Objections to Psalm Singing

225

In recent Clarion issues, solid biblical reasons have been put forward for why we should be singing more psalms than hymns[1] in worship at church, home, and school. Yet not all are convinced. Some believe that we should sing more hymns than psalms and they have raised objections to singing psalms predominantly. I thought it would be worthwhile to examine three common objections and see how they stack up.  

  1. The Name of Jesus is Missing

Followers of Jesus want to sing about Jesus (naturally enough!) but the Psalms never mention his name. So some say that while it’s okay to use the Psalms from time to time to sing praises to God, Christians should be most concerned with singing praises directly to Jesus or songs about Jesus. For this we need hymns written after the first coming of Jesus.

At first that sounds like a strong argument, but what if we applied it to hymns? Do all biblically sound hymns suitable for church worship actually mention the name Jesus? You might be surprised how many do not, including long-standing favourites Abide With Me, Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision, Crown Him with Many Crowns, It is Well With My Soul, Loving Shepherd of Thy Sheep, O Worship the King, Rock of Ages, and Take my Life and Let it Be. All of these are found in the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal, a song book which has gathered the best hymns of the OPC and URC/CRC traditions.

I went a little further and took a sampling of the TPH’s first thirty hymns and could find only seven that mention the name Jesus. The truth is, aside from the legitimacy and importance of singing hymns to God the Father and the Holy Spirit and the Trinity, many a fine hymn can speak of Jesus by all kinds of other names or even metaphors: Christ, God, Son, Lord, King, Almighty, Saviour, Shepherd, Rock, Truth, and Light to name a few. No one questions whether these are truly Christian songs about Jesus. And if it’s perfectly acceptable to sing of Jesus by other names in our hymns, why not in the Bible’s Psalms?

For the Psalms do actually speak of Jesus by other names. Let me list them:

  • Jesus is the Anointed One (lit. “Christ”). Psalms 2, 18, 20, 28, 45, 89, and 132 speak of the Lord’s anointed one, the king, often first referring to David but ultimately to Jesus.
  • Jesus is God (Col. 1:15–19). When the name “God” appears in the Psalms as it so often does then, unless the context specifies a certain person of the Trinity, we are singing not just of the Father or the Spirit but also of Jesus (e.g. Pss. 3, 4, 5, 7, etc. See also Ps. 45:6 and how this is applied directly to Jesus in Heb. 1:8).
  • Jesus is the Lord (Heb. Yahweh). Many may think this is a reference only to God the Father but the New Testament shows that Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh (see for e.g., Rom. 10:13 and Heb. 1:10–12). Paul tells us that Jesus is worthy of the name that is above all names before whom every knee will bow, which is precisely what Isaiah said of the Lord (Phil. 2:9; cf. Isa. 45:23). The context of a psalm may indicate that the Father is in view (e.g. Ps. 110), but very often God the Son is included like he regularly is when the name “God” is used. Try thinking of Jesus as you sing praise to the Lord with Psalms 29, 33, 35, 84, 100, 115 etcetera and see how fitting it is.
  • Jesus is Lord (Heb. Adonai). Found in many Psalms (Pss. 8, 12, 16, 22 etc. Compare esp. 110:1 with Matt. 22:42–45), “Lord” is frequently applied throughout the NT to Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” became a mini confession of faith for the early church (1 Cor. 12:3).
  • Jesus is King. Many psalms speak of the human king over God’s people (Pss. 45, 61, 63, 72, 89 etc.) and many others describe God as King supreme (Pss. 10, 47, 84, 93–99, 145 etc.). Jesus fits both descriptions. As perfect God and perfect man, as Son of God and Son of David, he is by nature the divine King and he is by calling the human Christ-King who sits on David’s throne (Luke 1:32–33).

When you stand back and think of all the names for God found in the Psalms and how they all apply fully to Jesus (as well as to the Father and the Spirit), then you realize that all the Psalms’ praises are being directed to Jesus as much as to the other members of the Trinity. It also means that all the mighty works of the Lord God and all his blessed characteristics sung about there are being sung of Jesus too.

But it gets better: all the human suffering described in the Psalms is Jesus’ suffering. This is unique to Jesus as the Son of Man (neither the Father nor the Spirit ever became human), the Man of Sorrows. Also, all the human hope and expectations along with the joys and jubilations that the inspired poets put down are expressions of Jesus’ hopes and expectations, joys and jubilations during his earthly ministry. The Psalms reveal to us something about Jesus not even the NT reveals and something no uninspired hymn could ever make known: his inner thoughts and emotions as he suffered throughout his life under the burden of our sin. Just read Psalm 13 or 22 or 40 or 71 or 109 or 118 and see how Jesus is the “I” of those and every Psalm. Feel along with him a little of his pain and anguish as well as his abounding joy in his God, the Father. It can truly be argued that you can’t possibly sing more about Jesus than when you sing the Psalms for only in these songs do you get inside Jesus’ own heart. We simply have to adjust our eyes, roll up our sleeves, and work a little harder to learn to see the Lord Jesus shining through in each of the Psalms.      

  1. The Psalms are Jewish

What is meant by this objection is that the Psalms were written by Jews from the Old Testament period and what’s needed now are songs written by Christians from the New Testament period. The Psalms may speak of Jesus in shadows and figures but what the church needs today are songs that speak of Jesus with the plain teaching of the New Testament.

There is a hidden assumption in this argument that the Old Testament is inferior revelation compared to the New Testament, which is false. All of God’s revelation is of equal value and all of it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Further, a separation is implied between “OT Jewish faith” and “NT Christian faith” whereas the Bible teaches that there is only one Lord and one faith (Eph. 4:5). Abraham, Moses, David and every believer of the Old Testament put their trust in Christ the same as every believer of the New Testament (Heb. 11). Certainly God revealed additional information about the Saviour after the incarnation, but that takes nothing away from the importance of the earlier revelation. As mentioned above, the Psalms reveal things about Jesus that the NT does not (his inner struggles) and so they are every bit as vital for coming to know and believe in Jesus. It’s also true that God implemented changes in the administration of his covenant when he moved history beyond the first coming of Christ, but it remains the same covenant only made new or renewed.

With that in mind it is no surprise that Jesus and his apostles continued to sing the Psalms and taught their followers to do the same (Matt. 26:30). It is remarkable that neither Jesus nor his apostles ever commanded songs to be written about him. The Holy Spirit had already given 150 songs that spoke of Christ and these they happily used (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:18-19). Psalms is the most quoted OT book in the NT and frequently it is quoted to reveal something of Christ (e.g. John 13:18, Acts 2:25–28; Heb. 1:5–13). The shadowy nature of how Jesus is revealed in the Psalms was no obstacle; rather, with the additional revelation of the New Testament those old songs become new, as it were, fresh and full. Just as with NT eyes we can more fully understand how Christ is revealed in the books of Moses or those of Samuel or Kings, so too we can more fully appreciate the depth and nuances of Christ in the Psalms.

  1. We are Commanded to Sing New Songs

The Psalms themselves command us to sing a “new song” (e.g. Ps. 33:3, 40:3, 96:1) and so it is said that believers should continually write new compositions for singing in church.

This too, at first glance, seems like a persuasive argument but notice that there is no command here to “write” a new song, only to “sing” a new song. Further, the expression is never in the plural but always in the singular: sing a new song. That is suggestive and leads to the question: what does the Holy Spirit mean by a “new song”? Were every-day Israelites expected to write and sing new songs continually? Is this how Christ and the Apostles saw this command and is this what they encouraged?

A closer look at these references show in the first place that a “new song” is one which the Holy Spirit gave as revelation to David or one on his appointed associates. This is clear from Psalm 40:3, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (cf. Rev. 14:3). Psalm 40 is itself the “new song” spoken of and that seems to be the same for Psalms 33, 96, 98, and 149 as each one announces the singing of a new song in the opening verses. The special focus of each of these divinely-given new songs is to praise and thank God for a recent act of deliverance.

The emphasis in the expression is not on chronologically new material. As one writer puts it, “In biblical Hebrew, a new song is not necessarily a song that was recently written. The phrase is an idiom for a certain kind of praise song.”[2] The word “new” in Scripture does not always mean brand new, never-before existing. It can often mean “renewed” or “afresh”. For example the “new moon” is the same moon reappearing afresh each month. When Jeremiah tells us that the Lord’s mercies are “new” every morning then he means that we experience the same mercy again and again every day (Lam. 3:22–23). We know that the “new” heavens and earth will be the current heavens and earth renewed by the purifying fire of God (2 Peter 3:10–13). In the same way, the “new songs” given in particular Psalms can serve again and again as fresh expressions of praise to God in different or even totally new situations of deliverance.

The simple fact remains that average Israelites were not under command to write new songs for temple worship. Only David and his appointed men—all of whom were inspired by the Holy Spirit to compose songs for temple worship—were ever permitted to write such songs (1 Chron. 16:4–7). We don’t believe in on-going revelation and so no musician today—no matter how skilled or godly—can be inspired by the Holy Spirit to write the kind of “new song” the Bible speaks of. Also, neither Jesus nor the Apostles commanded much less encouraged NT believers to write their own “new songs.” Rather, their example points us to using the ancient Psalms as peer-less, Spirit-given songs to praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit anew time and again.

This article is not making a case against hymns or the writing of new songs for worship. But I am making the case that hymns should take a back-seat to the Psalms in all our worship. Psalms are the only songs inspired by the Spirit of God. They all speak of Christ and are fully Christian. As God’s revelation, the Psalms have so much to teach us about our Saviour even as we use them sing our laments and praises and thanksgivings to the Lord. They are meant to form our thought-patterns as we think about our God and ourselves and our relationship to him. And God commands them of us. Let’s honour God by singing first and foremost his songs, the Psalms.

 

[1] By “psalms” I mean the 150 biblical Psalms. By “hymns” I mean all other songs intended for Christian worship.
[2] Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio, eds., Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), ix.

(Rev Peter H Holtvluwer is minister of the Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church at Tintern, Ontario. This article was published in Clarion Aug 23, 2019, and is republished here with his kind permission.)