What happened to psalmody?

Once upon a time, the singing of the Psalter was an edifying and indispensable element of Christian life, yet it is now – for the vast majority of us – simply one of the books of the Old Testament which we occasionally read. In the Middle Ages, congregational singing was suppressed altogether in favour of choirs and complicated music which was beyond the skill of laypersons. Like scripture, worship was monopolised by the magisterium.  Then came the Reformation and restored the psalm-singing of the early Church, and what a blessing it was! For the first time in centuries, Christians could read the Bible in their vernacular and they could again sing and experience in their hearts the God-breathed words of the Psalter. Their personal relationship with God was enriched, far more than it had been previously through man-made images and idolatrous ceremonies. They knew and worshipped God by the means he himself had revealed in scripture. This central tenet of Protestantism is known as the regulative principle of worship. In spite of this, we find zero (!) psalms in the average evangelical worship service.

The psalms are equally applicable to the Church in every age and in every situation. Their laments, penitent pleas, anger at the enemy and rejoicing at God’s great mercy articulate the full scale of human emotions. Furthermore, they are beautifully christological and we, the New Testament Church, have the hindsight to appreciate them in their fullness. Not only are the Psalms of great value, but we have a clear scriptural mandate to sing them:

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:18-20)

Significantly, the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of which Paul speaks, addressing public worship, all refer to the Book of Psalms. The Septuagint, the translation of the Old Testament used by Greek-speaking Jews, included superscriptions which categorised the Psalter into psalms, ‘understanding’, hymns and odes (or songs), using the same words as does Paul. As late as the fourth century, this understanding is reflected in the testimony of the Church:

Be not careless of yourselves, neither deprive your Saviour of His own members, neither divide His body nor disperse His members, neither prefer the occasions of this life to the word of God; but assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house: in the morning saying the sixty-second Psalm, and in the evening the hundred and fortieth, but principally on the Sabbath-day. And on the day of our Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent Him to us, and condescended to let Him suffer, and raised Him from the dead. (Apostolic Constitutions Book II, Chapter LIX)

Early Christians were known for their singing of psalms not only in congregations, but also in private devotions and in the marketplaces (according to Basil the Great). These Christians were also wary of uninspired hymns which were often a means of propagating heresy, especially employed by the Gnostics (in the same manner that we ourselves are vulnerable today to the infiltration of Arminianism, dispensationalism and the prosperity gospel through contemporary music in our churches) . Song, which so easily resonates with the human mind, can be as dangerous in its potency as much as it can be beneficial to our souls.

Even for those who do not hold to the position of exclusive psalmody (Richard Baxter, to name one, was of the opinion that ‘hymns more suitable to Gospel-times, may and ought to be now used’ in addition to the Psalms of David), we must be sure that our hymnody accords perfectly with scriptural teachings. A number of worship songs are repetitive, theologically empty, irreverent and even heretical. In spite of this, they appeal to human nature with infectious rhythms, sensationalistic language and vague evangelical buzz words like ‘fire’. This kind of worship is man-centred, not God-centred. We should remember that when uninspired hymns were first introduced into Protestant churches, it was in the form of paraphrases of psalms and other passages of scripture. Therefore, anyone who writes spiritual songs should not rest on his own devices, but should make explicit reference to scripture. To take an example, the contemporary worship song In Christ Alone by Stuart Townend is one of my personal favourites. Although its words are not lifted directly from scripture, they pack a lot of sound biblical teaching, in the vein of the epistles, into the space of five minutes.

I conclude with the following exhortations to all churches: firstly, restore the practice of psalm singing to its rightful place in public worship! There are a range of metrical psalters, both old and modern, from which to choose, and it is even possible for worship leaders to compose their own melodies to fit the metre. Secondly, if you sing uninspired hymns, assess whether they are in accordance with the inspired text of scripture and the teaching which God himself has given us. Cut out the dead wood!

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