By Joe Holland | March 20, 2023
Topic: Applied Theology—Biblical Studies—Pastoral Theology
When I lead morning devotions at Grimké Seminary, I almost always teach from a psalm. And when I do, I tell our students, training for the pastoral ministry, “You can choose to live in the psalms or let God drive you to them. Either way, if you’re in ministry long enough, you will end up in the psalms.” That oft-shared comment marks a long trajectory into psalm singing for me.1 I can track my early growth in psalm singing by three major milestones.
Psalter: Seminary Textbook
The first milestone was planted in the RTS, Charlotte bookstore. I stood looking at the blue sign that said NTGreekIntro as it hung over neatly stacked volumes awaiting the next batch of seminary students. I was one of those students; it was my first visit to the bookstore. I read the list. Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek—check. UBS Greek New Testament—check. Trinity Psalter—huh?
I thought I was signing up for a class on New Testament Greek. Why was I being asked to purchase an Old Testament book in English? The words “required text” overpowered my confusion, and I purchased my first psalter. I would soon discover that Dr. Cara’s Greek class, and all of his classes for that matter, began with the mandatory singing of a psalm. I became a psalm singer by course requisite.
Psalm-Singing Assistant Pastor
My second milestone occurred in my first two pastorates, where I served as an assistant pastor. In both churches, the senior minister saw great benefit in private and congregational singing of the psalms. Almost every worship service I assisted in had at least one congregational psalm. I gradually became aware of different psalms, Psalters, and available tunes. I became a psalm singer by ordination.
Psalms and Missions
My third milestone is set somewhere in the Peruvian mountains. I led a group of students on a short-term mission trip. Our task was to dig a ditch around a church under construction. It was manual labor–pick ax work. Our Peruvian host was a minister in the Peruvian Presbyterian Church. In our brief conversations about ministry in Peru, I discovered that the churches he oversaw sang only psalms in corporate worship.
Between pick ax swings, I asked him why he sang only psalms. He gave three reasons. First, he was convicted that psalm singing was the biblical pattern of New Testament worship. Second, he was fighting heresy in his churches. False teaching slipped into his churches through folk songs slightly adjusted for worship. Psalm singing was his attempt to guard his people against heresy sung to a familiar tune. Third, he said, “I sing psalms because they are militant.” He wanted to teach his people that Christians daily engage in spiritual warfare. The psalms provided a wartime mentality to his young churches. Reflecting on that conversation, I realized I became a psalm singer through missions.
Growing Up in the Psalms
I became a psalm singer by requisite, ordination, and missions. But my growth in psalm singing was not over. Following the three milestones mentioned above, I’ve continued learning to use the Psalter. Mine is a testimony of someone who didn’t grow up a psalm singer or really a singer of any kind. But by God’s grace, I rediscovered the psalms. And in rediscovering those psalms, I found a deep reservoir of gospel riches.
Maybe you have noticed the resurgence of psalm singing in Reformed evangelicalism. Maybe you are a pastor toying with the idea of including psalms in corporate worship. How does someone set about the task of rediscovering the psalms? First, you must have before you the benefits that God attaches to worship-in-psalm. Second, you must decide how to begin singing psalms in private, family, and corporate worship.
The Benefits of Singing Psalms
First, what benefits should you expect from psalm singing?
When you sing psalms, you literally sing the Bible. The hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is a moving meditation on the cross of Christ. No hymn matches “For All the Saints” in its contemplation on the communion of the saints. But neither of these hymns is the actual words of the Bible. They are reflections on it. Forgetting for a moment that we are not singing the psalms in Hebrew, we are still singing the very words of God. The versification, themes, and content of the psalms are the inspired word of God for his church in every age. When you sing a psalm, you sing the Bible.
When you sing the psalms, you interact with a wealth of theology. Martin Luther said of the Psalter “that it might well be entitled a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended.” The 150 psalms cover the span of theology. To learn the psalms is not just to learn a specific topic of theology. It is to learn about every area of theology. Anthropology, theology proper, a theology of Scripture, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology are all covered in the Psalter. Take for example, Psalm 19 and its two-part contemplation of God’s revelation in creation and in the Bible. Or consider John Calvin’s observation of God’s attributes in Psalm 145, “in which the sum of all his powers is so precisely reckoned up that nothing would seem to have been omitted.” The psalms provide a thorough exposure to the fullness of theology.
When you sing the psalms, you are memorizing Scripture. An important part of Christian maturity is recalling Scripture passages at need. Educational circles have long advocated the use of music to aid memorization. Music can impress truth into the mind in ways that reading alone cannot. This is no accident; it is the providential hand of our Creator God. He wants you to memorize his word and has provided a mnemonic for easy memory–the Psalter as Scripture set to music.
“We sing the psalms at the foot of the cross.”—Joe Holland
When you sing the psalms, you guard against heresy. Andrew Fletcher said, “Let me write a country’s songs, and I care not who writes its laws.” He was on to something. Songs drive information deep into our hearts. However, this power can be used for ill means. As long as the church has existed, songs have been used to inculcate heresy. There is an assumption that if you can sing it, it must be true. How shall we guard against sung heresy? There is a simple antidote: sing psalms.
When you sing the psalms, you engage a collection of songs that address the full range of human emotions. Godly anger, heart-wrenching sorrow, dark depression, effulgent joy, honest questioning, and exuberant praise are just a sampling of the emotional range covered by the psalms. Most churches sense the burden of teaching their people how to think. Very few consider their responsibility to teach their people how to feel. Christians do not struggle with feeling. Feeling just happens. But our feelings must be trained by the gospel as much as our minds must. The psalms serve as the classroom of our affections.
When you sing the psalms, you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ. One of the most ignorant statements a Christian can make against psalm singing is, “I don’t sing psalms because they aren’t about Jesus.” Too many evangelicals—having unwittingly drunk deep of the Marcionite heresy—have ceased to see the Old Testament, especially the psalms, as a masterpiece of redemptive history telling in types, shadows, and rituals the person and work of Jesus Christ. When the earliest Christians wanted to sing praise to God for the redemption wrought by Jesus’s atoning death, they turned to the psalms. It is sheer biblical ignorance and chronological snobbery to assume we can write better songs about Jesus than are provided in the psalms through the lens of the New Testament. To sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.
When you sing the psalms, you are training for spiritual warfare. As my Peruvian friend insisted: the psalms are militant. They are filled with images of war, divine conquest, and righteous triumph. Are those themes no longer needed in our day? As we watch men leave the church in droves, dismayed at the feminization of worship, is there no need for masculine, militant spirituality? As we watch Satan and his legions pillage congregations and hold Christians captive in doubt and error, do we not need songs of war? J.C. Ryle understood this crucial element of Christian worship when he said, “true Christianity is the fight of faith.” What songs will the armies of God sing to steel courage and embolden spiritual warfare? When we sing the psalms, we sing the songs of war against sin, the world, and the devil.
When you sing the psalms, you are engaging the communion of saints. The psalms were composed over a certain period in Israelite history. But they are not relics. They have been sung by God’s covenant people in each successive generation up to today. They will be sung until Christ’s return. This touches on the doctrine of the communion of the saints. There is solidarity in Christ for all who have been bought by his blood. That solidarity extends across cultures and generations. The psalms are rooted in the covenant identity of all God’s chosen race. To sing them is to confess the communion of saints.
If those are the benefits of psalm sings, how can you learn to sing them?
Learning to Sing Psalms
First, find a Psalter you can sing. Notice I didn’t simply say, “find a Psalter.” Just as the best Bible translation is the one you read, the best Psalter is the one you sing. Different Psalters are suited to different musical abilities—congregational and personal. Some set each psalm to a particular tune, while others provide the suggested meter allowing you to choose the tune. Don’t buy a Psalter you can’t sing. And try out different psalters. I have lost count of how many psalters I own in print and digital format. My favorite right now is the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (with accompanying iOS and Android apps).
Secondly, you must know your Bible. Devote special study to the background of the Psalms. Ask your pastor to suggest good commentaries on the Psalms. Purchase a Bible with cross-references and note where Psalms are quoted in the New Testament. Let the authors of the New Testament teach you how to apply the psalms to Christian worship and life.
Let me also suggest that you read a good book on redemptive history. Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan is a great place to start. A good foundation in the Bible’s overarching plan of redemption and how it culminates in Jesus Christ is essential to singing the psalms well. For example, what are you singing about when you ask God “to let you dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 27:4)? Should you set up a cot in your local church? Or, what does it mean to praise God for his protection of Jerusalem (Psalm 51:18)? By Jerusalem, do you mean geographic Jerusalem or the Christian church? A good background in redemptive history is essential to answering these questions and others as you seek to sing the psalms with understanding.
Third, to sing the psalms well, you must understand how the psalms direct us to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Again, a Bible with cross-references is valuable in this type of study. Many psalms are directly fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. The authors of the New Testament regularly draw on the psalms to describe what was accomplished on the Cross. The beauty of the psalms is magnified as they are placed in the setting of God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ. The psalms are thoroughly Christian, centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. We sing the psalms at the foot of the cross.
The fourth thing you will need is the willingness to try something new. Psalm singing can be difficult for someone who has been raised solely on a diet of Reformation and post-Reformation hymns. Psalm singing can be downright alien to someone who has only known modern praise songs. But the promised benefits, briefly mentioned above, are immense. It is not easy work, but it is good work. It is not quick work, but it provides long-term, lasting joys.
But What About Hymns?
In conclusion, let me say a word about hymns. To this point, I’ve mentioned very little about hymns though they constitute the bulk of Reformed evangelical singing. There are generally two views on how hymns should be used in worship. The exclusive psalmody position—advocated by my Peruvian friend—only permits the singing of psalms in worship. The inclusive psalmody position sings hymns in addition to psalms in worship. The inclusive psalmody position in worship is the bare minimum for Christian worship. A church that refuses to sing the psalms places itself on a restricted spiritual diet that will result in spiritual malnutrition. Psalm singing is a staple in Christian worship regardless of your view on hymns. If you want to read more on the interface of hymns and psalms throughout the history of Reformed worship, let me suggest chapter 4 of Hughes Oliphant Old’s book, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture.
There was a point in the history of the church when a government official—on another errand—stumbled across a long-neglected book hidden in the rubble of a temple. Sure of its importance, he brought it to the king. The king in terror and joy read the book realizing it was God’s very word. His response to this rediscovery was a plan of radical obedience designed to plead God’s covenant mercy and praise his long-forgotten redemptive works (2 Kings 22–23). This is what it looks like to rediscover the Bible and, on a smaller scale, to rediscover the psalms.
Editor’s Note: A version of this essay was first published at Reformation21 on June 10, 2008, and a subsequent version was published at 9Marks on April 23, 2014.
- In fact, this is the third time I’ve written a version of this essay for publication. The first time was fifteen years ago. And the second was nine years ago. I hope to update it every few years as God continues to show me the beauty of his psalms. ↩