Why I Chose the Psalms
"Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works. Glory ye in his holy name: let the heart of them rejoice that seek the LORD."
This blog is too long. However, I need to make an explanation to my friends who have asked me about these things. Believe it or not, this is the first half of my explanation. Some of you may want to only read the subheadings to get the gist of what I’m writing. Several years ago an old friend and colleague learned of my convictions about songs in worship when I transferred from one dearly loved denominational connection to another. The reasons for joining the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) were not solely due to exclusive psalm singing. In fact, there were a multi-fold collection of theological reasons, especially including the vast importance of being clear about the mediatorial kingship of Christ. I will deal with them in a later blog. And there are other worship issues beyond merely what we sing that also led me to seek membership in the RPCNA. Of no little importance, of course, was the deep and satisfying fellowship of kindred minds with whom I served at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (RPTS) for seventeen years. That fellowship included many who were first of all students and later yoke-fellows in ministry. When my friend asked me about the change of denomination and especially why I would choose to sing only the psalms in worship, his incredulity splashed out as a simple gasp of “Why?” It was not an occasion when I could give him a full answer. He was but one in a chorus of questioners. So I have determined to set down a delineated catalogue of reasons why I believe we ought to sing only the Psalms in the worship of God.
The following reasons are not in order of importance but form a collective weight of consequence that convince me of not only the value of singing psalms in the service of worship, but also their exclusive place in worship. That is, psalms are what we are to sing and they are not to be replaced by something else of human invention. While there may be other reasons and arguments about singing only psalms in worship and many other questions and objections I could choose to answer, I do not choose to do that here. Let me state from the outset my fundamental view of the psalms as the songs God intended for us to sing in worship: The psalms are New Testament songs put in the mouth of Old Testament saints until we should come along to fulfill and sing with meaning as those who complete them now, (Hebrews 11:39-40 – “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”).
First of all, we must remember that the psalms, although they are poetry, are meant to be sung. They are not principally of human composition. Unlike any other form of song, they are among other things universally profitable, (2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”) When we sing the psalms, we are doing something more than expressing ourselves. We are both addressing God and we are also listening to Him tell us what we ought to be and what we may be saying back to Him in song. The question, then, is not, “should I sing this?” but rather as inspired “what is the Spirit teaching me to sing?”
2. Reverence (Response to a Word from God)
God’s Word is holy. It is to be treated with the utmost sacredness. It is to be revered by listening to it as the very voice of God speaking directly to our hearts. The psalms are written to be sung and as such are to be sung to God with a reverence no human composition could rival. That hymns are sung in worship often gives to them a sentimental value and weight approaching a reverence they do not deserve. This may be a strange place to include the following thought: The Westminster Standards, especially the original Directory of Worship, envisioned nothing else to be sung in worship but the psalms. However, while the standards are not Scripture, they are a valiant attempt to apply Scripture being scrupulously faithful to Scripture. I mention this here because this fact is cavalierly tossed away as irrelevant and obsolete. It is treated as antique religion. But I approach the standards with deep appreciation and feel that they ought to be treated with respect and measured by their correspondence to Scripture. Therefore, we must treat the psalms as the holy Word of God with reverence, treasuring them above any human composition and understand them as an integral part of Reformed and Presbyterian religion.
In our day, a favorite pop cultural Christian question asks, “What would Jesus do?” I like to change it to say, “What did Jesus do?” In this context we might add “What would Jesus have me to sing in worship?” And we might say, “What did Jesus sing?” And of course, the answer is: Jesus sang the psalms with His disciples. However, there is even a more important question, “What did Jesus give us to sing?” Wouldn’t it be grand if there were a hymnbook composed only of the songs that Jesus gave us? Well, there is a completed book of the Bible which is an inspired collection of His inspired song, namely the Psalms. This hymnbook is part of the canon of Scripture. There are no New Testament hymns. Some authors have tried to suggest that portions of the New Testament appear to be hymns or quotes of New Testament song. This is mere conjecture and no such songs have been found or recorded. Let me put it this way: Are only the words in red the words of Jesus or is every word of the Bible to be understood as the words of Jesus? And if all the Bible and its words are the words of Jesus, then in this sense the psalms are the words of Jesus. And therefore the psalms are the songs that Jesus gave us to sing. To what book of the Bible that is already completed are we allowed to add or subtract? We have a divinely inspired completed collection of songs to be sung. That is our hymnbook. This is the canonical argument. It should bear much weight on the conscience of everyone who holds the Bible dear. This is the way the Bible itself treats the psalms. They are understood to be a canon for the church’s hymnody. See 2 Chronicles 29:25 “And he (Hezekiah) stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king's seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets.” And taken with 2 Chronicles 29:30 “And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped.” Also, of course, the New Testament treats the psalms as completed Scripture to be the absolute authoritative reference.
In Acts chapter 2, Peter quotes Psalm 16 and he explains why it does not refer first of all to David but rather is a prophecy spoken by David and in the voice of the messianic king of which David is the type, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.”
This very helpful principle of interpretation reminds us that the psalms are not first of all to be interpreted by their historical setting or the circumstances of David’s or others’ lives. They are to be interpreted first of all by their relation to the suffering of Jesus and the glory that was to follow. This will show itself in many different ways. Sometimes, Jesus is speaking in the first person. Sometimes, He is leading us in praise of the Father. Sometimes, He is taking us by the hand and leading us in what we should say as sinners as He is our choir director. In all this, it is the prophetic work of the messianic king as mediator, orchestrating our praise.
The Bible is able to speak into any culture. The reason is this: The Bible is an historical document. It relates the story of God creating His own people with their own divinely designed culture. This makes the Bible, if it is taught in its entirety as a whole, self-explanatory. That means that the psalms have a lexicon surrounding them in both Old and New Testaments. So for example when the psalms pray for Zion, they are praying for more than just the military citadel of David. They are praying for all of Israel under the rule of God’s chosen king. In the New Testament this is the church of Jesus Christ. And that is always what the Holy Spirit meant for us to understand. Israel was never a complete idea without us as the church under Jesus’ rule. Any such interpretation, without the church and Jesus ruling from David’s throne, is a dispensationalist interpretation unworthy of Reformed understanding. Typology is the key to understanding the psalms in New Testament terms. That is apostolic doctrine.
6. Christ’s Kingly Authority and Authorship
There is a reason why it is David who writes the psalms. Of course, there were others who wrote psalms under David’s direction or who wrote after the style of David. It is David who establishes God’s rule over His people. David has administrative duties to perform as the mediator over Israel. It fell to him to administrate the temple worship so that everything was ready for the construction and service of the temple under his son, Solomon. It is David and Solomon who formed one type of Christ. David was the conquering king who would gain the whole land as an inheritance for Israel. Solomon was a wise and peaceful builder of the temple as was promised that David’s son would build the temple. So David not only collected building material for the temple that his son would build, and he engaged from Hiram the artisans that would do the work along with a huge workforce of laborers, but he also provided the musicians, singers, and ranks of those for temple service. Uniquely, he was inspired to provide the words to be used in worship for singing. As all of these had to be commanded, and all these had to be done in the name of Yahweh, by Yahweh’s administrative power and authority, it fell to the king. David exercised the office of the one who ministered Yahweh’s kingly authority over Israel. Yahweh is king. Samuel didn’t want any man to exercise that role in Israel but the people begged for a king like the other peoples. God told Samuel they have not rejected you but they have rejected me as king. David was the king by God’s selection. God said of him “He’s a man after my own heart.” David wrote the psalms as the Lord’s anointed. Therefore, the psalms are songs of the King who commands us to use them. They bear the authority of the Messiah. Every psalm bears the royal stamp from the right hand of God. But David was only a type. Christ Jesus is the Lord’s anointed and therefore every psalm bears His stamp.
7. Telos – End purpose (to be sung) to reveal, etc.
The purpose of the psalms as a collection was to be the hymnal of Israel. Not only are the individual psalms inspired for singing, but the collection of the psalms itself is a prophetic work by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We have what Jesus intended for us to have. If there are songs not included, they are not meant for our singing them in worship. There are songs in the Old Testament that are not included and therefore are not to be used in worship. However, if the song finds itself in the Book of Psalms as a collection then it is meant to be sung in worship. The first question that has to be asked of any psalm is, “How is this to be used in New Testament worship?” The answer to that question will direct us to the real meaning of that psalm. Easy examples may be found in Psalm 2, 16, and 110. Some have argued that psalms like Psalm 51 cannot be meant as a psalm in which Christ is speaking. However, that forgets that Psalm 51 may be understood as Jesus through the mouth of David taking us by the hand and teaching us the words of repentance. Much like Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer when the disciples asked Jesus “How should we pray?” He taught them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer which includes forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. This is a prayer that Jesus says with us bearing our words and our hearts before our Father in Heaven as our mediator. So picture yourself when you sing Psalm 51 as before your heavenly Father’s throne with Jesus standing next to you holding your hand and saying ‘repeat after me, “Father against you and you only have I sinned and done this evil in your sight. Blot out all my transgressions and renew in me a right spirit.” If Jesus didn’t authorize us to say this, then how would we dare say this? We would have no standing in the heavenly court.
8. Redemptive History
Those of us who respect the whole Bible as the Word of God recognize that there is an unfolding story to the Bible. The early part of the story is to explain the end of the story. If we want to know Jesus intimately, we cannot rely on the Gospels alone. Everything that is in the Gospels is based on and only understood by the Old Testament record, including the psalms. When we sing them as New Testament song put in the mouth of Old Testament saints, then they are understood as being interpreted by what is fulfilled in the New Testament. The Gospels do not tell us what Jesus is thinking and feeling and praying. For instance, what is Jesus going through on the cross? Psalm 22 is the full prayer of Jesus from the cross. Psalm 16 explains what in part is promised to the Messiah, but also explains what Jesus anticipated after His resurrection, beyond the cross, of pleasure at the right hand of the Father forevermore. There are many other psalms that speak out of the heart of our Savior.
9. Attributes of Scripture – Necessity, Authority, Sufficiency, and Perspicuity
Most of the arguments against the use of all the psalms being used in worship, much less using the psalms exclusively in worship, argue too much to be valid. They prove that the psalms are not Scripture. They argue against the continued sufficiency for worship. They say that the psalms are not enough for present day gospel worship. They also argue that the psalms are not clear enough to be useful in worship without much explanation. These arguments could be used against the usefulness of all the Scripture. All Scripture is designed to be interpreted by preaching, the Scripture interpreting Scripture. All the imagery of the Psalms are to be found and explained by the rest of Scripture.
10. Regulative Principle
The regulative principle of worship may be stated this way: What is commanded is to be done, what is not commanded is not be done. The Bible in the Psalms commands us to sing psalms. We have noted above that the Old Testament commands us to sing psalms. The example of Jesus and the apostles was that they sang psalms. Therefore, we are commanded to use the canonical collection for our singing in worship. There is no command to write our own new collection of song to be sung in worship. Paul’s exhortation to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual song has no new novel collection of song in view. In fact it can only be exegetically understood to be a command to sing the canonical collection of song because spiritual song means inspired song. Therefore, the regulative principle requires us to sing only psalms in worship.
11. Cultural (Universal Application)
In the evangelical church, the old collection of hymns is no longer used. They are considered obsolete. Furthermore most of the hymns are not culturally transferable. However, the psalms as the Word of God are universally culturally transferable as they carry their own culture with them. They were designed to mold the spirituality of all believers everywhere. What we sing becomes what we believe, what we pray, and what we feel. Singing impoverished hymns and choruses yields an impoverishment of our spiritual experience.
12. Hermeneutical Importance – Key to Many N.T. Ideas
Jesus and the apostles used the psalms at key moments in their ministries. When we sing the psalms and become familiar with the whole corpus we begin to hear echoes of the psalm language all over the New Testament. Even beyond explicit quotes and obvious allusions much of the New Testament language is informed by the psalms. Without the memory of the psalm language much of the New Testament seems like foreign ground. Phrases that should be familiar and easily understood are strange and hard to be interpreted because we are out of context of the world of Bible thought. Most people have, for instance, quotes from their favorite movie and they may say them in a conversation, but without an explanation. Everybody who has seen the movie knows exactly what is meant by the quote. But if they have not seen the movie, they have no idea what that fragment of thought means and the moment is lost. So it is with much of the New Testament written by exclusive psalmists.