Posts Tagged 'Private Worship'

Goodbye to the Pocket Psalter?

In the afterglow of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal’s publication, one of the questions that rolls around every now and then is whether the publishers will ever prepare a pocket-sized version of the new book.

Pocket Psalter HymnalRemember the mini Psalter Hymnals of the CRC? We celebrated them here on URC Psalmody because they testified to a thriving culture of psalm- and hymn-singing—not just in church but also before bed, around the dinner table, or on the road. Even today, you can still get a pocket edition of the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter from Reformation Heritage Books, and multiple mini editions of the Book of Psalms for Worship are available from Crown & Covenant Publications.

So it’s only natural to hope that the advent of a new psalter-hymnal in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the United Reformed Churches in North America will bring the added blessing of a pocket edition. Sadly, that’s not likely—for at least three logistical reasons.

First of all, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal offers a very large collection of psalms and hymns—about 50% larger than the 1959/1976 “blue” Psalter Hymnal. That means the pages of the regular edition have to be very thin in order to allow it to fit in a pew rack. It’s difficult to imagine making the paper any thinner in a pocket edition without compromising the integrity and readability of the pages.

Here’s a second factor related to readability: The pages of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal are quite full. The songbook’s commitment to thorough versifications of the Psalms and complete hymn texts leads to a lot of small type and a complex, even busy, page layout. Unlike the larger and simpler type of the 1912 Psalter or the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal, a pocket edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal would require cramming a lot into a small space.

The third reason a pocket Trinity Psalter Hymnal is unlikely is the expense involved in producing a separately-sized edition of the book. Despite the interest that some church members have expressed, the demand for pocket editions probably wouldn’t be high enough to justify the production costs.

For those of us who fondly remember the tradition of pocket Psalter Hymnals, this may sound like a loss. But it’s important to recognize that the idea of a miniature songbook reflects particular attitudes and beliefs toward worship. And it’s possible to honor and maintain those attitudes without needing a pocket-size hymnal in your hands. So how can we use the Trinity Psalter Hymnal the same way that generations of old used their pocket psalters?

  • Pocket psalters emphasized that singing is a personal devotional practice as well as a corporate activity. Consider buying your own copy of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal and keeping it nearby for family worship or for your own devotions.
  • Pocket psalters were often given to kids so they could learn the songs of the church using their very own book. (I own more than one pocket Psalter Hymnal with scratches and scribbles in the end pages!) If you have a personal Trinity Psalter Hymnal, encourage your kids to explore it for themselves. Sure, you may end up with crayon doodles and ripped pages in a once-pristine book, but you’ll be making a far more worthwhile investment in your children’s spiritual nourishment and development.
  • Pocket psalters were a picture of church membership: As we grow up in the family of God, the songs of his people become our songs too. Pastors and elders, consider giving Trinity Psalter Hymnals as profession-of-faith gifts to young adults in your congregation. There are leather-covered, gold-edged gift editions available for such occasions.

How have you incorporated the Trinity Psalter Hymnal into your personal and familial devotional life? What other opportunities are there to honor the devotional commitment that the tradition of pocket psalters represents?

–MRK

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Five Tips for Learning the Psalms

Whether or not you like the idea of New Year’s resolutions, the start of 2016 is a great opportunity to set one goal: Know the psalms better. If you’re looking to grow in your knowledge of Scripture, your understanding of redemptive history, and your closeness to Christ, the psalms are an excellent place to start. If you’re not sure how to begin, here are five practical options for delving into the Book of Psalms throughout the upcoming year.

1. Read through the psalms in your personal daily devotions.

This can be as simple as reading a psalm every day, perhaps the first thing in the morning or the last thing before you go to bed. If you consistently read a psalm a day, you’ll get through the book at least twice before the end of the year. Look for patterns as you read: What are the themes of each psalm? How would you classify them (thanksgiving, lament, wisdom, royal, etc.)? How do you see Jesus’ work foreshadowed in them?

2. Find a good commentary.

As simple, reliable options, consider reading the study notes for the psalms in your study Bible. If you’re looking for a more detailed exposition, good commentaries on the psalms include Spurgeon’s Treasury of DavidAndrew Bonar’s Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalmsand, of course, Calvin.

On the other hand, it’s not necessary to buy a commentary on the whole psalter to appreciate the psalms more. There are many smaller books and booklets devoted to one section or category from the Book of Psalms. A favorite of mine is Rhett Dodson’s This Brief Journey: Loving and Living the Psalms of Ascents, which focuses on Psalms 120-127.

3. Pick some psalms to memorize.

Did you memorize Psalm 23 as a child? It doesn’t have to stop there. Choose a handful of psalms–maybe one from each book of the Psalter, or one for each month of the year–and intentionally, methodically memorize them, either by yourself or with your family. Let these divinely-inspired words penetrate your skin and circulate through your spiritual bloodstream.

Many people, myself included, find it easier to memorize the psalms when they’re set to music. Which brings me to my fourth point:

4. Buy your own psalter.

You don’t have to be musical to benefit from having a metrical psalter in your home. If you attend a church that uses the Psalter Hymnal, ask if they have extra copies or buy your own from Reformed Fellowship. Other good, modern psalters include the New Genevan Psalterthe Trinity Psalterthe Book of Psalms for Singingand the Book of Psalms for WorshipEach of these books has its own strengths and weaknesses, but all of them present the entire Book of Psalms in an easy-to-memorize metrical format. Even just reading them aloud will make memorization easier.

The task will be less daunting, of course, if you have a musical instrument and/or some degree of musical talent in your household. But even if not, you can always grab a pitch pipe and plunge forward into uncharted musical territories with the rest of your family. My college roommates and I do this almost every Sunday, and we love it!

5. Reflect on what you sing in church.

This last point is the hardest of all. My mind wanders in a thousand different directions on Sunday mornings, and keeping it focused on worship at all–let alone the significance of what I’m singing–is a challenging task. To start with, assuming your church sings at least a few psalms in worship, look for connections between the psalms you studied during the week and the words of the congregational songs. Are you singing a psalm you previously studied or memorized? Do different things about the words stand out to you when they’re sung in church? Does the overall theme of the psalm seem different when applied corporately (to the whole body) instead of individually (just to you)?

If your church doesn’t sing psalms, take the opportunity to study further what the psalms have to say about corporate worship, and what the Bible has to say about the psalms in corporate worship. Maybe devote some time on the Lord’s Day to singing psalms at home with your family. And pray that more people in your congregation would come to appreciate the great blessing of the psalter!

These ideas aren’t a magic formula for embedding the psalms in your heart, nor are they meant to detract from the other spiritual disciplines we should be cultivating. The Christian walk is about much more than just knowing the Book of Psalms, but it should certainly include it. And as a new year begins, now is a great time to start!

–MRK

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.

–MRK

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

Sing a New Song, Chapter 11: An Incomparable Treasure

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?

–JDO/MRK

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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