By Jason Adkins
In 1815, eighty Protestant Christians in Nimes, France, experienced persecution at the hands of an anti-Protestant mob. Many of these believers were beaten and dragged through the streets. Moments before the onslaught of violence, even as the mob was trying to force open the doors of the church, the ministers at Nimes sought to comfort the believers.
They sang what could have been their last song this side of eternity–Psalm 42.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
Perhaps, that seems like an odd response to the threat of persecution. Yet, until quite recently, the Psalms have been the script for Christian devotion. For hundreds of years, the Psalms served as the hymnal and prayer book of Christians. To express joy and to describe grief, believers of many generations consistently turned to the 150 poems of praise collected at the center of their Bibles.
As introduction to the idea of Psalm-singing, reflect on these words from the Apostle Paul: “. . . addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. . .” (Ephesians 5:19).
Paul’s instruction in Ephesians 5 is his elaboration on the Lord’s will. Instead of being controlled by substances (v. 18), Christians ought to live full of the Spirit. During corporate worship, Spirit-filled living manifests itself in joyful praise to God (“singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”).
However, Paul does not intend for congregational singing to be directed heavenward only. Even as we sing “up,” we are also called to sing “out.” Christian worship includes an element of encouragement and edification, by which we address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”
I will marshal Ephesians 5, later, to support biblically the singing of the Psalms, but, for now, I underscore that Paul envisions Psalm-singing as a means by which we encourage other believers. The Protestant persecution at Nimes, France, is a good example of how the Psalms are ready to strengthen us in life’s situations.
As a more recent example of the sufficiency of the Psalms, Terry L. Johnson–the senior pastor of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia–recounts a special Psalm-singing service his church conducted in the wake of the September 11th tragedies.
The congregation sang songs of grief, including Psalm 130:1-2, 5-6; 13:1-6; 25:16-20; and 142:1-6. What an appropriate time to sing “My griefs of heart abound; my sore distress relieve” (Ps 25:17)!
The congregation sang songs that implored God for his protection and justice, including Psalm 54:1-7; 57:1-5; and 71:1-6. Have we comfortable and safe evangelicals ever had a better occasion to sing, “Strangers have come up against me, / Even men of violence, / And they seek my life’s destruction” (Ps 54:3)?
The congregation declared their trust in God through Psalm 23; 37:1-2, 10-19; 46:1-3, 10-11; and 91:1-12. Those God-inspired words–”Be still! Know I am God. / Exalted o’er all men, / Exalted o’er all earth.”–vividly remind us of God’s authority and power, even in the midst of tragedy.
The Rhyme and Reason of Psalm-Singing
The argument for Psalm-singing is simple. Several straightforward principles should impress upon us the necessity of Psalm-singing in the life of the church.
1. Psalm-singing is commanded.
In Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul elaborates on God’s will for Christians. Characteristic of their Spirit-filled lives is that Christians address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (5:19). In Colossians, Paul includes this command in his description of Christians’ new identify: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16). Thus, we have two instances in which the Apostle Paul instructs us to use the Psalms in Christian worship.
“Psalms” had a very broad use in the Greco-Roman world and often referred to religious music generally, rather than the OT Psalms specifically. Interpreters could wonder how the Gentile audiences of Ephesians and Colossians would have understood the term. Evidence suggests that early Christians understood Paul to mean the OT Psalms. Tertullian, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Augustine, Jerome, and Apollinaris Sidonius are early church figures who make reference to the practice of OT Psalm-singing.
Paul does not impose upon Christians the command to sing Psalms exclusively. His reference to “hymns and spiritual songs” legitimizes other musical expressions of the church’s doctrine. Paul obeyed his own command to make use of “hymns and spiritual songs.” In a few instances, Paul cites early Christian poetry—perhaps, the vestiges of early Christian hymnody—in his teaching (cf. Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Timothy 2:11-13). To demand that only OT Psalms be sung in the gathering of the church is a misconstruction of Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.
2. Psalm-singing is significant.
Calvin aptly noted of the Psalms, “when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if, he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.” We miss that certainty in many of the songs that fill our hymnals and populate our PowerPoints.
In my current ministry role, I am active in planning worship services and selecting songs. I’m prone to dismiss certain songs for various reasons. For example, I might consider a tune “hokey.” Our Baptist Hymnal is fond of chord progressions full of seventh chords, which is good for toe tapping, but sometimes feels dated.
Other times, I find some of a song’s lyrics unhelpful. I generally like the hymn “Word of God, Across the Ages” (Baptist Hymnal 1991, #262), except for the line that says “as devout and patient scholars more and more its depths reveal.” I would not call the line unbiblical or erroneous, but I find it unhelpful. By God’s Spirit, Christians can grow in their understanding of scripture; they do not have to wait for an exegetical decree from a terminally degreed professor.
These concerns dissipate in Psalm-singing. If we truly believe that all scripture is inspired, sufficient, and profitable, the “hokiest” of tunes can be overcome. It takes a measure of irreverence to sing a God-inspired Psalm and, then, critique the tune. Even more so, we will not find ourselves questioning the utility of the Psalm’s content.
When we sing the Psalms, we sing words that are inspired (2 Timothy 3:16) and infallible (Proverbs 20:5); we sing lyrics marked by permanence (Psalm 119:89; Isaiah 40:8) and power (Psalm 29:4; Psalm 33:6). These characteristics grant our worship a genuine significance, which no chord progression, key change, or guitar solo is able to conjure.
3. Psalm-singing is beneficial.
Very simply, singing the Psalms benefits and edifies the church. Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 presuppose that the Psalms have value for admonishing and edifying Christians. Paul’s presupposition is entirely correct: God’s word is desirable (Psalm 19:10), profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), and the source of faith (Romans 10:17).
A unique benefit of the Psalms is their articulation and expression of the range of human emotions. Of our modern praise choruses, which have the boldness to declare to God, “Why do you hide your face from me” (Psalm 88:14)?
Which of our modern praise choruses has the passion to declare to God, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
In March 2011, my father passed away. He languished in the hospital for several weeks. I found in the Psalms an unswerving support. They made me ever mindful of God’s steadfast love.
- “Wondrously show your steadfast love” (17:7).
- “. . . steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts the LORD” (32:10).
- “Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you” (33:22).
- “God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness” (57:3).
- “Blessed be God, because he has not . . . removed his steadfast love from me” (66:20).
This is an example of the power of the Psalms. Whether we “rejoice with those who rejoice” or “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), the Psalms give us the emotive language to edify one another.
The Practicalities of Psalmody
The issue of Psalm-singing serves as a crucible in which our belief in the authority, power, and sufficiency of scripture is tested. How can those involved in leading the worship of the church reject Psalm-singing if they believe in the profitability of scripture and if they see the command, significance, and benefit to singing the Psalms?
The practicalities of Psalmody can erect a barrier to the (re-) inclusion of the Psalms in corporate worship. Depending on your denominational affiliation, you may have never sung Psalms and you may not know where to find musical versions of the Psalms.
To overcome these barriers, I will highlight some resources for Psalm-singing, provide some guidance for (re-) introducing the Psalms melodically to your church, and address a couple lingering concerns. The relevance of the guidance I provide will vary slightly in accordance with your church’s unique worship setting.
Those in a “traditional” worship setting, where printed hymnals are still in use, may be surprised to find in their hymnal some Psalms set to music. “All People on Earth Do Dwell” is a paraphrase of Psalm 100; most people will recognize the tune from “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.” Hymnary.org lists 25 different hymnals that incorporate this Psalm, including the 1991 and 2008 versions of the Baptist Hymnal. Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Psalm 23—“My Shepherd Will Supply Me Need”—is another commonly published Psalm.
Most likely, churches will need to look beyond the resources of their own hymnals. Two essential resources for Psalm-singing are the Trinity Hymnal and the Trinity Psalter. The Trinity Hymnal incorporates many Psalms set to tunes with which your church may be familiar. I compiled a list of such Psalms for my church.
|Psalm||Trinity Hymnal Number/Title||Tune in Baptist Hymnal (1991)|
|16:1-11||692: To You, O Lord, I Fly||339: Not What My Hands Have Done|
|25:1-10||694: Lord, I Lift My Soul to Thee||306: Depth of Mercy|
|45:1-10||169: My Heart Does Overflow||339: Not What My Hands Have Done|
|50:1-6||316: The Mighty God, the Lord||161: Crown Him with Many Crowns|
|69:16-36||607: Thy Loving-kindness, Lord is Good and Free||297: Search Me, O God|
|93||70: With Glory Clad, with Strength Arrayed||574: Soldiers of Christ, in Truth Arrayed|
|98||16: Come, Let Us Sing unto the Lord||587: Jesus Shall Reign|
|119:89-96||59: Forever Settled in the Heavens||587: Jesus Shall Reign|
The Trinity Psalter has metrically-arranged versions of all 150 Psalms. For each Psalm, the Psalter lists a common tune, to which the Psalm can be sung. I found 33 Psalms set to tunes familiar to my congregation. The only drawback to the Trinity Psalter is that it does not provide the musical score for the Psalm. I address this issue by scanning the score of the tune and editing the Psalm’s text into the scanned image, which is time-consuming, but rewarding. You could also look into purchasing the piano accompanist edition of the Trinity Psalter.
Guidance for (Re-) Introducing the Psalms
(1) Exercise patience in (re-) introducing Psalm-singing. Young reformed ministers sometimes struggle with patience in their first pastorate. We enter pastorates with a laundry list of reforms, which we too often rush to implement. Do not move Psalm-singing to the top of your reform-list and fill next Sunday’s order of worship with unfamiliar Psalms. Apply Paul’s instructions to “bear with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2) and “count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3), as you plan to incorporate Psalms in worship. Remember that Paul valued “hymns and spiritual songs,” alongside the Psalms, and, thus, continue to sing songs your congregation cherishes.
(2) Cast a vision for Psalm-singing. Instruct your church on the benefit, command, and significance to singing the Psalms. Exposit texts like Ephesians 5:17-21 or Colossians 3:12-17. In a Sunday school lesson or in the public preaching ministry, provide your people with a conceptual framework for Psalm-singing. Show them that singing Psalms is an application of their beliefs regarding the perfection and profitability of God’s word. If members of our churches share this vision, they will follow us more willingly as we lead them in Psalm-singing.
(3) Expose your church to the musical Psalms. Find a practical way to introduce a couple of Psalms to your church. For instance, if your church services include a “special music” or “offertory song” performed as the offering is collected, sing Psalms during that time. (By the way, this is a way of obeying Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16!) A vocalist or instrumentalist should alert the congregation that the song is a Psalm. Ideally, the church would provide attendees a score of the Psalm (in the bulletin, or in a binder in the pew rack) so that they can follow along as the Psalm is performed. Follow up this exposure by singing the Psalm congregationally in the not-too-distant future.
(4) Alert the congregation to Psalms in the order of worship. Whoever is responsible for introducing songs should make sure the congregation knows when Psalms are sung. Tell the congregation that the following song is a paraphrase of, for example, Psalm 23. Another good method is reading a Psalm as a call to worship at the beginning of the church service (e.g., Psalm 100) and then singing the Psalm (cf., “All People that on Earth Do Dwell,” #5 in the Baptist Hymnal 1991). Here is a sample song introduction in this scenario: “Let’s sing back to God the words we have just heard from him in Psalm 100. Our first hymn is Hymn 5, “All People that on Earth Do Dwell,” which is a paraphrase of the Psalm 100.”
Perhaps, more than the practicalities are inhibiting you from incorporating the Psalms into the worship of your church. I want to address just a couple other hypothetical concerns.
“The musical Psalms available are paraphrases of the Psalms; doesn’t that negate some of the benefit of Psalm-singing?” Almost all musical versions of the Psalms require some paraphrasing. The OT Psalms reflect conventions of Hebrew poetic meter and hymnody. These conventions do not translate easily to Western musical norms. Paraphrases, thus, make it possible to sing the content of the Psalms in our modern context.
The utility of paraphrase has some biblical endorsement. 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18 substantially contain the same song of praise. However, when the two texts are collated and compared, over 100 variations exist between the two texts. An analysis of the two texts shows that 2 Samuel 22 transmits an older version of the song, and the variations present in Psalm 18—many of which have a devotional tone—are due to the liturgical use of the song in Israel’s worship. Both 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18 are included in the corpus of scripture; both are recognized as inspired and infallible. So, we should not disqualify paraphrases, per se.
Do, however, examine the paraphrased Psalms before promoting them as Psalms. For example, “Christ Shall Have Dominion” (#439 in the Trinity Hymnal) is listed as a paraphrase of Psalm 72:8-19. However, Psalm 72 has no occurrences of the word “Christ.” Perhaps, we should be careful to call this song a Psalm. Those are the kind of decisions each church and its worship planners should make.
“The format of our church’s worship is best described as contemporary. We sing mostly modern hymns and rarely incorporate older hymns. Most of our attendees are not familiar with older melodies and tunes.” This common scenario calls for an abundance of patience and wisdom as musical Psalms are incorporated. Do the necessary, preparatory work. Teach on worship, generally, and Psalm-singing, specifically. Point church members to the rich, historical tradition of Psalm-singing. Perform a Psalm for the congregation before asking them to sing that Psalm congregationally. You may need to incorporate musical Psalms gradually and only occasionally.
However, you cannot use a contemporary-orientation as an excuse to avoid Psalm-singing altogether. In doing so, you excuse yourself from obeying Paul’s admonishment in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. Sadly, you rob your church members of the benefit and significance of Psalm-singing. Have you done them this disservice only because you lacked the courage to lead them?
Now Let’s Sing
My aim—perhaps, too ambitious—has been to promote the recovery of Psalm-singing in modern evangelical churches. The discussion of the command, significance, and benefit of Psalm-singing should provide the paradigm needed for (re-) including the Psalms in corporate worship. This article should provide resources and guidance to get started. But the work is far from done. Together, let us strive to apply our convictions regarding the sufficiency of scripture to our congregational worship.
Jason Adkins is a technical writer and bivocational associate pastor at Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He received a Master of Divinity from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is a co-author of Understand, Plan, and Lead Worship: Applying Biblical Doctrine and Spirituality to Christian Worship, a forthcoming title from Zondervan in the Practical Shepherding series.
Foxe, John. Book of Martyrs. Chapter 21. Available from http://www.ccel.org/f/foxe/martyrs/fox121.htm.
Johnson, Terry. “Restoring Psalm Singing to Our Worship,” in Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 264-267.
 Johnson, 268-269.
Calvin, John. “Preface,” The Genevan Psalter (1545), 3. Originally cited by Godfrey, Robert, The Worship of God (Geanies House, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2005)