Archive for September, 2012



Sing a New Song, Chapter 3: The History of Psalmody

It’s Thursday again, and here on URC Psalmody that means one thing: it’s time for another installment of our ongoing review of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio.  Today’s discussion brings us to Chapter 3, by Terry Johnson: “The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church.”

MRK: Having considered some specific milestones in the progress of psalmody in the Christian church in the first two chapters, I relished the chance offered in Chapter 3 to view the history of psalm-singing from a wider angle.  Sadly, this history, as Johnson shows, has its lows as well as its highs, but as a whole it truly invigorated my desire to see the psalms restored to their proper place in Christian worship.

In the first section of the chapter Johnson takes us through the apostolic era of the early church.  Even though I find some of his exegesis a bit confusing, he unequivocally shows that the psalms were integral to the worship of the apostolic church.

JDO: Yes.  In God’s providence, early Christian worship took on many characteristics of the synagogue.  And so the singing of psalms, already important in Jewish worship, naturally became essential to the Christians, who had an even greater “right” to them through Christ.

MRK: While Johnson’s material overlaps a bit with the content of Chapter 1, he goes on to outline the psalm-singing practices of the patristic (pre-medieval) church by quoting several notable church fathers besides Cassian and Benedict.  Athanasius called the psalms “a mirror of the soul”; Eusebius commended the near-universal psalm-singing of his day; and Basil the Great praised the “harmonious psalm tunes” that enabled Christians to sing the psalms on any occasion.  Chrysostom’s quote was most uplifting: that “many who know not a letter can say David’s Psalms by heart” (pp. 45, 46).

JDO:  I think that these three and a half pages on the patristic church are once again worth the price of the book.  These quotes are all uplifting—quite a testimony to the power of the psalms.  To see how each generation cherished them is amazing.  How can some people be so blasé about psalm-singing?  And how can others just skip it?

Sadly, however, as history went on, the tradition of psalm-singing faded.  As we mentioned last week, the Middle Ages saw the decline of congregational singing.  More and more this duty was relegated to monks, and the Latin liturgy became inaccessible to the common people.   Yes, the monks still sang and cherished the psalms, but in a way that no one else could appreciate.

MRK: By the time of the Reformation, the Church was in desperate need of a revival in the area of psalmody.

JDO: By that time it was in need of all kinds of revival.  Psalm-singing wasn’t just one sort of revival, though; the practice of psalm-singing itself was a major instrument in the Reformation.  I thought Johnson expounded that idea brilliantly.  Psalmody didn’t flourish merely as a result of the Reformation; it was a crucial element in the growth of Protestantism itself.  And I loved his emphasis on the importance to the Reformers of singing entire psalms on pp. 49, 50.  How do you view this position?

MRK: This question actually hits very close to home for me.  In the Evangelical Free church my family attended before coming into the URCNA, my psalm-singing experience was limited to the little praise songs we used to sing—“versicles,” as John Witvliet calls them.  “I Will Enter His Gates” (Ps. 100:4), “This is the Day” (Ps. 118:24), “I Will Sing of the Mercies” (Ps. 89:1), “I Exalt Thee” (Ps. 97:9)—all of them were connected to the psalms only by the slenderest thread.  Without any balance of praise and prayer, petition and thanksgiving, or confession and redemption, singing these practically meaningless excerpts of God’s Word was quite like being stranded on a scriptural island.  All of it was all one-sided and, usually, self-focused.  When the Lord led us to a Reformed church and we began to become familiar with the Psalter Hymnal, I was so refreshed to be able to sing these same passages in context, with their full meaning!  Looking back, it’s my heartfelt conviction that we gravely rob ourselves if our psalm repertoire is limited to those unsubstantial three- or four-line choruses.

The theme of this section of Chapter 3 could best be summed up in an excerpt from p. 50.  Johnson says,

To sing the Psalms is to sing the Psalter.  Each psalm has its own thematic integrity.  The book of Psalms as a whole is characterized by theological, christological, and experiential wholeness.  The Holy Spirit gave the Psalter as a complete collection whose strength is collective: laments not isolated from praise, imprecations not isolated from confessions of sin, but all together.  The whole gospel of the whole Christ is found in the whole Psalter.

MRK: As the Reformation progressed, Johnson goes on to explain, psalm-singing became a “chief means of spiritual formation” like preaching and the catechism.  As Witvliet says, “Metrical Psalm singing was a maker of the Reformation” (p. 51).

JDO: Johnson picks up later with the parallel stories of the French Huguenots and the Scottish Presbyterians. Both groups were persecuted Protestant Christians and both groups found courage, comfort, and consolation in the metrical psalms they loved.

MRK: Incidentally, I was glad that the Dutch psalm-singing tradition was featured a little more prominently in this article than in the previous chapters.  The primary influence in this area was Peter Dathenus’s Dutch translation of the Genevan Psalter, which would be the official Protestant songbook in the Netherlands for the next two hundred years. That’s why our churches enjoy such a rich heritage rooted in the Genevan texts and tunes!

As the colonial American era began to dawn, however, some threats to psalmody arose.  The most notable of these was the work of Isaac Watts, whose famous “loose” psalm paraphrases would shape Christian hymnody right up to the present day.

JDO: I always have mixed feelings about Isaac Watts.  His hymns and poetry are some of the things that have recently brought me to love singing the psalms more.  But he had exactly the opposite effect on the church.  Watts’s paraphrases, because they were loosely based on the psalms, crept into the psalm-singing churches—but they were so loosely based on the psalms that they opened the doors for more and more hymns.  Eventually, psalm-singing was eclipsed.  So I view Watts’s place in history as bittersweet: I like him and his work, but I am deeply saddened by what became of it.

MRK: Watts’s paraphrases seem to have had the same general effect on modern church hymnody.  While some of his songs like “Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” appear frequently in contemporary hymnals, they have been completely separated from the psalms they once represented.

Psalm-singing was the dominant musical practice in Protestant churches from the sixteenth century into the early part of the nineteenth century. Then, with dismay, we ask, “What happened?”

JDO: Pages 55-57 contain a very depressing section describing the decline of psalm-singing from the 1800s to today.  Of course, there were always some faithful denominations, like the RPCNA, but they became few and far between.

MRK: This begins to tie into our own heritage more closely.  Johnson doesn’t mention it here, but if my history is correct, one of the main reasons for the Christian Reformed Church’s split from the Reformed Church in America in 1857 was that the RCA allowed the singing of over 800 non-Scriptural hymns.  The problem in the church, as we might view it from an inclusive-hymnody perspective, was not the existence of hymns, but the fact that hymns had overshadowed and even replaced the psalms.

Johnson notes another disturbing trend that I’ve seen evidenced in some hymnals: While the psalms still formed part of the repertoire of the churches, they were mixed with and undifferentiated from the hymns.  One can find examples of this practice in a vast number of modern songbooks—even the beloved Trinity Hymnal of our OPC and PCA brethren.

JDO: Hymnals began to be arranged topically, with no distinction between psalms and hymns.  Sadly, I believe this sort of reasoning belies a denigration of the psalms.  In that mindset, a psalm is just like any other song.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re singing an inspired or uninspired song as long as the topic is right.

MRK: Although this portion of the chapter was a bit disheartening, Johnson doesn’t leave us without hope. In the very last section he discusses various ways in which psalmody has been revived in the twentieth-century Christian church.  Perhaps this century’s landmark songbook was the 1912 Psalter, which forms the basis for many of the songs of the CRC Psalter Hymnal.

JDO: Yes!  While the Psalter still shows some of the detrimental effects of 19th-century hymnody, it was better than nothing—and where it shines, it shines brightly.  And look at how many great psalters have been based on or inspired by this book—best of all, the Book of Psalms for Singing!

The current revival in psalmody is tremendously encouraging.  New Psalters are being published all over the place; many churches are “rediscovering psalmody”; Christian music artists are writing new settings of psalms.  It’s an exciting time.

MRK: Indeed it is.  But as I reflect on the history of psalm-singing and the state of the modern church, an unsettling question comes to mind.  What if the current “worship wars” regarding hymns vs. contemporary music are a direct result of the tragic neglect of psalmody?  Do you think that’s a plausible evaluation?

JDO: I think you have a great point.  Why do we have “worship wars”?  Because everyone has his own opinion on what enriches his worship.  If what we sing isn’t governed by the truths of Scripture, then it becomes governed by the whims of man.  War, then, is inevitable.

MRK: So true.  However, on an extremely positive note: If the decline of psalm-singing has been a cause of the “worship wars,” then the solution to the problem is merely to restore the psalms to their rightful place!  So let’s obey God—let’s sing the psalms.  And let’s watch for the multitude of blessings that will result!

JDO: In closing, I will say this: Within the last decade or so, there’s been an exciting trend in the church.  Calvinism is now considered “cool.”  Reformed pastors and theologians like R. C. Sproul, Tim Keller, and John Piper have gained traction all over the place.  “Hip” speakers and churches are starting to reinstate catechism teaching.  All of this is great, but I pray that these reforming trends will expand into the area of music as well.  If any of you “young, restless, and Reformed” type are reading this obscure little blog, look into the singing of psalms.  Johnson closes his chapter with four reasons for psalmody: it’s biblical, it’s historical, it’s sanctifying, and it’s satisfying.  Sing the words of Scripture—it will enrich your understanding of the God of Scripture and of Jesus Christ.

We close with the timeless words of John Calvin as quoted on p. 49:

No one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from Him.  Therefore…we shall not find better songs nor more fitting of the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him.  And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.

“Psalters, Hymnals, Worship Wars, and American Presbyterian Piety” by D. G. Hart, the next chapter in Sing a New Song, promises to continue treating some of these important topics.  We hope you’ll join us again next Thursday!

Until then,

–JDO/MRK

A Glimpse into the Mind of Christ

I grew up a psalm-singer, basically because I had to be.  The Church Order of the United Reformed Churches, article 39, states that “The 150 psalms shall have the principal place in the singing of the churches.”  So I grew up principally singing psalms because that’s what we did.

It wasn’t until quite recently that I became a psalm-singer because I wanted to be.  There are many factors that went into that change, but one of the primary causes of my newfound love for the psalms has been my friendship with Rev. G. I. Williamson.

Rev. Williamson hardly needs an introduction.  He just celebrated the 60th anniversary of his ordination a few months ago (check out the write-up in the September 12, 2012, issue of Christian Renewal).  He has served churches throughout the USA and New Zealand, written beloved study guides and books, and has been an encourager of Christ’s Church and a passionate preacher of the Gospel for all those decades.  You can learn more about him and access his writing on his website, HERE.

One thing the Rev. Williamson is passionate about is the Book of Psalms and the singing thereof.  The reason?  Because he sees the Psalms as a full, clear, and beautiful revelation of our Savior Jesus Christ.

“Here more than anywhere else is the source of knowing the mind of Christ; for here, in the Book of Psalms… we hear our Savior Himself expressing His own inner life… We have in the four Gospels… objective descriptions of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ recorded by people who were eye witnesses… In the book of Psalms – not in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John – as it is in the psalms that we actually hear [Christ] tell about it.”

I’ve mentioned before (HERE) how as Christians, we understand Christ to be the primary singer of the psalms.  It is through Him, and in union with Him, that we sing the psalms.  Jesus enables us to sing the psalms.

Rev. G. I. Williamson has taught me many things; one of the most precious is to love and cherish the psalms.  This sermon masterfully encapsulates his lifetime of love for the psalms into a powerful 32 minutes.  Please listen to this sermon.  I can’t imagine anyone listening to this sermon and still “getting bored” by singing the psalms.  I can’t imagine anyone listening to this sermon and still only singing the psalms “because they had to.”

Christ is the key to singing the psalms with gusto, faith, and fervor.  And as always, Rev. Williamson excels at pointing to Christ.  So here’s the sermon:

“THE MIND OF CHRIST” by Rev. G. I. Williamson

The sermon has some great illustrations and personal stories, but the one that really got me was when Rev. Williamson described his wife feeling somewhat down over a book she was reading.  She was reading a book detailing “the victorious Christian life” from the “feel-good,” prosperity side of the tracks.  She almost despaired, because she looked at her life and realized, “that’s not me.”  The description of the always happy, always perfect “Christian” life did not line up with the reality she felt.  So Rev. Williamson simply said, “Let’s read some psalms.”  After reading a handful of psalms, Rev. and Mrs. Williamson agreed, “Now that’s me.”  The psalms perfectly describe our lives in Christ – in all our joys, woes, highs, and lows – precisely because they are the songs of Christ and we are in Him.

So please listen to this sermon, take it to heart, pray that we might always see Christ and through and in Him sing the psalms and through and in Him see ourselves in the psalms.

-JDO

Psalm 58: The Righteous Will Rejoice

by James D. Oord & Michael R. Kearney

Pop Quiz:

  • Quick!  Name some comforting psalms.  If I was a betting man, I’d put my money on Psalms 23 and 103 as the first to come to your mind.
  • Quick!  Name some sources of Christian comfort.  Let me guess: God’s love, faithfulness, and providence; the doctrines of divine election, the covenant, and the preservation of the saints; the promises of the Gospel.

Did anyone think of Psalm 58 as a comforting psalm?  Did anyone list God’s judgment as a source of Christian comfort?

Probably not.  If someone were to say, “A great source of comfort to me is the knowledge that my enemies will dissolve into slime like a dying snail,” I would be greatly shocked and probably consider finding some new friends.

But, that is what David says in Psalm 58.  The snail bit is found in the eighth verse.

We’ve mentioned Psalm 58 before and we’ve talked about the Christian’s proper use of imprecatory psalms (psalms that call down curses on the singer’s enemies) when we shared some thoughts from puritan pastor William Gurnall (read that post HERE).

But seriously, is there really a place for the reading and singing of Psalm 58 in the Christian life and worship?

I suppose the first answer to that question would be: praise God that you don’t have more occasion to sing this psalm!  If you don’t initially relate to the sentiment of Psalm 58, that means that you live a relatively easy life, in a country with a tolerant and permissive government.

But there are many places in the world and many times in history where such was not the case.  The church has faced and will continue to face times of intense persecution.  There have been and there will continue to be times of great injustice.  And it is in those times that Psalm 58 is indeed a source of comfort.

The ESV Study Bible helpfully divides Psalm 58 into four stanzas:

  1. The challenge to the tyrants (verses 1-2)
  2. The charge against the tyrants (verses 3-5)
  3. The curse upon the tyrants (verses 6-9)
  4. The celebration when God judges the tyrants (verses 10-11)

A quick note about verse 1: as in Psalm 82, the reference to “gods” in this psalm refers to the powerful rulers of this earth.  That’s why some translations and versifications might say “princes” or “judges.”  So when David sarcastically asks the “gods,” “Do you indeed decree what is right… do you judge the children of man uprightly?” (verse 1), he is addressing a situation in which the mighty of the earth have established a pattern of injustice, unrighteousness, and oppression.

In verses 3-5, David accuses such rulers of belonging “to their father, the devil,” (John 8:33), ascribing to them characteristics of serpents, the very form Satan took in Genesis 3.  They have such hard hearts that they are as snakes that pay no attention to a charmer (verses 4-5).  They are beyond listening to reason, serving only themselves and their immoral desires.

And so David calls down the vivid curses of verses 6-9.  And then he goes so far as to rejoice in their downfall, extending his celebration to the entire congregation of the righteous: “The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.”

To our “cultivated” minds, this might seem barbaric and horrifying.  But think about it: David is saying that good will win.  No matter how oppressed the church may be, no matter how much the wicked may seem to prosper, God will judge the earth.  God and His Word will be vindicated.  He will receive all the glory.  And in that fact, there is great comfort for a persecuted church!

If you’re still having trouble with Psalm 58, take some time to read Psalm 73 as well.  Psalm 73 speaks of the same feeling: we look around at the world and sometimes, we can’t help but despair.  We see the prosperity of the wicked and the trouble of the church.  In Psalm 73, Asaph is in a depressed funk until “I went to the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.”  Meditating on the final judgment of God, the final vindication of righteousness, brings peace to the heart of the troubled Christian.

We know that in the end, when the world sees the justice of God, then all will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth” (verse 11).  In other words, “Let us not grow weary of doing good,” (Galatians 6:9), for we know that in the end, “every knee shall bow… and every tongue confess to God” (Romans 14:11).  It is only after the bloody fall of Babylon in Revelation 18 that the hallelujah chorus of Revelation 19 breaks out.

So Psalm 58 invites us to have patience under persecution, to take comfort in the justice and judgment of God.  Why?  Because we know that that judgement – all the curses of Psalm 58 and the rest of the Bible – was borne for us by Christ.  We, too, were children of the devil, deserving of all of this curse.  But now, because that curse was carried for us, we know that when that last trumpet shall sound we will in Christ be found.  So we need not fear the judgment.  Rather, we look forward to it, knowing that finally God will be ultimately vindicated and glorified.  All persecution and war and strife shall cease.  Wickedness will be punished and we can celebrate the end of sin forever.  If we are in Christ, we can sing and rejoice along with David in Psalm 58.

–JDO

106, “Do Ye, O Men, Speak Righteousness”

The primary word that comes to mind as I evaluate this versification of Psalm 58 in the Psalter Hymnal is “dull.”  The creators of the 1912 Psalter, for whatever reason, chose to soften the message of this fierce imprecatory psalm to an almost unrecognizable extent.  One can tell from its very brevity that much of the meat of Psalm 58 has been omitted from this setting.  Since the blue Psalter Hymnal contains no other settings of Psalm 58, our options are limited; still, I hope to see a new (or thoroughly revised) versification of this text in the new URC Psalter Hymnal.

The tune, SWANWICK, is just as unsuitable as the text.  Its lilting matter-of-fact melody line and awkward repeat encumber the already struggling lyrics.  A variety of alternative tunes could be implemented here; I tend to favor something in the vein of NORTHSIDE (number 68).  Without a doubt, Psalm 58 is one of the hardest psalms to set to music; however, the version in the Psalter Hymnal could still be much improved.

–MRK

B. F. Skinner on Church Music

If you fell out of your seat when you read that title, I can’t blame you.  The notorious psychologist, behaviorist, and social philosopher B. F. Skinner was not a Christian and certainly not Reformed.  But in order to explain this subject line I’ll need to provide a bit of background information first.

For my world-views course I recently had to read Skinner’s 1948 book Walden Two, which outlines the structure of a utopian society right here in America (obviously a fictional one).  The central tenet of the Walden Two society is behavioral engineering: control the inhabitants through their education and environment, thought Skinner, and they will be peaceful and happy.

Since Skinner’s central belief is erroneous to the core—human nature will always be sinful, regardless of social circumstances—I didn’t seriously consider any of his suggested steps to utopia during my study of Walden Two.  But I was particularly jolted when I came across this passage, in which the fictional society’s founder Frazier explains to his guests how religion is incorporated into Walden Two:

‘We’ve borrowed some of the practices of organized religion—to inspire group loyalty and strengthen the observance of the Code.  I believe I’ve mentioned our Sunday meetings.  There’s usually some sort of music, sometimes religious.  And a philosophical, poetic, or religious work is read or acted out.…Then there’s a brief “lesson”—of the utmost importance in maintaining an observance of the Code.  Usually items are chosen for discussion which deal with self-control and certain kinds of social articulation.

‘There’s nothing spurious about this—it’s not an imitation church service, and our members aren’t fooled.  The music serves the same purpose as in a church—it makes the service enjoyable and establishes a mood.  The weekly lesson is a sort of group therapy.  And it seems to be all we need.’

–B. F. Skinner, Walden Two, Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., Inc., 2005, pp. 185, 186.

This passage is pregnant with assumptions, and I found myself pondering some of them.  Do we treat the music of the church as nothing more than entertainment?  Is it there only to make the service enjoyable and establish a mood, as Skinner suggests?  Sadly, I fear that we can trace this philosophy in the worship practices of many “Christian” churches today.  “Acting out” a philosophical, religious, or poetic work in the service, including a “brief lesson” to encourage morality, treating worship as merely “group therapy”—these practices are often evident in contemporary churches, sad symptoms of a man-centered rather than God-centered view of worship.

Whatever the value of his humanistic social philosophy, Skinner’s suggestions can teach us an important lesson.  In Reformed worship, as well as all Christian worship, we should strive to avoid the mentality he outlines here.  Music is a part of the service because God has commanded us to worship him through song.  Our “mood” should flow forth from the glorious truth of the gospel which we hear each Lord’s day, not from the psychological effects of stirring music.  Congregational song is part of our grateful duty to God, not a means of entertainment.

B. F. Skinner’s notions about worship music are unfortunate.  But they are downright shameful if he derived them from his own observations in the Christian church.  If that’s the case, perhaps we share the blame.

–MRK

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,

–JDO/MRK


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