Who sings the Psalms? (part 2)

In part 1, we looked at three answers to the question, “Who sings the Psalms?”  I suggested that the psalms could be read in the voice of:

1. The original author

2. The Old Testament people of God

3. Jesus Christ

Today, we’ll look at the two remaining suggested options and then discuss why this question is useful and important in our reading, studying, and singing of the biblical psalms.

4. The Christian communion of saints

Paul makes it clear that the Old Testament practice of singing the biblical psalms carried over into the New Testament Church of Christ.  In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 he admonishes the churches to sing, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”  Although it has been argued that Paul’s distinctions could perhaps include more than just the 150 biblical psalms, Paul certainly does not mean less than the singing of the 150 psalms.

But even without Paul’s exhortation, it should be clear that the Church of Jesus Christ should be singing the psalms.  All revelation is God’s revelation, so all Scripture is our Scripture.  These songs do not just apply to the Jewish believers of the Old Testament Church.  Paul argues in Romans 15:8-13 that through Christ, we are all grafted into the same Church.  Romans 5:11 celebrates that the hope of Psalm 117 has come true in the New Testament – that all nations have come to be included in God’s Church to sing His praise.

We, whether we are ethnically Jewish or not, can sing Psalm 136 with as much gusto as Ezra or Nehemiah would have.  For as the Church, Israel’s history is our history.  We can take as much delight in the steadfast love of God as any Old Testament saint and can celebrate it all the more richly because of Christ.  And so, in continuity with the Church throughout the ages (both the Old and New Testament manifestations) and around the world (in Jerusalem and Chicago, London and Johannesburg, etc.), we sing the psalms.

The psalms magnify the same God for the same attributes and the same salvation whether sung before Christ or after Christ, for all psalms are only properly sung in Christ.

All praise comes to its fullest fruition in the corporate assembly of God’s people.  We bring our private delights, distresses, praises, prayers, etc., from the week and articulate them as a unified Body.  And what better way than to use the psalms, the vehicles God has provided to express all our needs?

It should be mentioned here that there are some discontinuities between singing in the Old Testament and in the New.  For instance:

  • Mount Zion in Jerusalem is no longer God’s dwelling place.  But instead of throwing out Psalm 48, which celebrates the glories of Zion, we now sing it with even greater gusto, for we understand what the original Mount Zion was a picture of – the Church, the spiritual dwelling place of God.
  • We as a Church no longer wage war on earthly physical enemies, but we needn’t erase Psalm 83 (a “going to war” psalm), for we still pray for deliverance from the principalities of evil and powers of sin which we daily fight against (Ephesians 6:10-20).
  • We no longer languish in physical exile (Psalm 137), but we know what it feels to be pilgrims in a hostile world.

The New Testament (and I would especially recommend the book of Hebrews for this) gives us the lens through which to richly sing and understand the Old Testament Psalms as the New Testament Church, which is the same Church which has existed since Genesis.

5. The individual believer

The final category of “singer” is simply “you,” the individual Christian believer.  It is glorious to sing God’s praise in community with His people, but what a special blessing it is that we can also enjoy the intimate, personal relationship so often expressed in the biblical psalms.  We need look no further than Psalm 63:1 to see this.  “O God, You are my God.”  That first verse is one of the most startling confessions of intimacy and relationship in the Psalter.  Psalm 63 expresses David’s desperate longing to be closer to God.  And so in verse 1, he address the great Creator God and calls Him “my God,” personally.

Of course, singing the psalms corporately or individually are not mutually exclusive.  Notice how Psalm 118 dances back and forth between using “I” and “we” to designate the singer(s).    Psalm 116, although written from the “I” perspective, finds its culmination “in the presence of all [God’s] people” (116:14) in the Temple worship (116:17-19).

As Christians, we can take the psalms onto our lips as our personal prayers, into our minds as our daily meditations, and into our hearts as the songs of our lives.  We can do this because of Christ and the personal relationship with God that He has secured for us.  The psalms are written as songs of the covenant, which most basically means relationship.  And so they can be sung in this personal manner to express our fears (Psalm 27), our confessions (Psalm 51), our praises (Psalm 19), our comfort (Psalm 23), etc.

And so we return to our question, “Who sings the psalms?”  We’ve now examined five answers.  And really, the ultimate answer would have to be “all of the above.”  There are elements of each answer in every psalm.  Psalm 51 is David’s prayer of confession, but it is also ours corporately and individually.  Psalm 72 is David’s prayer over his son as Solomon takes his place as king, but it is also our hymn of praise concerning Christ’s kingship.  Psalm 1 is about Christ as the Righteous Man but also shows us the blessing of living an obedient life.

To focus on any one of the answers in isolation can lead to dangers:

  • If you read the psalms only in the voice of the original author, all you are is an archaeologist or historian, looking to learn facts about the biblical characters and context.  This loses all relevance for today.
  • If you read the psalms only in the voice of the Old Testament saints, you learn some interesting liturgical history.  This loses all sense of the continuity of the church.
  • If you read the psalms only as the songs of the New Testament Church, you can lose both historical continuity and individual application.
  • If you read the psalms only as an individual, you can delve into psychological subjectivity and individualism.

And so we need each of the five categories to balance each other, and ultimately we have to see that Christ is the key to our singing of the Psalms.  In Him, we go to war with evil and sin (Psalm 109).  We can claim the righteousness of Psalm 15 for we are justified in His blood and declared righteous in Him.  Psalm 22 can become our prayer in suffering because Christ suffered on our behalf.  We can only pray the psalms if we pray them in Christ.

So as we read the psalms, we have to keep all five answers in mind.  This will help us understand the psalms better and apply them more richly.  Now that’s a tall order, but it’s a practice that will bear rich rewards for our study of the psalms.

If this seems like too much, perhaps some alternate ideas might work.  I’m all about variety and experimentation (within biblical limits) in our private worship lives.  Maybe read one psalm a day, but read it five times through, each time focusing on a different “singer.”  Get a journal and divide it into five columns, commenting on how different aspects of the psalm are developed in each of the five uses.  Read through the book of Psalms five times this year, each time focusing on a different “singer.”  Or simply keep the five “singers” in mind as you read the psalms or sing them in church.  But always remember that the key to each psalm is found in Christ.


4 Responses to “Who sings the Psalms? (part 2)”

  1. 1 R. Scott Clark July 12, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    Thanks Michael, for encouraging God’s people to sing God’s Word thoughtfully!

    • 2 Michael Kearney July 12, 2012 at 7:49 pm

      Dr. Clark, thanks very much for the kind words. It’s my privilege to be able to work with men of God like James in attempting to shed some light on the riches of the psalms.

      –Michael Kearney

  1. 1 Who sings the Psalms? (part 1) « URC Psalmody Trackback on July 17, 2012 at 8:32 pm
  2. 2 Psalms 69:30 I will praise the name of God with a song « Christian Notions Trackback on July 25, 2012 at 3:35 pm

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