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Singing psalms

January 3rd, 2010

Dromore Presbyterian Meeting House, Co. Londonderry

I had the privilege of conducting worship and preaching in the congregation of Dromore, Co. Londonderry, on the first Sunday of 2010. It is one of the very few Irish Presbyterian congregations that has preserved the practice of singing psalms exclusively with no musical accompaniment. On a clear, crisp, cold Lord’s Day morning, we raised our voices in worship without the aid of organ, piano, praise band or powerpoint slides.

I love singing the psalms, and one of my regrets is that in the latest Irish Presbyterian Hymnbook, published in 2004, a revised version of the Psalter was not included. That inclusion might have encouraged more congregations to make greater use of the psalms in their diet of worship, and given ministers a better resource in planning and conducting worship. It seems that in many congregations the singing of metrical psalms is declining, and in some places disappearing completely, in favour of modern hymns and worship songs.

Our friends in the Reformed Presbyterian Church maintain the practice of exclusive psalmody, and defend it on the basis that all elements of worship must be positively commended in Scripture, and that no element may be included without specific scriptural authorisation. Hughes Oliphant Old describes this position as “a most venerable sort of hyperconservatism” (Worship: Reformed According to Scripture; Westminster John Knox Press, 2002) but also believes that the singing of the psalms, the responsive reading of the psalms, and the use of the psalms in prayer should be encouraged so as to maintain a distinctive reformed liturgical tradition.

img_0019John Frame (Worship in Spirit and Truth; P&R, 1996) asks: Are the psalms adequate for New Testament Christian worship? Certainly we cannot criticise their theology, since they are divinely inspired. And the psalms do testify of Christ, as the New Testament shows in its use of the psalter. But the psalms present Christ in the “shadows” (Colossians 2:7), in terms of the incomplete revelation of the Old Testament period (Hebrews 1:1-3). Frame says that to limit one’s praise to the psalms is to praise God without the name of Jesus on one’s lips. Singing in worship is like preaching and praying. The Bible authorises us to preach uninspired sermons and to pray uninspired prayers, so it also allows us to sing uninspired songs. As my former colleague at Westminster Theological Seminary, Dr Vern Poythress, used to say, when it comes to worship, “if you can say it, you can sing it.”

But by not using the psalms at all, we deny ourselves a means of expressing the deepest and darkest human emotions. Carl Trueman asks a serious and profound question: What can miserable Christians sing? The answer is to be found in singing the psalms.

“A diet of unremittingly jolly choruses and hymns inevitably creates an unrealistic horizon of expectation which sees the normative Christian life as one long triumphalist street party — a theologically incorrect and a pastorally disastrous scenario in a world of broken individuals. Has an unconscious belief that Christianity is — or at least should be — all about health, wealth, and happiness silently corrupted the content of our worship? Few Christians in areas where the church has been strongest over recent decades — China, Africa, Eastern Europe – would regard uninterrupted emotional highs as normal Christian experience.

Indeed, the biblical portraits of believers give no room to such a notion. Look at Abraham, Joseph, David, Jeremiah, and the detailed account of the psalmists’ experiences. Much agony, much lamentation, occasional despair — and joy, when it manifests itself — is very different from the frothy triumphalism that has infected so much of our modern Western Christianity. In the psalms, God has given the church a language which allows it to express even the deepest agonies of the human soul in the context of worship. Does our contemporary language of worship reflect the horizon of expectation regarding the believer’s experience which the psalter proposes as normative? If not, why not? Is it because the comfortable values of Western middle-class consumerism have silently infiltrated the church and made us consider such cries irrelevant, embarrassing, and signs of abject failure?

While I cannot defend the exclusive use of the psalms in worship, I believe that to fail to use the psalms in worship deprives the church of a language and form of expression which leaves it impoverished. We do well to obey the Bible’s clear and balanced exhortation by singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” with gratitude in our hearts to God.

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