I love the Psalms. I love reading from them, meditating on them, preaching them and I love singing a few of them. I also enjoy spotting when other hymns and songs draw on the language and themes of the Psalms. But I don’t think that we must sing the Psalms and definitely not all of them. That puts me at odds with a few friends who frequently bemoan the lack of Psalm singing in church.
Part of my reasoning for saying this is that actually I don’t think our biggest problem is our failure to see the Psalms as the Bible’s song book. Rather we miss something else. It’s something that I think churches with a liturgical tradition of working through all the Psalms might be slightly shielded from but even so there is still a risk here. The risk is that we fail to see the Psalms as first of all scripture, integrated into the canon of Scripture and ordered to teach and edify us. The Psalms are meant to be preached as well as sung. The Psalms are poetry and songs (so are much of the prophetic books) but they are also literature.
Secondly, I would gently suggest that just because David sung some of the Psalms does not mean that all were meant to be used in corporate worship. It’s something that has struck me whenever people have complained about how few of our songs talk about “we” plenty of the Psalms talk about “I”. And I suspect that is a reminder that these were not just songs to be sung in the Temple but the genuine heart cry of the Psalmist responding to particular situations.
Thirdly, I think that it sounds worthy, serious and pious to bemoan the lack of Psalm singing, the shallowness of our worship and the desperate need for things like lament. I’m not sure that those critiques are really that fair at all. Bluntly I think that complaining about contemporary worship is how we conservative evangelicals go about virtue signalling and I wonder if when we make those complaints we are actually listening carefully to our congregations when they sing.
Why do I say that? Well, I’ve both been through some pretty tough experiences in life and had the privilege of pastoring people who have been through even more intense and extreme experiences of suffering and I’ve sung with them. In a recent post I talked about singing a contemporary song that talks about God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of suffering. I was singing through the tears. I believe that this was about right. It was good to sing through the tears, to be gently reminded of the reality of pain in a fallen world but at the same time to give voice to my dependence on Christ. It would have been possible I’m sure to crank up the intensity of lament so that instead of singing through our tears we found ourselves unable to sing because of our tears. I’m not convinced that this would have been at all helpful pastorally not fitting for corporate worship.
Fourthly, I wonder if we have got our eschatological perspective right? What I mean by this is that when we sing together in corporate worship then it should reorientate us and remind us of where we stand in the great story of redemption. I think there is a reason why David cries out the “why” and the “how long” questions in the Psalms. It’s because of where he sits in redemptive history before Christ’s death and resurrection. The questions he asks are answered at the Cross and so by Romans 5 we have a clear answer and so we have confidence in the hope that suffering produces.
Linked to that, I would argue that we need to remember that when the Psalmist cries out, it isn’t merely at general or even personal suffering. We need to put things into context. Just as prosperity teachers leap into the OT and physically apply the promises of plenty to life now, so there can be a temptation to immediately apply David’s battles to the ups and downs of life. Yet, David’s struggles come in the context of God’s covenant promises concerning his people in the land. His distress is at the way that Yahweh’s enemies are seemingly victorious, his pain is at his own experience of exile. And he expresses his lament as Yahweh’s anointed king who suffers on behalf of his people.
When we gather for corporate worship on Sundays, our perspective is different. I’m not saying that our worship and prayers should not arise out of the context of real life and real struggle in this now and not yet context. Certainly I’m not arguing that we put on our metaphorical smiley masks. I’m definitely not suggesting that ee tell people just to cheer up. That too would be deeply destructive pastorally. However, it should consistently express the truth that we live this side of the cross, this side of Satan’s defeat. It is my personal view that many of our hymns and plenty of our contemporary worship songs get that tone about right.