Psalms in worship …

As I’ve already said, I believe that the book of Psalms is the only legitimate song book of the church. I believe this because I see this as the consistent teaching of the Bible. Some people have suggested to me that this view is simply the 16th-17th century puritans’ reaction against the abuses of the mediaeval church, but that isn’t the case. For example, I was reading the introduction to John Owen’s Commentary on Hebrews (he was explaining the meaning of the word ‘canon’ as a collective term for the books that are included in God’s written word), and he provided the following quotations from the early church fathers as illustrations of the use of the word:

Council of Laodicea (AD 363–364) said this, “That no private Psalms ought to be said or read in church, nor any uncanonical books, but only the canonical books of the New and Old Testaments”.

Note: ‘private Psalms’ are non-Bible songs that Christians create. These, according to this council, are not to be sung in church. Also note that the word ‘said’ in the quote refers both to speaking and singing. Bible itself regards these activities as fulfilling the same task of communication — see the title of Psalm 18 and Ephesians 5:19.

Augustine (AD 354–430) said this, “Let them demonstrate their church, not by the rumours of Africanus, but by the prescriptions of the law, the predictions of the prophets, the songs of the Psalms, that is by the canonical authority of the holy books of scripture.”

Augustine aligns the characteristics of the true church not only with the doctrine of the Psalms but also with the singing of them.

Psalm 3: It is not about me

Not about me

My time as a teacher was good. The principal and the school administration were on my side, my colleagues were easy to get along with, and the students were ok. But over four and a half years there were times of stress that messed with my thinking. There were times when l wished that my situation was different. Occasionally I irrationally thought that the world was against me. Happily these dark times were few, but during them I found myself driving to school singing Ps 3: ‘Oh Lord how are my foes increased, against me many rise.’

Now, this Psalm was undoubtedly written for the comfort of God’s people. It is for their peace and consolation. But the Psalm is NOT about me, and it is not about you. We may not apply this Psalm directly to ourselves.

That is what the title of the Psalm tells us, and it is important information. The Hebrew titles of the Psalms are as much the word of God as the Psalms themselves. The title of this Psalm tells us that the ‘me’ and the ‘I’ in this Psalm refer to king David, or more correctly, to the Lord’s anointed.

The word ‘anointed’ refers to the fact that, in ancient Israel, kings and priests, and sometimes prophets, had oil poured on their heads when they were given their job of king, priest or prophet. The Bible term for a person so anointed is Messiah or Christ. Jesus himself told his disciples, after he had risen from the dead, that the law, the prophets and the psalms were all about him (Luke 24:44).

This refers not only to the famous Messianic Psalms, like Ps 2, 8, 16, 22, 45 and 110, but in one way or another to all 150 Psalms.

So the Psalm is about the troubles and victory of the LORD’s anointed, the Christ.

The title tells us of David’s troubles. His son Absalom had staged a coup, a revolution. He has won the support of important high officials, he has stolen the heart of many of the people, and David and his few remaining followers had fled the City of Jerusalem. War is upon him. Ahithophel, David’s old friend and advisor, has gone over to Absalom and has counselled him to attack David immediately and kill him while his forces are still unorganised.

David’s situation

How my foes have increased… How many rise up against me.

David had had his share of enemies in the past. Goliath, king Saul, the surrounding pagan nations but they did not hurt like his new enemies. These new enemies came from his family, his friends and his people. These troubles came as a result of David’s sins of adultery and murder. God had freely forgiven David these terrible crimes, but told him plainly that serious trouble would come to him because of these outrages.

Trouble came. Absalom had become estranged from David when Absalom murdered his half-brother, Amnon. You see, Amnon had raped Absalom’s sister. After a half-hearted reconciliation with David, Absalom used the opportunity to plot against his father, over throw him, rape his father’s concubines, and then plot his father’s death.

How many say, there is no help for him in God.

People were saying that David was as good as dead. Even God, his God, could not or would not save him.

‘Could not’: If they meant this, it was a blasphemy designed to throw David into despair in an argument from his present circumstances.

All the power of the kingdom was now arrayed against him. David, from a human point of view, was as good as dead. No one, it seemed, could possibly rescue David from his plight, not even God. And, if David was lost, the few who followed him would be lost as well. If his followers were to be safe, David would have to win out of these troubles. Their hope was bound to David.

‘Would not’: This argument was to bring David to despair by considering his present troubles as God’s final rejection of David. It was as if his enemies were saying, ‘God had remove king Saul for his sins, so now God is removing David for his sins. God has abandoned him. David has no hope in God become God has withdrawn his love and protection. David is lost.’ (2 Sam 16:5-8)

Remember, if David is lost, abandoned by God, so are those who follow him.

‘But you are my shield and glory’. How could David say this?

First, God had spoken mercifully to him. In this darkest hour, God’s assurance — spoken in the past, but not revoked — was David’s hope. You, Lord, are the one who lifts up my head. You have kept me from despair. You have shown me mercy. The Lord was David’s hope despite present circumstances.

Second, because David was assured of God’s love to him, he could rely upon him as he had in the past. ‘You have always struck my foes’. David’s past victories in battle were due to God acting for him. God had disabled David’s enemies. ‘I will not be afraid of 10 thousands of people’.

This hope of David’s was also the hope of David’s followers. When God saves David, David’s people are saved too. In fact, David only had a people — he had only became King — because God had defeated Saul, David’s foe. God had subdue these people under David.

‘I lay down and slept, and I awakened, for God restored my life.’

These words indicate David’s confidence in the Lord. He could sleep peacefully in the midst of great trouble and danger, because God was for him. God was with him to save his life.

David and his follows were not disappointed in their trust in God. The enemy was defeated. David was restored to his throne. The Lord again had set his anointed on his holy hill (Ps.2).

Christ the Lord’s anointed.

We cannot leave Ps 3 there. Our Lord Jesus has told us that this Psalm and all the Psalms are about him. What is the pattern?

A king rejected by his own people. They had rebelled against him. ‘He came to his own and his own did not receive him’. They would not have Jesus rule over them.

A king crying out to his God —

  • In the garden before his arrest ‘If it be your will, let this cup — this judgement — pass from me.
  • on the cross… ‘Father forgive them’; ‘My God, why have you forsaken me’; ‘Into your hands I commit my spirit.’
  • Hebrews 5:7-9 Jesus, ‘who, in the days of his fresh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong cryings and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard’.

A king betrayed by a friend. ‘Judas, one of the twelve, with a great crowd with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders’

A king surrounded by his enemies and thought to be as good as dead. This happened most clearly on the cross. ‘Save yourself, if you are the Christ, the son of God.’

A king suffering for sin, but in Jesus’ case, not for his own sins, but because he was taking responsibility for the sins of his people. ‘The son of man has come to give his life as a ransom for many’ … ‘By his wounds we are healed.’

A king who was as good as dead, who really lay down, not in sleep but in death. Yet this king was awakened — raised from the dead — because the Lord sustained his life.

By these things, our Lord Jesus Christ brought salvation to his people, by his death and resurrection he subdued his rebellious people to himself and saved them.

‘Salvation belongs to the Lord’ It is his alone to give or withhold. The Lord saves his anointed, and as he is saved, his people are saved too. ‘Blessing — or happiness; salvation!– be upon your people.’

Notice again that the Psalm is about the Lord’s anointed. His troubles because of sin, and his victory over sin and death. As the Christ wins, he saves his people and defeats his enemies.

We have nothing to do in this battle against sin and death but to trust ourselves to the Christ, the Lord’s anointed. Because he has won, we are saved.

Because we are saved, we may now live under the kingly rule of our Lord and saviour, Jesus Christ.

Worship: The singing of Psalms with grace in the heart

The following arguments are premised upon the belief that the Scriptures alone are our source of information about the worship of God, and that the Scriptures alone are our guide in what ought to characterise our praise of him.

The Psalms (150 scripture songs) are manifestly a portion of God’s word and they are intended for use by God’s people in their sung praise of Him.  Old and New Testament practice confirms this view.

There is no evidence in either the Old or New Testament that uninspired hymns or songs were used in the public worship of God. There is no indication in the New Testament that new, uninspired songs are to be composed for use in public worship.  While some Corinthians were encouraged to bring a psalm, no one was encouraged to compose a song for use in the pubic praise of God; not in 1 Corinthians 14 nor anywhere else in the New Testament.

Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 indicate that Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs are to be sung when God’s people meet (speaking to one another by them).  This practice is encouraged so that they ‘might be filled with the Spirit’ and that ‘the word of Christ might dwell in [them] richly in all wisdom’.  It might be objected that Psalms are only one of three categories of songs mentioned in these two verses, but I think that there is more than sufficient reason to believe that only the Psalms are meant (see 1. below), or, at least, only songs that are given to us in the Word of God (see 2. below).

  1. These three words (Psalms, Hymns and Songs) are all used to indicate the 150 Psalms of the Bible. Note the titles of the Psalms. The descriptor, ‘Psalm’, is used at the head of Ps.3-6; 8-9; 12-13 15, 19-24, 29-31, 38-41, 47-51, 62-68, 73-77, 79-80, 82-85, 87-88, 92-98, 100-101, 108-110); for ‘Hymn’ see Ps.5, 54-55, 61 and 72 (Ps. 72 refers to all of David’s psalms as ‘hymns’ or sung prayers); for ‘Song’ see Ps.18, 30, 46-47, 48, 66-68, 75-76, 83, 87-88, 92, 108 and 120-134. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) was the Bible version used throughout the Christian world in the first century AD. The LXX added several titles to the Psalms, which our Hebrew text left untitled. The early Christians would have recognised ‘psalms, hymns and songs’ as referring to these titles of the Psalms. Matthew 26:30 uses the word ‘hymn’ to refer to paschal Psalms, which were given no titles in the Hebrew OT. From these facts it may be argued that Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 refer exclusively to the Psalms of the Old Testament.
  2. Even if the three words do not refer exclusively to the 150 Psalms, they are each referred to as ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikais).  The fact that this adjective is feminine (ostensibly referring only to odais, songs) is no barrier to this idea. It is in fact a strong confirmation of it.  The adjective, spiritual, is used in such a way as to indicate that it refers to each of the three words.  Now, the adjective pneumatikos is used to refer to a person or thing that is the particular work of the Holy Spirit, and ‘spiritual’ for this reason. For example, the things of the Spirit of God are not received by the natural man, for they are foolishness to him, but the spiritual man (the one who is so by virtue of the infallible work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration) is now able to discern and receive what the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual (1 Corinthians 2:12-16).
  3. The Psalms are the most obvious source of Scripture Songs. There are very few examples of any others (Ex. 15, Habakkuk 3, Rev. 4:11, 5:9-10 & 12, 11:17-18 (maybe), and Rev. 15:3-4).  Mary might have sung the words in Luke 2:46-55 (as might Zacharias and Simeon their significant comments in Luke), but we are not told this.  Even if they had, these are not examples of congregational singing.

The scriptures are now complete. No new revelations of the Spirit are to be expected, and so no songs other than Scripture songs can now fall into the category of ‘spiritual’ songs.

Some advantages of Psalm singing:

  • It is a way to get to know a large portion of God’s word (the book of Psalms), a portion of the Bible that Martin Luther called the Bible in miniature.
  • It avoids unnecessary subjectivism in worship. Very few of the ‘I’s in the Psalms refer to us, but rather to the Lord’s anointed, or the Christ. Further, Psalm singing is a public, group proclamation of the word of God. This gives, I think, a helpful and sensible reading to women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:5. The whole congregation is prophesying (making God’s will known) by means of the Psalms. I Corinthians 14 also refers to the whole congregation prophesying (referring, I believe to their Psalm singing) with a powerful effect upon visitors.
  • It avoids unscriptural teaching. Of course, as with any other portion of scripture, we need to understand the word. In this way, singing Psalms also becomes a teaching opportunity.

Everything old is new again! Psalm 96

Oh sing a new song to the Lord! Sing to the Lord all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless His name;
Proclaim the good news of His salvation from day to day.

I don’t know about things in your end of the world, but it’s been a long time since my church group has sung, deliberately and together, a Bible psalm. With all the singing done at church, the 150 songs of God’s composition seem to be ignored. It seems that the thinking behind this practice of not singing psalms has to do with wanting to sing new songs. Singing a ‘new song’ is surely a Bible idea, but I think the Bible’s idea of a new song is different from this modern practice.

First of all, the exhortation in Psalm 96 is to sing a new song, not to write one. The writing of Psalms was to be the work of people who had the designation of ‘prophet’. David, we are told, was a prophet since he foretold, for example, the resurrection of Jesus in Psalm 16 (Act 2:30). In fact, all the writers of the Psalms were prophets/seers (1 Chronicles 25:1-7), who spoke as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20). In that case, these Bible Psalms were of no private interpretation; they were not merely the reflections of the human author but, as they are in truth, the Word of God and the songs of the Lord. We have no prophets of this type any more, the ‘new songs’ have been written. We now have the privilege to sing them.

So how can old songs be ‘new’? When we see them afresh in Jesus Christ. For example, when there was revival in the Old Testament Church during king Hezekiah’s reign, he commanded ‘the Levites to sing praise to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads in worship’ (2 Chronicles 29:30). When the Holy Spirit brings our focus back to the Gospel “the good news of His salvation”, these ‘old songs’ – then 300 years old — were sung with vigour and joy. They were made ‘new’ again because the Gospel had come to them again in newness and freshness.

Well, you might say, that’s very Old Testament. We live in the freedom of the New. We do things Jesus’ way. That’s fine. Jesus was a Psalm singer (the hymn of Matthew 26:30 was undoubtedly a Psalm), he told his disciples that the Psalms spoke of Him (Luke 24:44) and he enabled them to see things that way (Luke 24:45). The first three Chapters of the book of Hebrews alone makes it abundantly clear that the Psalms speak of Jesus. Again, Paul in Eph. 5:18-19 and Col. 3:16 urges the church to sing Psalms, Hymns and Songs Spiritual (the adjective applies to all three words). The word ‘spiritual’ usually indicates something that is particularly a work of the Holy Spirit. These songs are word-of-God songs, as the context implies: — ‘be filled with the Spirit’; ‘let the word of God dwell in you richly’. Further, in I Corinthians 14 Paul tells the church to bring a Psalm (note, ‘bring’ not ‘write’) for their community times of worship.  Because Jesus rose from the dead (Ps. 16), we have newness of life. The old songs become new again.

The New Testament church was a Psalm singing church, and they sang Psalms in worship of their risen Saviour Jesus, who is both Lord and Christ (Ps.2) . Why are we apparently so reluctant to do the same?