Why the Church needs to sing the Psalms

Rob Slane  ·  Jun 01, 2013

This article is nothing more and nothing less than an encouragement for families and churches to sing the Psalms. For the record, I attend a church which holds to a position of exclusive psalmody. However, I am not here arguing for this position, not least because I have never been fully persuaded by the arguments that are usually given for exclusive psalmody. Neither is this piece a technical examination of the Scriptural reasons as to why psalm singing is important.

Rather, I just wish to set out a few very simple reasons why psalm singing is needed, especially in the times we are living in. If your family and your church do not currently sing psalms, I hope that by the end of the article you will at least have been challenged to give them a go. If your family and your church do already sing psalms, I hope that you will go away with a desire to sing them with more joy and gusto.

So, caveats aside, why ought psalmody play some part in your family and church worship? I have three simple reasons. Firstly, God gave us the Psalms and exhorted us many times in His Word to sing them. Secondly, the Psalms are specially designed to shape the way we think about worship and life. Finally, in times of great wickedness, the Psalms are God’s way of causing his people to actually believe that deliverance will come.

As I said above, this piece is not an argument for exclusive psalmody. It is, however, a case for what you might call inclusive psalmody. The Psalms, which form the largest book in the Bible, were clearly meant to be sung, and the Bible gives many exhortations for us to sing them. This is most clearly seen in the Psalms themselves: “Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; talk you of all His wondrous works” (Psalm 105:2); “Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms” (Psalm 95:2); “Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm” (Psalm 98:5).

And lest we be tempted to write these exhortations off as a bit too “Old Testament,” the New Testament writers were equally clear that we ought to sing the Psalms. “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19); “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16); “Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any merry? Let him sing psalms” (James 5:13).

The passages from Ephesians and Colossians have been hotly debated amongst scholars. What do the words translated “hymns” and “spiritual songs” mean? Are they intended to indicate different sections of the Book of Psalms, or is Paul giving Christians liberty to sing their own compositions in worship? Whatever is meant by these two words, one thing is beyond dispute: Paul’s exhortation most definitely did include the Psalms. It is therefore extremely difficult to deny that God has intended that the Psalms should take at least some place in our corporate worship.

The second reason that I want to encourage you to sing the Psalms is that there is nothing else like them for shaping your worldview. One of the most striking things about the Psalms is that, perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, they establish the antithesis, with wickedness on one side and righteousness on the other. This is seen clearly in the very first Psalm which divides between the blessed man who “walks not in the counsel of the ungodly” on the one hand, and the ungodly man who is “like the chaff which the wind drives away” on the other. The righteous man, it goes on to say, is like “a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season,” in contrast to “the way of the ungodly (which) shall perish.”

Now if you sing this type of thing on a regular basis, it is bound to have an effect on your view of the world. Singing the Psalms is one of the surest ways of beginning to get away from our naturally humanistic view of the world, and to start seeing the world from God’s vantage point. After singing the Psalms over time, as we imbibe their teaching slowly but surely, we start to think God’s thoughts after Him.

But why should we need to sing them in order to get maximum benefit from them? Simply because God has created a world where singing and listening to songs is often the best way to leave a lasting impression on us. You know what it’s like when you get a song stuck in your head. It might be the worst sort of banal tripe imaginable, but it stays with you and sticks in your mind. So do the Psalms when sung repeatedly. This is why in the passage from Colossians quoted before, Paul tells us that the Psalms are the Word of Christ which should dwell in us richly in all wisdom, and that through singing them we are taught and admonished. Singing the Psalms is one of the most effective ways that God has given us of learning His thoughts.

And what are we being taught? We are being taught what God is like: mighty (Psalm 24:8), merciful (103:8), faithful (36:5), awesome (47:2), gracious (116:5), glorious (72:19), righteous (11:7), holy (22:3), and infinite in understanding (147:5). We are being taught who He is to us: the rock of our salvation (95:1), a strong tower (61:3), a great King (47:2), a helper to the fatherless (10:14), and the lifter up of the humble (147:6). We are taught Who He is to the unrepentant: a just judge and angry with the wicked every day (7:11), the smasher of the oppressor (72:4), the One Who will require an account (10:13-14), the caster down of the wicked (147:6). We are being taught how to worship God: with our whole heart (9:1), shouting joyfully before the Lord the King (98:6), with thankfulness (147:7).

We are also taught many things about ourselves: we are poor and needy (40:17), in need of forgiveness (25:18), blessed when we receive it (32:1), righteous in God’s sight (34:15), fearfully and wonderfully made (139:14), and created to take dominion (8:4-8). We are taught what we should be: upright (15:2), truthful (15:2), peace-seekers (34:14), full of compassion (112:4), helpers of the poor (112:9), and haters of evil (97:10). We are taught what to avoid: speaking evil (34:13), doing evil (34:14), taking bribes (15:5), exploiting the poor (15:5), and pride (119:21). We are taught what shall be the lot of the person who walks constantly in God’s ways: his family shall be greatly blessed (128), he shall prosper (1:3), he shall have the desires of his heart (37:4), he shall inherit the earth (37:9), and his descendants shall inherit the earth (25:13).

Much more could be said, but hopefully that’s enough to see that the Psalms contain a full-orbed, holistic and glorious Christian worldview.

The final exhortation to sing the Psalms is that they are peculiarly suited to the times we are living in. An argument could be made that one of the reasons that we find ourselves living in such days of decline is that the Psalms were replaced by hymns throughout the Christian world over the past few centuries. If it’s true that the Psalms really do contain the full-orbed Christian worldview as I have suggested above, what might be the effect if we abandoned them and sang nothing but hymns? What it would mean is that much of the teaching contained in the Psalms could be lost as the man-made replacements could tend to over-emphasise certain aspects of God and the Christian life, while perhaps diminishing others.

Over time this would mean that the worldview among Christians could be watered down. And if the worldview was watered down, what would happen to Christian influence in the surrounding world and culture? Well, that would be watered down, too, until at some point, you would get to the stage where Christianity became a joke in the eyes of its enemies.

But thankfully we have the antidote freely given to us. The Psalms were made for times like these. They are full of the enemies of God lording it over the people of God, but they are also full of the triumphs of God over these very enemies. The Psalms are songs of victory. They lead us out of despair, out of hopelessness and into a faith which is assured that God will arise and scatter His enemies (Psalm 68:1).

The Psalms contain a power all of their own—they are the inspired Word of Christ. The more you sing them, the more you believe what they say. And the more you believe what they say, the more your faith will grow. And the more your faith grows, the more likely it is that God will come down and do what He has said He will do in the Psalms. They are what you might call self-authenticating. This is why the Church needs to sing the Psalms.

If you do not currently sing the Psalms, I hope that this piece encourages you to at least consider including the Psalms in your worship. And if you already do sing the Psalms, that’s great. Now go and sing them more loudly and with even more joy.

Rob Slane lives with his wife and five home-educated children in Salisbury, England. He is the author of The God Reality: A Critique of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, contributes to the Canadian magazine, Reformed Perspective, and blogs on cultural issues from a Biblical perspective at www.theblogmire.com.

David Murray has compiled these links on psalmody.