Sing a New Song, Chapter 9: Redemptive-Historical Psalm-Singing

Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) is a well-revered name in Reformed biblical theology.  His greatest contribution was the redemptive-historical concept of studying the Scriptures, tracing the growth, development, and unity of the plan of salvation throughout history.  His teaching thus does much to show how the entire Bible is not a disparate collection of stories, but one unified tale of the salvation of God’s people, centered on Christ.  In Chapter 9 of Sing a New Song, entitled “Psalm Singing and Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics,” Anthony Selvaggio looks at one of Vos’s lesser-known articles, “Eschatology of the Psalter.”  We’ll be evaluating Selvaggio’s chapter as part of our ongoing series on Sing a New Song.

At the very beginning, Selvaggio acknowledges that psalm-singing and the redemptive-historical approach might seem to be mutually exclusive.  Not so! he claims. In simpler terms, Selvaggio’s point is to show that psalm-singing wasn’t just for the Old Testament people of Israel—it’s equally applicable for the Christian church today.  After summarizing and unpacking Vos’s essay, Selvaggio argues that the singing of psalms is a remarkably redemptive-historic and Christ-centered enterprise.

As we begin discussing this chapter, Selvaggio’s theological language may seem a bit daunting.  But it’s important to realize that tough words like “eschatology” and “soteriology” have quite simple definitions.  Eschatology is the study of the last things (the second coming of Christ, the end of the world, &c.), covering not just Revelation but the teachings of the entire Bible.  Soteriology is the study of salvation, from justification to sanctification to glorification, and so forth.

MRK: Vos’s article referenced by Selvaggio begins with a comment about the practice of printing New Testaments with the book of Psalms at the end.  Vos’s point isn’t to comment on the ordering of the canon of scripture; he merely wishes to point out “that the book of Revelation and the Psalms have much more in common than we might at first think,” as Selvaggio says (p. 150).

Vos was concerned about the low view of the psalms as mere devotional material prevalent in his day; his thoughts still ring true these many decades years later.  In powerful language, he writes that he desires to “shake us out of this habit and force us to take a look at the Psalter’s second face.”  Hence his thesis, as summarized by Selvaggio: “that the theology of the Psalter is predominantly eschatological [pertaining to the end times] in nature.”  This focus shapes the rest of Vos’s article on psalmody, which is divided into six main points.

JDO: Vos’s first point concerns what Selvaggio calls the “Subjective/Objective Dynamic.”  The Psalms are a heartfelt, personal way for God’s people to react to the facts of his work in history.  And just as God’s purpose is expanded and clarified as time goes by, the psalms themselves develop and become more specific and pointed.  The common thread in all the psalms is a looking forward to the future coming of Christ.

MRK: Vos also points to the “dynamic/static” pattern within the psalms.  God’s mighty acts of redemption, condemnation, and consummation are “intrusive, violent, and disruptive” events in history, while the eternal state of the Christian is peaceful rest in God’s presence.  Both concepts are thoroughly present in the Psalter, because the dynamic break-ins of God allow for the static peace of his people.

JDO: The Psalms also serve as a teaching tool for God’s people, according to Vos.  The psalms teach us how to live appropriately in light of the future (eschatology).  The psalms give us confidence, not fear; expectation, not ignorance; and a model for living godly in this age, not focusing too heavily on merely the present or the future.  In short, the psalms balance and temper our view of eschatology.

MRK: As someone who’s beheld both short-sighted worldliness and what Selvaggio calls “end-times silliness” in various churches, I can especially relate to the importance of the Psalter as a tempering tool.

Vos’s fourth point is also particularly relevant to our discussions here on URC Psalmody: the Psalter powerfully attests to our fundamental unity with the nation of Israel, the church of the Old Testament. Whereas Biblical prophecy states this connection objectively, the psalms allow us to realize it subjectively.  As Selvaggio summarizes it, “Because of the Psalter’s eschatological limberness, it transcends the limitations of the old covenant” (p. 153).

JDO: Fifth is another point we often discuss: the Messianic element in the psalms.  “The Psalter forces the saints of both [testaments] to recognize their mutual dependence on the redemptive work of the Messiah” (p. 154).

MRK: Vos’s sixth point is kind of a “three-in-one” deal: he mentions the Psalter’s use of history as a basis for its view of the end-times, its central focus on God, and its emphasis on the coming kingdom.  All three of these elements testify to the Psalter’s appropriateness for God’s people in every age.

JDO:  After summarizing Vos’s main ideas, Selvaggio goes on to discuss how they affect our singing of the Psalter.  As we just mentioned above, he wants to make it abundantly clear that singing the psalms does not make us out-of-touch with our present, post-Christ place in redemptive history.  The Psalms are not locked into their Old Testament setting; rather, they are able to bring us “an actual redemptive-historical advantage” (p. 155).  Selvaggio lists four specific ways this advantage plays out:

1.  Singing the psalms keeps our focus on the mighty acts of God.

MRK: The subjective experience of our faith only has its proper place as a result (a derivative, Selvaggio calls it) of the objective truth of God’s work of salvation.  And, consequently, “the Psalms remind us that our faith is about God, not about us” (p. 156).

Advocates of traditional hymnody often complain about the frequent use of first-person pronouns (I, me, my) in looser hymns and contemporary Christian music.  While this is often true, I’d like to clarify that this shouldn’t be our measuring line for a hymn’s quality.  After all, Selvaggio admits that the Psalter itself is “rife” with references to the singer.  We would do better to evaluate such songs in light of the overall themes of the psalms.  Do the words focus on the mighty acts of God, or merely the subjective reaction of the singer?  Are they sung for the glory of God or for self-encouragement?

JDO:  Yes.  There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the things God has done for you personally, even within corporate worship.  However, there is something wrong with doing it in a way that makes the song self-centered.  The psalms provide a model of songs perfectly balanced between subjectivity and objectivity.  So we ought to sing the psalms, and also use them as a template by which to ensure that our hymns are properly God-focused even when personally specific.

MRK:  Oddly enough, out-of-context passages from the psalms are often used as the basis for this kind of man-centered singing.  One might think of the popular chorus that goes like this:

I will enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart,
I will enter his courts with praise;
I will say, ‘This is the day that the Lord has made,’
I will rejoice and be exceeding glad.

Yes, this is a passage from Psalm 118, and yes, it contains plenteous personal pronouns.  But without providing a context for these words, this song becomes focused on self rather than God.  The solution here is simple—don’t take random snippets from the psalms!  After all, Psalm 118 begins and ends with the command to “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”

As Selvaggio summarizes, “the difference in the Psalms is that the subjective experience and response of the believer is always inextricably connected to, and subordinated to, the objective actions of God.  Psalm singers are equipped to be better able to maintain their theological equilibrium in this regard.  The psalm singer is compelled to keep the proper balance between God’s mighty acts and our worshipful response.”

2.  Singing the psalms saturates us with biblical eschatology.

JDO: As we mentioned above, “the psalms serve as a helpful corrective to [a] skewed mentality regarding the role of eschatology in our lives.”  Eschatology is all about looking ahead to the continuing work of God in this world.  “The Psalms hold before our eyes the reality that God has intruded, and will intrude, into history in cataclysmic ways, ultimately yielding everlasting peace and rest for His people” (p. 157).  Psalm-singing attunes us to these events in the past and excites us for the continuing works to come.

MRK: It’s interesting to note that few hymns treat Christ’s second coming in much meaningful depth.  Often they stop at the mere declaration that he is coming again—as if that were all we need to know.  That’s not to say we can’t sing such hymns; but we should recognize that the psalms go dramatically further and deeper into the plans that God has made for those that love him.  We need only read Psalm 16 or 17 to see that.

JDO:  Vos’s comments on the oft-referenced “new song” passages are also interesting.  He writes that the “new songs” commanded to be sung in the psalms are new not in content but in context: our songs are in response to new acts of salvation.  We sing the same psalms and hymns in fresh new ways in response to fresh new works that God is carrying out in our hearts.

3.  Singing the psalms reminds us of the unity of God’s people and plan.

MRK: I appreciated this point so much, I’ll just quote Selvaggio.  “The Old Testament is not about a different God who made different promises.  The Old Testament is also not about an entirely different church with entirely different salvific hopes and expectations.  Simply put, the old covenant saints are not so different from us.  Their hopes are our hopes.  Their longings are our longings” (p. 158).  Viewing the Bible from this perspective gives us a balanced and complete view of salvation history, and singing the Psalms enables us to realize that connection more fully.

4.  Singing the psalms enables us to see the glory of Christ in new ways.

JDO: Fourthly, finally, and most importantly, Selvaggio draws our attention to something we’ve stressed several times: singing the psalms grants us a special glimpse into the mind of Christ, our Messiah (as G. I. Williamson preached in a memorable sermon).  This is not limited to the messianic psalms like 2 or 110.  The entire book of psalms allows us to “grasp the innermost thoughts of the Messiah” (p. 159).  Vos wrote, “Our Lord Himself found His inner life portrayed in the Psalter.”

MRK:  In conclusion, Selvaggio returns to his opening challenge: Are the psalms compatible with a redemptive-historical view of the Scriptures?  His answer: Absolutely!  The Bible itself attests to this truth over and over.  As a single example, “Christ’s use of the Psalms at the first celebration of the Lord’s Supper demonstrates that the Psalter was constructed to be enduring and relevant.…This means the church can continue to sing them in a redemptive-historical manner in our own age” (pp. 160, 161.)

JDO:  The psalms are just as relevant to us today as they were to David when he wrote them, and as they were to the Old Testament church when they sang them.  What more could we desire in a songbook?  Vos writes,

Hence the Psalter has been at all times that part of Scripture to which believers have most readily turned and upon which they have chiefly depended for the nourishment of the inner religious life of the heart…[T]here is nothing in Holy Writ which in our most spiritual moments—when we feel ourselves nearest to God—so faithfully and naturally expresses what we think and feel in our hearts as these songs of the pious Israelites (p. 161).

Next time: Chapter 10, “Psalm Singing and Pastoral Theology,” by Derek W. H. Thomas.

Until then,

–JDO/MRK

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