“Through Endless Ages Sound His Praise”: The History of Psalm-Singing in the Church

What among men has endured as many ages under the sun as the psalms…the psalms sung…the psalms sung in corporate worship? Precious little. Psalmody has seen Solomon’s temple used and burned, doleful children of the covenant marched to Babylon and jubilantly returning, the Son of God incarnate humiliated and exalted, Rome risen and fallen, the mighty wave of the gospel of salvation sweeping through the Mediterranean world, into Europe, over the seas to America, and now to the ends of the earth, always with the bitter death of apostasy following in its wake. Over the past three thousand years much has come and much has gone. Psalmody has seen it all. Psalmody remains. Psalmody is rare. Psalmody is not popular. But psalmody remains. Because Jesus Christ defends and preserves His church to the end, psalmody will certainly remain to the end. None may doubt that psalmody will see the antichristian world-kingdom and then Christ Himself—the one of whom the psalms spoke, and that by His own testimony (Luke 24:44)—appear in splendid majesty arrayed more glorious than the sun. Through endless ages the church sounds Jehovah’s praise—with psalms.

The Old Testament Age

The Old Testament church sang the psalms, one of them perhaps already in the wilderness on the way to Canaan (Psalm 90, written by Moses), most in Solomon’s temple (those written mostly by David), and others thereafter. So much was psalm-singing a part of Israel’s life and worship that when the Jews were deported by Nebuchadnezzar as captives into Babylon in 586 B.C., they were identified as psalm-singers. As they sat weeping by the river, their proud captors taunted: “Come sing us one of Zion’s songs.” Even the ungodly knew what took place in Zion. Israel sang the psalms. Would to God Babylon of today would have reason to know and say the same.

The New Testament (Apostolic) Age

The New Testament church of Jesus and the apostles’ day sang the psalms. As part of the worship in the upper room in the night of the betrayal, Jesus and His disciples finished their communion service singing “a hymn” (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26, “a Psalme” in the Geneva Bible 1599). It is universally acknowledged that this “hymn” was what the Jews called “the Great Hallel” (“Praise God”), which consisted of Psalms 113-118. When the old (Passover) gave way to the new (Lord’s Supper) and disappeared, the old psalms remained.

The inspired apostle Paul exhorted the saints in Ephesus and Colossae to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, which was the Bible used by Jesus and the apostles, “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs” (odes) appear as headings of the 150 psalms. “Hymn” did not mean what it does to us. When the Israelites sang the 150 psalms they were singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” “Hymn” does not refer to a song outside of the book of 150 psalms any more than “testimonies,” “ways,” “precepts,” “statutes,” “commandments,” or “judgments” in Psalm 119:1-8 refer to something outside of the book of the law. Sing and make melody with psalms!

When imprisoned (Acts 16:25, “and sang [literally, hymned] praises unto God”), when in the midst of the church (Heb. 2:12, “will I sing [literally, hymn] unto thee”), when needing to express merriment (James 5:13), the saints sound Jehovah’s praise—with psalms. Even the members of the oft-admonished congregation of Corinth came together, each one with “a psalm” (I Cor. 14:26). How or why they brought them notwithstanding, they gathered with psalms.

It has been said that in the New Testament there is a quote from a psalm or an allusion to a psalm about once every 19 verses! That is unsurprising, for the Holy Spirit of inspiration is the same Spirit who put in the hearts of the human writers of Scripture and all the true disciples of Jesus a love for the psalms.

The Age of Early Church

Psalm-singing did not die with the apostles. We have books and books containing the writings of the early church fathers who lived in the centuries immediately after the apostles. Where are all the man-made hymns they composed and sang? One looks in vain. In fact, where hymns were to be found in the church they were composed by and worked their way in through Gnostic, Manichean, Apollinarian, Donatist, and Arian heretics as a vehicle for introducing heresy. For example, Bardesanes, a Gnostic of the second century, and his son Harmonius composed a songbook of 150 hymns to rival the Psalter of the 150 Psalms.1

For private personal edification at home, at sea, and in the field, and especially for corporate worship, Christians sang psalms. Men like Tertullian (d. 230), Eusebius (d. 340), Athanasius (d. 373), Basil (d. 379), Ambrose (d. 397), Chrysostom (d. 407), Jerome (d. 420), and Augustine (d. 430) spoke of the church’s love for and universal use of the psalms. For example, Eusebius noted, “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.”2 Chrysostom famously stated:

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 every night and day. In the Church’s vigils, the first, the midst, 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. 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 private houses where virgins spin—in the monasteries—in the deserts, where men converse with God—the first, the midst, and the last is David. In the night, when men are asleep, he wakes them up to sing; and collecting the servants of God into angelic troops, turns earth into heaven, and of men makes angels, chanting David’s Psalms.3

Surely it was love for the psalms and a conviction to maintain their unrivaled place in worship that led the Council of Laodicea (360) to forbid the introduction of hymns into the church. The great ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) confirmed this ruling. The early church was determined to sound Jehovah’s praise in psalms.

The Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, when little of the church’s doctrine and practice was encouraging, more and more hymns were introduced. Furthermore, Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome (590-604), replaced congregational singing with choirs. The tongues of men, women, and children were stopped while liturgical choirs sang, and sang in Latin. But that does not mean the psalms disappeared. In fact, Presbyterian George Robinson contends:

In all the history of the Psalter there is nothing more strikingly significant than its unique record in medieval times. In an age when the true gospel was virtually unpreached, and the Bible was practically unread, and pure religion was largely unknown, even then the Psalms were not unsung, but, on the contrary, enjoyed a vogue which, in passionate devotion at least, has never been excelled before or since. When almost all other portions of the Holy Scriptures were inoperative upon the masses, shut up as they were in the cloisters, or jealously guarded by a corrupt priesthood, the Psalms continued to cast their spell upon the minds and hearts of men. While the reign of many of the holy things of God was, at this time, temporarily interrupted, the historical continuity in the use of the Psalms suffered no slightest fracture.4

It is true, the psalms were often abused in ritualistic ceremonies connected with marriage, burial, and canonization of saints or in superstitious monastic chanting. Yet, the psalms remained.

The Age of the Great Reformation

Powerfully moved by the Word of God and by singing, Martin Luther worked tirelessly to restore congregational singing so that all could sound Jehovah’s praise. However, it was especially John Calvin who labored to restore to psalmody its unrivaled place in worship.

Banished from Geneva in 1538 over certain liturgical practices to which he would not submit, Calvin later conceded on many issues in which he had mistakenly been too rigid. Instituting psalm-singing in Geneva was not one of them. It was a sine qua non of his return to Geneva.5 Thus, while pastoring a French-speaking congregation in Strasbourg with no French Psalter available, Calvin began working to produce a Psalter. He recruited the skilled Clement Marot, and later Louise Bourgeois and Theodore Beza, to produce what became the Genevan Psalter. It was first printed in 1542 after Calvin had returned to Geneva, and the final edition appeared in 1562. No Psalter was so widely popular and oft-translated.

The Genevan Psalter was well-used, especially on Sunday, and in church. For example, in Geneva:

The Lord’s Day was a special time for psalm-singing. Before each service, the churches would post on their doors what psalms would be sung. Devoted families would send a family member to check the numbers posted and the entire family would practice singing those psalms before each service. Also, between the Lord’s Day services, people were encouraged to sing psalms.6

In his “Preface to the Psalter,” Calvin expressed his conviction regarding congregational psalmody,

Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from Him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting of the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory. 7

The Reformation/Post-Reformation Age in the Netherlands

Wherever the Reformation flourished, psalm-singing was always prevalent. “To the extent to which the sacred Psalter spread throughout Europe, to that extent the Reformation prospered,” for the psalms, “crept into the highways and byways of the people, stole into kingly courts and royal chambers, and thus touched with their illuminating truths those of high and low degree who would have been wholly inaccessible to preacher or evangelist.”8 The Netherlands (“Lowlands”) was no exception.

In 1566 our Dutch forefathers warmly welcomed their first Psalter, composed by Peter Datheen and modeled after the Genevan Psalter of 1542. Datheen’s Psalter would remain popular in the churches for over two hundred years, until another Psalter was published. Our fathers gave their tongues to knives for confessing their faith summarized in the Belgic Confession. They were also martyred for singing the psalms. In fact, they endured martyrdom by the power of the psalms, for “when the iron was in men’s souls and they needed it in their blood, they sang the Psalms.” 9

The great Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) required psalm-singing in the Dutch Reformed churches. Although a handful of scriptural songs that had been included in Datheen’s Psalter were permitted in Article 69 of the Church Order of Dordt, the Synod expressly stated, “All other Hymns shall be barred from the Churches, and where some have already been introduced, these shall be set aside by means found to be most appropriate.” 10 The determination of the Remonstrants to introduce hymns into the church compelled the Synod to express itself so. The conviction of the delegates was that men, women, and children sound forth Jehovah’s praise in congregational worship with psalms.

Sadly, love for the psalms waned over time. By 1807 a committee representing various provincial synods introduced 192 hymns, which were eventually forced upon the churches. Many of the hymns were openly Arminian. One year after the well-known Secession of 1834 (the Afscheiding), Hendrik DeCock wrote a short pamphlet. The telling (and unwieldy) title is, “The so-called evangelical hymns, the darling of the enraptured and misled multitude in the synodical reformed church and even by some of God’s children from blindness, because they were drunk with the wine of her fornication, further tested, weighed and found wanting, yes, in conflict with all our Forms of Unity and The Word of God.” 11 Fundamental to the reformation of 1834, and that in the eyes of De- Cock himself, was a return to Dordt and psalmody. We share this heritage and his convictions.

1912 to the Present Age

The collection of metrical versifications of the psalms used at present in the PRCA is an edition of the 1912 Psalter published by the United Presbyterian Board of Publication. Spearheaded by the United Presbyterian Church, nine Reformed and Presbyterian churches from Canada and the United States, including the Christian Reformed Church, gathered to produce a Psalter. The careful and joyful work began already in 1895 with the establishment of a Joint Committee. The objective was to render the inspired psalms into choice English verse while preserving the freshness, strength, and sober dignity of the Hebrew originals.12 The committee said of the book of psalms it produced, “it presents anew the immortal songs of the Holy Spirit, those matchless hymns of the Bible which have been sung in far-off countries and centuries, which were chanted by our Lord and his disciples, and which with their measured language of religious feeling and devotion will abide until the end.”13

Through the twentieth century some of the hands and hearts embracing this Psalter waxed cold. The CRC adopted it in 1914 but replaced it with the Psalter Hymnal by 1934. When Rev. Hoeksema and others were ousted from the CRC over the controversy concerning the Three Points of 1924, they took the 1912 Psalter with them into what would become the PRCA. In these churches congregational psalmody is still practiced and loved by young and old alike.

Psalm-singing is not new. Psalm-singing is old, very old. It is not merely a practiced tradition. Psalmody is reverent, joyful, grateful worship rendered by tongues touched by the same Spirit who inspired the psalms and by hearts quickened by the same Jehovah these psalms extol. Through ages the psalms have been sung. Through endless ages the church will sound Jehovah’s praise—with psalms.

In reverence and in godly fear,

Man finds the gate to wisdom’s ways;

The wise His holy Name revere;

Through endless ages sound His praise.

(Psalter 304:7)

1 Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion: The Biblical Basis for Exclusive Psalmody, 4th Edition (Norfolk, VA: Norfolk Press, 2011), p. 251.

2 Cited in Terry Johnson, “The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church” in Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio, eds., Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), p. 45.

3 Cited in Bushell, Songs of Zion, pp. 32-33.

4 George Robinson, “The Psalms in History,” in John McNaughter, ed., The Psalms in Worship (Edmonton, AB Canada: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992), pp. 506-507.

5 Bushell, Songs of Zion, p. 265.

6 Joel R. Beeke, “Psalm Singing in Calvin and the Puritans,” in Beeke, Selvaggio eds., Sing a New Song, p. 23.

7 Cited in Johnson, “History,” p. 49.

8 Robinson, “History,” p. 511.

9 Robinson, “History,” p. 514.

10 Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House 1954), p. 283.

11 In J.A. Wanliss and W.L. Bredenhof, “Rev. DeCock’s Case Against Hymns,” translation from the Dutch by authors, accessed Feb. 15, 2014, http://www.gcc-opc.org/docs/DeCock.dir/hymndecock.htm.

12 Preface in The Psalter with Responsive Readings (Pittsburg, PA: The United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1912), p. 4.

13 Preface in The Psalter, p. 5.