Liturgy: Singing the Psalms

In our last post on liturgy we explored some scripture principles about singing in worship with God’s people. In this post we wish to focus on the type of songs we song, specifically the singing of Psalms.

One might ask: why should the New Testament church sing these Psalms? Aren’t their more modern songs we can write that reflect more truth, more revelation, more Christ-like words than those of the Psalms of the Old Testament? To this we answer:

First of all we see from scripture that there is a command to sing Psalms. That is, there is not only a broad imperative to sing but one that includes the songs of scripture themselves. Twice the apostle Paul instructs believers:

speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (Ephesians 5:19-20)

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)

From these words we see rather clearly that the songs of the Old covenant are still for God’s people today.

Secondly, the Psalms also have a place of prominence within the scriptures themselves. With the exception of Genesis, the Psalms are more often quoted in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. In particular, the Psalms are full of revelations and prophesy about Christ, His work, and His life. After His resurrection, our Lord instructed His disciples in the following manner:

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.(Luke 24:44) The truth of this statement is born out in the many prophecies in the New Testament that are lifted from the Psalms.

  • Psalm 2:7 (cf. Hebrews 1:5)
  • Psalm 8:4-6 (cf. Hebrews 2:5-8)
  • Psalm 16:8-11 (cf. Acts 2:27, Acts 13:35)
  • Psalm 22:22 (cf. Hebrews 2:12)
  • Psalm 23:1-3 (cf. John 10:11,14).
  • Psalm 31:5 (cf. Luke 23:26)
  • Psalm 34:20 (cf. John 19:36)
  • Psalm 40:6-8 (cf. Hebrews 10:5-12)

  • Psalm 45:6,7 (cf. Hebrews 1:8,9)
  • Psalm 69: 9 (cf. John 2:17)
  • Psalm 69:25 (cf. Acts 1:20)
  • Psalm 102: 25-27 (cf. Hebrews 1:10-12)
  • Psalm 109: 8 (cf. Acts 1:20)
  • Psalm 110 (cf. Hebrews 1:13; 5:6 10; 7:17, 21)

In short, when we sing the Psalms, we are singing about our Lord and Saviour. It is incumbent upon the church to do so with an eye to what God has revealed and instructed so that we may know the Messianic hope that is rooted in the past. Thus one of the great advantages and the wonderful blessing of singing the Psalms is that it connects us to our past: our redemptive history as sons of Abraham – children of Israel. (Ephesians 2:12-13; Hebrews 8:10-13) We are not just a forward looking people but a backward looking people. Though the author of Hebrews warns us from looking back with the intention of being saved by the ceremonies of the past, we nevertheless are richly reminded of the common faith heritage we possess, which the Old Testament saints loved and treasured. The singing of the Psalms helps us to remember where we came from and where we are going.

“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)

The final question we wish to answer pertains the rule of singing Psalms. Our URCNA Church Order puts it in this way:

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. (Article 40)

What accounts for the italicized statement above? There are several reasons why the Psalms should “have the principal place in the singing of the churches”.

First, the Psalms are an inspired hymnbook. There are no errors in God’s Word (Proverbs 30:5; John 10:35) so there can be no errors in the Psalms. Our hymns may be biblical & correct or not but the Psalms are never in error.

Second, the Psalms are comprehensive in their teaching and instruction. Martin Luther called the Psalms a “little Bible.” If we want to sing the whole counsel of God (cf. Acts 20:27) then we would do well to sing the Psalms more and most often as faithful reflections of all the truths of God’s Word, not just the ones we want to hear about or sing. Yes, hymns can often wonderfully teach the rich and deep doctrines of scripture, but the Psalms do it best. Just read through them and you we will see that they express a wide range of faith, teaching and emotions as true and right expressions of the saints. Therefore they also act as a guide for any hymn or song of praise we might sing or write today.

Third, the churches of history have always sang the Psalms in predominance; this practice has always been followed by the strong and faithful churches of old. The early church sang many of the Psalms from scripture, focusing on their ability to express the hope of all of God’s people, in all time and places. We would do well to heed the words of the Church Father Augustine (354-430) who wrote in his Confessions:

What utterances sent I up unto You, my God, when I read the Psalms of David, those faithful songs and sounds of devotion which exclude all swelling of spirit [ed. pride]…they are sung throughout the whole world. (IX,4)

Certainly the Reformation carried on this tradition for when we explore the liturgies from that time we see Psalms that also held “the principle place in the singing of the churches”. The original Reformed Church Order from Dordt, drawn up at the well-known Synod of 1618-1619, states:

In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Song of Mary, that of Zacharias, and that of Simon shall be sung. All other hymns are to be excluded from the Churches, and in those places where some have already been introduced they are to be removed by the most suitable means.

From this statement it is very clear that our Reformed fathers only allowed a few hymns to be sung from the beginning and that the Psalms were at the ‘top of the list’ amongst all the songs that were being sung.

When it comes down to it, is there any objection that can be brought against the singing of Psalms in the church that is scripturally justified? I think not. Instead let us continue to use them in our churches, to the praise and glory of our great God and Saviour.

If you would like to explore this issue in more depth, my colleague, Rev. Brian Cochran (pastor of the Redeemer Reformation Church in Regina, SK) is writing a series of posts on the singing of Psalms in worship. You can follow along by clicking here.

Next post: Liturgy – God’s Law


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