Why sing the Psalms?

WHY DO you sing psalms?  It’s a question that is often asked.  Especially by those who are not familiar with them.  If you have ever attended a place of worship where psalms are chanted in old English, you may have found trying to sing them was not easy.  In fact you may have even found yourself asking, ‘How is it done?   How does one know when to vary the note and how many words should be sung in one phrase?’

Those are important questions.  However our concern is not to answer the question of how we should sing the psalms.  We want to address a different topic.  Should we sing the psalms?

It seems that many churches gave up on singing the psalms some while ago.  Modern hymns and choruses with catchy rhythms and beats appear to be the order of the day in some places.  And the louder the bass beat is, the better.

We shall argue that we should sing the psalms.  We shall also say that the psalms ought to come first in our choice of sung items in congregational worship.  But why?, you ask.

Let us begin with these three facts.

1. The book of Psalms is a songbook found in the Bible

The first part of the Bible, often called the Old Testament, consists of thirty-nine books.  The book of Psalms, being the nineteenth book, comes around about the middle of that testament.  It consists of 150 psalms.  Many were written by David.  One is attributed to Moses (Psalm 90), some to Asaph, and some to the sons of Korah.  Others are anonymous.

There are other songs in the Bible.  Mention may be made of the songs of Moses in Exodus 15.1-17 and Deuteronomy 32, the Song of Miriam in Exodus 15.20-21, and the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2.1-10.  But there is only one book with 150 psalms.  

It could be argued that the Book of Psalms is an extended poetry book rather than a song book.  But that fails to take note that some psalms are introduced with words that indicate they are to be sung.  What is more, many begin with or contain words that call the reader to sing.We learn from the history of God’s church that the psalms have been sung from the earliest of times.  Jews see the book as their song book.  And countless Christians have done the same over the last 2,000 years.

2. The Psalms were sung by Jesus Christ

As a Jew, he learned the psalms from his early years.  Many would have been committed to memory.  And with Mary and Joseph, he would have sung them as they journeyed to Jerusalem for the major festivals.  And, they assumed a significant position in the worship of Almighty God.

3. The Psalms are the Word of God

Like the rest of Scripture they were divinely inspired.  In other words it was God who guided and led David, Asaph, Moses and the other authors to write what they wrote.  Yes, they used their minds and thought about their circumstances.  And yes, they expressed their praise and prayers in words.  But, as well as thinking about their role, we must also think about the role played by the Spirit of God.

The song writers were, with an unseen hand, guided and led by God.  What they thought about and wrote was exactly what God wanted and inspired them to think and write.  Thus it is the case that the 150 psalms we find in the Bible are an integral part of the written Word of God.  And, as such, they are given for instruction and learning.

With those three facts in mind, let us now take a closer look at what we find in the book of Psalms.  We want to do this because the psalms are “a precious treasure.”  That is how the author of some comments on the book of Psalms describes them.  You will find his assessment of them in the 16th century translation of the Scriptures known today as the Geneva Bible.  He does not exaggerate.  He chose his words carefully.  They are apposite for the following reasons.

1.  The book of Psalms contains that which relates to true happiness both in this life and the life to come.

Take for example, Psalm 119.  In that extended poem of 176 verses, we discover how we are to live and keep ourselves pure and holy in the sight of Almighty God.  The riches of true knowledge and heavenly wisdom are freely set before us for us to enjoy.2.  The book of Psalms shines a bright light upon the glory and great majesty of Almighty God.

We learn of his incomprehensible wisdom and see his inestimable goodness.  To know who God is and to know him personally is foundational for true worship.  And, as Christ taught, God requires us to worship in Spirit and in truth (John 4.)

3. In the book of Psalms we see Christ described.

The more you read and sing the Psalms the more you recognise that many verses of them are applied directly to Jesus Christ by the authors of the New Testament books.  Therefore it should not surprise us when we discover that Martin Luther taught that ultimately the psalms are all about Jesus Christ.  Within them we learn that he is our Redeemer and Mediator.  We discover that he is our salvation.  And by means of them we are taught how to attain everlasting life.

4. In the book of Psalms both rich and poor are taught important lessons.

For example the psalms have much to teach the rich about the true use of riches, whilst the poor may discover within them how to be fully content.   In fact all who would rejoice may learn from them true joy and how to keep themselves in it.

5. In the book of Psalms we discover where we may find comfort.  At some point we will be afflicted or attacked, depressed or downcast, perplexed or put under pressure.  Where may we find help and solace?  One answer has to be, In the Book of Psalms.  For there we discover in what true comfort stands.  Furthermore we also discover how we are to praise God when he delivers us from our troubles.

6. In the book of Psalms we learn what happens to the wicked.

Some of these God-given songs teach us that the wicked and those who persecute the children of God will in due time discover that the hand of God is against them.  Though he may allow them to further their evil plans for a while, yet he so restrains them that they cannot touch even one hair of a believer’s head without God’s permission.  More solemnly, within the psalms we discover that the wicked will be punished by God and their eternal state shall be nothing less than miserable.7. In the book of Psalms we find remedies.

As we read of what the godly faced, how they faced their troubles, and what they learn in the midst of their troubles, we discover remedies that we can use against all temptations.  But not just that.  We also discover remedies for a troubled mind and conscience.

8. The book of Psalms prepares us for heaven.

It teaches us that those who become well acquainted with this book are enabled to face all dangers in this life, live in the true fear and love of God, and at length attain that incorruptible crown of glory which is laid up for all those who look for and love the appearing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

We have noted three facts and eight reasons why the book of Psalms has been rightly called a “precious treasure.”  We have done no more than provide a brief summary.  Yet it serves a valuable purpose.  It points us to the value of the book that God’s people have used for millennia as a song book for worship.  

We are taught to sing and “make melody to the Lord with … the heart.”  And we are to do so with “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” as we are “filled with the Spirit” of the living God (Ephesians 5.19).  The reasons we have given indicate why we sing the psalms.  Having answered that question we naturally find ourselves asking another.  And it is a question addressed to those who do not sing the psalms.  Why don’t you sing them?  

The singing of the Psalms enriches our worship.  It is deficient without them.  We recognise that chanting is not as popular today as it was decades ago.  But the singing of the Psalms is not restricted to chanting.  For many years we have had metrical forms of the psalms.  That is, they have translated the Psalms from the original Hebrew and put them in a rhyming verse form.  Hebrew poetry, which is what the psalms are, is different to much of our poetry.

In recent years new translations of the psalms in modern English have been published.  Sing Psalms, published by the Free Church of Scotland,  is one such rendering.  They have a regular metre and at least two rhyming lines.  They may be sung to hymn tunes rather than chanted.The psalmist says: “I will sing to the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being” (Psalm 104.33).  

The Psalter (the book of Psalms) is a God-given song book.  As such it is a “precious treasure.”  It is the standard against which we are to assess our worship.   How does it measure in comparison with the songs God’s people have sung for centuries?  That is a question the psalms prompt us to ask.

Why do we sing the psalms?

Because God wants us to sing them.  Because our worship is enriched by them.  And because, like their authors, in our singing of them we express our prayers and praises in the language of Scripture.

George Curry

7 October 2018