Although it’s hard to believe, it was exactly three months ago that we began our chapter-by-chapter discussion of Reformation Heritage Books’s 2010 title Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio. Over the past thirteen weeks, despite a few interruptions, we’ve progressed steadily through the three thorough sections of this book: “Psalm Singing in History,” “Psalm Singing in Scripture,” and “Psalm Singing and the Twenty-First Century.” Today we’ve finally reached the end of Sing a New Song with Chapter 11, entitled “Psalmody and Prayer.”
JDO: J. V. Fesko wraps up this collection of essays with a contemplative chapter on the relationship between psalmody and prayer. He introduces his chapter by musing on the question, “Why do we sing in worship?” Our modern church culture, he muses, would answer that our music serves as entertainment and a way to keep visitors interested. Fesko challenges this entertainment-centric model of worship and posits an older, oft-ignored dimension of singing: our corporate music in worship serves as “a form of congregational prayer” (p. 173).
MRK: Succinctly, Fesko explains that his purpose is firstly to show the relationship between song and prayer; secondly to explore the Psalter as an all-season school of prayer; and finally to explain how psalm-singing teaches us both to worship and to pray.
The author to whom Fesko first turns is John Calvin, whose thoughts on the psalms are some of the richest in Reformed literature. According to Calvin, prayer is the means by which we confirm and receive the blessings God has promised us. He further shows that singing is our primary means of corporate prayer, as well as a means of edifying our fellow believers. How does this compare to the typical modern view of worship?
JDO: I think that the idea of singing as corporate prayer probably doesn’t enter into too many people’s minds. But singing is really one of the most convenient ways to get everyone saying the same thing at the same time. Fesko points out that many in churches today have an “individual” rather than a “corporate” view of what happens when we sing. One hears comments like, “Oh, I didn’t get anything out of that song,” or, “That style of music just doesn’t do it for me.” We approach the singing (if we think about it at all) hoping to get something out of it for ourselves. Very rarely is this corporate prayer element developed or even realized.
MRK: This is abundantly true. Worship is popularly viewed as either a service of works (“I’ve got to sing harder in order to please God”) or self-entertainment (“I’m not truly worshiping unless I’m happy”). Either way, the Christian church has missed the point: Singing is primarily a means by which we communicate with God, and as Fesko will go on to point out, we ought to do so in His language.
JDO: One of the Christian’s greatest needs throughout life according to Fesko is to know “how or what to pray in a given situation on circumstance” (p. 175). And just like children learn to speak and converse from their parents, we learn to pray by listening to God’s own Word and repeating it back to Him.
MRK: Fesko describes a wall that most Christians have experienced, and that most of us are, frankly, embarrassed to talk about: We struggle with finding the words to pray. Often under the false assumption that prayer should just come naturally to our sinful minds, we stumble through private prayer and shudder at the thought of praying in public. Add to this ineptitude the burden of affliction or temptation, and we often find our prayers reduced to a mere “Lord, please!” Many of us, I’m sure, are desperate to find a source for renewed strength in our prayer lives. But thanks be to God! Such a source does exist—right under our noses. Fesko describes it this way:
God has spoken to His children primarily through His Word, and so as His children, we learn to speak to God by repeating His own words back to Him. In doing so, we learn how to pray. In such Scripture-filled prayers, we learn how to speak to God using His words, dialect, and manner of speech, not the false, confused language of our sin-burdened hearts or of the idolatrous world around us. If we want to pray in all assurance and joy, then the Word of God must be our foundation in prayer as well as in our song-prayers. Through Jesus Christ and the Word, we learn how to pray and even how to sing. (p. 176)
Specifically, of course, Fesko points to the psalms as the “Prayer-Songbook of the Bible.” “Through a steady diet of the Psalms,” he says, “we can learn how to pray.”
JDO: Having introduced us to the importance of the psalms as a guide for prayer, Fesko proceeds to walk us through several key themes in the psalms, using the same outline as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic commentary on the Psalms, Prayerbook of the Bible. The three themes Fesko illuminates are (1) creation, (2) the suffering Messiah, and (3) our own suffering.
MRK: The first theme deals with another sticky matter pertaining to our prayer lives. One popular model for prayer is summarized by the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Now, I don’t know about you, Jim, but while the last three items flow readily, I often have tremendous trouble praying in adoration to God. Focusing on him rather than myself is extremely difficult for my sin-stained heart. The psalms can help to fix this, however! Fesko says, “Meditating upon and singing psalms about the creation can certainly tune our hearts not only to sing praises about God’s work of creation, but also fill our prayer lives with a wealth of things for which we can praise our Creator” (p. 177).
JDO: One method that’s been suggested to me is to use a notebook to jot down every name, metaphor, title, or characteristic that’s used to describe God as I read through the psalms, and then to pray my way through that list. This can easily keep the “adoration” part of my prayer from running dry, especially with psalms like Psalm 18 that just pile on the names of praise for God.
MRK: Right. As a side note, the Psalter Hymnal can help in this regard as well with its easily-memorized poetic expressions. For instance, we just sang #288 (Psalm 139, “Lord, Thou Hast Searched Me And Dost Know”) this past Sunday night, and the vivid expressions of the second stanza have stuck with me all week:
My words from Thee I cannot hide,
I feel thy power on every side;
O wondrous knowledge, awful might,
Unfathomed depth, unmeasured height!
Finally, our adoration of God remains closely connected to the other aspects of our prayer, because “if we praise God and reflect upon His wonderful work as Creator, we will inevitably be drawn to His outpouring of mercy in redemption.” All in all, Fesko points us to the recurring theme of this book: “We must remember when we read, pray, or sing the psalms, that they are primarily about Christ” (p. 178).
JDO: The second theme to help us in our prayers is “The Suffering Messiah.” Fesko draws our attention especially to Psalms 22 and 69, “the fifth gospel account of the crucifixion.” Singing and praying psalms that focus on Christ’s suffering rather than our own drives us “out of ourselves, away from the introspective gaze on our own souls.” Through such psalms “our faith looks extraspectively to Christ, His suffering, and His work on our behalf” (p. 179). Such a focus gives us hope and courage “in our own persecutions, great or small, for the sake of Christ.”
MRK: Indeed. Teaching us from the example of the suffering Messiah, the psalms allow us to pray “for our deliverance from persecution in a God-honoring way.”
In the third theme, Fesko points to a topic we discussed at length last week in Chapter 10. He says, “Intense personal suffering is something with which many in the church are intimately familiar. But the problem with many contemporary forms of worship music is that there is no place given for an expression of such suffering.” The psalms are the solution here too. Many of the psalmists endured suffering in doses of which we can’t even conceive. Yet “the Psalter knows nothing of trite answers but instead offers shelter beneath the mighty wings of God in Christ” (p. 180).
JDO: Many modern Christians assume that suffering means we’ve failed at “living right.” Suffering means we need a vacation, a pill, or a shopping trip.
MRK: Or—another popular catch-all phrase to explain away suffering—“Well, you must have some unconfessed sin in your life!” This isn’t at all the proper view of affliction, nor is it the view expressed in the psalms.
JDO: Suffering is what shapes us. A life without suffering is a life without sanctification. Suffering drives us again and again to our Lord, as we “admit we are unable to carry the burden and cast it upon Christ.”
MRK: After this helpful journey through some of the spiritual riches of the psalms, Fesko concludes this final chapter with a few practical thoughts on psalm-singing. These statements are so important, I wish we could broadcast them in ticker tape across the home page of URC Psalmody.
First, “Pastors and elders should make a concerted effort to explain what congregational singing is. Most every church sings in worship, but few actually understand why they sing” (p. 181). We need to start by understanding the importance of singing as prayer; this will lead to a greater appreciation of the words and less focus on how much the music “moves” us. Reflecting on his own spiritual walk, Augustine wrote that he was properly affected “not by the change but by the words being sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and entirely appropriate modulation.” Similarly, Psalter Hymnal #204 (Psalm 103, “O Come, My Soul”) moves me to tears not simply because of the music (which is rather ordinary by technical standards), but because of the music’s powerful interaction with the text—“He knows that we are dust, He knows our frame.”
JDO: Second, we need to sing the psalms in the name of Christ. We pray “in Jesus’ name” not just as some ritual, but in recognition of the fact that he is our Mediator. Each psalm (and thus each prayer) is about Christ. Every psalm is messianic and can be prayed only in and through Jesus Christ. The way to articulate this, says Fesko, is not simplistically to end each song with the phrase “in Jesus’ name, amen,” but to regularly preach from the psalms and consistently point through them to Christ.
MRK: Third, we need to use the psalms as the groundwork for our own private worship as well as public worship. Our Lord’s Day worship “should always be supplemented with a steady diet of private worship, reading and studying the Scriptures, and prayer. If one looks to the Psalter as part of that diet, then his prayer life can be greatly enriched.” And “just as the Psalms were a source of comfort for David, Solomon, faithful Israelites, and even Christ Himself, they can be a wealth of blessing and comfort to us in our own day-to-day lives” (p. 183).
JDO: Fesko closes his chapter by summarizing three reasons to sing the psalms. “In pray-singing the Psalms, we sing the Word of God, learn to pray by speaking the words of our heavenly Father back to him, and find a source of joy, consolation, and encouragement, as well as a food source for our sanctification and growth in grace.”
MRK: His final challenge pricks to the heart: “If we do not know how to pray, could it be that we know not because we sing not the Psalms?” When our worship becomes saccharine, our prayers sincere, or our churches stagnant, we must return again and again to this question.
As a conclusion to this chapter as well as the entirety of Sing a New Song, it’s hard to find more fitting words than those of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whom Fesko quotes here:
Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.
Although this marks the end of our chapter reviews, we plan to return to Sing a New Song once more next Thursday to revisit our favorite spots and share our overall responses to this book. Join us then, won’t you?