Last Sunday, as a congregation we lifted up our voices to a song not found on the CCLI’s “Top 40” – a metrical version of Psalm 107. Ever sung it? Unless you’ve spent time in a church that is being Reformed by the Word of God, chances are you haven’t.
While most Christians think of the Old Testament book of Psalms as important for the worship of Israelites, few Christians think of the Psalms as part of their worship today. Perhaps some realize the importance of praying through the Psalms, or studying the verses as parts of their Bible studies (Psalm 119 gets really long!). But few ever think to sing what was the original songbook of God’s people.
But in Reformed churches, psalm singing is still important. Taking Colossians 3:16 as their cue – “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” – Reformed churches have emphasized taking the inspired Word of God in the Psalms and putting them to meter so they are singable by the congregation.
Last Sunday we were preparing for Thanksgiving, and so the words of Psalm 107 in meter were especially poignant:
O praise the Lord! For He is good,
His mer-cies still endure;
Give thanks to Him, pro-claim His grace,
From sin and death se-cure
Let them give thanks un-to the Lord
For all His kind-ness shown,
And for His works so won-der-ful
Which He to us makes known
And let them of-fer thanks to Him
The sac-ri-fice of praise!
His works let them de-clare with thanks
In songs our voices raise!
Is an-y wise? Then heed with thanks
The mer-cies of the Lord!
And may we grate-ful-ly re-ceive
With thanks our lov-ing Lord!
Clearly, Psalm 107 allows Christians to sing God’s Word back to Him in the form of inspired thanksgiving!
Some Christians might wonder about the practice of psalm singing. While this article cannot tackle all the aspects of this topic, the following words by Rev. Terry Johnson give us a better understanding of the history of this important practice. Examining what Christians of past generations does not decide anything for the Church; our beliefs and practices are founded on the Word of God alone. Nevertheless, it can be very helpful to understand what our forebears in the faith have taught on a certain issue, and help us to understand what God’s Word led them to in ages past. May the following selection by Rev. Johnson be helpful for understanding psalm singing today.
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The church fathers and earliest Christian writings demonstrate a devotion to the Psalms, and particularly to the singing of the Psalms, that is startling.
Calvin Stapert speaks of the Church 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. The writers of The Psalms in Christian Worship and others, including most recently John D. Witvliet, have collected a number of testimonies of psalm singing from the church fathers that survive to this day.
For example, Tertullian (c. 155–230), in the second century, testified that psalm singing was not only an essential feature of the worship of his day but also had become an important part of the daily life of the people.
Athanasius (300–343) says it was the custom of his day to sing psalms, which he calls “a mirror of the soul,” and even “a book that includes the whole life of man, all conditions of the mind and all movements of thought.”
Eusebius (c. 260–c. 340), bishop of Caesarea, left this vivid picture of the psalm singing of his day: “The command to sing Psalms in the name of the Lord was obeyed by everyone in every place: for the command to sing is in force in all churches which exist among nations, not only the Greeks but also throughout the whole world, and in towns, villages and in the fields.”
Basil the Great (c. 330–379) comments, in his sermons on the Psalms, on the “harmonious Psalm tunes” that mix “sweetness of melody with doctrine” and are sung by the people not only in the churches but “at home” and “in the marketplace” as well.
Augustine (343–430), in his Confessions (ix.4), says, “[The Psalms] are sung through the whole world, and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.”
Jerome (d. 420) said that he learned the Psalms when he was a child and sang them daily in his old age. He also writes, “The Psalms were continually to be heard in the fields and vineyards of Palestine. The plowman, as he held his plow, chanted the Hallelujah; and the reaper, the vinedresser, and the shepherd sang something from the Psalms of David. Where the meadows were colored with flowers, and the singing birds made their plaints, the Psalms sounded even more sweetly. These Psalms are our love-songs, these the instruments of our agriculture.”
Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 431–c. 482) represents boatmen, who, while they worked their heavy barges up the waters of ancient France, “[sing] Psalms till the banks echo with ‘Hallelujah.’”
Chrysostom (d. 407), the renowned Greek father and patriarch of Constantinople, says, “All Christians employ themselves in David’s Psalms more frequently than in any other part of the Old or New Testament. The grace of the Holy Ghost hath so ordered it that they should be recited and sung night and day. In the Church’s vigils the first, the middle, and the last are David’s Psalms. In the morning David’s Psalms are sought for; and David is the first, the midst, and the last of the day. At funeral solemnities, the first, the midst, and the last is David. Many who know not a letter can say David’s Psalms by heart. In all the private houses, where women toil—in the monasteries—in the deserts, where men converse with God, the first, the midst, and the last is David.
He says again, “David is always in their mouths, not only in the cities and churches, but in courts, in monasteries, in deserts, and the wilderness. He turned earth into heaven and men into angels, being adapted to all orders and to all capacities” (Sixth Homily on Repentance).
Over against this devotion to singing psalms, there was a growing skepticism about hymns “of human composition” throughout this period because of the use to which they were put by heretics. For this reason the Council of Braga (350 AD) ruled, “Except the Psalms and hymns of the Old and New Testaments, nothing of a poetical nature is to be sung in the church.” The important Council of Laodicea, which met about 360 AD, forbade “the singing of uninspired hymns in the church, and the reading of uncanonical books of Scripture” (canon 59). While these were not the decisions of ecumenical councils, nearly one hundred years later, the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), the largest of all the general councils, confirmed the Laodicean canons.
We cite these decisions to underscore the point that the Psalter clearly was the primary songbook of the early church. Worship in the early church was “according to Scripture” and consequently filled with scriptural praise.”
Terry Johnson, “The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church,” in Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century (ed. Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio; Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 44–46.
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