If Not Exclusive, Then at Least Predominantly Psalmist?

I continue to wonder why the Psalms are not used more often in corporate worship. They cover the entire spectrum of human emotion in worship; they rehearse Christ’s saving work, death, resurrection, and glorification; they contain themes of repentance, forgiveness, joy, praise, and awe; and they are songs which are inspired by God written for our use! Why wouldn’t we want to sing them more often? Contemporary praise choruses like the ones I’ve recently reviewed and yes, even old hymns of the faith pale in comparison.

I’m not an exclusive psalmist (yet?), but when we have 150 Holy Spirit-inspired texts to use in worship, why wouldn’t the church at least sing mostly Psalms? Instead of singing man-written hymns and songs with an occasional Psalm thrown in, I think a more biblical ratio should be mostly Psalms with an occasional man-written hymn or song thrown in. When I hear/sing many of the “positive, encouraging” contemporary praise choruses or even some of the overly-individual/emotional/experiential revival hymns of the 1800s, they just seem so radically inferior to the Psalms. This isn’t snobbery, because shouldn’t the inspired Scripture trump man-written texts? When we’ve been given a rich hymnbook in the book of Psalms and are commanded to sing them, why settle for less?

As a somewhat related aside, I’m not exactly sure about splitting our selection of music into that which is appropriate for corporate worship and other Christian music that is appropriate during other occasions. The question I have is, If a bad praise chorus or sketchy old hymn is not appropriate for corporate worship (especially if it is either not orthodox or insignificant), then why would it be appropriate for personal or family worship, to name just two other possibilities? Shouldn’t we always want to ascribe to God our best?

Another similar question is that of just listening to music. We should strive to be good listeners of music as well as striving to give God right worship. Being a good listener means being an active listener, discerning good from bad. I strongly believe that God bestows gifts to believers and unbelievers alike, as evidenced in the plethora of fantastic musicians who are far from God. Not that their music is appropriate for corporate worship, but there is a sense that we can enjoy good music while giving the glory to God for bestowing His gifts to his creation. But not all music is good (and not all music is music), and not all Christian music is good. Just because it’s “Christian” or played on a “Christian” station does not mean it’s good and pleasing to God.

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11 thoughts on “If Not Exclusive, Then at Least Predominantly Psalmist?

  1. Joel,As to dividing between "worship" music and that which is apropos elsewhere… we might think of dividing music not along theological lines, but along style lines. For instance, in some of the more, say, hip churches I've visited, they sing contemporary songs that have fine theology, appropriate for any occasion, but the musical style makes them almost impossible to be sung well by a congregation. No doubt such pieces were originally composed as performance pieces, and someone heard them, and liked them, and thought they should sing it in church. And the matter is compounded when such hip churches put words on a screen, but give you no musical notation to follow. So all hope of singing well is lost.In such a case, I think it would be fair to assign such a song to the category of "appropriate to be used in the private worship of someone with reasonable singing ability, but not corporate worship."

  2. Oh, and another thing…there are some songs in our hymnal which I avoid when planning worship because of their individualistic nature. Some of these I might find useful during individual devotions. Also, sometimes I enjoy the simplicity and repetitiveness of praise ditties (the good ones, of course) when I'm in a mellow, reflective mood. One of the benefits of individual/family/small group worship is that you can explore a wider range of worship "moods" than might be appropriate on a Sunday morning. (that last sentence sounds suspicious, but I promise I mean it in the most reformed, regulative-principle-ish way possible)

  3. Jeff, that's very helpful. I was mainly referring to dividing along theological lines (is it orthodox? is it significant?), but your insight about other dividing lines are well received.

  4. Joel,Just exactly where in the Bible is the command to sing the Book of Psalms? We are commanded to sing psalms – but the Hebrew word in most (all?) of those OT commands is a generic word, and rightly translated in the ESV as "sing praise" or a related generic word. There certainly is no command to sing only the 150 psalms (OT or NT), that command is just not there. So while we are not exclusive psalmists we place an emphasis to sing frequently the Book of Psalms, because the function of many of them (not all) was for public worship, and all 150Psalms are inspired Scripture. I try to schedule at least one Psalm in the worship service. But I wish the tunes were better – but that brings up an irony – that many arrangements in the psalter are "fit" the music, and therefore so rearranged that they in no way are singing "the actual Scripture verses of the Psalms" – but isn't that the point of the exclusive psalmody position? Irony. Blessed consistency.

  5. For the record, we are in no danger of becoming exclusive psalmists. Many of their arguments don't hold water. Plus, I don't understand how they explain not using any instrumentation (except a pitch pipe apparently?).But their explanation of Paul's exhortation to sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" is helpful when it's viewed as one of those Hebrew triple word things (saying the same thing in three ways for emphasis). In the Book of Psalms, psalms are referred to as psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, so it very well could be that Paul is referring especially to the Book of Psalms there (I'm not saying he is, but the emphasis he places on them is definitely there).My main point is if we have been given a book of songs/psalms as inspired Scripture, shouldn't we be placing more emphasis on singing them? I'm thinking especially of those churches that have completely abandoned singing any psalms.I definitely agree that many of the tunes are lame at best in the Book of Psalms for Singing. For other arrangements, we'd recommend the Cantus Christi psalter/hymnal, with about 2/3 of the 150 Psalms in there, all of which are painstakingly researched and matched with great, fitting tunes.

  6. I am a great-grandchild of the Jesus movement, in which thousands of hippies were converted in the late 60's and early 70's. When these hippies became Christians, they started writing new worship songs (renewal movements often result in new worship songs, incidentally)–and tons of them were based on the psalms. I can read through the psalms and songs pop into mind continually.That was the beginning of "contemporary worship," and many of those songs you would find to be simplistic. They did not rehearse the entire psalm, but some portion of it.But that movement matured and newer songs began to be longer, more complex, and now there are more songs being written from a Reformed (or otherwise more richly theological) perspective as well. And now we have a new Sovereign Grace album of worship songs based entirely on the psalms. It's quite good, by the way.So–the psalms do get play in contemporary worship environments. And in my opinion, I'll add, in a pretty natural, heartfelt way. (Rather than in an enforced, legalistic way.)However, the reason I think we do not sing primarily reworked psalms is for two reasons:1) They are not explicitly about Jesus Christ even though they are prophetically about Jesus Christ.2) The versified psalms in the psalter are not very enjoyable to sing. Like your dad said, they are reworded in order to rhyme and often that comes across as forced and stale. And the melodies don't tend to capture the emotion of those psalms in a way that resonates. Bonus reason:3) The argument for exclusive psalmody send some running in the other direction. I can't imagine a stranger teaching, except perhaps that we shouldn't use numerous, loud instruments in worship.The psalms should be sung and should also provide a pattern for new songs being written. But to only sing the psalms when we live on this side of the cross and have the freedom to sing about all that Jesus has done with a far clearer vision of Him and eternity–I can only imagine that some kind of legalistic tendency moves a person to teach such things, not the interpretation of the Old or New Testaments. (I am not saying that humble laypeople are legalistic, they are sheep. But shepherds who insist on such things, I question their motive. Just being honest.)This was longer than planned. Sorry, brother.

  7. Addenda:1. "Numerous, loud instruments" is a reference to Psalm 150–not an attempt to advocate for any particular style of music.2. That Psalms CD by Sovereign Grace apparently was released in connection with a conference entitled "WorshipGod08" which was based on learning worship from the psalms. I haven't heard the conf talks but they are all free online.

  8. There are plenty of reworked psalms available that are easy to sing, enjoyable to sing, the words fit the music, and they don't conjure up legalistic images or feelings. Many of these selections are in the Book of Psalms for Singing [The Psalter]. I think of Psalm 98A, 119X, and 22C off the bat. Others are in other psalter/hymnals, and still others are contemporary manifestations of the psalms (I.Grace's God Be Merciful to Me, to name one). Some are old and some are new. There are good old ones and bad new ones, and vice versa. I don't see it as an either/or but a both/and scenario.Not every selection in a psalter is bad to sing and many are natural and heartfelt. Likewise, many contemporary manifestations of the psalms seem forced and the music doesn't match the words – not to mention the ones which rip one or two verses from a psalm without regard to its context, which changes its meaning. (Example: The majority of psalms in the Bible mention something about enemies/smiting/wiping the bad guys off the face of the earth. We'd be hard pressed to find contemporary manifestations of the psalms that get remotely near anything like that)Many versified psalms are very enjoyable to sing and have melodies that capture the emotion resonantly. Sure, there are a number that are not enjoyable and don't rightly capture the emotion – and it's okay not to sing them. But that doesn't mean we should throw out the entire Psalter. We can sing new songs without our hearts just as much as we can sing old ones without our hearts.

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