How important is Psalm singing?
John Voogd is among the wonderful and extraordinary individuals I've been privileged to pastor. While I was a pastor in Kansas City, I would often visit him and his lovely wife. We would sit at their kitchen table and converse about a variety of things. At a certain point in the conversation, he would look my way and recite the salutation used in our liturgy in the Dutch language of his youth. I once quipped to him that if he ever lived to be 100 I would let him say the salutation in Dutch in the worship service.
In His sovereign wisdom and providence, the Lord took John home in 99th year. This was certainly an act of grace to John, who was beginning to suffer under various ailments his failing body could not overcome. And it was quite possibly an act of grace to me for making rash promises without the knowledge and endorsement of the elders of the church I pastored.
It wasn't only the salutation, however, that John would recite to me. He would also routinely break out into a song from an astonishing repertoire of Dutch psalms he had committed to memory as a young boy. I was so amazed that this man who had immigrated to the US before he was 20 years old could still sing Psalms he had learned more than eighty years earlier.
Towards the end of his life John's eyesight began to diminish significantly. He would often tell me that he couldn't see me and I would assure him that he wasn't missing much. His failure to see well, however, also meant an inability to read. Yet his heart and mind were always full of Scripture because of these Psalms he had committed to memory as a playful Dutch boy.
How important is Psalm singing? I remain convinced that they should have a central place among the songs we sing, not least in our corporate worship. In what follows I would like to highlight some of the reasons why.
God's songbook for His people
Singing Psalms, first of all, seems intended by God. It would be one thing if these 150 songs were scattered throughout the literature of the Old Testament. The fact that we find them united in one book strongly suggests that God intended the book of Psalms to be a songbook for his worshipping people.
There's a double blessing in singing from God's songbook. We can sing to the Lord about the varied faith experiences of our lives and do so with the very words He's given us. That gives us a measure of reassurance we might not enjoy singing hymns or contemporary choruses.
Singing Psalms, secondly, preserves us from a dispensationalist hermeneutic which regards Israel and the church as two separate peoples of God. The singing of Psalms often reminds us that we are God's people today, as Israel was God's people then. Like Israel of old we live in covenant with God, as the recipient of his promises and demands.
A wholesome perspective
Singing Psalms, thirdly, gives us a wholesome perspective on the Christian life. Hymns and choruses rarely include laments, confessions of sin or expressions of sadness, insecurity or despondency. The Psalter, however, is replete with acknowledgements of wrongdoing (Psalms 25, 32, 51, 130, etc.) and expressions of lament (Psalms 12, 44, 85, 123, 129, etc.).
We cannot underestimate the importance of this, especially in recent years when we've seen entire communities ravaged by tsunamis and hurricanes. So often in these scenarios we're left with agony and grief, crying out to the Lord in bewilderment. This is what mature believers do, however, and the Bible is full of faithful laments from the mouths of righteous men, including Job, David and Jeremiah.
It might surprise some that there are more psalms of lament in the Bible than there are psalms of gratitude. God has given us these psalms to say and inspired these songs for us to sing. God understands our impulse to lament and he gives us words to express it.
I've never been convinced in this connection by the argument that worship services today should be uniformly characterized by upbeat music and lyrics. There ought to be a place in our singing for congregational confession and congregational lament, liturgical activities that are better accompanied by solemn music. I'm always delighted to hear church musicians play songs textually, playing some stanzas softly and solemnly and other stanzas loudly and vibrantly.
A wholesome theology
Singing Psalms, fourthly, brings to our attention important dimensions to biblical theology we otherwise might neglect. It seems to me that one reason more churches don't sing Psalms is because they've become estranged from the theology of the Bible.
The Psalms often plead, for example, for God to bring judgment (Psalms 4, 7, 9, 10, etc.). Most of us would have difficulty praying Psalm 7:8 as a prayer: “Judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to the integrity within me.” The Psalmist, however, is confident because he knows he's justified and forgiven and innocent in the particular situation from which he writes.
The same point can be made about the imprecations we find in the Psalter, where God is invited and encouraged to destroy His enemies (Psalms 9, 21, 52, 57, 139, etc.). We must always remember that God can destroy in alternative ways. He can kill and eliminate or he can kill and resurrect (thus, convert). We pray that God's enemies will be destroyed, and we leave to Him the manner of their destruction. As the legendary Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote somewhere, “We desire their welfare as men, their downfall as traitors.”
I've often imagined that early New Testament Christians must have prayed imprecatory prayers against Saul, the persecuting Pharisee. When God destroyed Saul on the road to Damascus, it was in answer to those prayers.
In conclusion, let's recommit to the singing of Psalms. The congregation I pastor sings Psalms to the Genevan tunes (see www.genevantunes.com) but there are many wonderful alternatives in hymnals such as Cantus Christi and the blue and grey Psalter Hymnals of the CRC. I also highly commend the contemporary efforts of Jamie Soles (www.solmusic.ca), for example, and the Sons of Korah (www.sonsofhorah.com) to put the Psalms to music.
If we're going to be transformed by the renewing of our minds we need to maximize our exposure to the Word of God. Singing the Psalms is a great way to do that.