Sing a New Song, Chapter 2: A Delightful Ordinance

Last Thursday we began a discussion on Sing a New Song, a relatively new book edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio on “Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century.”  Our hybrid review format/written dialogue seemed to work well enough that we plan to continue on in the same vein!  So, without further ado, here’s our commentary on Chapter 2, by Dr. Joel Beeke: “Psalm Singing in Calvin and the Puritans.”

JDO: Dr. Beeke’s chapter made me really happy and genuinely excited to sing the psalms.  I haven’t read the rest of the book yet, but I could honestly say that I think this chapter alone is probably worth the price of the whole thing.  Beeke’s thesis is basically summed up in the sentence, “Calvin and the Puritans felt convicted to sing psalms in public worship and loved doing so” (p. 17).  By the end of the chapter, I felt the same way.

I loved the discussion of Calvin’s rationale for congregational psalm singing.  A lot of it may sound familiar to a psalm-singing church, but much of it was, if not new, certainly challenging and refreshing. Did anything in particular stand out to you?

MRK: I suppose one thing that we need to continually remind ourselves is that Calvin and the Puritans were pretty much working from scratch.  The practice of psalm-singing in the medieval church had dwindled down to a negligible amount—if it still existed at all.  So, in the Reformers’ day, the concept of psalm-singing by the congregation was just as radical as any other facet of the Reformation.

Dr. Beeke goes on to list a number of implications of the psalms—all of them excellent.  Although we can’t quote them all (you really ought to read this book for yourself anyway!), we might summarize the list in the words of Calvin’s famous quote—that the psalms are “an anatomy of all parts of the soul” (p. 19).  Our whole personal experience as Christians can be expressed in the inspired words of the psalms.

The chapter then describes the origin and history of the famous Genevan Psalter of 1562.  One aspect of this songbook that seems especially unique is that it contains 110 different melodies written specifically for the psalms.

JDO: That’s a great feature for a psalter to have.  As you learn the tune, you also learn the psalm, and as you remember the distinct tune, you remember the distinct psalm.  It’s really a brilliant pedagogical device.

MRK: Another inference we can make about these unique tunes is that Calvin and his colleagues realized the profound importance of tunes that were suitable for worship and appropriate for whichever psalms accompanied them.

JDO: Calvin argued that the piety of psalm-singing is best promoted when “the text takes priority over the tune” (p. 22).  Of the music, he says that it should be “‘weighty, dignified, majestic, and modest’—fitting attitudes for sinful creatures in the presence of God,” according to Beeke.

MRK: I especially appreciated Calvin’s emphasis on teaching the psalms to the youth, in light of my recent meditations (“Let Youth Praise Him!” and “All-Season Psalms”).  Not only then would the children learn the psalms, but they could also teach them to their parents at home!

JDO: It’s also great that Calvin had the psalm selections for each Lord’s Day posted on the church doors in advance, so that families could practice the psalms throughout the week in preparation for corporate worship.  I’ve known a few families who similarly check their church’s bulletins when they’re posted online during the week.  It’s always a blessing to hear their wee children singing loudly along with the congregation on Sunday morning.

MRK: Can you imagine sending a family member to check the numbers posted at your church every Sunday?  We have access to much of this information on the internet, as you mentioned, and yet we still don’t take advantage of the opportunity to practice the Psalms ahead of time!

Reflecting on the first half of Chapter 2, we note that Calvin’s philosophy of psalm-singing was truly ground-breaking.  He reintroduced congregational song, created his own Psalter in the common tongue with new tunes, and promulgated the practice of corporate and individual psalm-singing.  But he also influenced another major branch of the Reformers: the English Puritans.  That’s where Beeke turns his attention in the second half of this chapter.

JDO: During the anti-Protestant rule of the English queen, “Bloody Mary,” many of the Puritans turned to psalm-singing for worship and comfort.  But when Mary’s persecution ended, their love of the psalms did not.  In fact, the English Protestants who had fled to Geneva brought back the Genevan Psalter with them!  Through the influence of the Puritans, and later through the rule of the Protestant Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, the practice of psalm-singing became well-established in the English church.

MRK: For a variety of reasons, the common impression of Puritans is a bunch of grumpy old sticks-in-the-mud refusing to conform to anything.  Beeke clearly sets that misconception aside here.  Their resistance to the common uninspired church music of the day did not arise out of a “distaste of music,” as Dr. Beeke explains, “but their deep conviction that the Scripture must be obeyed at all costs.”  That’s the background to the 1647 treatise Singing of Psalmes: A Gospel-Ordinance by the New England Puritan John Cotton (1584-1682).  For the remainder of this chapter, Beeke offers a commentary on Cotton’s four main areas of study.

Cotton’s first section deals with “The Duty of Singing Psalms.”  I was greatly surprised to learn about what he calls the “Antipsalmists.”  No singing at all in the Christian church?  That’s a view I’ve never heard advocated until now.

JDO: Neither have I; in fact, I was rather frightened to hear it.  But I guess that’s what comes from an overdeveloped dispensationalism—in other words, that the “songs of the Old Testament” are no longer applicable to the “New Testament church.”  I suppose we do have to deal with many “practical antipsalmists,” those who don’t oppose singing the psalms, but simply don’t practice it.

MRK: Thankfully, we both agree with Cotton Mather’s refutation of that doctrine.  But I love that he goes further, to point out that the songs of the church must be intelligible to the hearers.   And, even more than that, it must all add up to God’s glory.  In one fell swoop Mather demolishes any argument against using the psalms and instead rears up a tower of psalm-singing praise to God.

JDO: I think we often miss an aspect of psalm-singing that Cotton brings out and that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5:19—when we sing the psalms, we are not only praising God but also “addressing one another” for our mutual edification.  Singing psalms in church is not merely an individual affair; we sing it to our fellow congregants, they sing it to us, and as a whole we encourage one another.  The threefold purpose of psalm-singing—bringing glory to God, edifying the singer, and teaching and addressing one’s fellow singers—isn’t often in our minds, but it’s extremely important as an aspect of our ministry to and from other believers.

MRK: Cotton’s view of uninspired hymns in the second section strikes me as quite interesting.  While we might not agree with some of Cotton’s specific stipulations, I admire his underlying belief: We can sing a variety of songs to edify and encourage fellow believers, but we must only worship God as he has directed in the Bible.

JDO: Right.  And how could the congregation have the audacity to “address one another” in official function with anything other than the inspired Word of God?

MRK: I had never even stopped to consider some of the questions Cotton brings up in the third part of his book.  “Should an individual be allowed to sing for the congregation, or should the entire congregation sing?  Should men and women sing, or men only?  Should unbelievers be allowed to sing with believers?  Should people who are not church members be allowed to sing?” (p. 34).

JDO: Yeah—that rather shocked me, too.

MRK: Fortunately, I was reassured by all of his answers.  Especially intriguing was Cotton’s argument that believers and unbelievers alike are called to sing to God.  It made me stop, think, and finally agree.  Of course, his proviso at the end of this section is also important—even though the psalms are intended for the whole world, the Church of Christ has a special duty to sing them.

JDO:  And the church should delight in that duty!

MRK: Personally, my favorite part was Cotton’s fourth section, in which he discusses the manner of singing and whether psalms can be sung to man-made tunes.  I have found in my own spiritual walk that Cotton’s comments about metrical psalters ring true: they make “the verses more easie for memory, and more fit for melody” (p. 36).  Cotton upholds the importance of the music as well as the words, and the correct balance between the two.  In short, according to Beeke, “God gives us freedom to compose reverent tunes for the Psalms, so long as the rhythm and tunes are pleasing to God and edifying to His people.  We should never use this liberty to satisfy our selfish desires.”

JDO:  Yes.  The answer to the thoughtless question “If you’re so picky about singing psalms, why not sing them in Hebrew?” is that we are to sing with understanding.  We are obligated to translate the psalms into the common tongue, put them into memorable versifications, and set them to suitable, singable tunes.

MRK: Now, Jim, I know you already utilize Cotton’s suggested practice of reading a psalm in worship before singing it.  Have you noticed the same benefits that he describes?

JDO: Absolutely.  On the one hand, I always appreciate short and sweet song introductions.  But I do find that at least saying a few words concerning the biblical psalm to be sung, or highlighting a few verses thereof, does much to increase my understanding and appreciating while singing.  It would be super to have a mini-sermon on each psalm to be sung before reading it and singing it, but I also appreciate the need for a streamlined service.  A few well-placed sentences regarding the upcoming psalm go a long way in encouraging mind-full singing.

Dr. Beeke closes his chapter with an insightful and practical list of three benefits of psalm-singing.  Although this practice is commanded and encouraged in Scripture, we find that as with all of God’s precepts the command to sing psalms is for our good and delight.

  1. Psalm-singing is a profound source of comfort for the soul.  Robert Sanderson (1587-1662), Bishop of Lincoln, called the psalms “the treasury of Christian comfort” (p. 39).
  2. Psalm-singing cultivates piety.  The psalms teach us vocabulary for godly prayer, a posture for grateful living, and a vehicle for God-focused worship.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, psalm singing is a powerful means by which we can glorify God from the heart.

We owe a lot to the work of John Calvin and the English Puritans in recovering the divinely-appointed place of psalm-singing in worship.  Indeed, singing the psalms is a God-given ordinance, but a delightful one.  Sanderson expresses it this way:

[Psalm-singing is] fitted for all persons and all necessities; able to raise the soul from dejection by the frequent mention of God’s mercies to repentant sinners; to stir up holy desire; to increase joy; to moderate sorrow; to nourish hope, and teach us patience, by waiting God’s leisure; to beget a trust in the mercy, power, and providence of our Creator; and to cause a resignation of ourselves to his will: and then, and not till then, to believe ourselves happy.

We look forward with you to next week’s discussion of Chapter 3: “The History of Psalm-Singing in the Christian Church.”  Until then,


1 Response to “Sing a New Song, Chapter 2: A Delightful Ordinance”

  1. 1 Sing a New Song, Chapter 3: The History of Psalmody « URC Psalmody Trackback on September 20, 2012 at 6:14 am

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