the psalms rediscovered

Here’s an article on Reformation 21 which gives reasons for singing psalms in worship (at the very least alongside hymns, but without disparaging exclusive psalmody), and which suggests that something of a resurgence in psalm-singing is underway at the moment in the church at large:

As a taster of this fairly detailed and persuasive article:

When you sing the psalms you engage a collection of songs that address the full range of human emotions. Godly anger, heart-wrenching sorrow, dark depression, effulgent joy, honest questioning, and exuberant praise are just a sampling of the emotional range covered by the psalms. Most churches sense the burden of teaching their people how to think. Very few consider their responsibility to teach their people how to feel. Christians do not struggle with feeling. Feeling just happens. But our feelings must be trained by the gospel as much as our minds must. The psalms serve as the class room of our affections.

When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ. One of the most ignorant statements a Christian can make against psalm singing is, “I don’t sing psalms because they aren’t about Jesus.” Too many evangelicals — having unwittingly drunk deep of the Marcionite heresy — have ceased to see the Old Testament, and especially the psalms, as a masterpiece of redemptive history telling in types, shadows, and rituals the person and work of Jesus Christ. When the earliest Christians wanted to sing praise to God for the redemption wrought by Jesus’ atoning death they turned to the psalms. It is sheer biblical ignorance and chronological snobbery to assume we can write better songs about Jesus than are provided in the psalms through the lens of the New Testament. To sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.


25 thoughts on “the psalms rediscovered

  1. Ha! Awfully nice of you to say so. Was wondering where you were hibernating these days. Exclusive psalmody goes without saying for me/us, hence my near-total lack of acquaintance with hymns that are common fare in other circles. The arguments in that article for why Reformed americans should return to the psalms are identical to what scottish presbyterians have been saying for generations in a bid to stop people abandoning them in the first place.


  2. Yes – and refreshingly well put, I thought.

    You have an interesting blog on the psalms. May I ask your views on the use of the psalms in worship, if you are interested in sharing them?


  3. May I ask your views on the use of the psalms in worship


    You sure can; I think that the Psalter should be sung in worship, and whilst I held to exclusive psalmody the more I study the Psalter the less convinced that such a position is tenable.


  4. Would you be prepared to say why that is?

    The reasons are manifold but the most important issues are as follows;

    (1) every psalm has an original Sitz im Leben or setting in life. They were not just abstractly written but reflect a real living faith at a specific moment in redemptive-history. Some of these settings are not recorded in Scripture, such as the enthronement ceremony at the feast of Tabernacles.

    (2) the final form of the Psalter, its canonical shape, is the result of redaction with a specific message, this being summed up in Pss. 1 & 2. The Psalter was edited specifically to teach this message and was used as the second temple hymnal.

    (3) the authorship of many psalms is contestable and the titles are not necessarily denoting the true author. A number of individual psalms have been edited themselves by unknown editors.

    So what? Well it means that the usual we have been commanded to sing psalms is fine, we should sing psalms, but there is no reason to say that only the Psalter is to be sung. The move to its canonical shape is complex, hence we find a number of collections (e.g. Egyptian Hallel and Songs of Ascents) as well as the Yahwistic Psalter and Elohistic Psalter. We find no express warrants for Israel to invent songs yet they did so, therefore why can the Church not do the same?

    I fear the time (gone midnight now) has resulted in this being less coherent than it should be.


  5. Thanks for the response. You’ve obviously given it some thought.

    I’m wondering if you could flesh out these reasons a bit further? It isn’t immediately clear to me why they would undermine an exclusive psalmody position?

    Eg, I’ve usually understood that the specific, local aspects of the psalms sit comfortably enough beside their general relevance that the church at large can benefit from them at any point in redemptive history? – i mean, surely your points 1 and 2 could apply to any book of scripture, yet they wouldn’t be enough to give scripture a subordinate position relative to uninspired writings?

    Re point 3, i’m not sure that the argument for exclusive psalmody has ever really depended on knowing who wrote each psalm, but it could be that I just haven’t clicked where you’re going with this point.

    In short – i’d like to know more! :)


  6. No worries, I am in the middle of writing my dissertation so my brain has been using its juice elsewhere, but here goes briefly;

    I think that (1) would undermine the regulative principle of worship in the usual Presbyterian understanding. For example, we find that the feast of Tabernacles existed and was commanded yet what actually happened there was not commanded. The festival that celebrated YHWH’s kingship and enthronement was not commanded yet we have psalms that were written for it (Pss. 93, 95-99), it also bears striking resemblance to a festival that celebrated the enthronement of Marduk (Babylonian) and the enthronement of Baal (Canaanite).

    In terms of (3) the traditional EP argument is that we must only sing ‘inspired’ writings which in the OT means they must be penned by a prophet (or someone like David etc), however the authorship of many psalms is contestable so who wrote them? Who edited them?

    Concerning redemptive history; the Psalms are fitting to be sung, but note how they recount the story of Israel, they recount its national history (e.g. Psalm 78). Why should not the Church then compose songs that sing of its exodus by the death and resurrection of Jesus? That is, why can hymn writers in the OT period compose songs that reflect a real living faith at a specific moment in redemptive-history but now we can’t? There is now a new Sitz im Leben.


  7. It seems to me that some of the issues you raise have much more fundamental/far-reaching implications than the issue of exclusive psalmody. Eg, re (3), as far as I understand it, the case for exclusive psalmody is built by taking the canonicity of the book of psalms as already settled long ago – if uncertainty about the authorship of some of the psalms was to have a significant effect on our reception of these psalms, it seems to me that questions over the tenability of an exclusive psalmody position would be fairly low in the priority list.

    I’m also not sure about your analysis of Ps 95-99 etc as being written for some kind of enthronement ceremony. (Ie without clear evidence that there was an enthronement ceremony, it can’t be used as an example of a ceremony that was introduced without warrant.)

    Re this point, Why should not the Church then compose songs that sing of its exodus by the death and resurrection of Jesus? – my understanding is that we don’t need to overstate how tightly restricted the psalms are to Israel’s national history. I mean, even though they are often historical, there are also parallels to how the Church behaves/relates in the NT as well (I come from a tradition that sees a very fundamental continuity between the Church and the life of believers in the OT and in the NT). So part of my response to this issue is that the NT Church could/should make more of an effort to voice herself through the psalms, including even those parts that had their immediate relevance in specific points of Israel’s national history.
    The other thing is that the psalms do of course refer to things like the death and resurrection of Jesus in a way that the NT Church can recognise and use – singing the psalms doesn’t deprive us of opportunities to express everything that should be part of a real living faith today.

    But I should add that my perspective on all of this is coming very much from a scottish highland presbyterian layman’s background – so i hope i’m not wildly missing the point through not really knowing where you’re coming from.

    Hey, scottish highland presbyterian layman – could almost be the name for a new denomination. Why has nobody called themselves that yet?


  8. Long-time readers are no doubt being haunted by the spectre of ancient discussions on the regulative principle here

    and the canon of scripture here

    And I haven’t forgotten i said i’d revisit some of those leftover issues. This thread may be the prompt that gets me going on that in earnest.


  9. without clear evidence that there was an enthronement ceremony, it can’t be used as an example of a ceremony that was introduced without warrant

    If I may deal with this first:

    1. Could you show what did happen each day of the feast of tabernacles from Scripture?

    2. We know that there was a water pouring ceremony at the feast of Tabernacles from uninspired writings and it yet it is not found in the OT.

    3. I believe that there is a great deal of evidence for an enthronement ceremony of some sort. We can link the kingship of YHWH directly to the Exodus, this being a central theme of the feast of Tabernacles. We can also directly link the enthronement of YHWH to the feast of Tabernacles:

    Zechariah 14:16 “And it shall come to pass that everyone who is left of all the nations which came against Jerusalem shall go up from year to year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.”

    This is the very theme of Isaiah 40-55 and Psalms 93, 95-99. Indeed, at the feast of Tabernacles we do know that a covenent renewal ceremony was kept and Psalm 95 was sung. So there is pretty strong evidence that the theme of kingship, specifically YHWH’s enthronement was celebrated at the feast of Tabernacles.

    Then we have Ps. 96 (an enthronement hymn) used in 1 Chronicles 16 which links to Psalm 132 and so we can now begin to link Psalms together to form an hypothesised liturgy.


  10. Cath,

    (2) and (3) do have big implications though I won’t flush them out here and this is not really about inerrancy etc.

    What I would say, is that your arguments don’t really establish EP, they do justify singing psalms.

    Do you think that David wrote Psalm 51:18 “Look with favour on Zion and help her; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem”? John Gill writes that the walls of Jerusalem “do not appear to have stood in need of being repaired or rebuilt in David’s time”. It is more likely that this is a redactional layer added in the time of the captivity when Jerusalem was in ruins. This being so, the Hebrews felt at liberty to alter their songs to suit their historical circumstances.


  11. Hi again,

    sorry to keep you waiting for what’s going to be a fairly unsatisfactory response!

    I’m afraid I have to confess I can’t take the enthronement discussion any further really – the only thing I know about an enthronement ceremony is that some people doubt there was such a thing! The state of my knowledge almost as bad wrt the feast of tabernacles itself – apart from the mandates in Leviticus etc I simply amn’t in a position to comment informatively :-|

    On Psalm 51, my first instinct would be to avoid positing multiple authors and editors – eg you could imagine someone appealing to the Lord to build up or maintain the defences around his people and promises even when things looked healthy and not in need of repair at all. But you’ll note that i offer this speculatively and without any background whatsoever in textual criticism or anything else :)

    In terms of exclusive psalmody, as far as i understand, the case is built on the need for an express or deducible scriptural warrant for the elements of worship, and the function of the book of psalms as the songbook of the Church (both OT and NT). But the coherence of these positions depends on a different view of scripture than you seem to be implying, and that’s what makes me wonder if it makes sense to argue for exclusive psalmody as such when these premises aren’t intact – instead it’s maybe just as well to say that we both have a high enough view of the psalms to agree that they’re an essential part of worship?

    PS btw, if anyone else has anything to add (Finlay are you still reading?) your input would be welcome!


  12. Hi Cath,

    A brief response, still need to get rid of 1500wds of dissertation!! Hence the briefness is not impatience or rudeness it’s just lack of time :-)

    some people doubt there was such a thing
    Indeed, Edward J Young did and I have spoken to Tremper Longman about this. He would agree that Young’s criticism holds, I don’t. I don’t think that Young dealt very well with the arguments by Mowinckel and Von Rad.

    On the feast of Tabernacles, my point was really to show you that there is absolutely nothing in Scripture that tells us what went on at the feast save a general point in Deut. 16 and Lev. 23. We do know from Deut 31 that the covenant was renewed and the Torah read, hence we can say that Pss. 81 and 95 were used (see this)

    Once we allow this we then begin to find that it is likely that kingship was celebrated at Tabernacles. See this.

    Of course scholars will question this and they do, some would agree with this but disagree with the conclusions. That’s up to them. I believe that there is very strong evidence that the kingship of Yahweh was celebrated at the feast of Tabernacles. How that played out liturgically is debateable, but that it was celebrated is, IMO, proven beyond reasonable doubt.

    Psalm 51
    Yours is a legitimate application of the text but it does not explain the Sitz im Leben, i.e. the wording reflects actual events and the events reflected in that specific verse do not date from David’s reign. Hence it is highly unlikely that David wrote that specific verse.

    the coherence of these positions depends on a different view of scripture than you seem to be implying
    I think the issue is quite complex. The Psalter does not contain every psalms ever written. The Psalter has a very specific theological message and has been organised to teach it and to be sung in the Second Temple.

    Gerald Henry Wilson’s The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter is the classic work.

    Try this.

    God bless!


  13. Cath,

    FWIW; on a practical level, whilst I am increasingly skeptical that the EP argument works I am not satisfied that it has been overthrown completely. Further, just because there are doubts about it it does not follow that we should ignore it. It should be the default position until an alternative position can be established beyond reasonable doubt. IMO there is no need to sing songs other than the Psalms.

    The difference between the OT and NT in terms of revelation is well explained in WCF 1.1:

    “Although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in diverse manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.”

    I say this just to make the point that theoretical doubts should never give rise to practical changes until the matter is settled. Hence in practical terms I am still EP. :-)


  14. There’s a clear difference between the BIBLICAL doctrine TAUGHT BY PAUL that Jesus nailed the OT (which is an enmity and dividing wall separating Jews and Gentiles, which is a problem to unifying the two which was part of Jesus’ mission, see Ephesians) to the cross and that it is OLD, and that it is already dead and is “decaying and reading to vanish away” (as is stated in Hebrews) and claiming that it is from a different god altogether. In Hebrews when Paul speaks of the law as decaying and about ready to vanish away, the vanishing away must obviously mean the impending destruction of the temple which is where the corpse of the law finally exploded into dust never to be put back together again. But this is not to say that the OT came from a different god, which is the supposed position of Marcion. That’s what the “church fathers” accused him of. It is dishonesty for you to call the Biblical position of the death of the law by Jesus nailing it to the cross “Marcionism” in your disparate attempt to justify your Judaizing when you know good and well that Marcion’s doctrine included the notion of a separate god.


  15. Further, the Christian conception is that the law is childish, as Paul teaches when he calls the law a schoolmaster, for it is only children who are under a schoolmaster, and he specifically says that the heir “while he is a child” is under a schoolmaster, but “when I became a man I put away childish things.” This is totally different from the position that the OT came from an evil god and Jesus came to reveal a good God, which is Marcionism. It is also different from the conception of Calvinism, which Judaizes to the extent that little Stalinist Calvinists are running around all over the place arguing that Calvinists should take over the government and execute people for “blasphemy”! That’s blasphemy as defined by them, of course, which means anyone who denies Fatalistic election gets stoned. Calvin actually implementing this in Geneva. The Puritans implemented it in New England. And there are plenty of Judaizing Calvinists today whose heads are full of murder Psalms, just waiting to do it again today! Thank God for true Christians who agree with Paul that the law is for children and its time to put it away.


  16. Hi Rey,

    – in the OP it says “unwittingly” adopting Marcionite tendencies. I wouldn’t read too much into it personally – I only took it to indicate that too many evangelicals underestimate the value of the OT in NT life

    – encouraging people to sing the psalms (even the psalms exclusively in worship) isn’t an instance of judaizing

    – i wouldn’t particularly classify theonomy as judaising either, although i’m not a theonomist and have no time for it. Theonomy, however, is completely unrelated to the topic of this post and so I’d like to suggest that the discussion doesn’t go any further along this line



  17. Any legalization towards exclusive Psalmody is Judaizing. It forced Christians to express their devotion to Christ only in the language of 1st and 2nd temple Judaism and not in the actual language of Christianity. It precludes Christians from being able to sing of Christ’s first advent in the historical terms of the gospels and forces them to sing of it only in the shadows and figures of the Law of Moses which Jesus nailed to the cross. This is Judaizing and it tends towards raising up a people who are zealous to murder others for infractions against Moses’ law rather than to forgive and bless their enemies. I’m sorry that you let Calvin pull Moses’ veil over your face, and I pray for your conversion out of Judaism and into Christianity.


  18. Hey rey, did you ask Cath if they sing the New Testament canticles in Church?

    Anyway, you seem to have some odd ideas about the psalms. The principal subject (in both senses) of the psalms is Christ. God wrote the psalter, as He did the OT, and the very events of the OT, as much as He did the NT. The OT is Christian.


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