In Praise of Psalm-Singing

I speak for God’s people in the Protestant Reformed Churches, and for our friends: We love to sing the psalms. One of our great joys when we assemble on the Lord’s Day is the privilege of “psalm-singing” the praises of God. How impoverished would our worship be without singing, and how very poor would it be if the singing were without psalms. As long as our worship is not merely drawing nigh to God with our lips (and hearts far distant), psalm-singing makes for a rich worship. And we feel rich.

With this special issue, and with this editorial, we sing the praises of psalm-singing in public worship.

The sentiments of Calvin are ours: “Although we look far and wide and search on every hand, we shall not find better songs nor songs better suited to that end [that is, to ‘inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with vehement and ardent zeal’] than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and uttered through him.”

The PRC do not believe that all songs other than the psalms are evil, but we have resisted including them in public worship. The Church Order, which regulates the singing in public worship, calls the churches to sing the 150 psalms of David and a few hymns, most of which we do not sing because they are not found in our Psalter.1 In the past, we have heard proposals to sing more hymns than the Church Order presently allows. Others have suggested that we exclude even those that are allowed. But we have kept the course of being an almost-exclusively-Psalm-singing denomination. For good reasons, we believe.

We love the Psalter. We use the Psalter. I know we use it, or it would not be so difficult to consider improving it. And we use it because we treasure it. The recent story of the northern California couple who found millions of dollars’ worth of nineteenth-century gold coins reminded me of the psalms. To my soul, the psalms are “more precious than thousands of silver and gold” (Ps. 119). For me, the psalms “are to be desired above the finest gold; Than honey from the comb, more sweetness far they hold” (Ps. 19). I would not give up the psalms for all the gold coins on earth.

We sing and want to keep on singing the psalms in the churches. Pastors and elders lead the children in singing them in catechism instruction. Sunday schools give Psalters as the graduation gift. Bible studies open the meetings with a psalm or two. Then, the good Christian schools teach the psalms to the children. Although the schools use other songs as well, we want psalms to have pride of place in these institutions. I am envious of those who had 10 or 12 years in a good Christian school that taught the psalms. In the Christian school available to me in my youth, we learned “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Faith of Our Fathers,” and I’m sure some other good hymns, but we did not memorize the psalms. Eventually I memorized many psalms with our children in family worship as they grew up. But these psalms stick in their adult minds now better than in mine because they learned so many of them in their formative youth. I thank God for our good Christian schools, which hold the psalms in high esteem. Many Christian homes use the psalms in their family worship. Especially where the Lord has given children who can make the family’s singing a little heartier than a duet, how blest are they who sing the psalms at their daily altar. I have blessed memories of the family worship of our friends in Northern Ireland during our frequent visits there in years past. After the evening meal was finished, the family would retire to the living room, where the coal fire warmed the otherwise cold house. Each family member and guest was given a Bible and their Scottish Psalter so that we could read the Word and sing the Word.

We love the psalms and the Psalter. Singing! What a gift God has given to His people! The psalms! What a good book God gave us from which to sing!

So, encouraging us to sing psalms makes me feel a little like I’m reminding a greyhound to run, a red-blooded man to enjoy a good steak, or a Christian man to love his wife. It’s part of who we are as God made us, what we want to be.

Yet it is a good thing to grow in our love for the psalms by realizing how beautiful and rich they are, in so many dimensions. And it is those many dimensions that are worth pointing out. One could write a separate article on each of the many rich facets of psalm-singing.

First and foremost, God gave us this songbook (it’s the only songbook in Scripture) so that we would offer high praise to Him, and in His own words. “I know that the Lord is almighty, Supreme in dominion is He, performing His will and good pleasure In heav’n and in earth and the sea” (Ps. 135). The overarching theme of the psalms and the purpose of psalm-singing is the worship and praise of God. By the psalms the people of God ascribe worth to God, and then extol that worth. How many of the psalms have us sing to God to speak of His greatness! “O God, we have heard, and our fathers have told What wonders Thou didst in the great days of old” (Ps. 44).

As we sing, though, notice that not all psalms serve that purpose as directly as we might think. How many of the psalms have the believer singing about God. How many of the psalms have believers singing to each other. And that’s not surprising, because the New Testament speaks of “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms” (Col. 3:16). Some even are the believer’s cries of distress, in which he sings to himself: “O why art thou cast down, my soul, And why so troubled shouldst thou be?” (Ps. 42). As we sing “with understanding,” ask whether the other dimensions of the psalms are aspects of extolling God’s worth or something else.

Primary among these “other dimensions” is that singing the psalms is instructive. Singing psalms has a didactic purpose. The psalms teach us to pray, to relate to God. Paul’s call to sing the psalms (Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16) includes the reminder that real instruction is taking place, “teaching and admonition.” But this instruction is not from the preacher expounding Scripture but from the other members of the congregation as they sing to one another these “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”2

The psalms teach theology. The psalms treat biblical doctrine in surprising depth and breadth, from the doctrine of God to eschatology and all in between, even Christology— yes, Christology, for Jesus Himself said that the psalms were about Him (Luke 24:27, 44). In one’s own personal devotions it would be worthwhile to take note of just how many doctrines are actually taught in the psalms. The psalms teach history, the history of God’s works in creation and with His church, history that we should not so easily skip over when we come to those extra long psalms, for example, 78 and 104-107. Sadly, the Psalter versifications of these psalms (for example, 213 and 285-297) may be referred to more in jokes about how many stanzas they have—“Who would ever sing all those!”—than in calls actually to sing them. God declares that it is good to sing history in worship.

And the beauty of psalm-singing is that we are teaching one another doctrine and history from the Word of God itself. We sing what God says about Himself, creation, man, the last things, and history—which highlights the importance of faithful versifications of the psalms. Because the psalms are the Word of God in old-covenant language, it does take some Christian maturity to sing them. But someone once said that only six concepts of typology need to be learned in order for New Testament Christians to sing the Old Testament psalms properly. Learning these is simply part of heeding Paul’s call to “sing with understanding” (I Cor. 14:15). Growing up with the psalms makes this almost second nature.

Singing the psalms is instructive in a multitude of other ways, too. The first psalm (“That man is blessed…”) teaches about what lifestyle (path) is blessed by God, and what judgment falls on those who depart from that path. In the psalms we learn the subtle deception and terrifying power of sin, and how easy it is for a child of God to cover them, only to “spend our strength in grief ” where our souls find “no relief ” (Ps. 32). Psalm 51 teaches us how to confess our sins. We learn the beauty of the communion of saints (Ps. 133), the joy of family life (Ps. 127, 128), the blessing of many children (Ps. 127). The Psalms teach the power of God to protect His people, and His tender mercies toward us in our misery (where does one start listing these psalms?).

And the psalms are not as inhibited as we might be. So when we sing together we sing about grown men crying (Ps. 77), who cannot sleep and are ready to give up (Ps. 77:3); about men tempted to flee when life is hard (Psalm 11), whose faces are cast down because they have not been turned up to see God (Ps. 42, 43).3

Yet another dimension of psalm-singing is that the people of God are admonishing each other, where “admonish” might mean “rebuke,” but might also mean “remind” or “encourage.” In normal conversations, it’s a terrible embarrassment to me when I find myself distracted and not listening. It’s worse when we sing in worship and I don’t listen to you calling me, “Bless the Lord, ye saints below, Who in His praise delight.” When I am sinfully jealous of the rich, I must hear you remind (rebuke?) me that “God loveth the righteous, His goodness is sure; He never forsaketh the good and the pure.” In the same breath, we hear all the believers confessing, “Yet once my faith faltered, I envied the proud…. I cried in my pain that pure hands are worthless and pure hearts are vain.” How good to hear you call me to humility and quiet trust in Psalter 366: “Ye people of the Lord, In Him alone confide; From this time forth forever more His wisdom be your guide.” 4

Exercising this prophetic gift of ours in singing, we even have the privilege of addressing the angels, indeed the whole creation and all the creatures in it, directing a kind of cosmic choir: “Praise ye, praise ye the Lord In yonder heavenly height; Ye angels, all His hosts, In joyful praise unite; O sun and moon, declare His might, Show forth His praise, ye stars of night” (Ps. 148; now go look at the rest of Psalter #404).

When we reflect on all these dimensions of the psalms, and more, we begin to appreciate our fathers’ determination not to lose the precious treasure of singing them in worship. By psalm-singing, the word of Christ dwells in us richly (Col. 3:16). In psalm-singing we ascribe power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing to the Lamb that sitteth upon the throne. In psalm-singing we grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Sing ye praise to God,

Tell His fame abroad,

Take a psalm and shout,

Let His praise ring out,

Lift your voice and sing

Glory to our King;

He is Lord of earth,

Magnify His worth.

Praise His majesty,


(Ps. 47, Psalter 418)

1 In addition, the opening doxology of almost all PRCs is a psalm-like hymn found in the back of the 1912 Psalter.

2 Others have shown that these three designations refer to three different kinds of psalms in the book of Psalms.

3 How significant is it that that Psalm 127 on the beauty of family life has only one versification in our Psalter, but Psalm 42 about being spiritually cast down has 5!