Why We Sing the Psalms in Worship

Dr. Benjamin Harding, now Dean of the School of Music at Cairn University, penned this post on singing Psalms in Worship in July of 2014.  I re-post for your edification.

As we have been under the preaching of God’s Word in the book of Acts for some weeks now, we can see how integral the Psalms are to the theology, worship and spiritual sustenance of the Apostles and the early church. The Psalms are called upon to explain key aspects of the climax in redemptive history: Jesus Christ’s life and work. We have seen that the Psalms were heavily referenced in the first sermons of the Christian church and in the gatherings of God’s people.

Colossians 3:16 exhorts, “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.” Much ink has been spent regarding what the terms “hymns” and “spiritual songs” mean. But, we see clearly the reference to “psalms.” We, Jesus Christ’s church, are commanded to sing Psalms for our Savior’s praise and for spiritual growth and sustenance.

The Psalms as a volume, most likely assembled by Ezra, have sustained the people of God as they sang them in exile; returning to the land; having a prominent place in the daily worship in the synagogue and the third Temple, in the early Christian church, in Patristic liturgy, and in the Offices and Hours of the church. For the Reformers, a recasting of the importance of the worship of God with the use of singing the Psalms clearly and with understanding was of utmost importance. The people of God were to sing the Word of God together in clear, precise and understandable words (in the common tongue) and melodies. 

John Calvin was one of those previously mentioned Reformers who saw the importance of singing the Psalms. In the Preface of the Genevan Psalter written by Calvin in 1543, you can see that Calvin was very interested in the idea that worship would be presented in a clear and understandable manner. Calvin’s Psalter, of course, was inspired by his exile in Strasbourg and coming into friendship with the Reformer, Martin Bucer and learning from his Psalter. Bucer, a theologian, asked excellent musicians to compose and arrange, singable melodies to the psalms.

Two key aspects in the use of Psalms in worship come to the forefront for me in the Preface of the Genevan Psalter. First, for Calvin the Psalms are clear in their presentation of Christian theology. In my view, the Psalms speak of almost every category in theology. The Psalms teach the language of faith; and by singing them, the people of God are sustained. Secondly for Calvin, the melodies to be sung must be easy enough for the congregation to sing and yet reflect well the topic being sung. Melodies must be refreshed and made new. They need to adorn the text being sung and then relate to the congregation who sings them.

We are going to be introducing some of the Psalms for singing in our worship services at Evangelical Presbyterian Church. This Summer, we will be introducing some of these settings to our congregation through our Summer Choir. Come, and join us! See the rehearsal schedule listed in the Grapevine, in the bulletin and below this blog post. This Fall we will continue to introduce several settings of the Psalms. You will find it refreshing that many musicians across the country are setting the Psalms musically once again to fresh melodies suited to the text. I known that there are many testimonies of how the Psalms have sustained us as the people of God at EP, and they have done so in my life as well. I look forward to singing and treasuring those Psalms with you all.