Why Do We Sing the Psalms?

If you visit one of our services, you will notice that it is saturated with Scriptures. And one of the ways in which we expose the congregation to large portions of Scriptures is by singing God’s songbook, the Psalter. Although we also sing carefully-selected uninspired hymns, our priority in congregational singing is the 150 Psalms and other inspired portions of Scriptures such as the well-known Christmas songs (Magnificat, the Song of Mary in Luke 1:46—55; Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah in Luke 1:67-79; Gloria in Excelsis, the Song of Angels in Luke 2:14; and Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon in Luke 2:29-32), the Song of Moses in Exodus 15:1—18, the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and the Song of Hezekiah in Isaiah 38:10-20.

The following is a quote from my article, “‘On The Necessity of Reforming the Church,’ Today!”

From the Invocation (Psa 124:8), Sursum Corda (Psa 25:1 “Lift up your hearts”), recitation of the Creeds, Confession and Absolution of Sin, Reading of God’s Law, to the Benediction (Num 6:24-26), the worship services in Calvin’s Geneva church were saturated with Scripture.

Psalm 82 in the 1562 Genevan Psalter

Psalm 82 in the 1562 Genevan Psalter

Calvin also saw the error of the medieval church in having only the priest chant and the choirs sing during the services, so he hired musicians to compose the Psalms into songs which are easy for the congregation to sing. Because children in the schools were taught to sing these Psalms, Calvin had them teach the congregation how to sing them. The Psalter was the inspired songbook of God’s old covenant people, and it should be the inspired songbook of the new covenant Israel of God. Psalm 100, “All People That On Earth Do Dwell,” widely used as a Doxology, is an example of a song from the Reformation Psalters.

How tragic that our churches today have forgotten the Psalter for singing! From the apostolic period to the 18th century, Protestant churches sang Psalms almost exclusively. How woeful that in one of my classes, none of my ten students has ever heard of Martin Luther’s free translation of Psalm 46, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” a hymn sung by Protestants for almost 500 years now!

But evangelical churches sing Psalms, don’t they? No, I’m not talking about the “7-11” contemporary ditties (7 phrases sung 11 times) which take snippets (commonly used out of context) from a verse or two of the Psalms. The Genevan Psalter consists of versifications of whole or large portions of the Psalms.

For Calvin, true worship includes the singing and praying of the Psalms:

It is a thing very expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers through which one may pray to God or sing His praise so that the hearts of all might be moved and incited to form like prayers and to render like praises in thanks to God with similar affection.

This is why in the prayers – Prayer for Illumination, Pastoral Prayer, Prayer of Consecration, and Prayer of Thanksgiving – large Scripture portions were also used. Again, today, this practice is unknown and frowned upon as uninteresting and contrary to “praying in the Spirit.” What a travesty of the union between Word and Spirit!

In his paper, “Rediscovering the Psalms,” Joe Holland lists eight reasons why Psalm-singing is most beneficial to the churches:

  1. When you sing psalms you literally sing the Bible.
  2. When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology.
  3. When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture.
  4. When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy.
  5. When you sing the psalms you engage a collection of songs that address the full range of human emotions.
  6. When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ.
  7. When you sing the psalms you are training for spiritual warfare.
  8. When you sing the psalms you are engaging the communion of saints.

If you’re convinced that singing Psalms is Scriptural and historic, and have no idea how to start learning them, there are several online resources available to you. I’m currently working on an online version of the 1959 Psalter Hymnal, with the words, tunes and indices, for the purpose of helping those who might be interested in learning what Christians were familiar with throughout the first 1,800 in the history of the church: Psalm-singing.

Hymnary.org has many of the lyrics and tunes of the Psalter online. Music for the Church of God has Psalters from 1562-1887 online. Crown and Covenant Publications offers a number of Psalters for adults and children for online purchase.

To get a better view of the history of Psalm-singing and how the 16th century Protestant Reformers selected songs for the public worship of God, read the following articles:

“The Reformers on Psalms and Hymns in Public Worship” (PDF) by R. Faber

“The Origins of Our Psalm Melodies” by Dr. K. Deddens

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