by Arnfield P. Cudal
– Because psalm-singing was not a tradition in the evangelical church I grew up in, my encounter with singing the Psalms seemed like a novelty at first, but as appreciation and familiarity in singing the Psalms grew, it has come to be one of the more anticipated and endearing moments in our gatherings. Churches of various denominations and traditions read the Psalms, or sing portions in hymns and choir anthems, but what I am referring to is singing of the Psalms in its entirety, by whole verse and chapter.
If you haven’t participated in whole verse singing or attend a church where psalm-singing is not normally practiced, it is hoped that this article will at least stoke a renewed interest in the Psalms, and to introduce the joys of whole-psalm singing to your congregation. The beauty of psalm-singing is that it transcends all denominations and traditions.
Beyond my personal appeal, however, the reasons for psalm-singing are more convincing from Scripture…
- Psalm 105:2, “Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; talk ye of all His wondrous works.”
- Psalm 56:10, “In God will I praise his word: in the LORD will I praise his word.”
- Psalm 95:2, “Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.”
Indeed, the Book of Psalms (Hebrew, Tehillim), is a hymn book for Israel. Its contents span its history: from birth (Psalm 90) to captivity (Psalm 126). The Psalms contain musical markings (te’amim), melodies, prose and poetry, and a national anthem that identified and united them as a nation. They contain Israel’s prophecies, and a promise of a Messiah. Indeed, the Tehillim is a Jewish book written for God’s people.
But the Apostles prescribed the Psalms for use in the Church:
- Colossians 3:16, “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms…singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
- Ephesians 5:19, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms…singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.”
- James 5:13, “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms.”
The Apostles deemed the Psalms important because they teach us:
Mighty (Psalm 24:8),
Infinite in understanding (147:5),
A great King (47:2),
The rock of our salvation (95:1),
A strong tower (61:3),
The lifter up of the humble (147:6),
A helper to the fatherless (10:14),
A just judge and angry with the wicked every day (7:11),
The caster down of the wicked (147:6).
The smasher of the oppressor (72:4),
The One Who will require an account (10:13-14),
poor and needy (40:17),
in need of forgiveness (25:18),
blessed when we receive it (32:1),
righteous in God’s sight (34:15),
fearfully and wonderfully made (139:14),
created to take dominion (8:4-8).
About our manner of living
full of compassion (112:4),
helpers of the poor (112:9),
haters of evil (97:10),
About what to eschew
speaking evil (34:13),
doing evil (34:14),
taking bribes (15:5),
exploiting the poor (15:5),
And to Israel, that if they followed in God’s ways, they were promised
his family shall be greatly blessed (128),
he shall prosper (1:3),
he shall have the desires of his heart (37:4),
he shall inherit the earth (37:9),
his descendants shall inherit the earth (25:13).
The Psalms project a full-orbed view of God’s character and his attributes, and provide a superabundance of godly principles with which to live by, and because the Psalms are a repository of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding, the Apostle Paul charged the Church to teach, admonish, and speak them.
Reasons to include Psalm singing in your congregation
The chief reason for Psalm-singing is a Biblical one.
The Apostle Paul strongly encouraged us (in the imperative) to use the Psalms (Colossians 3:16), because as the inspired words of Christ, they contain the ascendancy and power to mold us into God’s likeness. The Psalms also provide us the perfect words with which to praise our God.
Martin Luther remarked,
The psalter (psalms) ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ’s death and Resurrection so clearly–and pictures His kingdom and the conditions and nature of all Christendom–that it might well be called a little Bible.
and John Calvin,
This book makes known to us this privilege, which is desirable above all others-that not only is there opened up to us familiar access to God, but also that we have permission and freedom granted us to lay open before him our infirmities, which we would be ashamed to confess before men.
Another tremendous advantage we have today is the benefit of progressive revelation and a new dispensation. For example, Psalm 51 speaks of the transitory dwelling of the Holy Spirit; today, we are sealed with the Spirit (Eph 1:14). Psalm 66 speaks of bringing sacrifice; today, we are in Him who has been made a sacrifice for us (1 Cr 5:7, Rom 8:1,2). Psalm 68 calls for God’s judgment on enemies in light of His righteousness; today, we are to love our enemies, having been shown the exceeding richness of His grace through Jesus Christ (Eph 2:7). Psalm 30 cries unto God for mercy; today we have been granted mercy (Rom 15:9). Psalm 96 speaks of worshipping in the beauty (cloak) of holiness; today, we wear that cloak in Jesus Christ (1 Pe 1:2).
Other reasons to sing the Psalms:
We live in perilous times wherein the wiles of the world can be seen, its worldviews, lies, and falsities are all around us, vying for our attention, and instantaneously accessible. It may be said that much of the church’s spiritual emaciation has been hastened in part by songs which have supplanted biblical psalm and biblical hymn-singing.
The Scriptures are sufficient to help us in our praise. The words, by Divine inspiration, have already been composed, compiled, and perfected for our use (i.e. Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual songs of the Bible). Our goal, therefore, should be about how we can better service the Word.
Do we have a new idea for congregational singing? Should we explore the latest music-industry model? What benefits (or unintended consequences) will such a model yield?
Yet, psalm-singing is a model propounded by the Apostles to the Church. When we sing the Psalms we learn about God, and as we learn about God, the more our confidence and effectiveness in service to Him grows. It is proven true and effective. The case for including the Psalms in our singing (Inclusive Psalmody) goes beyond church tradition or liturgical style, it is biblically encouraged and justified.
To congregations where psalm-singing has historically not been part of its tradition, it is understandable that introducing something new into well-established practices can be discomforting. We all value the comforts of familiarity, but the following may also be said, with assurance from the Bible, that Psalm-singing promotes spiritual edification, nourishment, and unity within the church.
First, read the Psalms.
Reading highlights the beauty of the Psalms in the way it has been translated into prose and poetry. Thus, read the Psalms simply, deliberately, and poetically, and in such a way that the text and the musical tones inherent in language are enhanced.
Establish a psalm-reading schedule tailored to fit your church’s calendar or sermon schedule, allowing ample time in the service to read each Psalm. The purpose of a schedule is so that all the Psalms will be read. Of the 150 Psalms, reading one psalm a Sunday will take about three years. There is no shortage of prayers and praise and that we can be very thankful for!
Second, sing the Psalms to familiar hymn tunes.
There are plenty of resources available where Psalm texts have been set to familiar hymn tunes. For instance, Psalm 45 may be sung to the tune of Diademata, the hymn tune commonly wed to “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” All 150 Psalms have been adopted to fit into hymn settings, and a good resource to look into is The Book of Psalms for Singing. This is the easiest and most achievable way of incorporating Psalm-singing in your congregation and a chance to augment your current hymn singing with Psalm singing.
Third, explore the myriad settings the Psalms have been set to.
One example and one of the more enjoyable ways to sing the Psalms are either antiphonal (e.g. Galineau Psalms) or pointed psalms (e.g. Anglican Psalms –the former being easier of the two). The pointed psalms are a way of singing in a highly structured tune setting while allowing for un-metered phrases. Although pointed singing may prove a little more challenging, well-rehearsed, they add a measure of elegance and beauty to the words and meter of the Psalm. Anglican Psalms typically end with a Trinitarian hymn: Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. However, do your due diligence. In the course of editing, in the process of making a passage fit a musical setting, some of the wording may have changed.
Finally, we have heard of how the Puritans sang from the Bay Psalms Hymnbook, how the Anglicans sing the pointed-Psalms, how the Benedictines and the Eastern Orthodox churches chant the Psalms. We marvel at Jewish scribes who painstakingly preserved the musical markings (te’amim) of the Tehillim, and can only imagine the early believers who cantillated the Psalms in the synagogue, home churches, and prisons! To think that for the last two millennia, the Church has been singing the Psalms. Beyond that, for almost the same two millennia, the people of Israel have been singing them. And the Psalms will be sung in the still-to-come millennia.
Therefore, the case for singing the Psalms, I believe, is undisputable and insurmountable: Singing the Psalms connects us with the people of God universal, and if we pause but for a moment to recall how the people of God have been singing the Psalms through the ages, we cannot possibly stay removed, but say, “Why aren’t we singing the Psalms?”
List of Psalms courtesy of Rob Slane, “Why the Church needs to sing the Psalms”