psalms only – In one sense it would make sense that we only use the song book that God has given us. But is wrong to limit our sung praise to the 150 songs of the five books of Psalms, just as it would be wrong to limit our congregational prayer to the Lord’s Prayer. We must use the Lord’s Prayer, and we must have it as a pattern for our prayers – but no one would seriously suggest limiting public prayer to the prayers contained in the Bible. It would also be absurd to sing about Sinai but not about Golgotha. Likewise we are commanded to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,” (Ephesians 5:19). My argument is not for exclusive psalmody, but inclusive psalmody.
7. Sing the Psalms at home – Some of the most powerful and beautiful singing I have heard has been at family or home group worship where people who have clearly been singing the psalms all their lives have led. It has become part of their DNA. Psalm singing won’t be part of our DNA if the only time that we sing them is at an occasional service or concert. Some of us are very self-conscious about this but although I don’t sing with my wife when we pray – I suspect that has been something wrong in my life. I deeply regret singing so little of the psalms with my children when they were young. I do sing when I am on my own! An old minister was once driving my wife and a few others home from church when he was forced to stop at traffic lights. “Lets sing Psalm 23” he said, and much to the amazement of the people in the neighbouring cars, he started. Maybe we should amaze more people?
Another time a woman who had never been to church before decided she wanted to come. She told her neighbour that she was going to go for six weeks to give it a chance. After her first Sunday she told her “I’m going for life…its what I needed to hear”. “But”, said her friend, “they sing psalms…”. “I don’t care”, said the woman,” I got the impression these people could worship God in field”. In the past in Scotland Christians have had to do that. Maybe we will in the future. Singing Psalms enables us to worship God wherever we are and wherever He leads us.
I love Rosario Butterfield’s take on this – she seems to have hospitality and psalm singing as the mainstay of her evangelism!
Singing psalms is real-time intimacy and give us the gospel grace that we daily need, because singing psalms uses your own body, your voice, the rising and falling of your own breath, to project forward all struggle and pain and loss and gain and profit and joy onto Christ. When you sing together as a family during family devotions after the evening meal, you watch your very small children and your special needs children singing from memory the Psalms before they are able to read them. You flash forward to what it would mean to someday have dementia but still, even in that compromised state, have the Psalms as your daily companions. And when you sing together in worship with your brothers and sisters in Christ, many voices lifting up many words of Christ, you experience a taste of the victory to come, even as you know the intense suffering of today. Psalms are—and have always been—the hymnbook of the church under persecution. (from Why I Sing Psalms)
These posts were inspired by the Sing Conference organised by the Getty’s. Here is a beautiful example of a Psalm paraphrase (Ps 130) which is great for congregational singing…