Sing a New Song, Chapter 10: Setting the Soul in Tune

“I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately,” said John Calvin famously of the psalms, “‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul.’”  Through our discussions of Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century over the past several weeks, we’ve seen that the psalms are God’s inspired songbook for his people, why they should be sung in corporate worship, and how they should shape our understanding of Scripture.  Today’s chapter, however, has a different focus.  Diving directly into the soul of the psalms, Chapter 10 by Derek W. H. Thomas explores the relationship between “Psalm Singing and Pastoral Theology.”  Commenting on Calvin’s above description of the psalms, Thomas explains, “Many of the psalms are written from the first-person perspective.  They are, therefore, highly personal, and we read them as descriptive of our own spiritual journey.  They speak of highs and lows, covering the entire range of human experiences—even some that we might find uncomfortable” (p. 162).

MRK: With this understanding of the personal component of the Psalter, can we gain any insight into why the psalms are so seldom sung in today’s churches?

JDO: In his book The Wages of Spin, referenced here in Sing a New Song, Carl Trueman points to our modern culture’s desire for constant happiness.  In today’s “health, wealth, and happiness society,” to admit to feelings of despair, torment, brokenness, and sadness would be “tantamount to admitting that one has failed.”  Our culture is obsessed with a trouble-free, pleasure-driven life.  Sadly, our churches have been influenced by that thinking.  We repress our sense of brokenness and ignore spiritual malaise.  Since we certainly don’t want to talk about such things in church, we naturally gravitate to “feel-good” worship.  I think Trueman and Thomas are right in their diagnosis: the psalms become exceedingly “uncomfortable” amidst our general desire for worship to be cloyingly “happy.”  For the Psalms are real.  They deal with all the mess of human life and spirituality with no holds barred.

MRK: Says Thomas, “Without a regular familiarity with the Psalms in the liturgy of public worship, many Christians find themselves at odds with their experience of what the Christian life means to them.”  In our “frequently too exclusively positive and upbeat” worship culture, a dangerous crevasse develops between what we sing about and how we feel.  “This often leads to cynicism, a loss of assurance, a schizophrenic experience of Christianity, and experiences of guilt that find little or no resolution” (p. 163).

JDO: Churches oriented only toward the “positive and upbeat” pave the way for drastic alienation.  Suppose I’ve had a tough week.  Maybe I’m depressed, or maybe I’ve been persistently hounded by my own sins and temptations and the forces of evil.  Where can I fit in amidst all the disgusting saccharine sweetness in this kind of worship?  The psalms, I think, serve to ground the worship of the church in reality.  There are explosive psalms of praise, but there are also laments.  There are psalms of quiet peace as well as battle cries. The psalms contain something for everyone, regardless of an individual’s situation.

Psalm 23, probably the most familiar psalm, is a case in point.  It’s personal (notice the use of “my” in verse 1), pastoral (the very fact that we use the word “pastoral” to describe the work of the church points to shepherd imagery), and realistic.  Life is full of both green pastures and valleys of the shadow of death.  We’re called to feast at the table of Christ, but we must often do so in the presence of our enemies.  This psalm is not just sentimental feel-goodery; the comfort it gives is grounded in the reality of the Christian struggle.

MRK: Incidentally, I’d like to point out that Psalm 23 must be taken as a whole if it is to impart this genuine comfort.  If its references to the “valley of the shadow of death” and the “presence of my enemies” are removed, it too becomes saccharine, unsubstantial—and void of reassurance for the anxious Christian.  This happens to be a great reason to sing entire psalm versifications as opposed to “hunt-and-peck” paraphrases, but the main point is that we must realize the uncomfortable sincerity of the psalms in order to truly benefit from them.

JDO: The benefit of the psalms is that “they address us at points of need and, more importantly, points of failure,” as Thomas points out (p. 164).

MRK: At this point, Thomas takes a moment to address the clear “elephant in the room” when it comes to discussions about psalmody: imprecatory psalms.  We’ve treated this topic several times before here on URC Psalmody, so we won’t delve into too much detail here.  Suffice it to say, however, that the imprecatory psalms should form a critical part of our worship, because “every Christian has experienced to some degree or other an example of terrible injustice; in such circumstances, the desire for the wrong to be right must form the basic language of Christian piety and worship.  If it does not, serious pastoral problems ensue that are as difficult as the imprecatory desires” (p. 166).

JDO: The imprecatory psalms provide a model for what to do with the boiling, pent-up feelings that all of us have over injustice and sin. Our response should be the natural recourse of the Christian: taking them to God in prayer.  We don’t just pray when we’re happy, or when we “feel like it,” or when we have our scheduled devotional time.  The psalms teach us to go to God with every feeling, emotion, and situation, drawing us away from bland prayers and teaching us to pray realistically.

MRK: As I read through the psalms, I’ve sometimes been a little shocked by the sheer number of laments. “Why are they here? Why are there so many of them?”  Thus, I especially appreciated the fact that Thomas takes time here to explain the benefit of psalms of lamentation.  In a nutshell, he says, “Because so many psalms fall into the category of lamentation, their use as pastoral guides and templates is particularly fitting.…Such psalms evoke an emotional response that opens the door to some tough questions” (p. 167).  The psalmists never shy away from saying exactly what’s on their minds–questions like “Does life make sense? Is there any real purpose to my pain? Why must every relationship end? Is God good?”

JDO: Unless we are remarkably self-deceived, these are the sorts of questions that we and every single human being will face, constantly and repeatedly.  Instead of denying ourselves the opportunity of wrestling with these questions, instead of ignoring them, instead of answering them wrongly by ourselves, we ought to look to the psalms as templates for our journey through these unavoidable spiritual crises.

MRK: Now, as always, there’s the need for discernment.  Thomas points out that “such emotion-based use of the Psalms may result in an abuse in interpretation.”  Our understanding of the psalms must be framed within the understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence, the fallenness of man and nature, and the process of sanctification.  Nevertheless, the psalms were written and designed to function in some ways “as release valves for pent-up feelings.  They enable the worshiper to engage in, for example, the grief process in a way that honors the integrity of the psalm and a biblical anthropology.”

JDO: Thomas concludes his discussion of the lamentations by commenting on Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 while he was on the cross.  As Hebrews reminds us, Christ has gone through the worst that this earth has to offer.  What words did he use to express his feelings while in the darkest of all experiences?—the words of the psalms.  Following our Head, we too can find expression for our every experience in the words of the psalms.

MRK: In his last section, Thomas references Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s classic allegory of the Christian life, as an example of proper uses of the psalms in pastoral situations.  In every sort of illustration, Bunyan constantly relates Christian’s journey to the psalms, “dealing with issues of assurance, fear, bravery, courage, and faith.”  This, according to Thomas, “demonstrates how the Psalms, though written in specific contexts, can help us too in our own specific circumstances” (p. 171).  Bunyan himself, through the character Mr. Great-Heart, paints a beautiful picture of the role of lamentation in the believer’s life:

Mr. Fearing was one that played upon the bass.  He and his fellows sound the sackbut, whose notes are more doleful than the notes of other music are: though indeed, some say, the bass is the ground of music.  And for my part, I care not at all for that profession which begins not in heaviness of mind.  The first string that the musician usually touches is the bass, when he intends to put all in tune.  God also plays upon this string first, when he sets the soul in tune for himself.

In concluding our conversation on this chapter, we can do no better than to quote Thomas’s closing words:

The Psalms, then, are a portion of Scripture with which Christians should be familiar.  Digging from these mines will yield treasures of inestimable value.  Whatever the issue may be—loneliness, bitterness, helplessness, melancholy, anger, frustration, joy, contentment, faithfulness, or a hundred other issues—the Psalms address them all.  Calvin was correct: they are an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.

Amen!  One more chapter remains for us to discuss in Sing a New Song: “Psalmody and Prayer” by J. V. Fesko.  We hope you’ll join us next week for the grand finale!

–JDO/MRK

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1 Response to “Sing a New Song, Chapter 10: Setting the Soul in Tune”



  1. 1 Sing a New Song, Chapter 11: An Incomparable Treasure « URC Psalmody Trackback on December 6, 2012 at 6:25 am

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