If you are a 21st-century evangelical, you probably do not sing the psalms in your church with any regularity. Perhaps the only Christians you know who sing the psalms are Presbyterians. These people tend to have an odd fascination with the Old Testament and use words like “Covenant,” “Jehovah,” and “brethren.” Simply put – psalm-singing seems strange to you. After all, are we not supposed to be governed more by the principles of the New Testament than the Old Testament when it comes to worship? Surely New Testament worship has little place for dull, dusty, dead psalms.
I humbly disagree. I believe psalm-singing to be biblically commanded, pastorally needed, and profoundly relevant to every church in every age. Moreover, the regular practice of singing psalms may be one of the most powerful means of recovering biblical worship.
Why Sing Psalms?
I want to offer three reasons (of many) why you should sing the psalms and then share some ways to get started.
1. The New Testament Commands Us to Sing Psalms
Psalm-singing is more than just a good idea – it is an apostolic command. In Colossians 3, Paul commands the church to let the Word of Christ dwell in them richly, “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). The same command is repeated in his letter to the church in Ephesus (Ephesians 5:19). These are the only two texts in the New Testament that clearly indicate what it is Christians should sing. Notably, the apostle calls God’s people to sing the psalms. Not only does Paul want believers to sing from the Psalter, but he understands such a practice to be an indispensable means of discipling other believers. Christians help other Christians follow Jesus by singing Psalms. Small wonder that the psalms loom so large in the New Testament, quoted more than any other Old Testament book.
2. The Psalms Convey the Breadth of the Christian Experience
The psalms present a plethora of emotions and experiences. They include earnest pleas to God. They include rebuke to the ungodly. They rehearse God’s good deeds. They rouse people to righteousness. They sigh in distress. They resound in hope. The psalms reflect on the past, ponder the present, and anticipate the future. They assume the first, second, and third person. They have personal elements – they have corporate elements. They are urgent and restless – they are calm and trusting. They are internally cathartic – they are externally instructive. In a word, the psalms represent the many facets of the godly life. And such an emotional spectrum should be expressed in the church’s songs on Sunday.
Christians and non-Christians alike often complain about the shallowness of church music. An unbelieving friend of mine told me the other day that he would be far more inclined to go to church if there were no songs. I know some believers who would echo that sentiment. Could the reason why so many people find contemporary Christian music unappealing be its hollow inauthenticity?
Perhaps our songs are too triumphalist – “happy-clappy-pick-me-up” ditties designed to motivate us through another week. Yet, we tend to lack songs that express the depth of the Christian experience. Think of the people in your church: that believer who is struggling to trust God’s promises, that couple enduring the sorrow of childlessness, that saint who is been betrayed by a close friend or family member. The psalms teach us to lament, to trust, to wait, and to rejoice. They teach us to confess sin. They teach us to celebrate God’s forgiveness, love his righteousness, and ponder his judgment. There exists no godly emotion unexpressed in the psalms.
3. The Psalms Connect Us to the Past
It is important for us (especially Baptists) to realize that up until roughly yesterday, Psalm-singing was the norm in the church. Though not without ancient roots and biblical precedent, the now ubiquitous practice of singing hymns is largely a phenomenon of the 18th century. However, it was the psalms that fueled the Reformation recovery of biblical worship. The congregational singing that characterized Luther’s Wittenberg and Calvin’s Geneva was centered on the Psalter. Moreover, it was the psalms that helped preserve biblical truth in the medieval church despite the doctrinal innovations of Rome.
Yet even still, it is easy to forget – the psalms do not merely form the backbone of Christian worship, rather they have given expression to saints for 3500 years. This means that when I sing Psalm 90 (“Lord, you have been our dwelling place through all generations”), I am not only connected to John Owen, Hildegard of Bingen, and Athanasius. But I am also tracing my spiritual heritage to Ezra, David, and Moses (to name only a few). It was the Psalms that filled the tabernacle and later echoed in the temple. It was the psalms that gave voice to the Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11. And we as God’s people must join the chorus.
I would argue that it’s an urgent need of our time to enter the stream of faithful saints by singing the very words that were on their lips. The Old Covenant words of the psalms complement our New Covenant experience of Christ. As a believer who longs for Christ’s return, I eagerly await the day when I will “join the everlasting song and crown Him Lord of all.” Yet until that day, I can join a similar song with saints of old by proclaiming the truths of Psalm 24: “Who is the King of glory? The Lord of Hosts, he is the King of glory!”
How to Sing Psalms
Perhaps you see the value of singing the psalms, but you just do not know how to get started. I share this burden. Though helpful resources can be hard to find, there are a few simple things you can do to lead your church to sing through the psalms.
Buy a Psalter
There are several Psalters available online. I use a Scottish Psalter put out by Crown & Covenant Publications. The unfortunate thing about traditional Psalters is many of the old tunes have lost appeal among contemporary generations. Most people find the tunes to be unmoving and outdated. Personally, I don’t think congregations should be forced to sing tunes they find odious. Regardless, familiarizing yourself with these English arrangements of the Psalms is a great place to start. You will still probably find several tunes that work for your congregation.
Sing Edifying Tunes
In recent years, I have been selecting hymn tunes that my church sings really well and pairing those tunes with the psalms in the same meter. Many psalms are arranged in common meter (C.M.). This means you can set these psalms to familiar common meter tunes like “Amazing Grace,” “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place,” or “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
I’d also encourage you not to limit yourself to old arrangements. Lately, the Gettys, Matt Boswell, and Matt Papa have written wonderful versions of certain psalms. These versions tend to be loose paraphrases that faithfully present the sentiments of the biblical text.
Highlight What You Already Do
You may already be singing psalms in your church and not know it. For example, the hymn “All People that on Earth Do Dwell” is a direct paraphrase of Psalm 100. “All Creatures of Our God and King” comes from Psalm 148. At my church, I make sure to include the psalm number in the title of the song. For example, I will title a song in our bulletin as “Psalm 100 (All People that on Earth Do Dwell)” or “Psalm 148 (All Creatures).” It is extremely important to me that our people know we are singing the same words that saints have been singing for millennia.
Phone a Friend
Ask another pastor or worship leader if they are singing any psalms. You might be surprised what you find. Last week someone reminded me of a tune that pairs perfectly with Psalm 46. I am introducing it to my church this Lord’s Day.
Psalm-singing can seem like an overwhelming task. Yet I would encourage you to start small. If your church does not currently sing psalms, make it your goal to introduce five this year. Life is long. In thirty years your church could have arrangements for all 150 psalms. My church is just a few years old and we only have about 15 or 20 solid arrangements so far. But by God’s grace, we add more and more each year.
Pastor, does your church sing psalms? Indifference is not an option here. Scripture is clear. God’s good design is for his Word to dwell richly in us through singing psalms. If we prioritize the Spirit-filled singing of Scripture, our people will grow more deeply in their relationship to Christ and in their edification of one another.
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Perronet, Edward. (1780). All Hail The Power of Jesus’ Name. In “Trinity Hymnal” (pp. 218).
Philadelphia: Great Commission Publications.
The Book of Psalms for Singing. (1973). Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications.