Principles of Psalm Singing

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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…

 

 

23 thoughts on “Principles of Psalm Singing

  1. It’s true about dementia patients: when they forget all else, the familiar cadences of the old Book of Common Prayer will still have them joining in. Possibly not the whole 150 Psalms, but certainly the Canticles (and that’s a whole new post, given they are from St Luke’s Gospel but clearly the speakers, Mary and Simeon, were steeped in the Psalms and spoke/sang as inspired Psalmists themselves) and Psalm 23.
    Of course that’s the current generation of Anglican elderly: my own generation, confused by ever-multiplying translations and revampings of the Prayer Book, may barely manage the Our Father (in one or other version) or, for some, a Hail Mary, when the time comes. Your other point (choose a version and stick to it) is very relevant here!

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  2. Again, spot on. I’ve mentioned my indebtedness for learning to cherish psalm singing to church life in Indonesia those years ago so won’t go on about it again. But, again, thank you for this.

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  3. Sang unaccompanied Psalms for the first time at St Peter’s in June and found it very moving. It makes you worship God yourself and not slip into vicarious worship.

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    1. Maybe you weren’t in Co. Down last time you came over here David but I’m glad to say that at least in the area where I worship the Psalms are alive and well! I hope you found the north coast the same.
      The minister of the church we attend is very keen on the Psalms and makes a point of having at least one if not more each Sunday. I’m glad because I love them.
      (As a Presbyterian child it’s one of the things I remember when the whole congregation sang with the men/women automatically harmonising, it was very moving. The congregations were very large in those days!)
      More recently he’s been advocating that folk learn them again at home as well, as they are so advantageous to Christian health generally.
      We learned a lot of scripture, especially Psalms in school when I was growing up and had to be proficient in reciting it for RI day when the minister would come to the school and we were tested on our knowledge of the scriptures etc. It was taken to be a necessary part of education and marked accordingly!
      We were expected to dress in our Sunday best and got the rest of the day off afterwards. Yea!
      How times have changed……………….

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  4. “In my view there is only one small section of one psalm that is not suitable for congregational singing today ”

    Psalm 137, v.9 ? I have always struggled with this verse, but then war was as cruel then as it is now, e.g barrel bombs in Syria.

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    1. There are other lines, Doctor,
      but Ps. 137 explicitly says ‘How can we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?’ In all probability Ps. 137 was not meant to be sung, expressing rather what the exiles would have had to sing if their captors had been able to force a song from them. When I was a child we used to sing a hymn — ‘He Giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater’ — to the tune of The Road and the Miles to Dundee and now that I live in a strange land that tune seems appropriate for a song that pays so much homage to Ps. 137 that it would be plagerism not to mention it.

      By Babylon’s waters we sat and remembered,
      then broke down and wept while refusing a song
      for the pleasure of men who’d become our tormentors.
      The wind played our lyres for to sing would be wrong.

      Remember the call of the taunt-songs of Edom,
      ‘Tear it all down to the very last block.’
      How bleak for invaders who show no compassion;
      their tenderest hopes will be dashed on the Rock.

      I’ll nevermore sing should I fail to remember;
      forget how to play if my home I forget
      in foreign lands, listening for echoes of Zion.
      I’ll sing once again in Jerusalem yet.

      One day I’d like to hear it sung!
      Yours,
      John/.

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  5. Thank you for this! Being in Michigan I never heard Gaelic Psalm singing until now. It sounds like souls reaching out to our God. Which of course it truly is. Beautiful!

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  6. Something most people don’t know, is that the way people sing psalms in Gaelic isn’t mysteriously and specifically ‘Celtic’. It is how everyone sang them in English in the middle to late seventeenth century. There was a big and relatively popular campaign in England from around 1680, to speed them up and for everyone to keep together. It was why instruments and the church bands were introduced. Scotland made the change later – early nineteenth century I think – but Gaelic congregations continued to sing in the old way.

    Somebody told me they had encountered an English speaking congregation singing that way as late as 40-50 years ago and I believe there are traces of a similar tradition in remote parts of the US.

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  7. Never mind not singing the Psalms, when was the last time the psalms were preached? Alistair Begg at last years Keswick Convention, England, was the last time for me. Other than 23 Psalm, I can’t recall much, but that maybe just me.
    It is especially a drought when we consider, as David points out above, the Christological nature of the Psalms, fulfilled by and in Christ Jesus. They have been described as the “genetic code” of John’s Gospel (Richard B Hays: Reading Backwards) and reckoned to the source of 60% of John’s quotations, by Daly-Denton
    Are they too emotional for white, western, middle-class, middle- minded, sometimes infused with starch- collar-intellectual- stoicism, church? As a Jew, who partook of the Festivals and Feasts, such as Tabernacles (7 days)-, with themes including season of Joy- for 7 days – imagine that- Joyful for 7 days among people so unlike us) Jesus would be deeply uncomfortable for Westerners to be around. But, almost paradoxically, how much more can we lament and rejoice in our union with Christ Jesus.
    Preaching Psalm 137 would set the Psalm in context, particulary v 9 that goodfelg, and not many of us , would not sing at all, let alone with unadorned gleeful gusto.
    But the reality of the coming “terrible day of the LORD” the final Judgment, final Justice, should pull us all up short, like smelling salts in the nostrils.
    Is there any room in Christianity, in sevices, for collective righteous (not self-righteous) anger, or lament (see Deuteronomy 27, 28 for collective blessings and collective curses) that doesn’t tespass into hatred nor, to be clear, into the pronouncement of curses?
    Too much room, in some quaters, especially on the internet, a space and place and platform, inhabited by the curse of our times: unconstrained expressive, individualism, which does indeed invite and manifest trespass.
    In sum, the Psalms take us from eternity, pre-creation, creation, exile, judgments, exoduses, rescue, salvation to incarnation, the cross and resurrection to final Judgement, and new heaven on earth, that is they reveal the Good News of Christ throughout, the Alpha and Omega., from eternity to eternity in union with Him.

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      1. That’s stodgy arms-length Scottish Presbyterianism for you! Wrong side of the Wall! And I don’t have a passport! But we are close enough to the Border for my wife (unmarried) and me to have Scottish Sirnames along with many contempories and locals, Suppose the only Union which matters is ours with Christ. Keep preaching it, and putting up the services, which we often listen to Sunday mid pm.
        When I first became a Christian, there were only three denominations around to my knowledge, the CoE, Methodist and Catholics! And an outliers like Penecostals. Knew nothing of Presbyterians of any sort, URC or Baptists.
        Don’t recall now how I happened upon yor site, so you are conduit to Prebyterianism, though it probably started through Tim Keller’s books and on-line teaching with Clowney. I had your Dawkins Letters book, but as with Keller I didn’t really take on board the Presbyterian link. It was the words, the writing that was important, not denomination.
        In 2005 we had a holiday on N Uist and attended a CoS (I think) service. It was all very much at arms length, with nearly everyone coming in at the last minute and disappearing immediately afterwards, My wife was only one of two women not to be wearing a hat. It was also the first time I’d come across a cantor (think that’s the correct name), taking their lead from a tuning fork.
        Nothing like St Peter’s, at least from listening to the services on-line..

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      2. Singing is at the heart of the English ‘Denominations’ story, Geoff,
        so much so that non-singing as a principle has disappeared. There never were just three denominations of protestant dissenters in eighteenth century London — http://worldcat.org/identities/lccn-n88132522/ — because the two Baptist connections had different origins and never joined together; but the London Society of Deputies of the Three Denominations of Dissenters – Presbyterian, Independent, and Baptist gave access to the throne when that was desirable.

        Of the four connections that survived the reigns of Charles II and James II — Presbyterians, Independents, General Baptists and Particular Baptists — two became Unitarian and two didn’t. The most commonly-given reason for the continuance of the Independents/Congregationalists and the Particular Baptists as Christian denominations is that they, in the main, voted for subscription to a confessional statement of the Doctrine of the Trinity in the famous Salters Hall controversy; whereas the majority of Presbyterians and General Baptists in attendance did not.

        However, the correlation between subscription and orthodoxy is only partial; with Isaac Watts, for example, appearing as a Salters Hall non-subscriber but going on to compose the hymns that were the mainstay of Congregationalist Orthodoxy. Congregational hymn singing was introduced by the Particular Baptist Benjamin Keach but the General Baptists remained opposed to singing until their total demise. Were it not for the Presbyterians we could be inclined to prematurely declare, ‘case closed.’

        The thing is that English ‘Presbyterians’ — ejected from the Church of England in 1662 — were very different fish from their Scottish counterparts. In Scotland the word ‘presbyter’ was translated as ‘elder’ so that the governance of the churches is carried out by a cooperation of ‘ruling elders’ and ‘teaching elders.’ In England ‘presbyter’ was recalled into service to replace ‘priest’ in the Anglican hierarchy of ‘Bishops, Priests and Deacons’ and in this sense the word ‘Presbyterian’ meant something like ‘Anglican but without bishops.’ Unlike Baptists and Congregationalists, English Presbyterians thought that the Anglican Church should have them in it and that they should be leading it. Actual Presbyterian conviction was not robust in them and so their Presbyterianism neither prevented some — perhaps the majority — from returning to the Anglican fold nor was it able to prevent the slide into Unitarianism of the rest.

        Isaac Watts had the measure of singing:

        Let those refuse to sing
        who never knew our God
        but Favourites of the Heavenly King
        may speak their joys abroad.

        By my reckoning the Free Church of Scotland has done far more to spread the idea of singing Psalms among English Nonconformists by singing hymns as well as Psalms than could ever have been achieved by trying to explain exclusive psalmnody to them.

        Yours,
        John/.

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  8. PS. To be clear, unlike my comment above with a double negative. We wouldn’t sing Psalm 137:9 as written in scripture.
    From my time in the Methodist Church, when Hymns and Psalms was the set song book, and Psalms were spoken responsively, collectively, and were part of the scripture liturgical year, both the readings from the Psalm or other scripture would omit the uncomfortable sections and imprecatory sections such as: Psalm 139
    19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
    Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
    20
    They speak of you with evil intent;
    your adversaries misuse your name.
    21
    Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
    and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
    22
    I have nothing but hatred for them;
    I count them my enemies.
    23
    Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
    24
    See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

    But verse Psalm 137: 9 didn’t stop Boney M getting a hit record with a jaunty, “By the Rivers of Babylon” as it wasn’t included.
    Yes, I know. Apart from the age thing, (I didn’t like it at the time: I mean, Boney M in 1978 weren’t jazz/rock/funk /soul, Morrison V, Springsteen,Cooder, N Young, still with Dylan/Band, Cohen, Waits , much more-a catholic taste, but not Boney-M) how long can you stop singing or get the tune out of your head?
    Apologies. Think of something else.
    And I wasn’t a Christian at that time.
    The Psalms are often interpreted in accordance with espoused theology. I recall as a young, but old, Christian hearing a man ,with an international reputation and ministry, preach with conviction from Psalm 51 that King David was a “bastard” from verse 5
    “Surely I was sinful at birth,
    sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
    I stopped listening at that point, couldn’t trust what he’d say.
    So, perhaps, there is a need to counsel caution in who is given licence to preach or who listen to. Even at an early stage in my Christian life I was greatly astonished and affronted by what I’d heard from someone so prominent.

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    1. Boney M sang “by the rivers of Babylon” in the Al andalus cinema, Kuwait, in 1978, and much enjoyed by the locals, although I suspect some of them were unaware of the origin.

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  9. PPS,
    John K,
    Sorry, didn’t see your comment till now. I’m slow in typing, and didn’t see it till I went back to look after I’d made a comment. It may be that, although it is timed at 8:13 am today it wasn’t posted by David till later this pm due to his other commitments. Or it may be that I’m being dim.
    Yours,
    Geoff

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  10. It’s no use being squeamish about the imprecatory Psalms – we should own them, as the authentic voice of the natural man confronted with real evil, and a warning that he lies still within each one of us and must be put under Christ anew each and every day.
    I’m a great admirer of C S Lewis’s “Reflections on the Psalms”, which seems to have been uploaded in .pdf format by several sites although I’d have thought it was still in copyright so am not providing links. He has much to say on what we can learn from “those” Psalms – not least that when we abuse others, we are tempting them to exactly these thoughts and feelings and in the event that they fall, are they more in peril of Judgement or are we?
    The Psalter is all of one piece and all of God for our instruction, and we must not shirk even the hard lessons they contain.

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  11. John Kilpatrick, I don’t quite agree with your analysis. Unless my history is completely wrong, the Free Church of Scotland did not come into existence until the Disruption of 1843. That is after everything I’m about to describe had happened.

    In England, from the Reformation until the early nineteenth century, the Established Church did not allow the singing of hymns in public worship. Apart from a few illogical waivers, and the choral anthem, it only sang metrical psalms, originally the Sternhold and Hopkins Old Version, with a gradual shift over the course of the eighteenth century to Tate and Brady’s New Version.

    Old Dissent could sing what they wanted to sing. Those that did sing at all, could sing hymns as well as psalms. Isaac Watts wrote metrical psalms – often freer translations than the Old or New Versions – scripture paraphrases and hymns.

    When the Methodists came along at the end of the eighteenth century, they also sang hymns, often written by Charles Wesley. It was competition from the appeal of Methodist hymns that caused the Church of England eventually, in a case in the York Consistory Court about 1820, to relax its psalms-only position.

    So it really can’t be argued that either Old or New Dissent got psalms from the Free Church of Scotland. Dissent got psalms from the Church of England and it was singing anything else in public worship that was Dissent’s contribution to current traditions.

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    1. Sorry, Dru,
      mea culpa a jump of three centuries without even noting that that was then and this is now is poor historiography. I had no intention of implying that the Free Church had anachronistically given Psalm singing to old Dissent but was merely trying to squeeze in an observation about the very recent decision of the Free Church of Scotland to allow the singing of hymns while remaining emphatically a Psalm-singing Church.
      ( https://www.theaquilareport.com/an-historic-assembly-details-of-the-free-church-of-scotland-decision-to-drop-the-167-year-old-tradition-of-non-instrument-exclusive-psalmody/ )

      What I was trying to say is that pointing to exclusive-psalmody churches to encourage English congregations to sing more Psalms can be counter-productive. For example, what happens when individuals are overconvinced by the evidence that Psalm singing is a good thing to the extent that nothing else will do for them but exclusive psalmody? By my reckoning one would have to travel for an hour and a half from Liverpool to get to the nearest exclusive psalmody church!

      It might seem paradoxical, but in the long struggle to pursuade English Nonconformists to sing more Psalms, the decision of churches like St. Peter’s, Dundee to sing some hymns is IMHO enormously helpful.

      Yours,
      John/.

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  12. Thanks John K and p&ps,
    Tortuous indeed. Didn’t realise Free CoS change was as recent as 2010 with David R prominent. Pleased to have been converted in a CoE with a range psalms and songs old and new organ alone and then moved the Methodist who’s agade was “born in song” with organ/piano alone and with instruments.
    Wonder what King David sang as he danced in a manner that so offended his wife?

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