Surprised by the Psalms

Yesterday in morning worship the first words we sang together were those of Psalm 100, unaccompanied. Around 100 people lifted their voices, some spontaneously assuming the ‘parts’, with a blend of voices old and young. It was a moment of beauty, spiritually and aesthetically, an articulation of our mutual ownership of the Old Testament’s songbook and its profoundly articulated sentiments – we were, in short, rejoicing in Psalm singing together.

For my Reformed Presbyterian brothers and sisters my opening paragraph must sound like a ‘no brainer’, or a simple assertion of ‘business as usual’, but as a Baptist pastor the singing of Psalms is something that we have been self-consciously cultivating and accommodating to our worship as a church over a number of years. My childhood in the Brethren movement gradually migrated to the Baptist church, which in itself has moved along the scale away from fundamentalism to Reformed principles. For the better part of my life as a Christian the Psalms were simply not sung in public worship, apart from the odd brief foray into Isaac Watts’ paraphrases. When I came to Reformed theological principles in my mid to late twenties I was exposed for the first time to the power and beauty of Psalm singing, and it is something which I have been actively developing in my own private worship, and in the worship of the church in which I serve. We now have a reasonable repertoire of Psalms which we can sing together, and we are constantly trying to find fresh pieces to add to it.

My spiritual biography in relation to the Psalms, then, is one of being surprised by them, of being awakened to the powerful and residual benefit they bring to public gatherings of God’s people, of a realisation of their breadth and scope and clarity as sung expressions of faith.

David Robertson writes today of the ‘Sing!’ Conference currently taking place in Nashville, and its capacity to spark a revolution in churches as the Psalms are re-centred in our worship. He asks the question of his evangelical brethren as to why they have neglected the Psalms, and then offers 10 great motives for singing them.

In this article I want to answer his original question, by suggesting five impediments to Psalm singing which I have felt personally and encountered more broadly among those who come from a similar spiritual heritage as my own:

1. The centrality of Sankey: when I was growing up there were largely two worship ‘camps’ – those who were advocating the adoption of modern choruses (often in a Spring Harvest vein) and those who were championing older hymns (mostly contained in ‘red books’ of varying descriptions). These older hymns were often not those of Toplady, Wesley, Watts, or Newton, but songs which carried the fragrance of mission tent canvas, of robust shanty-like melodies, and of repeated refrains. There was much of value in these hymn books, but also a tendency towards the subjective, the sentimental, the introspective, and these songs could mask the wider hymnody which lay behind them.

2. A concern to be contemporary: the other side of the worship divide which I encountered as a young Christian was the tendency to completely revise, rewrite and update the hymnody of the church. These were songs normally written in the imperative, often short in form and long in repetition, with a certain vapidity to the melodies they carried. There were, again, some gems among these songs, but many of these pieces were readily forgotten when the next ring bound music book emerged, or when the overhead acetates (remember those!) were replaced.

3 A tendency to monotone positivity: the music of my background was inveterately positive and victorious in its outlook, traditional and modern. The Christian life was one of focus, of fastidious adherence to the faith, of proclaimed growth. The only difficulty with this phenomenon was that our sung experience and our lived experience could readily be found at odds. We didn’t talk about ‘struggle’ in the Christian life, our emphasis in worship was on uniform presentation rather than varied expression, and I now know that that kind of environment can be deeply disconsolate for those who are genuinely wrestling with their faith, their circumstances, or both. In that kind of church culture the Psalms are surprising in the wrong way, they are disjointed from the militancy of much of our hymnody, they are expressive of the grit as well as the grace of Christian living, they regularly bring us into the minor key and make us say and pray and sing what we might not otherwise dare to.

4. A widespread undervaluing of the Old Testament: I am privileged to live and minister in a context which now understands and emphasises the value and relevance of the Old Testament to Christian experience. While my background stood fastidiously for the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures, in practice the New Testament was preached, and the Old Testament was at best mined for illustrations, or at worst butchered by skewed allegorical readings. The Old Testament as part of the continuum of God’s gracious revelation of the gospel was not emphasised, and a byproduct of this was that the Psalter was often set aside as a resource for God’s worshipping people.

5. A lack of viable resources: even had we wished to sing the Psalms in the past our resources for doing so were sparse. I have come to value the ‘Psalms for Singing’ produced by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, the modern settings of Psalms which have increasingly emerged in recent years, and the plethora of online resources for learning ‘meter’ tunes and new songs alike. I am also grateful for the wider horizons that the online world has brought in terms of encountering and understanding the traditions of Psalm singing, and the innovations that are taking place there. We might be tempted to feel that ‘information silos’ and ‘feedback loops’ are the outcome of social media, but in church circles before the ubiquity of the Internet our stated or unstated creed was ‘you in your small corner, and I in mine’. I worshipped in one church from my late teens until adulthood, was a committed member, and rarely went to any other services. I simply didn’t know about the riches which were already extant among brothers and sisters in other traditions. That sense of global resourcing has also been greatly enhanced by the work and mission of Keith and Kristyn Getty and many others like them, who are insistently driving the hymnody of the church into an ever greater understanding of itself and its theology.

I am glad to have been ‘surprised by the Psalms’, and I will continue to take as much counsel as I can in getting them into the hearts, minds, mouths and memories of the people whom I pastor. They are a repository of true Christian worship which reflect the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows, the routines and the traumas of seeking to live for God in our world. Under those terms, how can we keep from singing them?

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