Revivalism

10 Reasons to Sing the Psalms

10 Reasons to Sing the Psalms

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Many of us grew up in theological backgrounds where the psalms were known, but not sung. These theological backgrounds are anomalies throughout the history of the Church. E.F. Harrison observed that “Psalmody was a part of the synagogue service that naturally passed over into the life of the church.” Calvin Stapert speaks of the fathers’ “enthusiastic promotion of psalm-singing” which he says, “reached an unprecedented peak in the fourth century.” James McKinnon speaks of “an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm” for the psalms in the second half of the fourth century. Hughes Oliphint Old argued that Calvin appealed to the church historians (e.g. Eusebius, Socrates, Sozomen) as well as the church fathers (e.g. Augustine, Basil, Chrysostom) for the singing of psalms. While the Reformers did not advocate the exclusive singing of Psalms they did express “a partiality for Psalms and hymns drawn from Scripture.” a 

The Reformer Martin Luther urged that Psalms be sung by congregations so that “the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music b. By the end of the 19th century, however, most hymnals produced had limited psalms to a couple of well-known pieces like Old One-Hundredth. Beyond that, scriptural references had all but disappeared. Terry Johnson summarized the state of psalmlessness:

This eclipse of psalmody in the late nineteenth century is quite unprecedented. The psalms, as we have seen, have been the dominant form of church song beginning with the Church Fathers, all through the Middle Ages, during the Reformation and Post-Reformation eras, and into the modern era. By the beginning of the twentieth century the church had lost the voice through which it had expressed its sung praise for more than 1800 years. c

Though the last hundred years were not psalm-friendly, we have seen in the last 30 years a kind of revival of psalmody in the modern church, especially in the Reformed tradition. New hymnals, like the Cantus Christi, and many others are including old and new psalms ( metrical and chants).

So why should we sing the psalms? Aren’t the 19th century hymns and contemporary songs sufficient to fulfill the worship demands of the modern congregation?

The answer is a resounding no!

There are ten reasons I believe congregations should begin to sing psalms once again:

First, Psalm-singing is an explicit biblical command (Ps. 27:6). The Scriptures encourage us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). To have the word of Christ dwell in you richly means to invest in the rich beauty of the Psalter. How can we sing what we do not know? Is there a better way to internalize the word than to sing it?

Second, Psalm-singing was the ancient practice of the Church and it continued for 1,800 years. We honor our forefathers and our history when we sing their songs.

Third, Calvin observed that the psalms are “An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that it is not represented here as a mirror.” The psalms are satisfying to the human being. We are homos adorans; worship beings. God is not against emotions, he is against emotionalism. The Psalter is an emotional book. It provides comfort for the people of God at different stages of life. As a minister I have never once walked into a hospital room and been asked to read a text from Leviticus or Romans, but rather every time I have been asked to read a psalm (most often Psalm 23). The psalms reach deep inside our humanity in time of pain.

Fourth, singing the psalms builds our Christian piety. It is nurturing to our souls. It is God’s devotional book; God’s hymnal. Singing the psalms restores the joy of our salvation. Ask me what book of the Bible I would take to a desert island, and I will not hesitate to say “The Psalms.”

Fifth, the psalms are ultimately made for the body. You may sing the psalms on your own, but they reach their culmination when sung together. They are meant to be roared (Ps. 47:1), because they were written by the Lion of Judah. When we sing together we are both being edified and edifying one another. “We sing because in singing we join together in common breath and melody in a manner that no other medium can duplicate…We become an assembly unified in purpose and thought. And by our singing, we hear God’s Word for us, and the world hears it loud and clear.” d

Sixth, we should sing the Psalms because they re-shape us; they re-orient our attention. We are a people constantly being sanctified by the Spirit of God, and the Spirit has specifically inspired 150 psalms for our sanctification. How should we pray? How should we ask? How should we lament? The Psalms helps us to answer these questions, and thus shape us more and more after the image of Christ.

Seventh, by singing the Psalms we are worshiping the Spirit. The Spirit hovers, shapes, re-makes in the Bible. He is the music of God in the world. In an age when the Third Person of the Trinity has become the source of theological confusion, the Psalms keeps us focused on His role and purposes in history.

Eighth, we should sing the Psalms because our current songs are often cheap and shallow. The Psalms are rich and full of substance. If we wonder why the evangelical community is so powerless, one reason for this is its trivialized worship. Modern worship is often a pietistic exercise, which is manifested in poorly constructed and pessimistic theology. But the Psalms teaches us that God is full of mercy and powerful over all His enemies (Ps. 2). The Psalms are political statements. They are direct attacks on those who challenge the supremacy of King Jesus.

Ninth, the Psalms should be sung because our children need them. Our little ones need to know the God they worship in profound ways from their earliest days. We become what we worship, and so our children will become what we sing.

Tenth, you should sing the Psalms because the world needs them. The world does not need a weak Gospel. She sees plenty of it already. She needs to hear a Gospel of a God who delights in praise, who will not allow evil to go unpunished, and who prepares a table for us.

This may all sound daunting and strange. But I’d encourage you to take that first step. What first may appear to be strange may become a wonderful journey into praise and thanksgiving to the God from whom all blessings flow.

For more information on how to sing the psalms, or for resources, please contact me at uriesou@gmail.com.

  1. See Terry Johnson’s The History of Psalm Singing in the Church; I depended heavily on that article for the quotes on this paragraph  (back)
  2. Luther, Martin. Tischreden. No. 2545. Quoted in F. Blume et al., Protestant Church Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1974  (back)
  3. Ibid.  (back)
  4. From the article: “Why do we sing the Psalms?”  (back)

How I Have Changed

Photo: Circa 2002, Senior Year at CCC...good times. Now: Ministers, missionary, pharmacist, military chaplain, financial advisor. God has been faithful! Kenneth James Conklin, Timothy J Russell, Matthew Fisher, Tom YuI spent a couple of hours today chatting with an old friend of mine. He is now a pastor of a Lutheran congregation. He is a fine fellow whom I long to re-acquaint face to face with a pipe and a fine beer. After all these years we have kept a relatively lively relationship over the phone. We have even joined forces to write a lengthy piece combating an evangelical prohibitionist advocate of our day.

Interestingly what brought us together even more so in these last few years have been our theological journeys. We both attended a fundamentalist college, but even back then we were already pursuing dangerous literature. One time he brought a book back from home that had a warning sign on its first page written by his mother. The first page stated that we were to be careful as we read this book for it was written by a Calvinist. Lions, and tigers, and Calvinists, oh my!

How far we have come! It has been over 10 years since we parted those glory college days, and now we both are pastoring healthy congregations. We are in different theological traditions, but very rooted in our Protestant commitments. Beyond that, we are rooted in a vastly historic tradition.

As I pondered that conversation I wondered just how much I have changed over this last decade. I went from a revival preacher to a liturgical minister. Now don’t get me wrong, I long for revival, I just don’t long for the same type my brothers long for. This revival I long for is filled with beautiful images, a pattern-filled story, tasty bread, and delightful wine; church colors, rituals– in the best sense of the term—and lots of feasting. While my fundamentalist brothers longed for the sweet by and by, and times they would gather at the river to sing of that ol’ time religion. Those romantic days no longer appeal to me.

How have I changed? In so many ways! But my changes were not just theological. I have held the same convictions I have today on a host of issues for over 10 years. My changes were more situational and existential (and normative for the tri-perspectivalists out there). My reality has changed. I now treasure different things that I did not treasure a decade ago. You may say marriage does that, but the reality is I have taken my sola scriptura to the next level. I have begun to see its applicability beyond the sphere of the mind. The arm-chair theologian no longer seems admirable. Even marriage carries a symbolic significance to me. This is not just a privatized institution; it is, to quote Schmemann, “for the sake of the world.” Yes, I have changed.

I have also changed existentially. I have learned to delve deeply into personal piety and have found it refreshing. In the past my piety led me into the valley of pietism. It was discouraging; pessimistic. Now my piety keeps me in green pastures. My existential struggle with doubt is no longer a reality. I have found objectivity in the most unlikely places. They have kept me secure and alert to my own tendencies; to the idols that I have failed to crush. Jesus has become more than an intellectual pursuit, but the heart of the issues, because he is the heart of history.

Yes, I have changed since my college days. I would like even to affirm that this is the new me; a “me” broken by idolatry and restored and renewed by word, water, and wine. Thanks be to God!

Patrick Henry and the Revivalists

Thomas Kidd describes Rev. Patrick Henry’s (the revolutionary’s uncle) reaction to the revivalist era:

For the revivalists, religiosity and morality were not enough for Christians: instead, they focused on the experience of personal conversion, or being “born again.” Some of the new preachers even hinted that certain of the Anglican parsons had never truly put their faith in Jesus for salvation. Pastor Patrick Henry thought that the evangelicals only whipped crowds into a religious frenzy, reporting that they screamed at their congregations that they all were “damn’d double damn’d, whose souls are in hell, though they are alive on earth, lumps of hellfire, incarnate devils, 1000 times worse than devils.” An alarmed Pastor Henry envisioned these wild preachers shouting and beating their pulpits until their frightened audience fell into convulsions (30).

{Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots}

Charles Finney: Revivalism and False Assurance

It is generally agreed among scholars that Charles Finney brought into the American culture the definitive catechism of revivalism. Its affects are lasting and still endure in evangelicalism. Not only was there a denial of the monergistic work of the Spirit but also an emphasis upon the sinner to ask, cry, repent, receive, walk down the aisle, raise his hand, pray a prayer, and all the meticulous and intricate steps to finally arrive at a place where you can feel secure in your salvation. After all, John says, “these things I have written that you may know that you have eternal life,” (I John 5:13) and whatever “knowing” requires that is what I will do. Of course, after this series of sentimental experiences comes the guilt years, which usually occur during the teenage years if you grow up in a typical evangelical home.

It may seem odd to think that such series of decisions would be equivalent to the gospel. The reality is that this list of necessary occurrences in order to experience true salvation is foreign to the Biblical text. It belittles the message of the cross and further enhances the confusion in the already confused and troubled evangelical mind.

There is no denial that revivals have brought about genuine conversions, but I do deny that it has been beneficial to the body as a whole. A multitude of souls is even too expensive a price in light of faithfulness to the truth. As someone has stated:

Revivals ‘may be useful’ – or even necessary – just as violent remedies are not the proper and ordinary means of saving life, but such remedies are not the proper and ordinary means of sustaining and promoting health.

It is health we need. We have plenty of remedies, just not the right ones. As Steve Schlissel once put it, “There is too much evangelism today, just not the right kind.”

In order for the gospel of grace to be preached effectively we need to destroy the concept of self-reliance and resurrect the concept of dependence. It is God alone who brings about revivals, that is, a revival of the heart. Souls need to be resurrected from their spiritual death. The author of resurrection is said to be like the wind and you can’t tell the wind to meet you in a cold evening at a tent revival.

The shocking consequences of this mentality has led some to atheism or to a moderfinneygif.gifn form of Pelagianism. If we seek to be conformed to the standards of modern evangelicalism, we lose our Biblical identity, but if we seek to apply gospel truth to our everyday, then we destroy our fleshly instincts. This is exactly what we are called to do: to lose our lives in order that we may walk according to the Spirit. The Christian may find rest in the gospel even today.

The calamity befallen in the church is a direct result of a foundational misunderstanding of the good news; that is: you can never get over it. You need it everyday and every hour. If you want to be assured of your faith, then trust in the gospel again and again. Taste of the goodness of the vine in the table of our Lord. Abandon the hypocrisy of weekly re-commitments and embrace Christ once and for all.