Singing psalms

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.

18 Replies to “Singing psalms”

  1. Though a Charismatic Presbyterian and one who has sung God’s praise accompanied by a 12 piece rock and roll band complete with plastic barrels for drums, the thought that a church committee might revise the Metrical Psalms fills me with all the joy of a glint of moonlight on a tombstone.

    I mean just imagine what we’d end up with after they had hacked their way through Metrical Psalm 1, line 1. (but I suppose that some day some poor soul is going to have to sing, “We all have lots of happiness”, in the name of progress!)

    I’m all for the new and exuberant, but honestly, we ought to be intelligent enough to realise that changing the words of an author who, in the 19th century, didn’t presume to copyright his work, and cannot now complain, leaves us more lacking in respect than relevance.

    And I can’t believe that someone would say, “that to limit one’s praise to the psalms is to praise God without the name of Jesus on one’s lips.” Sounds like we need to sing a few more!

    And with that, Stafford, I’m off to mail this link to my Covenanter friend! 🙂

  2. Metrical Psalm singing is for me one of the great privileges of being a Presbyterian. Like others I don’t believe that we should limit ourselves to the psalms but sadly too frequently we are limiting ourselves to the more modern hymns at the expense of our heritage and these great biblical testimonies.

    Yet I have always found that in times of pressure or difficulties in my life with the odd exception it is the psalms that have come to mind and these I have quietly and on occasions untunefully sung to lift my spirits and to give me renew confidence

    I know Stafford you have a list of hymns for your funeral, for me Ps 72 – “His name for ever sahll endure” will have to be there, it may be a shadow but what a sharp shadow!

  3. The Free Church of Scotland has already revised the Scottish Psalter. They call it “Sing Psalms” and its an excellent resource to have. i quote from Psalm 1 version (a) for Peter morrow:

    Blessed is the one who turns away
    from where the wicked walk,
    Who does not stand in sinners’ paths
    or sit with those who mock.

  4. It’s good to sing the praises of God in all sorts of song and praise. Why not alternate with psalms and songs. we enjoy the mixture in our church with a praise band thrown in for good measure. It’s lovely to see all ages singing to a mixture of praise which exalts His name and is uplifting to everyone ,no matter what the form of praise is!

  5. Bryan

    Thanks for the link, much appreciated. The version you link to is one I would most certainly be prepared to sing. I can’t really comment on the Free Church of Scotland, except to note they hold to an exclusive Psalm position, but what I can try to explain is my own point of view.

    As I said, I’m all for the new and exuberant and am not against change, but what does interest me are the popular reasons given for change. From what I can see, most of it comes down to what might be called the purpose driven church factor; in other words, worshippers are consumers and we must give them what they want. It’s an attempt to be ‘culturally relevant’, as if somehow personal musical preferences are important in worship, will encourage more ‘unchurched’ people into our services and keep our children from ‘straying’ to other congregations. Others have provided more sophisticated arguments of course, but the popular view, in my experience, is the holy grail of ‘relevance’. Having spent quite some time worshipping with Charismatic churches who are as musically ‘cutting edge’ as it comes I have yet to hear a Charismatic theology of worship being suggested as the reason for Presbyterians singing ‘lively’ songs, indeed there is something incongruous about singing something new and upbeat with your hands by your side in your feet suck in the one position, or indeed singing that God might fill us with His Spirit when we expect nothing of the sort to happen!

    However, I can live with all of this, what bothers me more is that there is a trait within our generation of Christians, be we 20 or 70, which seems to think that unless we are tinkering we are not achieving anything. There is the danger that we think that unless we personalise and individualise worship we’re not really worshipping. There is the danger that we have been seduced by what is fashionable. By all means let us sing a new song, and let us, if we have the freedom, dance for the joy of sins forgiven, but if we cannot, at the same time, learn from our past heritage, if we pay it and those who identify with it such disrespect then we ought to examine our hearts and consider if we are are consumers after all.

    With particular ref to my version of Psalm one, it was indeed ridiculous, all I can say in my defence is that it was inspired by some of the tinkering in our 2004 Hymnary!

    The truth is this, worship isn’t about me and that’s a hard lesson to learn, but when my heart is directed towards the blessed of Psalm 1 I am reminded of he who worshipped for me when I fail to, and my hope is renewed.

  6. As a student for the ministry of our Church I have the priviledge and opportunity to preach in different congregations. As I look around from congregation to congregation one of our Presbyterian practices that is so often neglected is singing the Psalms.

    I have often heard of the Psalter being described as “God’s inspired hymnal.” No matter what life throws at us, no matter what situation in life we find ourselves in, there’s always a psalm there to turn to for comfort. And yet people often say to me, singing psalms is a Reformed Presbyterian thing to do. I’m glad to see that there are others who see that singing psalms is actually a Presbyterian tradition, but more importantly, one which is founded on God’s Holy and Inspired Truth.

    I agree that perhaps the main reason our church sees the singing of the psalms as dated is because in the midst of now having the Word of God itself in the vernacular we still have the psalter in the Language of 1650. How wonderful it would be to see our churches once again singing the word of God with a freshness and zeal that was felt when the revival flame of the reformation swept across Europe centuries ago.

  7. What an interesting array of comments!The article was worth posting just to discover that someone out there is a ‘Charismatic Presbyterian,’as I would never have guessed such a ‘thing’existed.Given my experience over nearly seven decades, I have never been aware of meeting one so,if true,his mother must be proud.

    In an age,not least education,schools are awash with ‘policies’ to cover every area of the curriculum.Most of them are awfully lacking in commonsense, but at least an attempt is being made to semi-articulate a position.Not so in many churches,so is it any wonder confusion reigns? Many of us in congregations don’t know the ‘modern’pieces,we don’t know when we will be trying to sing them and we don’t know who will be singing them.Will it be a trio,a group rendering,a solo? Will ‘they’ use a microphone? If so, we in the pews are at an instant disadvantage because we cannot possibly compete!In short,there is no meaningful leadership,everyone trying to do right in their own eyes.And it really is hard not to feel/believe that it is an attempt to ‘brighten’ the service and/or fulfil the perceived, unarticulated wants,wishes and desires of a younger age group.

    I am very aware that what is written above,at first glance,has little relevance to the blogpost on the singing of psalms.Bryan, helpfully, gave us a link so as to examine revised examples of our metrical versions.I hope he wasn’t even mildly irked by Charismatic Presbyterian’s example of a possible rehash of Psalm 1.My mind went to Psalm 40 v 2 which might become ,’He took me from a big,big hole.’I have too deep a love and respect for words learnt over a lifetime to remotely scoff or scorn.But as CP asserts,we only have to look at the 2004 revision of the Church Hymnary to see how mangled the psalms might become.As for ‘change,’it is hard to reconcile being against it,except if it’s for the sake of it.Greater sensitivity is needed from those in leadership as,before God , they seek to extend His kingdom among all age groups.If we oldies are expected to be ‘flexible’towards to-morrow’s Church,then they too have to be equally sensitive and respectful regarding the ‘language’in which we wish to use in our praise of and to Him.’All one in Christ Jesus,’should be a reality,not a nice evangelical soundbite.Maybe if it was,Scott would have more reason for optissism re his heart’s desire!

  8. as a convinced Presbyterian, there is nothing better than when the congregation sings unaccompanied to a Psalm. Too many of our congregations are awash with all the latest hymns, good and bad. But yet will not sing a metrical Psalm as it is viewed as old fashioned. Too many of the members in our church do not know what our hertitage is or even that it is Biblical to sing the word of God. If only we could revive this great tradition again

  9. Thank you,Robert,for your comments.This has been an amazing week for me on Stafford’s blog.Firstly,I discover that a Charismatic Presbyterian exists out there and now a ‘convinced Presbyterian turns up.’My cup is indeed full and running over!I really do trust that you can maintain your’convinced’ status.Sadly,I am losing my conviction due,not least,to the diluting of psalm singing in favour of ‘stuff’we oldies neither know or can sing.I personally believe that a time will come when,too late,it will be realized just what we have lost because it wasn’t deemed ‘trendy’at the time.My body may be in a big,big hole,but my spirit will be singing psalms to its heart’s content!

  10. i read with great interest the varied comments on worship.Having recently come to worship in a presbyterian church can i say the mix of musical worship is rich and varied and i find the ability to focus and direct my worship to God with out the distraction of hand waving and the like, most nourishing for the soul.Having spent a number of years in charismatic circles i feel the church i now worship in has a wonderful balance. In saying that when the spirit of God moves in your heart its hard not to get excited and express oneself in an outward show of thanks and gratitude to The Lord Jesus Christ who Shed His precious blood and died an agonizing death for us.What a saviour He is with out Him my life would be meaningless so if its singing psalms hymns or spiritual songs does it matter as long as we sing His praises, as Tom has just said his spirit will be singing psalms to its hearts content and why shouldnt it good on ya.

  11. @Graham

    Thank you for shining a strong beam of sincere Christian light, into the devoutly religious man-made darkness of regimentated worship.

  12. i agree wit u Tom. all this non sence that is going round at the moment that u have to sing the latest hymns spiritual songs available will bear no fruit in the long run. Lets get the church back to some Biblical standards.

  13. As a Reformed Presbyterian I am delighted to read your debate. Perhaps I should start by declaring my special interest. Some time ago the RP Church decided to translate the Psalms into modern English in metre, suitable for singing. The result is a psalter known as “The Psalms For Singing – A 21st Century Edition” published in 2004. I was the leader of one of several translation groups and found it a most rewarding and enjoyable experience. One of our aims was to make the translation as accurate as we could manage and, indeed, we were extremely encouraged by the very positive feedback from biblical scholars. The psalter can be obtained from The Covenanter Bookshop at Knockbracken. It is a ‘split leaf’ psalter so that a choice of tunes can be made for any one psalm.

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