I’m enjoying Douglas Wilson’s pieces about what to expect in worship at the family of churches of which he is a part.
Here he turns his thoughts to the place of Psalms in worship and sung praise.
Of special interest is his observation about the inexplicable curiosity of churches which put the injunction to sing ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ into practice by singing no psalms at all.
One marked feature of worship in the CREC is the abundance of psalms. There have been some in the Reformed tradition who have insisted on singing only psalms, but that is not what we are doing. We do not hold to “exclusive psalmody,” but it would be fair to say that we seek to practice common psalmody. While we sing other hymns as well, we do want our dedication to psalms to be overt and evident. Psalms provide the backbone of our musical worship. Why is this?
The apostle Paul tells us to. He says in both Ephesians and Colossians that they are to address one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). We sometimes take this as an exhortation to allow psalms to be thrown “into the mix,” but it is actually stronger than this.
There are three words used here—psalms, hymns, and odes, and in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), these are the three words that are used as the headings throughout the book of Psalms. So we are not told that we cannot sing When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, but we are told that we don’t have the option of leaving Psalm 124 out of our worship altogether.
If a congregation is disciplined in the singing of psalms, then the uninspired hymns they compose and sing will be psalm-like. For just one example, one of the features of the songs in the songbook God inspired for us is the presence of enemies. You would have to search high and low to find any enemies in most Christian songs written over the last century or two. Instead of singing The Son of God Goes Forth to War as the Church Militant, we have gravitated to Kumbaya as sung by the Peace Corps. But when the church is singing psalms, we are not surprised to find compositions like St. Patrick’s Breastplate or A Mighty Fortress. These are not psalms, but they are hymns that sit at the feet of psalms to be instructed and shaped.
When the larger church gave up singing psalms, we were untethered from our God-given baseline. Just as sermons drift away from the truth when they cease to be expository, so also the musical portion of the worship service drifts away from the truth when we don’t have regular musical reminders of what God considers appropriate vocal praise. Because we have refused to ask God to “break their evil arms,” we have wound up where we now are, singing “Jesus is my girlfriend” music. We are convinced that the way out of this cul de sac is to recover the singing of psalms. And that is what we are trying to do.