[This post is the second installment in the series, The Psalms: Truly Persistent Songs.  For part one, click here.]

The argument for Psalm-singing is subtle and simple.  Several straightforward principles should impress upon us the necessity of Psalm-singing in the life of the church.

1.  Psalm-singing is commanded.

In Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul elaborates on God’s will for Christians.  Characteristic of their Spirit-filled lives is that Christians address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (5:19).  In Colossians, Paul includes this command in his description of Christians’ new identify:  “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16).  Thus, we have two instances in which the Apostle Paul instructs us to use the Psalms in Christian worship.

Exegetical disclaimer:  “psalms” had a very broad use in the Greco-Roman world and often referred to religious music generally, rather than the OT Psalms specifically.  Likely, Paul intends the OT Psalms, but would the Gentile audiences of Ephesians and Colossians have understood the term in this way?

There’s evidence that early Christians understood Paul to mean the OT Psalms.  Tertullian, Eusebius of Caesarea, Athanasius, Augustine, Jerome, and Apollinaris Sidonius are early church figures who make reference to the practice of OT Psalm-singing.

We should be careful to note that Paul does not impose upon Christians the command to sing Psalms exclusively.  His reference to “hymns and spiritual songs” legitimizes other musical expressions of the church’s doctrine.  Paul obeyed his own command to make use of “hymns and spiritual songs.”  In a few instances, Paul cites early Christian poetry—perhaps, the vestiges of early Christian hymnody—in his teaching (cf. Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Timothy 2:11-13).  To demand that only OT Psalms be sung in the gathering of the church is a misconstruction of Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.

2.  Psalm-singing is significant.

Calvin aptly noted of the Psalms, “when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if, he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.”  We miss that certainty in many of the songs that fill our hymnals and populate our PowerPoints.

In my current ministry role, I’m active in planning worship services and selecting songs.  I’m prone to dismiss certain songs for various reasons.  For example, I might consider a tune “hokey.” Our Baptist Hymnal is fond of chord progressions full of seventh chords, which is good for toe tapping, but sometimes feels dated.

Other times, I find some of a song’s lyrics unhelpful.  I generally like the hymn “Word of God, Across the Ages” (Baptist Hymnal 1991, #262), except for the line that says “as devout and patient scholars more and more its depths reveal.” I wouldn’t call the line unbiblical or erroneous, but I find it unhelpful. By God’s Spirit, Christians can grow in their understanding of scripture; they do not have to wait for an exegetical decree from a terminally degreed professor.

These concerns dissipate in Psalm-singing.  If we truly believe that all scripture is inspired, sufficient, and profitable, the “hokiest” of tunes can be overcome.  It takes a measure of irreverence to sing a God-inspired Psalm and, then, critique the tune.  Even more so, we will not find ourselves questioning the utility of the Psalm’s content.

When we sing the Psalms, we sing words that are inspired (2 Timothy 3:16) and infallible (Proverbs 20:5); we sing lyrics marked by permanence (Psalm 119:89; Isaiah 40:8) and power (Psalm 29:4; Psalm 33:6).  These characteristics grant our worship a genuine significance, which no chord progression, key change, or guitar solo is able to conjure.

3.  Psalm-singing is beneficial.

Very simply, singing the Psalms benefits and edifies the church.  Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 presuppose that the Psalms have value for admonishing and edifying Christians.  Paul’s presupposition is entirely correct:  God’s word is desirable (Psalm 19:10), profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), and the source of faith (Romans 10:17).

A unique benefit of the Psalms is their articulation and expression of the range of human emotions.  Of our modern praise choruses, which have the boldness to declare to God, “Why do you hide your face from me” (Psalm 88:14)?

Which of our modern praise choruses has the passion to declare to God, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).

In March 2011, my father passed away.  He languished in the hospital for several weeks.  I found in the Psalms an unswerving support.  They made me ever mindful of God’s steadfast love.

  • “Wondrously show your steadfast love” (17:7).
  • “. . . steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts the LORD” (32:10).
  • “Let your steadfast love, O LORD, be upon us, even as we hope in you” (33:22).
  • “God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness” (57:3).
  • “Blessed be God, because he has not . . . removed his steadfast love from me” (66:20).

This is an example of the power of the Psalms.  Whether we “rejoice with those who rejoice” or “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), the Psalms give us the emotive language to edify one another.

From Rhyme-and-Reason to Meter-and-Melody

The arguments for Psalm-singing are simple and, I hope, persuasive.  I’m aware that for many readers Psalm-singing, especially in the context of congregational worship, seems impractical.  In the final post in this series, I’ll give practical guidance on incorporating the Psalms into the church’s corporate worship.