(The following is continued from an adaptation of a Sunday school class I led at the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, NY, on May 24, 2015.)
We’ve already worked through the question of why Christians should sing. If we view congregational singing as the grateful offering of redeemed sinners before a holy God, we should also carefully consider what to sing. Simply put, we should strive to make sure we worship God the way he desires to be worshiped.
In preparation for this class I took a peek inside the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s Directory for Public Worship to learn how your church regulates its worship services. There I found these guidelines: songs should be “for the praise and glory of God and the building up of the saints,” they should “befit the nature of God and the purpose of worship,” and they should be “fully in accord with the Scriptures.”
Now while most Reformed Christians (and, indeed, Christians in general) would agree that these are good requirements, they have long disagreed about which songs best fit them. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) encourages the use of both psalms and hymns (that is, any songs from outside or from other portions of Scripture) in worship services. However, with the decision to produce a complete Psalter Hymnal in collaboration with the United Reformed Churches in North America, the OPC took one step further. In so doing it affirmed that all of the psalms (not just some of the psalms) are appropriate for Christians to sing, and that their nature and purpose are distinct from those of uninspired hymns.
I heartily agree with this position. And while I’m not here to argue that the psalms should be sung exclusively, I do want to spend the rest of this class outlining how the Book of Psalms is supremely suitable and helpful for Christian worship. In particular, there are three primary ways in which psalm-singing offers a fuller and richer experience than hymn-singing.
First, when we sing psalms we sing the inspired Word of God itself (though usually adapted to fit a rhymed metrical pattern). You can’t get more “in accord with the Scriptures” than the Scriptures themselves! As long as the translators and versifiers have done their job well, we never have to worry about singing psalms that promote false doctrine. Psalm-singing immerses us in the Word of God to an extent that hymns do not.
Second, when we sing psalms we sing in unison with the church of all ages. As we saw earlier, Christian worship participates in the one cosmic song of redemption, “the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.” In Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, Andrew Bonar writes, “The Psalms are for all ages alike—not more for David than for us. Even as the cry, ‘It is finished!’ though first heard by the ear of John and the women from Galilee, who stood at the cross, was not meant for them more truly than for us; so with the Psalms.”
Even though the psalms were written thousands of years ago, through the Holy Spirit they speak to believers today just as powerfully as they did then. In fact, aspects of some psalms still remain unfulfilled—for instance, the prophecies about the blessings of the Messiah’s reign over all the earth in Psalm 72. We find that we must sing the psalms with the same eyes of faith as our forefathers did.
Third, when we sing psalms we sing not just to Jesus and about Jesus, as we do with hymns, we also sing with Jesus (a distinction helpfully brought out in David Murray’s book Jesus on Every Page). Opponents of psalm-singing often argue that as part of the Old Testament, the psalms fail to incorporate the revelation of the person and work of Jesus. But while there are two testaments, there is only one redemptive story, and Christ is at its center. Murray and others have made a convincing case for reading the psalms as they would have been sung by Jesus himself.
As an example of singing the psalms with Jesus, look at Psalm 22. The opening words of this psalm should be familiar to all of us: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They were, of course, spoken by Jesus as he hung on the cross. But look at the last verse of this psalm: “They shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.” Some theologians have suggested that this last phrase could also be translated, “It is finished.” From beginning to end, Psalm 22 reflects the thoughts and words of Jesus as he suffered for our sins. In that sense, we see this psalm as being sung by him! This becomes even more awe-inspiring when we see Jesus singing about us in the second half of this psalm: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (v. 27). With this perspective, isn’t it an incredibly rich and rewarding experience to study and sing this psalm?
As we close, I’d simply like to ask you to learn to love the psalms God has provided for us in his Word. Learn to love reading them, studying them, seeing Christ in them, and singing them. Learn to let this book shape your expressions of praise and gratitude to God. Individually and as a church body, you will find that the psalms nourish and strengthen your spiritual walk as a result.