The Sweetness of Psalm Singing

Harrison Perkins
Friday, August 5th 2022

The church where I presently serve in London emphasizes the practice of singing the Psalms. We usually sing two hymns and two unaccompanied Psalms in each of our services. Because we are in London, we get people from a lot of different backgrounds, many of whom come with the question: Why sing the Psalms? This post reflects upon how Psalm singing is a rich joy for God’s people.

Protestants rightly love to affirm Scripture’s sufficiency. We know that God has spoken to deliver his revelation which we need to know him and walk with him, so we delight to mark how Scripture is fully adequate. Less often, however, do we ask the question: what are some things for which we think Scripture is sufficient? There may be a host of things that jump to mind. Perhaps we most readily think of the list in 2 Timothy 3:16 that Scripture is profitable for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” These are great starting points, but all need further application.

The point toward which I’m driving is that if we grant that Scripture is sufficient for doctrine and practice, do we believe it is sufficient for worship? Is the Scripture sufficient for our services of gathering as the church for worship? If, hypothetically, Scripture is not sufficient for our worship, namely facilitating our communion with God, it is hard to know what practical aspects of life for which it could adequately provide.

So, then we think about ways that Scripture is sufficient for worship. If Scripture is sufficient in this regard, would we need to write songs to fulfill God’s commands to sing in worship? No, we would have all that we need in the Scripture. This point as taken up here is not really about if we may or should write our own songs today, but whether God has left us so that we must write our own songs if we are to sing to him as his church.

Where I live in the United Kingdom, there is a popular television show called Taskmaster. On the show, comedians compete by performing humorous tasks, many of which are zany or not straightforward in how they should be completed. The contestants always show up and receive a card that outlines their task. When they ask for clarification about their task, the taskmaster’s response is usually “everything you need is on the card.” There aren’t hidden requirements for completing the task, even if you have to work out how to accomplish the task described.

The point is that God has told us to worship him, giving us his Word to direct all our faith and practice. Everything we need is in the Word, including our songs. One fundamental reason—which should delight our hearts and practically grow our faith even as we sing—is that singing the Psalms is an expression of dependence on God as he revealed all we need and an expression of gratitude for not leaving us to our own devices to worship him. We lean on what he has given us, specifically in his Word, even to praise him. That dependence then leads to a host of several other considerations about why Psalm singing is a sweet practice for Christ’s people.

God Tells Us To Sing the Psalms

First and quite simply, God tells us to sing Psalms, even still in the new covenant. Ephesians 5:18–20 is partly famous on this point that we should sing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Notice that Paul says here that singing in church is a way to be filled with the Holy Spirit. He forbids drunkenness, instead enjoining us to be Spirit-filled, and telling us how, namely “by addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” So, singing in church is a means of spiritual experience where we know God’s presence and he works in us as God’s people speak to one another.

Our first point initially then helps us see the rich blessing of corporate worship. This spirit-fullness requires the church and is not an individualistic experience. This singing is addressing one another, namely other people. The style of worship where you blend into a faceless crowd in a dark auditorium and feel a sense of euphoria is not Spirit-filled worship because it minimizes knowing other people. Spirit-filled worship is you singing truth to other people. This helps us see why singing in general is important, namely for someone else’s encouragement, not your personal experience.

But what songs are we to sing? Often, Paul’s phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” gets loaded with assumed but less-than-exegetical definitions. The Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, is helpful on this point. In Ephesians 5:19, Paul used the Greek words psalmois, hymnois, and odais pneumatikais, the last word being related to our English word “ode.” Interestingly, each word basically means “song,” so we need to understand these as different sorts of songs. Where did Paul get these sorts of songs?

In the Septuagint, these Greek words appear designating specific Psalms as these types of songs. So, Psalm 3 has a heading “A Psalm of David.” Psalm 9 also, “A Psalm of David.” That some songs in the Psalter are labelled as “Psalms” won’t be the riveting piece of evidence.[1] On the other hand, Psalm 55 has the heading: “To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Maskil of David.” Now, Maskil is a Hebrew word, meaning song of praise. But the Septuagint translates it using the Greek word hymnois. In Psalm 60, the ESV heads this psalm simply, “Of David,” but the Septuagint reads: “in the hymns of David.”[2] So, Psalms and hymns are both types of songs in the Psalter. Psalm 4 is headed: “A Psalm of David.” Now, our English here says “Psalm,” but the Septuagint has that last word ode.[3] Indeed, since the Septuagint uses both the Greek words psalmos and ode at times to translate the same Hebrew word mizmor (e.g. Ps. 38), which we typically render as “Psalm,” it seems that these Greek words are used with proximate meaning, both referring to the same sort of song in the Psalter. So, when Paul said to sing “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” he used three Greek words taken from the Psalms to designate differing types of Psalms. We might ask, what about the “spiritual” in “spiritual songs”? I’d say that “spiritual” refers simply to their author, since they are the Holy Spirit’s songs.

God Wrote the Psalms

That brings us to our second reason to sing Psalms, reminding ourselves of our opening reflection about Scripture’s sufficiency. The Scripture’s inspiration means that God wrote the Psalms, using David and other writers at the human level but nonetheless remaining their ultimate author. The Psalms are Scripture, so profitable for us in all aspects of the Christian life. An obvious but not often noted point is that we should assume that God is a better songwriter than we are, knowing what songs please him and will profit us in worship. Jesus seemed to endorse this idea because he sang the Psalms, as after the Passover at the last Supper Matthew 26:30 records that “when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” We know that the song sang at the Passover is Psalm 118, which is why many Reformed churches sing a portion of Psalm 118 when we observe the Lord’s Supper. So, there should be at least a priority on Psalm singing, since as Christians we presume that God knows better than we do, including about how to write a song that is good for us to use in worship. If we find humanly produced songs more moving than Psalms, perhaps something is wrong with us rather than the Psalms.

The Psalms Are About Christ

The third reason that the church should find sweetness in Psalm singing is that God wrote the Psalms about Christ. After Christ’s resurrection, he helped the apostles have better insight into how to interpret the Old Testament Scripture, teaching in Luke 24:44–47:

These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

So, the Psalms are the songs God has given his people about our Savior, even from before Christ came in the flesh. This is exactly what we should expect when we rightly understand the covenant of grace and the nature of Scripture as a means of grace, always meant to apply Christ and his benefits to his people. The New Testament frequently quotes the Psalms, even profusely citing Psalm 110 alone, to prove that Christ is God and that he is our ever-sufficient high priest. The ancient church looked thoroughly to the Psalms to explain God’s trinitarian nature. We too can look to the Psalms to know more about Jesus.

The Psalms We Sing Conform Us to Christ

Finally, Psalm singing should be sweet to us because of what the songs we sing in worship do to us. Undoubtedly, our songs used in corporate worship shape us and shape us experientially. But here’s a question about that: What function should songs we sing in worship have in our spiritually experiential lives? Rather than simply giving voice to what we feel, they should also train us in the godly response to the full spectrum of emotion that we encounter in the Christian life. Modern worship is often stunted because its emotional breadth is far more limited than what we find in the Psalms. In other words, the Psalms are more experiential than most contemporary worship music but also guarantee that we have God’s perspective from his Word about a particular emotion. So, as we sing God’s songs, we are also formed to be better at processing this life and responding to it in godly ways with biblical insight to give voice to our experiences.

In sum, in the Psalms God speaks to us of Christ but also helps us understand ourselves better, particularly so that we might grow in being better at being ourselves in relation to God, taking life’s experiences back to him through Christ-centered, Spirit-inspired songs. By singing the Psalter, God teaches us about how the covenant of grace, God’s one way of salvation in Christ spanning every era of redemptive history, is not simply an abstract doctrine but a reality fit to sing about. We join in singing the beauties of Christ, using Old Testament words, because Christ was the savior for them, just as much as he is for us, delighting our hearts as the only redeemer of God’s elect, moving us to song.

Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is a pastor at London City Presbyterian Church, Online Faculty in church history for Westminster Theological Seminary, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).

[1] In the Greek Septuagint, Psalms 1–14, 18–24, 28–30, 37, 39–40, 42–43, 45–50, 61–67, 72, 74–76, 78–84, 86–87, 91, 93, 97–100, 107–109, 138–140, 142.

[2] In the Greek Septuagint, Psalms 6, 53–54, 60, 66, 75.

[3] In the Greek Septuagint, Psalms 17, 29, 38, 44, 47, 64–67, 74–75, 82, 86–87, 90–92, 94–95, 107, 119–133.

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Harrison Perkins
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC), online faculty in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Friday, August 5th 2022

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