The singing of psalms has all but disappeared from many congregations, unless you count the “As the Deer” chorus as a singing of a psalm. (Lifting the first line from a psalm and adding words about your desire to eventually worship generally doesn’t count.) One cannot help feeling that many congregations treat their hymnal as if it is the New Testament, and the psalter as if it is the Old: nice, but not really for us.
Psalms by themselves are not adequate for all that New Testament worship aims to be. That is, much as I respect people who want a strict application of the Regulative Principle, I don’t think exclusive psalmody is the way to go. Being Old Testament revelation, psalms do not contain all the Christological themes that we want to consider as New Testament believers. However, mixed in with “hymns and spiritual songs”(Eph 5:19, Col 3:16), they are an important part of the worship we ought to offer God.
Why should we return to including psalms in our worship?
1) The psalms were meant to be sung. They are certainly to be studied and taught as the rest of Scripture, but psalms perhaps do not have their fullest effect until clothed again in melody. The psalms are songs, and songs which God’s people should sing.
2) Psalms represent the universal experiences of the redeemed. Who has not read a psalm and found David or Asaph’s heart-cries resonating with his own? The psalms are experts in experiential theology, experiences of the redeemed shared across dispensations and ages.
3) The psalms are inspired poetry. If we want to view unseen realities properly, there is nothing better than poetry that it inspired by God. The images chosen by God are specifically selected to shape the believing imagination.
4) Psalms cover a variety of themes, from celebration, to confession, to expectation, to cries for deliverance, to wisdom. Therefore, psalms can function as calls to worship, confession before the Lord’s Supper, preparation before the preached Word, hymns of adoration or thanksgiving, hymns of promise, or even benedictions.
To this, one might add Doug Wilson’s plea for psalm singing as one of the means for reversing the feminization of worship that has occurred in the last century. He says,
The fact that the church has largely abandoned the singing of psalms means that the church has abandoned a songbook that is thoroughly masculine in its lyrics. The writer of most of the psalms was a warrior, and he knew how to fight the Lord’s enemies in song. With regard to the music of our psalms and hymns, we must return to a world of vigorous singing, vibrant anthems, more songs where the tenor carries the melody, open fifths, and glory. Our problem is not that such songs do not exist; our problem is that we have forgotten them. And in forgetting them, we are forgetting our boys. Men need to model such singing for their sons. (Future Men, p98)
Of course, no one sings a psalm precisely as originally given. Psalms are first translated from Hebrew to our mother tongue, and from there a metrical, rhyming and often abridged version is made. Nevertheless, we are still singing the substance of the psalms.
Where to find them? There is certainly a revival of psalm-singing in some sectors. Some are re-working the psalms into contemporary metrical tunes. Occasionally, one finds a section of a psalm that has been put to a pleasant and helpful melody, making it something of a cross between a psalm and a spiritual song. Some hymnals, include most of the psalms. The Book of Psalms for Singing, (Crown & Covenant, 1998), has all of the psalms, many of them set to hymn tunes with which a hymn-singing congregation would be familiar.