One of the big changes with The Reformation was a movement towards congregational singing. Prior to that, the expectation was that the laity sat and observed whilst the clergy performed the mass. So Reformed and Lutheran churches seeking to involve all members in gathered worship began to provide metrical versions of Psalms (with words set to a particular metre in order to enable them to be sung to a tune).
In some circles, the strict rule became that only Psalms should be sung. However, in most contexts the move went further towards hymns, choruses and into the 20th century, contemporary worship. However, in some quarters, Psalm singing has had something of a resurgence. However, I don’t think there has really been much discussion about this. Rather, the church can be split into two parts. There are those who have just got on with hymn singing and/or contemporary worship on the one side. They simply don’t bother much about the Psalms. Meanwhile on the other side are those insisting that failure to sing Psalms puts us out of kilter with the rest of church throughout history and makes us disobedient to Scripture’s command to sing Psalms.
So, here is an attempt to get the conversation going and to get us thinking about the place of Psalms in our worship. Let’s start by talking about history. Now, I’m not against traditions that link us with the past but nor do I believe we must do something simply because there is a tradition of it. Lot’s of traditions have gone by the way-side over time, some for the better. However, I would want to push this further and suggest that we are not particularly out of kilter if we don’t sing the Psalms. You see, as suggested above, the creation of a Psalms based hymnal is itself an innovation. Did Psalms play a part in church life throughout history? Of course they did and still do in liturgical traditions. If you’ve joined us for Morning and Evening Prayer during lockdown then you’ll notice that a daily Psalm is central part of the liturgy. However, the point is that you work through the whole book of Psalms over the year reading a Psalm together. This means that alongside an Old Testament and New Testament reading each day and a Gospel reading at communion, you are likely to cover the whole of the Bible, reading it together as a church over a couple of years. This is doing something different to just picking any Psalm at whim to sing together.
Secondly, what about the Scriptural imperative issue. Are we commanded to sing Psalms? Well, the basis of this assumption is Ephesians 5:19
“ … addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”
You should notice two things here. First of all, you will notice that we are coming in at the midpoint in a sentence. The command is not “sing psalms” The command is much further back in the sentence and is to “be filled with the Spirit.” This is followed by a series of participles which fill out what it means to be filled with the Spirit. Secondly, you might spot that we have already met this verse in the context of making melody in your heart. I think it is fairly obvious here that Paul is piling up the examples of how you praise God as a result of being filled with the Spirit. It is not that we are to fill up a quota of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual songs. Rather, it is that these three things describe a heart that is filled with Christ and so bursts out in praise.
Thirdly, I think the demand to sing Psalms loses sight of how the Psalter functions. Now for the record, I have no problem with including Psalms in our worship. However, I would suggest that it isn’t simply a matter of picking a Psalm, finding a tune and singing it through. Why? Well because, I’m not sure that this is how the Psalms were designed. Some Psalms to be sure were written for the congregation to sing together and come with instructions about how to do so. Other Psalms were written for specific occasions and were to be used, for example in the context of the pilgrimage to the festivals at Jerusalem. Still others reflect the deep and personal cry to God of an individual for help or for mercy. So, I don’t think we can just assume that all of the Psalms are tailor made to be part of our staple weekly diet.
Furthermore, the Psalms were written in a specific context, primarily during a particular moment in redemption history. They were penned before Christ. Normally, we would insist that Scripture should be applied through Christ. However, the danger with our singing is that we end up with Old Testament application that has not been reflected on in the light of the Gospel. Then there are all those imprecatory Psalms wishing violence against the enemies of God’s people. Are we meant to be singing those words?
The risk is that we end up with undigested bits of Scripture and we have neither thought through the theological basis for what we do with them nor the practical implications. How do we understand the journey up to the House of the Lord in the Psalms of Accent? Should we wish death on those that oppose us? It is not merely about desiring to make things accessible to visitors that causes us pause for thought but also about caring for the congregation too.
Finally, I would suggest that whilst the Psalter functioned in some ways as the hymn book of Israel, by making it in a way our hymnbook, we lose the other ways it functioned. It is not just a collection of songs to sing. Rather, it is a carefully collated and edited book with its own overarching message and sub themes. The risk if we simply rush to find a Psalm to sing is our individual poem becomes detached both from our own experience and the context in which it is set.
I believe that there is a better way forward. The Psalms as with the rest of Scripture should inform our thinking and feelings. We should take time to think through what they are saying, to understand them and to apply them to our life circumstances. I believe that the result of this meditative thoughtfulness will be a rich new cluster of hymns and worship songs.