Psalm-singing is a uniquely Reformed tradition. Whether in Europe, America, Africa, Australasia, or Asia, wherever the Reformed have established churches, they have brought with them the singing of the psalms. In fact, it can be argued that the farther a church departs from Reformed and biblical orthodoxy, the farther it drifts from psalm-singing.
Go to an evangelical—Arminian, Pentecostal, Baptist, or Dispensationalist—church, and the psalms will be, and historically have been, conspicuous by their absence. Indeed, apart from a few of the old favorites—Psalm 23 or Psalm 42—the psalms are almost unheard-of in such circles. Modern worship has pushed out the psalms. Go to a liberal Presbyterian church—one that, generations ago, still sang the psalms—and you will notice that these churches have almost entirely rejected the psalms in favor of modernistic hymns or, in the trendier congregations, choruses.
Indeed, this should not surprise us, because only the genuinely Reformed can sing the psalms with any consistency. The rich theology of the sovereignty and glory of God in the psalms; the personal language of the covenant in the psalms; the experiential language reflecting the ups and downs, the joys and the sorrows of the Christian life in the psalms—these things fit with the Reformed saint’s confession, but they are a jarring note in an Arminian church.1 Arminianism needs hymns as a vehicle to bring the heresy of freewill into the churches. It is no accident that the Wesley brothers did exactly that! A Reformed man who preaches Calvinism while leading the congregation in the singing of hymns is fighting a losing battle. The songs do not fit his sermons! Eventually, the people will choose their beloved songs over the biblical doctrines he is preaching, because the songs will fill their heart and stir their emotions more than the preaching will.
My task is to examine various Reformed traditions of psalm-singing. Traditionally, psalm-singing has been the practice in the British Isles among Presbyterians. Some Presbyterian denominations retain exclusive psalmody, but the majority of them have moved from that position to accepting some, or indeed many, hymns. In some Presbyterian churches today, you would do well to find even one of the announced songs a psalm of David. Popular among Presbyterians is the Scottish Metrical Version of the Psalter (SMV) of 1650. Until recently, all psalm-singing churches in the British Isles used it. The advantages of this Psalter are its beautiful language, its accuracy to the original Hebrew—it is a translation, albeit into meter, a measured arrangement of words in poetry, not a paraphrase—and its familiarity: Presbyte rians of all kinds grew up with it and loved it. Hence it was a unifying force. Just as it promotes unity to have one Bible, so it promotes unity to sing from the same songbook. Allow me to quote some lines for SB readers who are unfamiliar with it:
That man hath perfect blessedness who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men, nor stands in sinners’ way (Psalm 1:1)
Lord, thee my God, I’ll early seek: my soul doth thirst for thee;
My flesh longs in a dry parch’d land, wherein no waters be (Psalm 63:1)
O thou my soul, bless God the Lord; and all that in me is
Be stirred up his holy name to magnify and bless (Psalm 103:1)
When the CPRC was organized, and even while it remained a mission work, we were determined to sing the psalms. Quite naturally, therefore, we chose the SMV, rather than the PRC-Psalter, because that is the Psalm book familiar to the people here. Several of our members are originally from various Presbyterian churches, which, if they sang psalms at all, used the SMV. The CPRC has maintained and defended this position from the beginning—Rev. Stewart even debated a fundamentalist Free Presbyterian preacher on the subject in January 2005. In addition, the CPRC sing only the psalms, and do so acapella, that is, without musical accompaniment, and aided by a presenter who leads us by helping us get the first note. The Presbyterian Directory for Public Worship states, “In singing of Psalms, the voice is to be tunably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.” That is our aim. The SMV is also used in family devotions, Bible studies, and at the meetings of the British Reformed Fellowship Conference.
Typically in the CPRC—and the same is true of the LRF—we sing four times in the worship services. Each of these songs is a psalm. We have no other songs, not even doxologies, in our worship. A handy way to remember our order of worship is the term “psalm sandwich,” that is, the psalms are “sandwiched” between the other elements of worship, so you can expect every second element to be a psalm (Call to worship [with Votum, Salutation, Benediction], Psalm, Prayer, Psalm, Reading, Psalm, Offering and Sermon, Psalm, Benediction). Moreover, we do not use the term “Psalter number,” because in the SMV the “Psalter numbers” correspond to the psalms themselves. We do not need to say “Psalter 175, which is a versification of Psalm 66” because in the SMV Psalm 66 is simply Psalm 66. There are a few psalms with two versions in the SMV. These are called “another of the same.” One famous “another of the same” version is Psalm 124:
Now Israel may say, and that truly, If that the Lord had not our cause maintain’d (v. 1)
In addition, we sing consecutively through the Psalter for the second song per service, so that, for example, the LRF began with Psalm 1 in July 2010 and finished with Psalm 150 in February 2014, completing the Psalter in just over three and a half years. The obvious advantage of this is that the people sing and become familiar with the whole Psalter, not just a few favorites picked by the minister.
The only other denomination that practices exclusive psalmody in Ireland is the Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC), commonly known as the “Covenanters.” Recently, the RPC commissioned a new translation of their Psalter, called The Psalms for Singing, a 21st Century Edition (2004). Around the same time, in Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland published a new metrical Psalter, called simply Sing Psalms (2003). There are a few Reformed or Presbyterian denominations in Scotland, such as the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and the Free Presbyterian Church Continuing, that still adhere to exclusive psalmody.
Both of these Psalters, as well of course as the SMV, have found their way into churches across the sea. Psalm-singing Presbyterian denominations in America include the American Presbyterian Church, the Associated Presbyterian Church, Free Church of Scotland Continuing (Presbytery of the United States), Presbyterian Reformed Church, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, and the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States.2 Other better known denominations—the CRC, URC, OPC, etc.—still sing psalms to various degrees. The Spring 1987 edition of Reformed Worship, an American worship magazine, included an article, “We Used to Sing Only Psalms; What Happened?”3 About the CRC, one contributor wrote, “Although the church has officially sung hymns since 1934, it also continues to include all 150 psalms in its Psalter Hymnal.” John Frame, contributing for the OPC, remarked, “In the 1950s the church carried out a study of exclusive psalmody at the General Assembly level, but did not accept that position (despite its vigorous defense by Professor John Murray of Westminster Theological Seminary) though some congregations in the denomination to this day sing only psalm versions in worship.” Both the PCA and OPC use the Trinity Hymnal (rev. edition 1990), which is a mixture of psalms and hymns, the psalms being interspersed among the hymns, so, for example, “O Come My Soul, Bless Thou the Lord thy Maker” (6; a versification of Psalm 103) is beside “God, My King, Thy Might Confessing” (5; a hymn by Richard Mant [1776-1848]).4 It would be better, in my view, to have the psalms separated from the hymns, so that worshipers know what they are singing— an inspired psalm or an uninspired human composition. Plus, even if a church does not practice exclusive psalmody, psalms should take precedence in any book used for worship.
Psalm-singing has also made its way to Australia. The Australian Free Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Australia, and the Southern Presbyterian Church all practice exclusive psalmody. The EPC, with whom the PRCA have a corresponding relationship, sing the psalms with great enthusiasm. Their website even includes some beautiful videos of their young people singing the psalms from their beloved SMV. The young people of the EPC have already produced two CDs of psalm-singing, and I am informed that a third is in the pipeline. The EPC still use the SMV, so they have the same songbook as the CPRC and LRF.5
Our sister church in Singapore, as well as the PRCA mission in the Philippines, sing the psalms. Thus we see the psalms sung also in Asia. As the SMV of Psalm 66 says:
All lands to God in joyful sounds, aloft your voices raise!
Or as the Psalter used in the PRCA renders it:
O all ye peoples, bless our God, Aloud proclaim His praise (Psalter No. 175).
This is indeed a remarkable fulfillment of prophecy: “All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the Lord: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee” (Ps. 22:27). Universal praise from the psalms, a fruit of the cross of Christ!
The CERC (Singapore) sing six times per service. Four are Psalter numbers, one is a doxology, and one is an offertory song after the offering (in accordance with Article 69 of CERC’s church order).6 In addition, the saints in Singapore inform us that they sing through the Psalms consecutively each Sunday. This helps the people become familiar with the 150 psalms that God has given for the praise of His name. This is especially important in a place like Singapore, where there is not a longstanding tradition of psalmody in the churches. The youth especially, we are told, have embraced psalm-singing. That bodes well for the future of worship in our sister church.
The situation is similar in the Philippines. The Berean PRC, the First Reformed Church of Bulacan, Maranatha PRC in Valenzuela, Provident Christian Church in Marikina, the Reformed Fellowship in Bacolod City, and various Reformed churches in southern Negros Occidental all use the Psalter in worship. Some of these churches were formerly hymn singers, but they are learning to appreciate the God-centered and God-glorifying language of the psalms. When the Berean PRC and the First Reformed Church of Bulacan federate, they will follow, with the PRCA, the Church Order of Dordt. Psalm-singing in the Philippines is mostly in English. However, the First Reformed Church of Bulacan, for example, has translated about 30 Psalter numbers into Tagalog. For one of their services the saints sing in English; for the other they sing in Tagalog. Clearly, more work could be done in translating the Psalter into the language of the Filipino people. On the mission field it is always difficult to introduce unfamiliar songs. Thankfully, this is being done wisely in the Philippines, and the people are responding well to the instruction.7 Often, evangelicals from various backgrounds find psalm-singing a strange practice. Therefore few evangelicals sing the Psalms. It seems almost an alien practice. One would think—from the attitude of some—that God did not give a book of praises in the Bible and that praise began with Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts, or even with Graham Kendrick and Keith Green!
By singing the psalms, we keep our worship theocentric and biblical. We not only preach God’s Word, we sing it. And surely this is the best way in public worship to be filled with the Spirit (Eph. 5:19) and to have the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom (Col. 3:16). What better words could we use to teach and admonish one another than the words given us by the Holy Spirit Himself (Col. 3:16), who anointed David and others to be the sweet psalmists of Israel (II Sam. 23:1; II Chron. 29:30)?
Finally, while we honor the Lord by singing psalms, we do not honor the Lord by singing psalms in pride. Sometimes psalm-singers can be guilty of condescension towards non-psalm-singing brethren in other churches. This is deplorable. Instead of hitting them over the head with the Psalter, so to speak, we do better to encourage our brethren to rediscover the beauty and majesty of the Psalter, so that we can, by God’s grace, wean them off the songs that they sing, which, although often they are good, cannot hold a candle to the God-breathed psalms of David.
1 Rev. Steven Houck wrote an excellent pamphlet, God’s Sovereignty and the Psalms, demonstrating the glorious, God-centered instruction given to us in the psalms. The pamphlet, although out of print, can be read online on the CPRC website, http://www.cprf. co.uk/pamphlets/godssovereigntyandthepsalms.htm.
2 “Exclusive Psalmody churches,” accessed February 28, 2014, http://exclusivepsalmodychurches.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/ edifying-links-promoting-psalm-singing/
3 Reformed Worship, March 1987, accessed February 28, 2014, http://www.reformedworship.org/article/march-1987/we-usedsing- only-psalms-what-happened
4 “The Trinity Hymna,” accessed February 28, 2014, http://www.hymnary.org/hymnal/TH1990
5 “Youth,” Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia website, accessed February 28, 2014, http://www.epc.org.au//youth/3.html
6 “O Lord, accept our offering. Receive and bless the gifts we bring. To thee as prophet, priest and king, I yield my heart, my offering.”
7 I thank Rev. Dr. David Torlach (EPC), Rev. Andy Lanning (minister-on-loan to the CERC), and Rev. Daniel Kleyn (missionary to the Philippines) for their help in researching the practices in their respective countries.