At the end of a recent men’s book study, we closed with a hymn. It was a simple melody, but rich in content and rhythm. As I drove home I realized the phenomenal rarity of the whole thing. The final words of the hymn said, “And through eternity I’ll sing on.” The hymn writer expressed a desire that few people consider: that the tempo of heaven is the tempo of a new song (Rev. 14:3). The idea of perpetual, eternal singing sounds dreadful unless you congregate in the melody of Jesus often and frequently.
I have often said that the congregation is God’s choir. Jesus is our song leader. We often don’t see Jesus leading us, which is why many dread the singing of church life and if they do show appreciation it’s generally manifested in a passive sort of way–they sing, we listen.
But Jesus wants more. He wants to lead us into green pastures, which is less a metaphor for gentle feelings and more a description of peace after warfare. So, sing! Sing children! Sing old man and maiden! Sing for joy for your God sings over you (Zep. 3:17). Sing to war! Jesus has and will lead us to victory.
The Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord today. Since most churches are not able to have Thursday services, traditionally many of them celebrate Ascension on Sunday. The Ascension of Jesus is barely mentioned in the evangelical vocabulary. We make room for his birth, death, and resurrection, but we tend to put a period where God puts a comma.
If the resurrection was the beginning of Jesus’ enthronement, then the ascension is the establishment of his enthronement. The Ascension activates Christ’s victory in history. The Great Commission is only relevant because of the Ascension. Without the Ascension, the call to baptize and disciple the nations would be meaningless. It is on the basis of Jesus’ enthronement at the right-hand of the Father that we image-bearers can de-throne rulers through the power and authority of our Great Ruler, Jesus Christ.
The Ascension then is a joyful event, because it is the genesis of the Church’s triumph over the world. Further, it defines us as a people of glory and power, not of weakness and shame. As Jesus is ascended, we too enter into his ascension glory (Col. 3:1) This glory exhorts us to embrace full joy. As Alexander Schmemann once wrote:
“The Church was victorious over the world through joy…and she will lose the world when she loses its joy…Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.”
A joy-less Christian faith is a faith that has not ascended. Where Christ is we are.
And we know that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He is ruling and reigning from his heavenly throne. The Father has given him the kingdom (Psalm 2), and now he is preserving, progressing, and perfecting his kingdom. He is bringing all things under subjection (I Cor. 15:24-26).
We know that when he was raised from the dead, Jesus was raised bodily. But Gnostic thinking would have us assume that since Jesus is in heaven he longer needs a physical body. But the same Father who raised Jesus physically, also has his Son sitting beside him in a physical body. As one author observed:
Jesus has gone before us in a way we may follow through the Holy Spirit whom he has sent, because the way is in his flesh, in his humanity. a
Our Lord is in his incarnation body at the right hand of the Father. This has all sorts of implications for us in worship. We are worshipping a God/Man; one who descended in human flesh and who ascended in human flesh. He is not a disembodied spirit. He is truly God and truly man.
As we consider and celebrate the Ascension of our blessed Lord, remember that you are worshiping the One who understands your needs, because he has a body just like you and he rejoices with you because he has a body just like you.
Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. Paraphrased (back)
Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. Paraphrased
Paul’s theology of imitation is a profound theme in his writings. For Paul, Jesus is the way to glory and following that way means we are to become like Jesus. In Philippians, Paul exalts Jesus as the light of the world in the midst of a “crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15). Imitation begins when we are able to see that light as desirable. Paul’s context speaks to the allurement of the Old World. The Old World appealed to the flesh. It was a world of darkness and void. The Old World imitated the dark world of Genesis one before God spoke light into it.
Paul’s theology is offered in the middle of darkness. The Philippians, though consistent in faith (Phil. 2:12), needed to be exhorted to pursue it without fear and trembling, lest their light began to fade. But Paul’s imitation theology was not a theology of perfection it was a theology of inspection; a theology that called us to guard our hearts against the attractions that came our way. These attractions pushed the Philippians to other sources for imitation. Imitation demands seeing the light, cutting off the darkness, and replacing it with life in the Spirit. Imitation is spiritual surgery. To become like Jesus we must do away with selfish ambitions and become like our self-giving Messiah.
Paul’s portrait of the suffering Messiah and the exalted King was meant as an evangelical allurement to the Philippians. “If you want someone to imitate, here’s a suffering Servant who abandoned His heavenly glory, and then gave up His earthly body for our sake.” “Imitate Him!” is Paul’s plea as he writes from prison.
Hold fast to His words of light. He is the light of the world. The Psalmist prayed for guidance when he said: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light into my path,” but that prayer was fulfilled in Jesus who became the lamp to guide our feet to the nations and a light to guide our paths to righteousness.
Professor N.T. Wright’s The Case for the Psalms is now available. The introduction is quite captivating. His personal plea is for a return to the Psalms. The Psalms are “full of power and passion, horrendous misery and unrestrained jubilation, tender sensitivity and powerful hope.” a But they psalms have been neglected. They have been used occasionally as a fill-in for worship services making its titanic role minuscule. Wright observes that popular worship songs sprinkle a few phrases occasionally, but overall, the “steady rhythm and deep soul-searching of the Psalms themselves” have been displaced. b This is not to say that churches should only sing Psalms. I personally believe it is unwise to neglect the beautiful theology of the Church put into music. Wright says, “by all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy.” c. Crazy indeed.
My article entitled 10 Reasons Why You Should Sing the Psalmsreceived a lot of attention and several days later it is still on the front page of The Christian Post. I am grateful for all the e-mails I received from pastors and parishioners alike seeking to benefit from the psalms for their own spiritual edification and the maturation of their own congregation.
In order to provide those resources to a broader audience, I will list many of them here and hope to update them occasionally.
I’d encourage you to visit the Genevan Psalter website. It will provide music and lyrics and a host of links to articles on the Genevan Psalter. This is my favorite Psalter.
You may also wish to visit this site, which will give you some ideas and a general introduction to psalm singing.
Another way to benefit from sung psalms is to simply start listening to psalms on your ipod or computer. For a more contemporary rendition of the Psalms, this CD by Greg Wilbur with Psalms and Hymns published by Ligonier is quite good. Nathan Clark George has done some beautiful versions of the Psalms with guitar accompaniments.
One indispensable selection of psalms put into music is from a dear brother, Jamie Soles ( a CREC elder). Jamie has a wonderful gift of bringing psalms into easy and memorable tunes for children, but I confess I listen to them myself often.A great hymnal to get you started is Psalms for Singing. You can find audio samples on-line. You can also purchase the Cantus Christi,which is a Psalter-Hymnal. The Cantus includes about 75 psalms of the 150 (with several chants). If you would like to hear some of the psalms sung and harmonized, you can purchase this CD. You can also find samples of some of the Psalms on the Cantus Christi:
Finally, for an award-winning website with more information on the Psalms and psalm-singing than you will ever need has been compiled by the saints of Trinity Presbyterian in Birmingham, AL. called The Psalm Project.
NOTE: If you find any additional resources, please let me know.
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 email@example.com.
See Terry Johnson’sThe History of Psalm Singing in the Church; I depended heavily on that article for the quotes on this paragraph (back)
Luther, Martin. Tischreden. No. 2545. Quoted in F. Blume et al., Protestant Church Music (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1974 (back)
With the resurgence of the psalms in many evangelicals circles, I thought I’d re-state some basic themes of the psalms and a couple of thoughts on how they can be used. As a general introduction, the Psalter offers its rich application to us in two central ways:
a) It is all Christological. As Augustine wrote, the psalms speak of the totus Christus. In this sense, it is the most profound way in which the Psalms are applicable. They all speak of Jesus. They all have Jesus as the center of the narrative. Just as Jesus endured human trial and suffered in death and abandonment, so too, the Psalter (though David and others) speak to these experiences. Nothing the Psalmist underwent is outside the general experiences we go through daily and in our lifetimes. Since we all suffer, since we all are called to endure the journey, therefore God provides a means of expressing ourselves. Notice also that the Psalms are not feel-good songs for the comfortable; many are psalms of lament; prayers for us to pray when we do not believe God is answering us as we would like.
b) The Psalms are personalized narratives. They are not meant to be abstract or passionate-less Psalm 55-57, for example, speak to the suffering and the honesty of the Psalmist towards God. God wants us to cry to him as children and He treats us as His own. This is precisely why I advocate specific prayers, rather than generic ones. Rather than looking at these Psalms as distant and foreign songs, we are to personalize them and apply them to our own experiences: “O God, why do you not answer me when I am in despair. For your sake, answer me Lord according to your steadfast love.” The Psalms are prayers for us to use when we do not have words to say. When are mouths are shut due to the pain, the Psalms are songs (prayers) that instruct and provide an outline for us to pray.
So, where to begin?
At the beginning. Take a new translation and choose a particular psalm to meditate on for a while.
Read through Psalm seven as an example for 30 days. Make its verses a part of your daily song.
The Psalter belongs to the church, because they were written for the church to sing. The Old Covenant church (the Jewish church) instead of making it only a matter for the mind actually embodied and lived by the psalter. When a loved one died they sang a psalm, when they were persecuted and feeling like there was no where to go they sang a psalm. This is why the saints who have called upon me in their deathbed knew that Psalm 23 would be appropriate for them minutes before death. They knew, though not in a sophisticated way, that God was their Shepherd and they were the sheep of His pasture.
You cannot understand or even begin to sense the profound nature and power of the psalms until they become a part of who you are; your daily liturgy, and this one thing I guarantee: once they become familiar songs to you the questions you pose will begin to be answered and also shape your view of the world.
God is my shield,
saving those whose hearts are true and right.
Children belong at the table. I have argued for a decade that children of the covenant are recipients of all the covenant benefits. One significant benefit is the means of grace we call the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. Baptism opens the ecclesiastical doors to the Lord’s Table.
I have for so long agreed with those simple statements that the more I interact with Reformation-minded Christians on this issue, the stranger and stranger it becomes. Yes, there are those confessional issues at hand, and there is the most famous Pauline passage in I Corinthians 11:17-34 that is used as an argument for opposing paedocommunion, but if the Reformed paedobaptist is open to considering the Bible afresh without his preconceived notions of what Paul meant, or allowing the text to take precedence over our cherished confessions, then I believe there is an opportunity to re-consider this important matter. As Tim Gallant observes, “no tradition and no confession may be treated as irreformable.”
I do not wish here to elaborate on the many exegetical issues involved. Some books like Tim Gallant’sFeed my Lambs and Strawbridge’sThe Case for Covenant Communion do a fine job elaborating on the more technical discussions surrounding the issue at hand. My desire is to add just one theological point about the inclusion of children in the Psalter.
The Paedocommunionist position argues that children are to be not only included in the worship of the saints, but also that they are to be participants in the worship of the saints. And part of this participation means eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table with the body. To be in the body means to partake of the body. The Paedocommunion position is the natural consequence of paedobaptism. In fact, many come to paedocommunion by considering the logical necessities of paedobaptism.
The Psalter makes a fine case for the inclusion of little children in the ecclesiastical community of the Old Testament. Those of us who wish to apply a covenantal hermeneutic consistently conclude that they are to be also included in the New Covenant promises. If the New Covenant is more glorious and greater, then the NC continues to show favor to children of believers, and not take away that favor. Assuming that to be the case (and certainly this is a limited discussion among paedobaptists), then it is safe to conclude that the Psalter establishes a model of inclusion and not exclusion.
One text that is often overlooked in this discussion is Psalm 148. Psalm 148 is a doxological description of the celestial and earthly praise. God designs creation to display His excellencies and glory. But this glory can only be complete if children are in the picture. Children are also part of this great choir. Children, then, are involved participants in this cosmic refrain of praise. Creation is also involved and is sacramentally nourished by the hands of God. Far from an uninterested and uninvolved God, our God is deeply invested in the affairs of creation and so He sustains them with every good thing.
But at the heart of this chorus are old men and children (na`ar). Man plays a pivotal role in this worship scene. He is the homo adorans (worshiping being).
We can then conclude that the Psalmist engages all sorts of people in the responsibility of praise. And if children are called to praise (Psalm 8:2-3), then they are called to be nourished as participants in that praise. In the Bible everyone who praises eats at some time. I am arguing that those who praise eat very early. When? At the moment they can eat and drink at their earthly father’s table, they should be able to eat at their heavenly father’s table. Simple in my estimation.
We treasure by our very nature as new creation beings (II Cor. 5) the justice of God upon injustice. We are imprecational beings. The Psalms are given for and to us for a particular reason. They are our prayers. They belong to righteous sons and daughters of the King. They are our means to communicate our hunger for justice in this world.
The blessedness of these prayers is that they begin to shape us in a new way. Mixed with the blessings of the covenant are the many curses the covenant brings to those who despise Yahweh. Of course, God’s judgments are pure and perfect and they are acted upon in His time and way. Since this is the case, they usually befuddle our expectations. And naturally, this can be frustrating. While we live in this justice-paradox, we also live knowing that God does not forget His justice. Though time passes painfully for us, God is not emotionally moved by His passion to see His Name and children vindicated.
So as we seek the kingdom of God above all else, let us also seek His justice in that kingdom. And while we do, let us continue to pray faithfully and continue to wait patiently for the God of war to act. His kingdom will prevail and His justice will not fail.