Good and bad reasons for Psalm singing

I’ve been engaging on the question of Psalm singing in church recently. It is probably worth reminding readers of this. I love the book of Psalms, it plays a crucial role in Scripture. I also love  singing Psalms (both songs that very closely follow the wording and structure of Biblical Psalms and those which are based more loosely on them).  I also love reading, meditating on, studying and preaching the Psalms. However, I do not believe that there is a Biblical command requiring us to sing THE Psalms. In other words, I don’t think there is a requirement that we must sing them and definitely not in terms of singing all of them as part of corporate worship.

My concern then with recent pushes for more Psalm singing is not that I would mind more Psalms in our worship, though not please the monotonous chanting of them. Rather, it is that the arguments used to promote Psalm singing are a little bit suspect. So, I was interested to be passed this article by Keith Getty and David Robertson as an example of the argument for singing THE Psalms. I would suggest it is an example of some good reasons to sing some Psalms and the worst types of arguments for singing THE Psalms.

Let’s work through the arguments in order.

  • The Bible tells us to

Well, whether or not there is a Biblical command to sing the Psalms is actually up for dispute.  The argument that it does hangs on interpretation of two texts, Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. I’m not convinced that those two texts do command us to sing the Psalms and nor from what I can tell have many Biblical scholars over many years.  I’m going to pick up on these texts later in the week.

Here then is the issue. We need to be careful that we don’t conflate the inerrancy of our own interpretation with the inerrancy of Scripture itself. With that point in view I would be cautious about making statements of the kind we find in the article:

“When we don’t take the Psalms seriously, our commitment to the Bible is called into question as well.”

Of course we should take the Psalms seriously but coming to a different conclusion about whether or not to sing all of them in corporate worship is not a failure to take them seriously and therefore the implication that if you don’t agree with the article the you might not be taking Scripture seriously is to my way of thinking a very unhelpful way to start the argument.

  • Psalms are the word of God

Yes they are and I love to sing songs that are rich in Scripture. Indeed, one of our great delights as a couple is spotting the explicit quotes and the allusions to Scripture in the songs we sing and equally the other way, being reminded of those songs that particular scripture verses have inspired.

  • Psalms are the songs Jesus sang

Indeed, they are and there is something pleasant about realising this as we sing them. However, it is worth remembering two things. First of all, that the way we sing them bears little comparison to how he would have.  I am not sure that our metrical or chanted versions take us any closer to the days of Jesus than Brethren services got us back to the New Testament church. 

Secondly, there are lots of things that Jesus did, indeed in the context of singing Psalms that were good and Biblical but we do not ask one another to do now. Many of the Psalms would have been sung as he joined the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals and offer sacrifices.

  • They give us a more ‘authentic’ picture of God

Psalms and songs based tightly on them will point us to God because they are Scripture. This is true of all songs that draw heavily on scriptural language. It’s important though to remember that when handling Old Testament texts, we need to be careful to apply them through Christ and the New Testament to get that clear and authentic picture.

May I also say at this point that I’ve sung some awful worship songs and some simply wonderful ones. I think there is a case for encouraging people to sing a range of songs from through the ages and from the breadth of song writers today.  I was a little uneasy though with the throwing about of statistics along the lines of “only 3% of worship songs do such and such.” The risk is we just accept a headline stat without checking it out. Additionally, songwriters who lead worship in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and that’s what this bit of the article felt like.

  • Psalms are Christological

Yes they are and that’s an argument for reading, studying, meditating and preaching on them. See my point above though that we need to do the work and to use the New Testament to keep that Christological focus sharply in view.

  • They speak to the depth and breadth of human emotion

Yes they do. Partly this is because they are not all intended for the structured context of corporate worship but include those designed for public singing and those that reflect the heart cry of a man on the run or weeping on his bead at night.

  • They transform family worship

Did you know that there was a thing called family worship and we were duty bound to do that too? Nor did I recently. Well, if you do it and using some Psalms helps, then great.  Steve Kneale explains here why we are not required to.

  • They will unify our church families

Sorry, that’s stretching it a bit isn’t it? It is Christ who will unite us, not a particular view of how we are to sing.  It is as we discover the truth about Christ in Scripture that we are knit together but there are plenty of ways for churches to fall out over Psalm singing. Are we singing too many or too few in proportion to hymns and songs? Should we sing unaccompanied or with an organ? What about drums and guitars? The metrical version of Psalm 23, Stuart Townend’s, a chant from the Anglican prayer book or maybe Chris Tomlin’s Surely goodness, love and mercy. Oh we’ll find ways to conduct our worship wars over and over again. It’s the Spirit we need to build our unity not prescriptions.

  • They will revolutionize your church family

This is confusing aim with means. The thing that is revolutionising the church according to the article is not in fact Psalm singing but having the word of Christ dwell richly in us.  If singing a lot of Psalms helps with that then go for it.

  • The Psalms are missional

Well yes they are – but the missional thing is that they point us to Christ and motivate us to go out and speak of him.

The article contains some truths and some good reasons for why you might want to sing Psalms but I fear that too often it goes beyond this into making prescriptive demands upon the church that are based on shaky ground.

Later this week I will look at the texts used to prescribe Psalm signing and I’ll argue that if we focus on the actual commands in those texts, to be filled with God’s Word and God’s Spirit, then we’ll see a lot more singing -including Psalms.