Posts Tagged 'Private Worship'

Sing a New Song, Chapter 5: The Psalms and Their Tuning Fork

Jewish temple worship?  Non-inspired Old Testament songs?  New Testament hymn fragments?  If you’ve ever been confronted with arguments about these elements when discussing corporate worship, you need look no further than Chapter 5 of Sing a New Song for a thorough, well-measured treatment of such tricky topics.  Rowland S. Ward’s essay on “Psalm Singing and Scripture” forms the fifth chapter in this book, which we’ve been systematically reviewing here on URC Psalmody since the beginning of September.

JDO: I guess the first thing I learned from this chapter was that singing has only been an official part of worship since the time of David.  Before that, singing was of course a common practice (think of Moses and Miriam’s “sing-off” on the shores of the Red Sea), but it was really in David’s time, when worship was formally organized in Jerusalem, that singing became a central component.  Ward’s point is that “the songs of worship in the temple were not considered matter for mere human prescription.”  David was clearly aware of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in his psalms (cf. II Sam. 23:2), so it makes sense that the Israelites would use those songs in the corporate worship of their holy God.  While they may have written and sung their own personal songs in other contexts, in the official worship service it seems clear that they stuck to the psalms.

MRK: One of Ward’s most lucent paragraphs explains something we emphasize again and again here on URC Psalmody: that all the psalms point to Christ in some way.  Our view of “Christ-centered psalms” is often too simplistic—we think only of the ones which speak specifically of the Messiah, like Psalms 2, 22, 72, and 110.  But as we’ve said before, Christ is the key to all the psalms.  Or, using Ward’s analogy:

In brief, Jesus Christ is the tuning fork by which we pitch the Psalms correctly.  We will find Him in them in various ways, not just in a few psalms, but in all the psalms.  The believer’s union with Christ, the true David, is the key to unlocking the treasures of the Psalter.  It is also the reason that these songs have a special place in the New Testament church and are so frequently quoted.

(p. 83)

Because Christ used the Psalter throughout his life and ministry, it is not “pre-Christian” or “sub-Christian.”  Rather, as the early church recognized, “the Psalter was full of Christ” (p. 84).

JDO: Ah, Michael, you’ve hit on one of my pet peeves.  I’ve heard arguments against exclusive psalmody that run like this: “Now that Christ has come, we need songs that are explicitly about him.  The Psalms may hint at him, but in light of his coming we need new songs.”  That is patently false and shows a great misunderstanding of the book of Psalms, which Christ himself would oppose (cf. Lk. 24:44).

MRK: For me, this chapter actually brought up a lot of mixed feelings.  I found myself actually fighting against Ward in some places in this chapter.  My main complaint was, “Yes, but what about hymns?  Where do they come in?  After all, we’re not exclusive psalmists…are we?”

What I discovered was that my hymn-based musical background was coming back to haunt me.  Hymns had always been the “norm” in the churches I had visited, the discussions I had had, and the books I had read.  Despite my months of loving, studying, and blogging on the Psalms, the rug had never been pulled out from me so suddenly before.  Honestly, 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!

JDO: Once our perspective on worship becomes God-centered rather than self-centered, the Psalms will naturally come to the forefront.  It’s only when I started studying the theology of worship in earnest that I began to love the Psalms.  I’ve come to the point where I’d rather argue against singing too many hymns than ever try to convince someone not to be an exclusive psalmist.  But it took me a long time to get there—precisely because I had been brought up singing so many hymns and loving the emotionality of them.

MRK: How I pray that hymns would cease to dominate the music of the Church and that we would return to the Psalter as the foundation for corporate song!  Only then can hymns and non-inspired songs assume their proper place.

JDO: And the more similar our hymns are to the psalms, the better off we’ll be.

MRK: Having shared that personal epiphany, we now turn to Ward’s next section, in which he analyzes the practice of singing in the New Testament.  His discussion is divided into three areas: (1) specific references to singing in the New Testament, (2) actual songs present in the text, and (3) hymn fragments embedded in the text.

Firstly, Ward shows that each of the New Testament’s specific references to singing gives precedence (if not exclusive use) to the psalms.  Some of the most direct commands about worship are found in I Corinthians 14:26,27:

What then, brothers?  When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.  Let all things be done for building up.  If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret.

Now Ward goes on to make a potentially ambiguous statement in regard to this passage: “If we take ‘a psalm…a doctrine…a revelation’ as aspects of prophetic utterance, as seems probable in the context, then we have a Spirit-inspired composition but perhaps not necessarily a composition from the Psalter, although such is inspired.”  What does he mean by this?

JDO: The context of I Corinthians 12-14 deals with prophecy and speaking in tongues.  This was a time in redemptive history where actual Spirit-inspiration was still happening.  Thus, someone could have a new song, prophecy, or tongue under the same inspiration as that of David or Isaiah or Paul.  After the age of the Apostles, such events ceased.  So what Ward is saying is that even though special inspiration does not happen today, the principle of singing Spirit-inspired songs is still in effect.  For us, that means the 150 inspired Psalms.

More broadly, Ward uses I Corinthians 14 to point out that all our worship, including music, must satisfy the criteria of “intelligibility, edification, and decent order.”  Notice that “emotional stimulation” is not one of them—the emotions should arise from the truth of the text, not from our own sentimentality.

MRK: Certainly.  And I thank God that “intelligibility, edification, and decent order” are some of the primary tenets of the Reformed principle of worship.

Ward’s next references are possibly the most-quoted musical passages in the entire New Testament: Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, which both command the churches to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  He makes four well-measured observations regarding these passages.

  1. “The meaning of the three terms cannot be distinguished in actual usage” (p. 86)—that is, psalms, hymns, and songs are not really different categories.  “Psalms are about the Father, hymns about the Son, and songs about the Spirit”—this and similar interpretations are simply not viable, either logically or linguistically.  It’s most likely that Paul is directing the church to sing these Psalms, or at least songs like them.
  2. On the other hand, these three terms cannot be limited with absolute certainty to the Psalter; Ward admits that “the terms may be general in nature.”  While all three terms seem to refer to the Psalms, the argument that they refer only to the psalms is flawed.  Of course, the practical application doesn’t change: the Psalms should have the principal place in worship.
  3. The adjective “spiritual” modifies all three terms, that is, “spiritual psalms, spiritual hymns, and spiritual songs.”  Ward interprets the term “spiritual” to mean either strictly “Spirit-inspired” or loosely “Spirit-prompted.”  The former reading would limit church music to the text of Scripture; the latter would allow for non-inspired songs based upon the Bible.
  4. Ward clarifies that the setting of these passages is communal and may not apply to private worship in the same way.

JDO: Regarding the last point—Christians can feel free to sing whatever they want at home (with wisdom and discernment), since these passages and arguments for psalmody refer mainly to corporate worship.

MRK: What comes to mind first is a negative implication of this principle: The entire church suffers when attempts are made to drag private devotional practices into corporate worship.

JDO: That’s the problem of self-centered worship again.  Let’s say that I am personally blessed by listening to Latin masses written by Haydn while burning incense.  What if I were to say, “Since it blesses me, I should bring it into church”?  We’d be back in Rome!

MRK: That’s an excellent observation.  Interestingly, though, the reverse is actually beneficial: a solid psalm-singing tradition has great benefits in the home as well as in the church.  So we must be aware of this distinction, and be sure we understand and appreciate God’s regulations for corporate worship.

JDO: Ward concludes this section by stating that regardless of one’s interpretation of “spiritual,” the hymns and songs that stick closest to God’s Word that are the most beneficial for our worship.

Naturally, the wisest course here is also to keep closely to the meaning of Scripture, if not its very words.  Thus the new songs, though not formally canonical, can be regarded as accurately conveying the truth of God and thus of devotional value and spiritual profit along with material directly in the text of Scripture.

(p. 88)

MRK: Ward moves on to briefly consider the songs present in the New Testament text.  Of the songs of Mary and Zacharias he comments, “I have always found it surprising that one should argue for their regular use in public worship given that it is so obvious that they are unique songs for unique personal situations” (p. 89).  How does this line up with the old Dutch Reformed tradition of singing the songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon in public worship (Psalter Hymnal numbers 332-334)?

JDO: I actually agree with his statement: it is kind of weird to sing their songs, because they are very personal.  But what’s neat is that all of these songs are almost entirely quotes from various psalms—so, in the end, these New Testament songs just prove the vitality of the Psalms in the life of these saints.

MRK: Ward also examines the songs present in Revelation, and while his arguments get a little complicated, the main point is the same: Even in heaven, the saints’ songs to God draw heavily from the Psalms—testifying yet again to their enduring quality and relevance to Old Testament and New Testament alike.

Devoting less than one page to the final section of his survey of New Testament music, Ward concisely summarizes the oft-mentioned issue of “hymn fragments” in texts like Ephesians 5:14, Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and I Timothy 3:16.  His twofold response to this argument is direct but insightful.

  1. “It is not clear what is established even if these are hymn fragments” (p. 90).  In more colloquial English, “So what?”  These passages do nothing to prove or disprove the existence of non-Scriptural hymnody in New Testament worship.
  2. “Is it not possible to mistake memorable passages of great eloquence for hymns?”  Nothing in the Greek text suggests that these passages were based on any discernible poetic structure.

Ward concludes that the “identification of hymn fragments is hypothetical and of limited validity.”  Instead he points us once again to the Psalter.

JDO: The book of Psalms is the most-quoted book in the New Testament.  Ward says, “About forty psalms are directly quoted in the New Testament, and 100 to 110 in all are quoted or alluded to.”  The point is this: it’s clear, from direct and indirect evidence, that the Psalms were a foundational part of Christian life in the New Testament church.  Whether sung exclusively or just predominantly, “that the Psalter was known, loved, and extensively used is crystal clear.”

In summary, Ward’s chapter is both fair and complete.  While he doesn’t necessarily argue for exclusive psalmody, he makes a clear case that “if we lose sight of the norm of praise in the Psalter, we are likely to drift very seriously.  By the same token, the hymns that tend to endure are those that stay most closely to Scripture themes and language” (p. 91).

MRK: Right.  Just as we’ve emphasized time and time again on URC Psalmody, the Christian church can never sing too many psalms.  The central question is not, “Should we sing only the psalms?” but “Should we sing the psalms?”  And the answer is a resounding YES!  The sole factor in evaluating the music of the Christian church should not be servitude to human preferences but grateful obedience to God’s commands.

[W]e should not forget that God has always been very jealous of His worship.  He has the right to fix its nature, and our response can only be one of obedience in the context of His gracious covenant.

(pp. 88, 89)

When we return to Sing a New Song, we’ll look at Chapter 6 by Michael LeFebvre, entitled “The Hymns of Christ: The Old Testament Formation of the New Testament Hymnal.”

Until then,


Sing a New Song, Chapter 2: A Delightful Ordinance

Last Thursday we began a discussion on Sing a New Song, a relatively new book edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio on “Recovering Psalm-Singing for the Twenty-First Century.”  Our hybrid review format/written dialogue seemed to work well enough that we plan to continue on in the same vein!  So, without further ado, here’s our commentary on Chapter 2, by Dr. Joel Beeke: “Psalm Singing in Calvin and the Puritans.”

JDO: Dr. Beeke’s chapter made me really happy and genuinely excited to sing the psalms.  I haven’t read the rest of the book yet, but I could honestly say that I think this chapter alone is probably worth the price of the whole thing.  Beeke’s thesis is basically summed up in the sentence, “Calvin and the Puritans felt convicted to sing psalms in public worship and loved doing so” (p. 17).  By the end of the chapter, I felt the same way.

I loved the discussion of Calvin’s rationale for congregational psalm singing.  A lot of it may sound familiar to a psalm-singing church, but much of it was, if not new, certainly challenging and refreshing. Did anything in particular stand out to you?

MRK: I suppose one thing that we need to continually remind ourselves is that Calvin and the Puritans were pretty much working from scratch.  The practice of psalm-singing in the medieval church had dwindled down to a negligible amount—if it still existed at all.  So, in the Reformers’ day, the concept of psalm-singing by the congregation was just as radical as any other facet of the Reformation.

Dr. Beeke goes on to list a number of implications of the psalms—all of them excellent.  Although we can’t quote them all (you really ought to read this book for yourself anyway!), we might summarize the list in the words of Calvin’s famous quote—that the psalms are “an anatomy of all parts of the soul” (p. 19).  Our whole personal experience as Christians can be expressed in the inspired words of the psalms.

The chapter then describes the origin and history of the famous Genevan Psalter of 1562.  One aspect of this songbook that seems especially unique is that it contains 110 different melodies written specifically for the psalms.

JDO: That’s a great feature for a psalter to have.  As you learn the tune, you also learn the psalm, and as you remember the distinct tune, you remember the distinct psalm.  It’s really a brilliant pedagogical device.

MRK: Another inference we can make about these unique tunes is that Calvin and his colleagues realized the profound importance of tunes that were suitable for worship and appropriate for whichever psalms accompanied them.

JDO: Calvin argued that the piety of psalm-singing is best promoted when “the text takes priority over the tune” (p. 22).  Of the music, he says that it should be “‘weighty, dignified, majestic, and modest’—fitting attitudes for sinful creatures in the presence of God,” according to Beeke.

MRK: I especially appreciated Calvin’s emphasis on teaching the psalms to the youth, in light of my recent meditations (“Let Youth Praise Him!” and “All-Season Psalms”).  Not only then would the children learn the psalms, but they could also teach them to their parents at home!

JDO: It’s also great that Calvin had the psalm selections for each Lord’s Day posted on the church doors in advance, so that families could practice the psalms throughout the week in preparation for corporate worship.  I’ve known a few families who similarly check their church’s bulletins when they’re posted online during the week.  It’s always a blessing to hear their wee children singing loudly along with the congregation on Sunday morning.

MRK: Can you imagine sending a family member to check the numbers posted at your church every Sunday?  We have access to much of this information on the internet, as you mentioned, and yet we still don’t take advantage of the opportunity to practice the Psalms ahead of time!

Reflecting on the first half of Chapter 2, we note that Calvin’s philosophy of psalm-singing was truly ground-breaking.  He reintroduced congregational song, created his own Psalter in the common tongue with new tunes, and promulgated the practice of corporate and individual psalm-singing.  But he also influenced another major branch of the Reformers: the English Puritans.  That’s where Beeke turns his attention in the second half of this chapter.

JDO: During the anti-Protestant rule of the English queen, “Bloody Mary,” many of the Puritans turned to psalm-singing for worship and comfort.  But when Mary’s persecution ended, their love of the psalms did not.  In fact, the English Protestants who had fled to Geneva brought back the Genevan Psalter with them!  Through the influence of the Puritans, and later through the rule of the Protestant Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, the practice of psalm-singing became well-established in the English church.

MRK: For a variety of reasons, the common impression of Puritans is a bunch of grumpy old sticks-in-the-mud refusing to conform to anything.  Beeke clearly sets that misconception aside here.  Their resistance to the common uninspired church music of the day did not arise out of a “distaste of music,” as Dr. Beeke explains, “but their deep conviction that the Scripture must be obeyed at all costs.”  That’s the background to the 1647 treatise Singing of Psalmes: A Gospel-Ordinance by the New England Puritan John Cotton (1584-1682).  For the remainder of this chapter, Beeke offers a commentary on Cotton’s four main areas of study.

Cotton’s first section deals with “The Duty of Singing Psalms.”  I was greatly surprised to learn about what he calls the “Antipsalmists.”  No singing at all in the Christian church?  That’s a view I’ve never heard advocated until now.

JDO: Neither have I; in fact, I was rather frightened to hear it.  But I guess that’s what comes from an overdeveloped dispensationalism—in other words, that the “songs of the Old Testament” are no longer applicable to the “New Testament church.”  I suppose we do have to deal with many “practical antipsalmists,” those who don’t oppose singing the psalms, but simply don’t practice it.

MRK: Thankfully, we both agree with Cotton Mather’s refutation of that doctrine.  But I love that he goes further, to point out that the songs of the church must be intelligible to the hearers.   And, even more than that, it must all add up to God’s glory.  In one fell swoop Mather demolishes any argument against using the psalms and instead rears up a tower of psalm-singing praise to God.

JDO: I think we often miss an aspect of psalm-singing that Cotton brings out and that Paul speaks of in Ephesians 5:19—when we sing the psalms, we are not only praising God but also “addressing one another” for our mutual edification.  Singing psalms in church is not merely an individual affair; we sing it to our fellow congregants, they sing it to us, and as a whole we encourage one another.  The threefold purpose of psalm-singing—bringing glory to God, edifying the singer, and teaching and addressing one’s fellow singers—isn’t often in our minds, but it’s extremely important as an aspect of our ministry to and from other believers.

MRK: Cotton’s view of uninspired hymns in the second section strikes me as quite interesting.  While we might not agree with some of Cotton’s specific stipulations, I admire his underlying belief: We can sing a variety of songs to edify and encourage fellow believers, but we must only worship God as he has directed in the Bible.

JDO: Right.  And how could the congregation have the audacity to “address one another” in official function with anything other than the inspired Word of God?

MRK: I had never even stopped to consider some of the questions Cotton brings up in the third part of his book.  “Should an individual be allowed to sing for the congregation, or should the entire congregation sing?  Should men and women sing, or men only?  Should unbelievers be allowed to sing with believers?  Should people who are not church members be allowed to sing?” (p. 34).

JDO: Yeah—that rather shocked me, too.

MRK: Fortunately, I was reassured by all of his answers.  Especially intriguing was Cotton’s argument that believers and unbelievers alike are called to sing to God.  It made me stop, think, and finally agree.  Of course, his proviso at the end of this section is also important—even though the psalms are intended for the whole world, the Church of Christ has a special duty to sing them.

JDO:  And the church should delight in that duty!

MRK: Personally, my favorite part was Cotton’s fourth section, in which he discusses the manner of singing and whether psalms can be sung to man-made tunes.  I have found in my own spiritual walk that Cotton’s comments about metrical psalters ring true: they make “the verses more easie for memory, and more fit for melody” (p. 36).  Cotton upholds the importance of the music as well as the words, and the correct balance between the two.  In short, according to Beeke, “God gives us freedom to compose reverent tunes for the Psalms, so long as the rhythm and tunes are pleasing to God and edifying to His people.  We should never use this liberty to satisfy our selfish desires.”

JDO:  Yes.  The answer to the thoughtless question “If you’re so picky about singing psalms, why not sing them in Hebrew?” is that we are to sing with understanding.  We are obligated to translate the psalms into the common tongue, put them into memorable versifications, and set them to suitable, singable tunes.

MRK: Now, Jim, I know you already utilize Cotton’s suggested practice of reading a psalm in worship before singing it.  Have you noticed the same benefits that he describes?

JDO: Absolutely.  On the one hand, I always appreciate short and sweet song introductions.  But I do find that at least saying a few words concerning the biblical psalm to be sung, or highlighting a few verses thereof, does much to increase my understanding and appreciating while singing.  It would be super to have a mini-sermon on each psalm to be sung before reading it and singing it, but I also appreciate the need for a streamlined service.  A few well-placed sentences regarding the upcoming psalm go a long way in encouraging mind-full singing.

Dr. Beeke closes his chapter with an insightful and practical list of three benefits of psalm-singing.  Although this practice is commanded and encouraged in Scripture, we find that as with all of God’s precepts the command to sing psalms is for our good and delight.

  1. Psalm-singing is a profound source of comfort for the soul.  Robert Sanderson (1587-1662), Bishop of Lincoln, called the psalms “the treasury of Christian comfort” (p. 39).
  2. Psalm-singing cultivates piety.  The psalms teach us vocabulary for godly prayer, a posture for grateful living, and a vehicle for God-focused worship.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, psalm singing is a powerful means by which we can glorify God from the heart.

We owe a lot to the work of John Calvin and the English Puritans in recovering the divinely-appointed place of psalm-singing in worship.  Indeed, singing the psalms is a God-given ordinance, but a delightful one.  Sanderson expresses it this way:

[Psalm-singing is] fitted for all persons and all necessities; able to raise the soul from dejection by the frequent mention of God’s mercies to repentant sinners; to stir up holy desire; to increase joy; to moderate sorrow; to nourish hope, and teach us patience, by waiting God’s leisure; to beget a trust in the mercy, power, and providence of our Creator; and to cause a resignation of ourselves to his will: and then, and not till then, to believe ourselves happy.

We look forward with you to next week’s discussion of Chapter 3: “The History of Psalm-Singing in the Christian Church.”  Until then,


Sing a New Song, Chapter 1: Psalm-Based Piety

Last Friday, Jim alerted you to an upcoming URC Psalmody series reviewing and discussing Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century edited by Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).  Indeed, this book struck us as so applicable to the purpose of this blog that we each got a copy and began reading through it together.  So over the next several weeks we’ll be discussing and summarizing each chapter of this helpful little resource.  We hope all of our readers will feel free to join in as well!

Chapter 1, written by Hughes Oliphant Old and Robert Cathcart, traces the historical tradition of psalm-singing from the pre-medieval church right up to the dawn of the Reformation.  Its title: “From Cassian to Cranmer.”  Old and Cathcart begin:

It may seem odd that this book, headlined by so many brilliant Reformed scholars, begins with a look at John Cassian.  Cassian, a monk born in Scythia Minor (modern-day Romania) around AD 360, may be best known as the leading proponent of Semi-Pelagianism in his day.  In addition, he championed an ascetic lifestyle as the means to true piety.  Both of these attributes might be enough to make a Reformed reader skip ahead to the next chapter.  That, however, would be a grave mistake because Cassian observed, described, and propagated an approach to the singing of psalms that was replicated, with some modifications, during the time of the Reformation and still resonates within the Reformed tradition today (p. 1).

MRK: It would have never occurred to me that a semi-Pelagian monastic such as John Cassian would have been so influential in establishing the role of the psalms in Christian worship.  Jim, were you previously aware of Cassian and his work in the psalms?

JDO: Yes, I am aware of John Cassian.  In fact, many of my friends have in the past complained about how often I gush over him.  I wrote a paper on Cassian’s life for a church history course.  He was pretty fantastic.  He decided to go spend time with the Desert Fathers (a group of extreme hermits in Egypt).  Then he took what he learned from them and applied it to monastic life in the Western church.  As Old and Cathcart point out, the Desert Fathers inspired Cassian’s passion for praying through the psalms systematically.

MRK:  Again, that’s a tradition we probably don’t associate with Egyptian hermits.  I think this might reveal a possible fallacy in the Reformed conception of worship: when we think of utilizing the psalms, we tend to assume it’s a practice unique to our tradition.  In reality, of course, it is plainly commanded in Scripture for all Christians, not just Reformed.

JDO: Yes, the practice of psalm-singing is rich in history.  The early church recognized the book of psalms for what it is: a songbook meant to be used.

MRK: It’s a schedule that Old and Cathcart call “modest and prudent,” yet Cassian still calls for the singing of twenty-four psalms each day in his works The Institutes of the Cenobia and The Conferences.  Our attempts at utilizing the psalms certainly pale in comparison.  Why, congregants might blow their tops if a Sunday worship service involved the singing of even twelve psalms in their entirety!

JDO: Indeed, and yet how much it would benefit us.  Of course, perhaps we wouldn’t sing that many at one time (after all, vocal cords do have their limitations).

MRK: The chapter moves on to talk about the psalms’ function as an invitation to prayer.  Do you combine the psalms with prayer in your personal devotions?  This is a practice I hope to implement regularly; so far it has proved to be a blessing.

JDO:  Cassian wisely saw the power of the psalms to induce prayer and elicit praise.  Actually, it’s because of my study of Cassian that I often recommend that people read a psalm before they pray.  One might say it “gets the juices flowing.”  Further, Cassian pointed out that using the psalms in our prayers can also safeguard us from praying selfishly or “getting off target.”  I also love Cassian’s admonition, as Old and Cathcart point out, to sing, read, and meditate on the psalms during daily work.  The psalms “transform our daily tasks, however menial, into God’s work, as they are consecrated by the scriptural prayers that rise in the midst of them” (p. 5).

MRK: It’s one thing to have a catchy song stuck in your head; it’s entirely another to meditate on the text of a psalm and pray it back to God throughout the day.  Oh how I long for that level of devotion!  Further, I appreciate that Cassian emphasizes the “intelligence of the mind” rather than “the quantity of verses” (p. 3).

JDO: As Protestants, we are often highly suspect of the “vain repetition” of monastic life, and perhaps rightfully so in light of what it can easily become.  But Cassian, Benedict, and others like them were very careful to guard against empty ritualism in their writings.

MRK: And, as a side note, it’s fascinating to see how psalm-worship meshes perfectly with the Reformers’ view of vocation and the proper relationship of sacred and secular.  “[F]rom Cassian’s observations, it is clear to see the power that a psalm-based piety, filled with singing, meditation, and prayer, has to remove any sense of a sacred/secular dichotomy in the life and work of a faithful Christian, regardless of occupation” (p. 5).

The authors go on to describe the schedule proposed by Cassian and later by Benedict in greater detail.  That prompts me to ask: Are you more inclined to support a substantial study of several psalms in the morning and at night (like the Desert Fathers’ method), or do you think breaking it up into smaller and more frequent segments might be more beneficial (as Cassian and Benedict advocated)?

JDO:  I’m inclined to support anything that gets people into the psalms.  Let’s face it: the average Christian isn’t going to be able to read twenty-four psalms a day.  Work, family life, and the demands of modern living would really cut into Benedict’s eight-psalms-per-day regimen.  That said, I just read yesterday that the average American spends 48 hours a week on the internet and television as of 2010.  I don’t know how accurate that is, but seriously—we still have a lot of time that could be better prioritized.   Whether we decide to read half a psalm before going to school and half a psalm upon getting home, or maybe reading two psalms at breakfast, one at lunch, and three before bed—I think the best application is just to make a consistent and careful effort to spend time in the psalms every day.

MRK: I think this ties in wonderfully to the authors’ comments that in the tradition of the Desert Fathers “there was a glorious balance between freedom and fixed forms that so often marks the most mature and edifying prayers of the Christian church” (p. 7).  Scheduled times of devotion can be great helps in our spiritual lives, so long as our hearts are in the right place and we are not merely following routine.

As we approach the end of this chapter, Old and Cathcart suggest three points of application for the 21st-century church on p. 14.  We’ve summarized and reflected on these implications below.

  1. The authors hint at re-establishing the practice of regular morning and evening church services throughout the week, times to work through the psalms and pray together.  While a daily application of this idea is probably impractical despite its benefit, could we incorporate the idea of working through the psalms into a weekly prayer service?  Could Wednesday night prayer time (a common practice for some congregations) be improved by adding a regular study of the psalms?
  2. The authors challenge congregations to make a real commitment to learning and singing all of the Psalms for their relevance to all of life.  “Whether their text emphasizes prayer, praise, lament, devotion, or any response or emotion, there is no better place to find the perfect matching song than in the Psalter” (p. 14).  Happily, this practice already thrives in many United Reformed churches, thanks to the stipulation of our Church Order.  But how might we continue to ensure that as congregations we are familiar with not some but all of the psalms?  How might we sing them not occasionally, but regularly?
  3. “The final application,” the authors declare, “for applying the ancient principles of psalm piety in the twenty-first century is a reestablishment of family prayer.”  Does the idea of singing the psalms in family devotions strike us as odd or old-fashioned?  Do our families possess their own copies of psalters besides the songbooks at church?  Let us read the psalms with our families, sing the psalms with our families, learn the psalms with our families—for the Bible commands it!

Of course, we (as well as the authors) realize that the devotional insights of Cassian’s monastic movement do not necessarily justify the entire theology and practice of monasticism.  Nevertheless, we can undoubtedly learn much from their “psalm-based piety.”  The words of Laura Swan in The Benedictine Tradition: Spirituality in History, quoted in this chapter of Sing a New Song, paint a beautiful picture of the benefit that accompanies a regular and serious study of the psalms:

Like water slowly dripping on rock until that rock’s shape has changed, the daily mundane task of chanting the Divine Office slowly works on an individual’s heart, shaping the person into the image of Christ.


Next Thursday, Lord willing, we’ll return to consider Chapter 2 from Sing a New Song: “Psalm Singing in Calvin and the Puritans.”  Until then,


Studying the Psalms: Devotional Helps

I’d like to take a few minutes today to share some resources that I find particularly helpful in my devotional study of the psalms.  Perhaps we’ll have some recommendations for scholarly study in another post someday, but these are all sources meant to be read on a more daily basis.  For that reason, I have chosen works divided into short, quick reads.  We’ll save commentaries for another day.  Each of these sources has led me to love, learn, and listen to the Psalms in a much deeper way.

I’ve divided (somewhat arbitrarily) the sources into the categories based on how I use them.  Just click on the book title to be taken to the publisher’s site to learn more about the book (or to purchase it).

Prayer: Prayers on the Psalms from the Scottish Psalter of 1595

(published by Banner of Truth, 2010)

This tiny booklet is part of Banner of Truth’s “Pocket Puritan” collection, making it very affordable and very portable (it literally does fit into a pocket with ease).  As the title suggests, the book is simply a collection of prayers, one based on each biblical psalm, taken from the Scottish Psalter of 1595.  The prayers are each only a few sentences long and elegantly summarize the prayerful thrust of each psalm.  These prayers are eloquent and explicitly Christian and can guide us to see how each psalm can and should be prayed by the New Testament Church as well as the Old.  The prayers make Christ explicit and can be a good way to “get the juices flowing” in our own private prayers.

Exegesis: The ESV Study Bible 

(published by Crossway Bibles, 2008)

Since its publication, I have been very pleased with the ESV Study Bible.  It does a particularly good job with the psalms.  Each psalm is introduced with a succinct summary and outline, including not only exegetical insights but also a few seeds of application to the Christian reader as well.  This makes the ESV Study Bible an excellent way of overviewing the psalm, providing guidance and wisdom in personal application.

Christology: Christ in the Psalms by Patrick Henry Reardon

(published by Conciliar Press, 2000; revised 2011)

This is a recommendation that could be a bit controversial.  This is a book written by an Eastern Orthodox theologian and is written explicitly from that perspective.  So if these books were being given ratings like movies, it might be a “PG-13” book for United Reformed folk – reader discretion advised!  What I mean is that this book needs to be read with wisdom.  And yet I still put the book on the list because I think it is an invaluable resource.

The book provides a simple two-page meditation for each psalm (including the apocryphal Psalm 151 – one reason for the “PG-13” rating).  These meditations are well-written, quickly getting to the heart of each psalm.  What’s beautiful about these meditations is Reardon makes a conscious attempt to show each psalm explicitly in the light of Christ.  For that reason, this book is a treasure trove for meditation.  Reardon has a beautiful writing style and shows each psalm off in its New Testament fulfillment.

Now there are cautions, as I mentioned before.  The most jarring difference is the numbering system.  The Greek Old Testament used by Eastern Orthodox churches numbers the psalms differently.  They combine Psalms 9 and 10 into one Psalm.  They do the same with Psalms 114 and 115 and divide Psalm 116 into two.  This makes their entire numbering of the Psalms quite confusing.  But do not be afraid – Reardon places the traditional numbering system (the one used in most English Bibles) in parentheses after the Greek number.

There are several places where Reardon goes on tangents that might seem foreign to our Reformed ears.  Unfortunately, he uses one or two psalms as soapboxes to attack certain perceived flaws in Protestant theology.  That is why this is a “PG-13” book.  But I want to again emphasize that this book is a tremendous help.  The very concept and existence of this book is a challenge – to set out to see each psalm as beautifully pointing us to Christ.  Reardon’s short, precise, and Christ-centered looks at the psalms are a wonderful way to open up the psalms and show off all their Christological facets.

Application: Praying with the Psalms by Eugene Peterson

(published by HarperCollins, 1993)

Eugene Peterson is well-known for his pastoral insights, and this book is no exception.  This book was meant as a daily devotional, working through the psalms.  But I ignore that and just read the entry for whatever psalm I’m studying.  Sometimes he just has one entry for an entire psalm, sometimes several.

Each entry is only a paragraph, once again just a quick read.  But that paragraph is perceptive, revealing, and challenging.  It cuts me right to the heart every time!

He ends each entry with a short and personal prayer based on the psalm, meant to help us apply the lesson of the psalm to our lives.

Praise: The Book of Psalms for Worship

(published by Crown and Covenant, 2009)

I just can’t tell you often enough just how much I love this Psalter!  But I’ve done it before, so I won’t repeat it here (read my past review HERE).

In connection with the topic of praising God through the singing of the Psalms, I would like to give you a heads-up about one other resource, and that is the excellent book Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century, a collection of essays on psalm-singing edited by Joel Beeke and Anthony Selvaggio.  It is really a great resource, showing the history of psalm-singing, the biblical call to psalm-singing, pastoral need for psalm-singing.  Michael and I have been reading through this book together and intend to share some of our reflections on the book starting next week.  So look forward to that, but as Levar Burton always used to say, “You don’t have to take our word for it!”  Check it out, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed.  But more on that next week.


Of course, no book about the psalms is going to magically bring us closer to God.  These books are merely recommended as tools to help hone us in our devotional reading of the book of Psalms.  Any study of the book of Psalms, if approached with prayer and a heart blessed by the Spirit and focused on Christ, will glorify God and bless our walk with Him.  This is true of a devotional study done with or without “helps.”  But these books are meant to help facilitate our growth.  They have certainly helped me and I pray that perhaps they can help some of you.

Have you read any of these books and found them helpful?  What books have you used in your study of the psalms?  What recommendations would you add to this list?  Respond in the comments section below.


William Gurnall on the Imprecatory Psalms

A few weeks ago, I had the enjoyably awkward experience of being asked to read Psalm 58 out loud in public.  If you’re not familiar with Psalm 58, I’m not really surprised.  It’s certainly not one that lends itself to daily application in the life of a Christian.  It contains such prayers as:

  • “O God, break their teeth in their mouths” – verse 6.
  • “[Let them be] like the stillborn child who never sees the sun” – verse 8b.
  • Or my personal favorite, “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime” – verse 8a.

Whoa there!  Psalm 58 is one of the imprecatory psalms.  The denotation “imprecatory” comes from the word “imprecation,” which the 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language (one of my favorite books in my library) defines as “the act of invoking evil on any one; a prayer that a curse or calamity may fall on any one.”

There are actually quite a few imprecatory psalms.  Psalm 109 is another blatant example, as well as Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, 143, and others.

During the course of any conscientious reading of the psalms, each Christian is bound to wonder exactly what place these psalms hold in the Christian life.  Believing, as we do, in the infallibility and timelessness of Scripture, we know that we can’t simply throw them out. And yet they seem so angry, so blatant, so hateful.  Perhaps they just applied during the Old Testament, back in the days when God’s people were commanded to wage holy war on physical enemies.  Perhaps they are merely artifacts of a long-gone time in redemptive history, merely to be read as a curiosity.

Or perhaps there is a way in which Christians can and should still make use of these psalms in our prayers and meditations.  But how?  To answer that question is the subject of many books, articles, sermons, and blog posts.  I’m sure that we will return to this question again and again in our meditations and discussions here on URC Psalmody.

But for today, I would like to present one helpful resource on the question of imprecatory psalms.  William Gurnall was an English pastor who lived from 1616-1679.  He is best known for his book The Christian in Complete Armor, a 1100+ page examination of spiritual warfare, using Ephesians 6 as an outline.  It’s an excellent resource.  Of interest to our topic today are his comments on Ephesians 6:18, “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.”  In this section, Gurnall discusses various types of prayer, including imprecatory, “wherein the Christian imprecates the vengeance of God upon the enemies of God and His people.”

Gurnall’s comments (found on pages 444-448 of volume II of the Hendrickson edition) are invaluable.  In them, he offers 4 warnings and guidelines to the Christian who is praying an imprecatory prayer.  These 4 guidelines, I believe, are excellent words of advice for us as we read, pray, and sing any imprecatory psalm.

1. “Take heed thou dost not make thy private particular enemies the object of thy imprecation.”  In other words, do not pray an imprecatory psalm about any specific enemy you may have (or think you have).  Christ calls us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).  If we are tempted to pray such a psalm about a specific person, we are acting out of hate.

2. “When thou prayest against the enemies of God and His church, direct thy prayers rather against their plots than person.”  So instead of praying such a psalm about a particular person, pray such a psalm about evil plans and designs.  Gurnall calls our attention to the example of the Apostles in Acts 4:29 – they pray against the threats and plans of the Council rather than against the Council members themselves.

3. “When praying against the persons of those that are open enemies to God and His church, it is safest to pray indefinitely and in general.”  Gurnall points out that we do not know the eternal fate of particular people.  Even the vilest persecutor of the church may repent and turn to Christ – look at Saul/Paul!  So rather than praying against specific persons by name, pray these psalms against the the enemies of God in general.  Pray these psalms about movements that are actively attacking the church, but not against the individual members of the groups – pray rather for their conversion.

4. “In praying against the enemies of God and His church, the glory of God should be principally aimed at, and vengeance on them in order to that.”  Examine your heart.  Are you praying this psalm because you want to glorify God, to have His name glorified, to have blasphemous words and actions removed?  Or are you merely seeking comeuppance, vengeance, and your own peace?

If all of these warnings are taken to heart, then as Christians we may read and pray and sing the imprecatory psalms.  If they are read in such a way, Gurnall points out that these psalms can bring (1) comfort to the persecuted church and (2) a warning to the wicked of the eternal consequence of their actions.

The imprecatory psalms are a part of our Christian Scripture.  As such, they should not be skipped, rushed over, or ignored.  But, in order to read them properly, in a distinctly Christian way, guidelines and advice such as Gurnall’s are invaluable.


The complete text of Gurnall’s book is accessible online, HERE.

The specific section on imprecatory prayer is found in THIS SECTION, near the bottom (look for “Third Kind of Petitionary Prayer – The Imprecatory”).


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