Sing a New Song: Summary Thoughts

It was during this past summer that Jim and I became aware of a new and particularly well-acclaimed book on psalmody, entitled Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).  This collection of essays from prominent Reformed scholars, edited by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio, evaluates various aspects of psalm-singing—its history, its biblical warrant, and its pastoral importance.  With excitement we both obtained copies of Sing a New Song and began reading it in parallel.

Soon we realized that this would be an excellent book to discuss in depth on URC Psalmody.  For the first chapter we tried a new interview-style post format, which worked so well that we continued it through the rest of the book.  At one point we were providentially able to produce a video version of one of these interviews (Chapter 8), filmed on the campus of Mid-America Reformed Seminary!

Our weekly discussions on Sing a New Song spanned the fall of 2012; we just completed the very last chapter last Thursday.  It’s been a fascinating, fun, and educational few months; I truly hope you’ve enjoyed these studies as much as we have.  As we look back on the main points of Sing a New Song, I thought I would attempt to summarize the highlights of each chapter.

We began by discussing Chapter 1, “From Cassian to Cranmer,” by Hughes Oliphant Old and Robert Cathcart.  Using well-chosen examples of ancient monastic piety, the authors showed that the psalms are matchless as material for daily devotions.  Whether they’re used in a personal morning and evening routine, a time of family prayer, or a weekday church gathering, the psalms ought to be learned and appreciated for their relevance to all of life.

Picking up from the point where Chapter 1 left off, Joel Beeke traced the practice of “Psalm-Singing in Calvin in the Puritans” in Chapter 2.  From the examples of John Calvin and the Puritans, Beeke provided great insight into the many benefits of psalm-singing.  Among these, psalm-singing is a profound source of comfort for the believer; it encourages us to cultivate Christian piety; and it is a powerful means by which we can glorify God from the heart.

Terry Johnson widened the lens in Chapter 3, “The History of Psalmody,” which traced the story of psalm-singing from the time of the early church right up to the present day.  Reflecting on this progression, Jim and I explored the possibility that the current “worship wars” in the Christian church are actually the result of psalmody’s decline.  If that’s the case, I said, “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!”

One of my favorite discussions dealt with Chapter 4, “Psalters, Hymnals, Worship Wars, and American Presbyterian Piety.”  Jim and I talked about the work of three surpassingly influential hymnwriters of the 18th and 19th centuries: Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and Horatius Bonar.  As we reflected on the effects of these popular worship songs, Jim said, “There’s no doubt that our churches today are still reeling from the effects of experience-based, me-focused, results-oriented forms of Christianity.  And those ways of thinking creep in through music.  Catchy, memorable, beautiful songs are the quickest way to spread ideas.  That’s precisely why we at URC Psalmody, like [chapter author D. G.] Hart, are so passionate about a return to psalm-singing (if not exclusively, at least primarily).  More importantly, we need to love the psalms.  Wouldn’t it be great if a love for the psalms could spread in the same way as a love for Wesley’s experiential hymnody?”

In Chapter 5, “Psalm Singing and Scripture,” Rowland S. Ward skillfully guided us through a tour of the Scriptural bases for psalm-singing.  Personally, I must admit that this chapter drastically altered my view of the relationship between psalms and hymns.  “Honestly,” I said, “Ward’s excellent biblical analysis was like a bucket of cold water in the face.  It dawned on me as never before that the Psalms—not hymns—are the origin, the pattern, the very basis of congregational singing.  What a change in perspective!”

“The Hymns of Christ: The Old Testament Formation of the New Testament Hymnal,” Chapter 6 by Michael LeFebvre, examined the progressive history of the Book of Psalms during the Old Testament period.  Central to LeFebvre’s explanation was the idea that all of the psalms—not just scattered messianic prophecies—point to Christ.  As Jim summarized it, “This was a carefully chosen, precisely organized hymnal put together with the sole purpose of preparing the way for Jesus, the coming heir to the Davidic throne.”

David Murray devoted the Chapter 7, “Christian Cursing?” to the difficult topic of imprecatory psalms.  Pastorally and practically, Murray debunked several erroneous views of these songs and provided a gospel-centered perspective on how to view and sing them.  “In closing,” we said, “perhaps we can summarize the Christian’s proper response to the imprecatory psalms in one word: Maranatha—Lord, come quickly.”

With Chapter 8, URC Psalmody broke ground in the area of a new form of media: a video discussion.  While on the campus of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Jim and I discussed Malcolm Watt’s daunting essay, entitled “The Case for Psalmody, with Some Reference to the Psalter’s Sufficiency for Christian Worship.”  This chapter probably presented the most overt exclusive-psalmist arguments in Sing a New Song, but we attempted to show that all Christians, regardless of their views of uninspired hymns, can apply its truths to their worship.

Next came Chapter 9, entitled “Psalm Singing and Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics” and written by Anthony Selvaggio, who skillfully explored the relationship between the psalms and Biblical history as set forth by the great Reformed theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949).  Singing the psalms keeps our focus on the mighty acts of God, saturates us with a Biblical understanding of the last times, reminds us of the unity of God’s plan of history, and enables us to see the glory of Christ in new ways.  As Jim put it, “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?”

In the penultimate Chapter 10, Derek W. H. Thomas set forth the themes of the psalms as a guide for pastoral theology.  Thomas said, “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.”

Finally, in Chapter 11, J. V. Fesko interpreted the psalms as an “all-season school of prayer.”  Jim and I discussed the erroneous notions of worship so prevalent in today’s churches, contemplated the problem of not knowing how to pray, and examined Fesko’s concluding “action points”: We need to understand the proper role of congregational singing, sing the psalms with Christ as their center, and use the psalms as the groundwork for our own private worship.  In a piercing final query, Fesko asked, “If we do not know how to pray, could it be that we know not because we sing not the Psalms?”

It’s probably an understatement (and I think Jim would agree with me) to say that we both learned a lot from Sing a New Song.  Summarizing the entire theme of this little book is easy in some ways, yet surprisingly difficult in others.  I suppose I’d put it this way:

We are sinful human beings called to worship a thrice-holy God.  Even our best attempts at worship are pitiful.  Using the latest worship styles in a Sunday service won’t make worshippers’ experiences more real, nor will following the most popular devotional plan cause us to grow by leaps and bounds in our personal walk with the Lord.  But we do have access to one immeasurably important resource—a divinely-inspired collection of songs, prayers, lessons, and devotional material.  This book can help to ensure that our worship remains faithful to God’s commands.  It can give voice to our joys and provide relief for our sorrows.  It can more clearly reveal our Savior and teach us to be more like Him.  It’s called the Book of Psalms.


(Links to the entire series are now available on our Sing a New Song page.)

2 Responses to “Sing a New Song: Summary Thoughts”

  1. 1 Randy December 14, 2012 at 8:15 am

    As I’m new to your blog, I appreciated your article as it summarized the last year of posts. Thanks.

    • 2 Michael Kearney December 14, 2012 at 11:43 am

      It’s always been one of my blogging pet peeves that old posts sink into the mire of oblivion too quickly. We try to keep that from happening! Check back at the end of this year too–I hope to spend a few blog posts looking back at some more of our favorite (and readers’ favorite) articles from the year 2012.



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