Previous article in this series: September 1, 2013, p. 464.
Praise ye the Lord. I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation. Psalm 111:1
Last time we began to examine one of the main elements of Reformed worship that contains our response to God in the service, the element of singing. We discovered that the regulative principle requires the singing of praise in public corporate worship. We noticed the unique form of communication that singing is, fitted for our worship of God from our whole hearts. Finally, we saw how singing is a unique part of our dialogue with God in the covenantal assembly. It is a giving of all that we are to Him in response to His giving all that He is to us in His Word.
Singing as Dialogue of the Congregation with God
It is not only singing itself that is a unique part of the dialogue of worship. Congregational singing is a unique part of the dialogue of worship. The singing we do in the public, corporate worship service is and should be congregational singing. We are a body that has been called together to meet with Jehovah face to face. And our response to Jehovah, who speaks to us as a body, must be given also as a body.
The psalmist in Psalm 111:1 recognizes the importance of that. “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation.” The psalmist understands that the church is a body, and he does not want to sing to God only by himself. He wants to be bound with the body, to place his voice amongst the other voices and be as one coming to praise Jehovah. He is committed to joining with those who are the upright, those who also have this greatest desire to exalt the name of Jehovah God. He wants to be a part of that group that has one purpose, to lift high the name of God.
There is something wonderful about congregational singing. We should look forward to singing together as a body of Jesus Christ, to be amongst the assembly of the upright declaring the name of the Lord. At the prospect of this we should cry out with the psalmist in, “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.”1
The Reformation of the sixteenth century restored congregational singing to the church. In the Middle Ages singing had degenerated into the work of individual monks or choirs of monks. But as the Reformation restored biblical doctrine, it also restored congregational singing. When the Reformation restored the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, a natural implication was a restoration of congregational singing. Every believer in the pew holds the offices of prophet, priest, and king. All must have the privilege of exercising those offices, bringing praise to God without going through an earthly mediator.
Choirs, then, and solo performances, can do an injustice to the truth that the congregation has gathered together as a body before Jehovah, and that each one comes in that office of believer whether child or older member. Besides that, we must remember that the public corporate worship service is not a concert. We are not here to be entertained. We are not the audience of the praise and worship taking place. God is the audience of our songs and worship. We are here to give God praise together. He is the audience, and all must speak to Him.
As the body of Christ does that in the worship service, there is a wonderful combination of the individual and the communal. There is no individualism as the body joins together in the chorus of praise. But there is no depersonalization either. We are a body gathered here singing, but there are still individuals who sing. It is still I who sings and I remain me, personally singing from a heart that individually wants to honor and worship God. But as I come in the body I am joined to something that is more than me. I am united with the upright who also from the heart individually and personally want to seek and worship this great God.
What to Sing
It is an attribute of the Psalms that they were inspired by God to maintain perfectly this combination of the individual and the communal in the body of Christ. The Psalms are written in such a way that at times they represent the individual, but always as a part of the body of Christ. There are many beautiful and theologically-sound non-inspired songs out there that may be sung as a part of the Christian life generally. But many of those non-inspired songs are songs that are only about the individual’s personal salvation before the Lord. The Psalms, however, even if they are about the individual, are always about the individual as he lives his life in the covenant community, as a part of the church. So that there is always a combination of the individual and the communal, no matter what Psalm you read or sing.
Some Psalms are explicitly church Psalms. They are about the church as a whole. And in those Psalms that express the praise and desire of the church as a whole, there is also the desire of the church as a whole as it is experienced by the individual. Alternatively, in the Psalms that are written with the first personal pronouns “me” and “I” there is the experience of the individual, but always as he is a part of the whole body of Jesus Christ. This is one of the things that make the Psalms so appropriate for the singing of praise in public, corporate worship.
The Psalms are most appropriate for singing in corporate worship because they are given to the church by God for this purpose. Though written in the Old Testament, they are still fitting for God’s people today. They are God’s inspired songs, and when we sing them, we are singing God’s Word back to Him. You remember earlier in this series I said that at every point in the service the Word of God must be taken up, for the Word is the power in the worship of God’s name. Here too, in singing, God has given us His Word. He has given us a specific collection of songs, inspired for the singing of praises to Himself. Some will make the argument, if singing is like prayer, and we don’t pray the same prayers, why do we sing the same Psalms? The answer is precisely this, that God in His Word did not give us a separate book of prayers, but He did give us a separate book of songs for the church to sing.
And we can be thankful that He did. These Psalms contain every emotion of the child of God as he lives life in the covenant. Calvin once said that these Psalms are an anatomy of the soul. Every aspect of the life of the human soul is represented in the Psalms. They contain joy, lament, even holy frustration. They contain pleading, helplessness, and sorrow, and they contain great delight. It can be the case sometimes that when churches use non-inspired songs in worship, they are always happy songs. Of course, the Christian must be happy, and the Christian does have a deep sustaining joy in his life, but every time we come to worship we are not on cloud nine, and do not need to be. To pretend to be can be unreal, even fake.
Sometimes the child of God comes to the worship of Jehovah’s name and he needs to lament before his God. Sometimes he needs to express disappointment, still with respect, as the Psalms do. Sometimes he needs to plead. Sometimes he needs to express helplessness. Sometimes he needs to speak of a sorrow that is deep and real. And all of this is contained in the Psalms. All that we are as children of God is there, and the Psalms can lead us to express all that, while through it all still expressing praise to God! Through the Psalms’ laments, there is still praise. Through the disappointment, there is still praise.
Human nature never changes. God never changes. Though progressive, the covenant is ever essentially the same covenant. And though we now sing the Psalms with New Testament understanding, the Psalms are for us now just as much as they were for the people of God in the Old Testament. We see Christ now, and the fulfillment of all the Old Testament types and shadows, but these Psalms still represent our life in the covenant of grace and the praise of our hearts.
Jesus sang Psalms as part of His regular worship when He was upon the earth. Jesus worshiped in the synagogue, and the synagogue was a Psalm-singing synagogue. Besides that, Jesus carried on the tradition of Psalm singing in conjunction with the ceremonies of God’s people. After the institution of the Lord’s Supper in, the Scriptures say of Jesus and His disciples, “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” That “hymn” was really a collection of psalms called the great Hallel, or the great praise. It consisted of Psalms 113-118. That set of Psalms was normally recited or sung at the end of the celebration of the Passover, and the Lord Christ and His disciples sang them after the first Lord’s Supper.
Whenspeaks of singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, it is possible that all three of those words refer to the Old Testament book of Psalms.
The historical record of the church adds some weight to the argument for Psalm singing in worship. It is well documented that the early church, following the worship of the Jewish synagogue, sang Psalms in worship. And while in the Middle Ages the church turned away from Psalm singing, the Reformation was a return to the singing of Psalms. So much so is this true that at one point the term Psalm-singer was almost synonymous with the term Protestant.2
During the Reformation, it was especially John Calvin who led the charge in the return to the singing of Psalms. Writing in the preface to his Genevan Psalter, he puts the case best:
And, indeed, we know from experience that singing has great strength and power to move and to set on fire the hearts of men in order that they may call upon God and praise him with a more vehement and more ardent zeal. It is to be remembered always that this singing should not be light or frivolous, but that it ought to have weight and majesty. Now what Augustine says is true, namely that no one can sing anything worthy of God that he has
not received from him. Therefore, even after we have carefully searched everywhere, we shall not find better or more appropriate songs to this end than the Psalms of David inspired by the Holy Spirit. And for this reason when we sing them, we are sure that God puts the words in our mouth as if he himself were singing through us to his own glory.3
The Blessings We Receive from the Use of This Element
Although first of all and primarily for the lauding and exaltation of the name of Jehovah God, singing in the public worship also grants blessings upon the singers. The first of those blessings is that the congregation is edified by her own singing. Colossians 3:16 speaks of this when it says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” When the congregation sings to God the words of the Word of God, she also teaches and admonishes herself. Each one hears others singing and each one hears himself singing the words of Jehovah God. In this way, individuals teach each other and themselves the Word being sung.
When we sing Psalm 8, we teach each other the doctrine of creation and the effect that that doctrine should have upon our piety. When we sing Psalm 51, we teach each other about the depths of our sin. When we sing Psalm 119, we teach each other about sanctification and its connection to the Word. When we sing Psalm 23, we teach and admonish each other about assurance of salvation. And many more examples could be given.
The final blessing of singing is the absolute delight that we experience in worshiping Jehovah God in song. We said at the beginning that God commands us to sing in worship. This is our duty. He calls and commands us to do this. Yet, by the Spirit of Jesus Christ this duty becomes a great delight for the child of God. Part of the reason why God commands singing in the worship is that we might enjoy His presence, for in song Jehovah comes close to us. When we exalt His name, He comes near to us, and in the glorifying of Him He bows down, as it were, and presses Himself close.
And this is our chief end, to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever. The human soul finds full meaning and full joy as He comes close to us in the worship of His name. Who has not experienced this? Sometimes we come to the worship of God with an unprepared heart, sometimes a heart that is even bitter or hard. Don’t you experience that it is not until songs of praise fill the lips that God softens the heart and the soul is lifted to our great King and we delight to be in His presence?
Our sinful nature prevents us from experiencing that sometimes. There are times when we just mouth the words, and the singing to Him is pure duty with little delight. Nonetheless, we still sing. We are still called to sing, and it is good that we do, for we dig trenches—patterns, habit—by our obedience. The trenches we dig sometimes are filled with the waters of great delight so that duty does become delight. Nevertheless, we dig those trenches, and we do so knowing that one day the sinful nature will be completely removed.
In that day the flood waters of delight will fill those trenches fully and perfectly for all eternity. The church of God will worship and will delight in that worship always and forever. Imagine what it will be like in that day, singing together in that great assembly in heaven with no sinful nature to hold us back. It will be pure delight, giving of ourselves fully to Jehovah God with everything that we are in song. An assembly of the upright will be gathered that no man can number, and we will join together in glorious, Spirit-filled praise.
: After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Psalm 122:1.
2 Joel Beeke quoting Michal LeFebvre in The Outlook, July-August 2010, Vol. 60, No. 4, pp. 19–24.
3 It is for these reasons and others that the PRC is a Psalm-singing denomination. We sing almost exclusively Psalms in our worship service. I say almost because the Protestant Reformed Churches have, nevertheless, never been exclusive Psalmists. They have never applied the regulative principle as demanding exclusive Psalmody, but rather to the demand to sing God’s Word. This is evident from the fact that the Church Order in Article 69 says the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung, and then besides them some of the inspired songs of Scripture such as the song of Mary, the song of Zacharias, and a few other hymns. In addition, every Protestant Reformed Church sings a biblical hymn every worship service. The opening doxology is a trinitarian hymn. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow” is scriptural, no doubt, and is a song sung in many churches historically, but it is not a Psalm. It is the last part of a hymn that was written by an Anglican bishop named Thomas Ken in 1674. However, the Protestant Reformed Churches are committed to near exclusive Psalm singing in worship for the reasons above and others.