Psalm Singing: a Reformed Heritage
Rev. Jason Kortering
As Reformed believers, we exalt the name of God
through the use of His Psalms. By Psalms we refer to the Book of the
Psalms of the Old Testament as they have been set to music over the
years. The original Psalms were composed by the Holy Spirit for the
purpose of singing. People of God have been blessed through the years by
the singing of these Psalms.
Of how many heroic characters have these old
temple songs been the inspiration! Jewish saints and patriots
chanted them in the synagogue and on the battlefield; apostles and
evangelists sung them among perils of the wilderness, as they
traversed the rugged paths of Syria and Galatia, and Macedonia;
martyrs in Rome softly hummed them when the lions near at hand were
crouching for their prey; in German forests, in Highland Glen,
Lutherans and Covenanters breathed their lives out through their
cadences; in every land penitent souls have found in them words to
tell the story of their sorrow, and victorious souls the voices of
their triumph; mothers watching their babes by night have cheered
the vigil by singing them, mourners walking in lonely ways have been
lighted by the great hopes that shine through them; and pilgrims
going down into the valley of the shadow of death have, found in
their firm assurances a strong staff to lean upon.
As we look back over the years, we rejoice in that
God used the Reformation of the sixteenth century to restore Psalm
singing to its proper place in the church. In 1517 the hammer blows at
Wittenburg nailed down three great truths: the authority of the Word of
God, justification by faith alone, and the priesthood of every believer.
The Reformation did not end with Martin Luther. His work became the
catalyst for the development of truth. Building upon this foundation,
John Calvin erected the great citadel of truth, "Soli Deo Gloria."
Both Luther and Calvin saw the need to restore
congregational singing to the worship service. Even though Luther did
not limit this singing to the Psalms, he did have a great appreciation
of the Psalms.
What else is the Psalter than prayer to God and
praise to God that is a book of hymns? Therefore the most blessed
Spirit of God the Father of orphans, the teacher of infants, seeing
that we know not what or how we ought to pray, as the Apostle saith,
and desiring to help our infirmities, after the manner of
schoolmasters who compose for children letters and short prayers,
that they may send them to their parents, so prepares for us the
book (of the Psalter) both the words and feelings with which we
should address our heavenly Father.
John Calvin, on the other hand, championed exclusive
Psalm singing in the Reformed churches. He too expressed reverence for
Wherefore, although we look far and wide and
search on every hand, we shall not find better songs nor songs
better suited to that end than the Psalms of David which the Holy
Spirit made and uttered through him. And for this reason, when we
sing them we may be certain that God puts the words, in our mouths
as if Himself sang in us to exalt His glory.
In this pamphlet it is our purpose to set forth three
propositions which we hold to be true. First, we like to show that from
the time when the first Psalm was written by Moses to the present, there
has always been a segment of the church that sang these Psalms
exclusively in their worship services. Second, that such Psalm singing
is a Reformed heritage, rooted in the desire to be faithful to the Holy
Scripture, also in our singing. Finally, we like to show that there is a
great spiritual blessing in the singing of the Psalms. If your church is
a Psalm-singing church, it is our prayer that by reflecting upon its
significance you may be stimulated to thank God for this heritage and
continue to praise God through these Psalms. If your church sings both
Psalms and hymns, we encourage you to consider the Psalms, that they are
not pushed aside but given a proper place in worship. Finally, if you
are not familiar with the Psalms set to music as contained in The
Psalter, we suggest that you
investigate whether your spiritual life and worship would not be
enhanced through the use of these Psalms.
The Reformation and Psalm Singing
It is a well-known fact that God used the work of
Martin Luther and John Calvin to restore the Word of God to its proper
place. Who can forget the Diet of Worms, before which Luther was ordered
to recant all his writings, and his answer came with such determination,
"My heart is captive to the Word of God!" It was authoritative for his
belief and every aspect of his life.
It is significant, then, that when the reformers
looked for a songbook for the people of God they turned to the Psalms.
That was a book which the Holy Spirit had already
prepared for the purpose of singing. In this connection we rejoice in
the determination of the reformers to restore congregational singing to
the worship service. The apostate Romish church had taken the reading of
God's Word from the common folk. Similarly, the singing was left to the
"professionals," to the chanting of priests and trained choirs. The
reformers recognized that God's people constituted God's choir. Besides
this, they were used by God to give the people something to sing about.
How their hearts were lifted up when the burden of the guilt of sin was
taken away by the blood of Christ, Who was raised for their
justification! Not their works formed the basis of justification, but
the finished work of Jesus Christ. That was liberty, that freed the soul
from the burden of works-righteousness and gave the people the
motivation to sing. What could better express the heart's desires than
the Psalms of David? Those Psalms gave expression to God exactly what
they felt in their hearts.
Both Luther and Calvin had a strong commitment to the
Word of God. Both stood very close to each other concerning the
doctrines taught in the Bible. They differed in the area of the
sacraments and in the area of exclusive use of the Psalms in the singing
of the congregation in worship. From the very beginning, Calvin saw the
need to direct the church toward the singing of Psalms. When he arrived
at Geneva in 1537, he and Farel set up the order of worship to include
the singing of Psalms. During his forced absence and retreat in
Strasbourg, Germany, he came to appreciate the lusty singing of the
Psalms by the German folk. He himself began to write versifications of
the Psalms along with Marot and Beza. When he returned to Geneva and
could begin to implement his idea of proper worship, Psalm singing
assumed its proper place. From then on Psalm singing became a Reformed
and Presbyterian heritage.
To appreciate the thinking of Calvin on this point,
let us allow him to speak for himself. Notice in the following quote how
Calvin viewed singing as a reverent act involving the tongue, which
should be viewed as common prayer.
Moreover since the glory of God ought in a
measure, to shine in the several parts of our bodies, it is
especially fitting that the tongue has been assigned and destined
for this task, both through singing and through speaking. For it was
peculiarly created to tell and proclaim the praise of God. But the
chief use of the tongue is in public prayers, which are offered in
the assembly of believers, by which it comes about that with one
common voice as it were (emphasis J.K), with the same mouth, we
all glorify God together worshipping him with one spirit and the
Since singing is a joyful expression, he also
cautions us that that joy must be sanctified by the Word.
It is not without reason that the Holy Spirit
exhorts us so carefully by means of the Holy Scripture to rejoice In
God and that all our joy is there reduced to its true end, for He
knows how much we are inclined to delight in vanity. Just as our
nature, then, draws us and induces us to seek all means of foolish
and vicious rejoicing, so to the contrary, our Lord, to distract us
and withdraw us from the enticements of the flesh and the world,
presents to us all possible means (the Word of God, JK) in order to
occupy us in that spiritual joy which He so much recommends to us.
This applies to the melody of our songs. On this he
Yet, we should be very careful that our ears be
not more attentive to the melody than our minds to the spiritual
meaning of the words. Augustine also admits in another place that he
was so disturbed by this danger that he sometimes wished to see
established the custom observed by Athanasius, who ordered the
reader to use so little inflection of the voice that he would sound
more like a speaker than a singer. But when he recalled how much
benefit singing had brought him, he inclined to the other side.
Therefore, when this moderation is maintained, it is without any
doubt a most holy and salutary practice. On the other hand, such
songs as have been composed only for sweetness and delight of the
ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but
displease God in the highest degree.
It certainly is consistent with such a reverential
approach to the singing of God's people in worship that Calvin sought to
limit the expression to the Psalms. Even though the Psalms had to be
versified in order to be sung, and music had to be prepared for the
singing, Calvin repeated over and over that Psalms were God's songs for
Now what Saint Augustine says is true, that no
one is able to sing things worthy of God unless he has received them
from Him. wherefore, when we have looked thoroughly everywhere and
searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more
appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy
Spirit made and spoke through him. And when we sing them, we are
certain that God puts the words in our mouths, as if He Himself were
singing in us to exalt His glory.
Psalm Singing Throughout History
We must be careful to put Calvin's concern for Psalm
singing into historical perspective. John Calvin did not begin something
new when he introduced exclusive Psalm singing during worship. If that
were true, we might have occasion to raise our eyebrows. The singing of
Psalms already then had a long, glorious history.
The Old Testament Psalms were written for the purpose
of singing. The title to the Psalms is, "Book of Praises." The notation
"Selah," written throughout the Psalms, is a musical indicator. Already
II Samuel 6:5 reference is made to the playing of musical
instruments in connection with the moving of the ark to Jerusalem.
Jehoshaphat, as he led his army to battle, sang Psalms (II
Chron. 20:21). Later the Prophet Isaiah spoke of singing in
connection with a holy solemnity (Isa. 30:29). Ezekiel had singers in the
inner court of the temple (Eze. 40:44). All of them sang the Psalms.
As far as we know, there was no singing in the
synagogue; at least there is no reference to this in Scripture. Our Lord
Jesus sang a Psalm in connection with the last Passover (Matt.
26:30). This "hymn" was the great Hallel, "Praise God," from Psalms
113-118. The author to the Hebrews expresses, "In the midst of the
church will I sing praise unto thee," a reference to congregational
singing. Part of the abuse in the church of Corinth was that "each has a
Cor. 16:16). Instead of waiting for the orderly singing of the
congregation, the spirit-filled Christians began to sing Psalms on their
own. The church was commanded to "sing Psalms" (Eph.
Col. 3:16). These passages contain instructions given to the church
as to how they are to admonish one another in worship. The Christian is
James 5:13, "Is any among you afflicted? let him pray, Is any merry?
let him sing Psalms." A recorded instance of this is found in
Acts 16:25 when the bruised and beaten Paul and Silas sang Psalms in
This same tradition was carried over to the
post-apostolic period of the early church. Dr. Phillip Schaff, in his
History of the Christian Church, makes the
point that during this period there were no hymns in the church, only
Psalms. Drawing from the excellent article on Psalmody from the
McClintock and Strong Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical
we learn that Chrysostom, the church father of the fourth century, in
his sixth homily on Repentance, extolled the Psalms above the rest of
Scripture to be sung by all classes of men, at all places, and on all
occasions. During this same period, the heretics introduced the singing
of hymns into the churches. The Gnostics, the Arians, and the Donatists
all began to introduce songs other than the Psalms. This led to the
decision of the Council of Laodicea in A.D. 360 to make a decision
forbidding the use of hymns in the churches. During the long period of
the Dark Ages, from the fifth to the sixteenth century, Psalm singing
was preserved in the monasteries, while chanting was introduced into the
worship services. Wycliffe and Huss, the morning stars of the
Reformation, re-introduced into the churches the singing of Psalms.
During the post-reformation period, Psalm singing
took hold and spread like wildfire throughout all of Europe: France,
Switzerland, Germany, England, Netherlands, Scotland. Psalm singing is
not a Dutch heritage alone. The churches of Presbyterian heritage also
became exclusively Psalm-singing churches. This heritage they took with
them to America, and under the direction of the General Assembly of the
United Presbyterian Church of North America, two conventions were held
in 1905, the first in Pittsburgh and the second in Chicago, to promote
Psalm singing in worship. The book, The Psalms in Worship,
is a compilation of lectures given at these conventions in which all
aspects of Psalm singing are treated. This is the most exhaustive and
thorough treatment of this subject. The same thing was true of the Dutch
churches. Psalm singing was championed in the Netherlands. Petrus
Datheen, along with others, composed many of the Psalm versifications.
Many variations of music and words appeared, and from these the
well-known Psalm Book was composed. The Synod of Dordt in 1618-19
included Article 69 of the Church Order in which only the 150 Psalms of
David could be sung in the churches -- though there was a concession
that a few other songs, e.g., the morning and evening hymn, the 10
commandments, Songs of Mary, Zacharias, etc. might be included. After
that, the desire to maintain the exclusive use of the Psalms for worship
without including hymns became the occasion for controversy. Among other
issues, exclusive Psalm singing was maintained by the leaders of the
Afscheiding of 1834 when they separated from the state church in the
Netherlands. Similarly, in America it was included in the formation of
the Christian Reformed Church from the Reformed Church of America. The
RCA allowed the singing of hymns during worship, which the CRC did not
want. Those Reformed and Presbyterian churches that still maintain
exclusive Psalm singing during worship are certainly in good company and
possess a goodly heritage.
The Regulative Principle for Worship
Let us now ask why it is the position of the Reformed
churches to limit the songs of worship to the Psalms. In dealing with
this we should emphasize that it is not the Reformed position that the
use of hymns is wrong. Hymns written by God-fearing people throughout
the ages have been a great blessing to God's people. We do well to know
the good hymns and enjoy them in our homes and schools. The issue of
and the use of songs in worship is a different one. It is a
historical fact that John Calvin expressed his concern for proper
worship over against the terrible abuse by the church of his day. Recall
that these were the days when cathedrals were built and such an emphasis
was placed on outward adornment that little effort was expended upon the
spiritual welfare of God's people. Outward pomp characterized the
services themselves. Elaborate liturgy, meticulous details for the
sacraments, ornate vestments for the priests, all marked the services as
show pieces. The philosophy of Scholasticism influenced the thinking of
the leaders so that what the people heard did not reach their hearts. At
best, it challenged their minds. As we indicated before, the singing was
taken away from God's people and given to choirs of trained voices who
could give expression to Gregorian chants. Festive organs graced the
edifices, and emphasis fell upon outward style rather than worshipful
response. No wonder then that the reformers had to find some direction,
some foundation upon which to determine truth and error. This foundation
became the Word of God. They realized that the details of worship must
not be determined by what people like, not by style or popularly
accepted modes, but by what God wants for Himself as His people worship
Him. God reveals Himself to us in His Word as the sovereign God, creator
and sustainer of the universe. He is holy in all His ways. When He
speaks He calls the entire earth to keep silence. His justice and mercy
kissed each other in the Person of His Son as He died upon the cross of
Calvary. He rules the world by His almighty power and governs His church
by His Word and Spirit. Worship of so great a God must give Him the
glory due His Name. John Calvin struggled his whole life to spell out
for us how this is to be done. All worship must praise the Almighty
Sovereign while at the same time being beneficial to His people. Proper
worship must glorify and edify His people.
To accomplish this, the regulative principle of the
Word must apply. Just as the Word of God determines for us our faith (we
believe what God has revealed to us in His Word), so it determines for
us our Christian conduct as to how we are to serve God and keep His
commandments. It also must determine for us how we are to worship God.
The Word of God regulates the details of worship. This is beautifully
expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
In light of nature sheweth that there is a God
who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good and doth good
unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised) called
upon, trusted in and served with all the heart, and with all the
soul, and with all the might. But that acceptable way of worshipping
the true God is instituted by Himself and so limited by His own
revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the
imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under
any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the
We find a similar expression in the Heidelberg
Catechism in connection with the second commandment.
What doth God require in the second commandment?
That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in
any other way than He has commanded us in His word.
The point that we want to make now is this: the Word
of God does make plain that the songs to be sung in the worship of
Jehovah are to be the songs which the Holy Spirit gave to us, namely the
Psalms. If we are to regulate the singing of God's people by the Word of
God, we will make use of those songs which God has provided for us, and
which were sung by the church from the very beginning.
God instructed the church of the Old Testament to
make use of His Psalms. "Then on that day David delivered first this
Psalm, to thank the Lord, into the hand of Asaph and his brethren. "Give
thanks unto the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the
people. Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous
Chron. 16:7-9). Christ led His disciples in singing Psalms at the
26:30). Paul instructed the New Testament church to sing Psalms (Eph.
We should say a few things about the passages in
Ephesians 5:19 and
Colossians 3:16. They are somewhat similar. "Let the word of Christ
dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another
in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your
hearts to the Lord" (Col.
3:16). Both of these passages were delivered to the churches and not
just to individual Christians. In Ephesians the contrast is given
between the drunken feasts of idol worship and the gathering of God's
people for worship. Rather than drunken babbling, the Word exhorts His
people to sing in the Spirit. Similarly, in Colossians, the immediately
preceding verse deals with the reminder that they are "called in one
body," a reference to their relationship to one another in the church.
The Word of Christ mentioned in verse 16 is the Word preached unto them.
By singing Psalms they will also be able to teach and admonish one
another as the Word of Christ dwells in them. As a church, as well as
individual Christians, they are to make use of the Psalms in their
You could ask, do not these passages of Scripture
teach the opposite? In both texts mention is made of, "Psalms, hymns,
and spiritual songs." In trying to understand what is referred to by
this threefold description, we learn that there has been and is much
controversy and difference of interpretation. These differences can be
broken down into three groups. First, there are those who teach that
three different subjects are intended (the view of Jerome and
other church fathers): Psalms deal with subjects of an ethical nature;
hymns deal with the subject of God's divine majesty; spiritual songs are
concerned with nature and the world. Others suggest that three different
forms are intended (the view of Augustine and Hilary): Psalms are to
be chanted with music; hymns are for the voice alone; and spiritual
songs are to be shouted with short bursts. Finally, there are those who
suggest that three different sources are intended (the view of
Beza and Grotius): Psalms are Old Testament collections; hymns are
collections of various songs such as Song of Mary and Song of Zacharias;
and spiritual songs are premeditated compositions prepared for singing.
We consider this threefold description as referring
to the Psalms of David. All three (Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
are designations of the Psalter. We present five considerations. First,
if Paul and the Holy Spirit had in mind different kinds of songs other
than the Psalms, what songs did He have in mind? It is a historical fact
that none existed. The so-called Songs of Mary, etc., did not exist as
songs at this period of history; they became songs much later. It is
sheer speculation that part of Paul's epistles were considered odes or
songs and that these were intended. Second, the suggestion that Paul was
not referring to existing songs, but that he was instructing the church
to write them and that this is implied and intended is again doing
violence to the scriptures. His burden is to instruct the church to do
something now, make use of the songs they already have, use the
Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as edification and admonition. Third,
the word translated "hymn" is used in another passage in the New
Matthew 26:30, where there is no controversy at all but that the
hymn that Jesus sang with His disciples at the last Passover was the
"hallel" of Psalms 113-118. Fourth, the designation "spiritual songs" is
not a reference to some inspired songs in a general way, but very
literally Holy Spirit inspired songs. This is the position taken by
authorities in Greek such as Thayer, Cremer, and Robertson. What songs
did the Holy Spirit give the church? There is only one answer: the
Psalms. Finally, the Greek scrolls which were available in the days of
Christ and the apostles were known as the Septuagint Bible, the Old
Testament Hebrew translated into Greek. This Bible has different
headings above each Psalm. (By the way, these headings were not part of
the inspired Bible, but were designations added, yet recognized by the
early church.) Some Psalms have "Psalms" written above them. In fact, 67
have such a designation. Six have "hymns" written above them, and 35
have "spiritual song" written over them. Some have more than one such
designation or combinations.
Why they had such designations and why certain Psalms
have different ones is difficult to determine. It is generally
understood that "Psalms" is the broadest category and are reflective,
expressing God's greatness and our response; "hymns" lift up the souls
of God's people in praise to Him; "spiritual songs" articulate what God
means to us in all areas of our lives.
Under the regulative principle of the Word of God
guiding us in all areas of our lives, including worship, the Reformed
churches follow the example of the early church to make use of the
Psalms as God has intended. As
Colossians 3:16 indicates, singing such Psalms teaches and
admonishes, for they are songs which God has given His church for that
The Adequacy of the Psalms
From time to time the question is raised as to the
adequacy of the Psalms for the New Testament church. Is perhaps the Old
Testament view of God different from the New Testament? This is the
position taken by the hymn writer Isaac Watts, who gave us such hymns as
"Joy to the World" and "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross." His view of
the Old Testament God cautions us concerning the use of hymns. Speaking
of the Psalms he writes,
Some of them are almost opposite the spirit of
the gospel. There are a thousand lines in the Book of Psalms which
were not made for a church in our day to assume as its own. I should
rejoice to see David converted into a Christian. There are many
hundred verses in the Book of Psalms which a Christian cannot
properly assume in singing. Psalms 13, 16, 36, 68, 69, and 109 are
so full of cursings that they hardly become a follower of the
blessed Jesus. (The Psalms In Worship, p. 472, index p. 570.)
No, the Psalms reveal to us the one true God, surely
in His fiery wrath against the workers of iniquity, yet also in His
grace and mercy as the God of our salvation.
Does the Old Testament give a view of Christ that the
New Testament church cannot appreciate or is inadequate? This is perhaps
the most common charge brought against the use of the Psalms today. Yet,
if we study the Psalms carefully we find quite a different picture. The
Holy Spirit was correct when He through Paul reminded the church that by
singing Psalms, "the Word of Christ dwells in us" (Col.
3:16). Christ Himself made great use of the Psalms, impressing upon
His disciples that the Psalms spoke of Him: "These are the words which I
spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be
fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses and in the prophets,
and in the psalms, concerning me" (Luke
24:44). The Psalms did speak concerning Christ. Think of those which
spoke directly to Him—e.g.,
Psalm 22 and 110. Some spoke typically of Him—e.g.,
Psalm 16,18, 21, 61, 72, 118. His offices were explained: prophet
(Ps. 22), priest (Ps. 110), and king (Ps. 2). Details of His ministry
were indicated: His eternity (Ps. 90), His incarnation (Ps. 40 and 22),
His rejection (Ps. 22), His triumphal entry (Ps. 8 and 118), His being
beaten (Ps. 41), His cross (Ps. 22), His dying words (Ps. 31), His
resurrection (Ps. 60), His ascension (Ps. 16), His return in judgment
(Ps. 50, 72, 98). The prophetic character of these Psalms does not make
them inadequate for the New Testament church. Frequently they were
written from the viewpoint of Christ's work as already finished, and
always they lift the church beyond the earthly ministry of Christ to His
majestic return at the end of the world when His kingdom shall be
established forever. Even in heaven we will sing the song of Moses and
the Lamb (Rev.
One more point as far as the adequacy of the use of
the Psalms is concerned. The Holy Spirit worked in the lives of the
authors of the Psalms in such a way that they expressed their inner
longing, their grief over sin, their cry for forgiveness, their hope in
God. Surely, if worship is for praise and edification, the Psalms give
God His due, for they present God to us, not from the subjective,
emotional, even unreliable experience that God's people may have in
their dealings with God, but rather, the Psalms extol the one true God,
and cause us to fall on our knees in repentance and praise. Similarly,
they express deep feelings on behalf of God's people. But these emotions
of worship are not those of mere men, grappling with the Divine Being;
they are true emotions that flow from a proper encounter with God. We
identify with the grief, the heartache, the burden which the Psalmist
expresses in the Psalms. These are true and correct for they have their
origin in God, not man. Through such cries for need, we are lifted up to
Jehovah, to view His mercy in Christ, His forgiving love that did not
cancel out His justice, but satisfied it in the Person of His own Son.
The cries of the children of God blend with the groans of the Son of God
which rise unto the ears of the Lord of Hosts. He knows and He delivers.
He is the Sovereign God of our salvation.
Do we limit the work of the Holy Spirit if we limit
ourselves to singing the Psalms? Granted that the Holy Spirit inspired
the Psalms, does this mean that the Holy Spirit cannot use other people
to compose proper songs for the church to sing? These songs may be of
different kinds. Indeed, gifted men have written spiritually edifying
songs about the Christian experience which extol God. Others have
written songs, or if you will, set to music passages of the Holy
Scripture. Is there not a place to make use of these in the worship
services? In answering this question, we must recognize that the songs
we sing, the versifications of the Psalms as, e.g., in The Psalter
are not themselves inspired. There is a long and interesting history as
to Psalm tunes, versifications written by the reformers themselves and
by others throughout the history of the church. Some of these are well
done, others poorly done. In this area there is room for constant
improvement and re-evaluation. The point is this, can we not add to the
Psalms other themes and passages of Scripture? Admittedly, the idea of
adding other Scripture passages set to music has much appeal. This is a
very limited application of the idea of introducing "hymns" into the
church. Could we not limit ourselves to Scripture, whether Old or New
Testament? In dealing with this, we must approach it from the viewpoint
that we limit the work of the Holy Spirit. Surely, He is able to give
the church gifted men and able to guide them in the production. Yet, the
question is more basic: has not the Holy Spirit given to us such a book
already, the Psalms, and should we not consider this adequate? If the
Spirit saw the need for a New Testament book of praise, He could have
given that to us as He did with the Psalms. The fact is that He did not.
We must not be wiser than God. If we are going to be bound by the
regulative principle of the Word of God, limiting our worship to what
God has given us, we do well to consider the adequacy of the Psalms for
The Benefits of Psalm Singing
In closing, let us reflect in thankfulness for God's
gift to the church of His Psalms. Let us also reflect with thankfulness
that God used the reformers to return Psalm singing to the churches.
What a blessing such singing is. Page through The Psalter and
reflect upon the spiritual depths of these songs. What a treasure!
Personally, I find it so encouraging when believers who have not a
background of Psalm singing are introduced to singing the Psalms as they
worship with us and their reaction is not of despair because they have
to give up the hymns which they are accustomed to sing, but rather they
become very appreciative of them and become the strongest advocates for
maintaining the Psalms in worship. We do well to caution ourselves that
our familiarity with the beloved Psalms does not cause us or our
children to become indifferent to such a goodly heritage. Rather let us
count our blessings that we still have such meaningful songs in our
worship. Truly, let us sing these Psalms with enthusiasm and praise. Let
us not limit our Psalm singing to the church service. The more we sing
them in our homes and schools the more familiar they are to our
children. And children love to sing songs they know. The word of the
Holy Spirit through James still holds true: "Is any happy? Let him sing
psalms" (James 5:13).
If God has raised up among us people gifted in music
and able to evaluate the accuracy of versification and correctness of
melody, there is room for such improvement. If we desire to learn new
tunes for old songs, that too can be done, only it must be done with
care. Our Dutch forefathers loved their Dutch Psalms. Many aged saints
still sing them in the night watches and on their death bed. We too have
beautiful Psalms in our English language, and they have become part of
our spiritual life that we do not want to lose. Heritage must not be
confused with tradition. Traditionalists hold onto the past just because
they refuse all change. If we see Psalm singing as a heritage, we hold
onto Psalm singing as a divine mandate, but recognize that it too must
be adapted to the singing of each generation. In this way we hold a
healthy appreciation for the work of the Spirit.
Let's sing with greater enthusiasm, "My steadfast
heart O God, will sound Thy praise abroad with tuneful string. The dawn
shall hear my song, Thy praise I will prolong, and where Thy people
throng, thanksgiving bring" (Psalter, 298).
May God bless us as we use His Psalms to His glory.
1 The Psalms in
Worship, 1907; The United Presbyterian Board of Publication, pp.
486, 487; Lecture by Rev. T.H. Hanna on Specimens of Eulogies on the
3 John Calvin,
Preface to the Genevan Psalter.
4 The Psalter,
copyrighted by the United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1912,
published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
5 John Calvin,
of the Christian Religion, Book III, chapter 20, section 31.
6 John Calvin,
to the Genevan Psalter.
7 John Calvin,
of the Christian Religion, Book III, chapter 20, section 32.
8 John Calvin,
to the Reader, June 1543.
9 Phillip Schaff,
History of the Christian Church, Vol. I, p.463
10 McClintock and
Strong, Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Cyclopaedia,
Vol.8, page 735.
11 The Psalms
In Worship, see above.
expressed by Rev. D. Engelsma in an excellent series of articles on
Music In the Church" published in the Beacon Lights, a magazine
for Protestant Reformed youth, February, March, April, 1983.
Confession of Faith, chapter 21, section 1.
Catechism, Lord's Day 35, q. 96.