The Psalter in Worship: The Covenant Setting

Extracted from The Psalms in Christian Worship, pp. 1-6
It should be noted that the author holds the singing of the Psalter in public worship is a godly practice and supported by a number of lines of argument. However, he does not hold that use of other song material in public worship is necessarily sinful. He recognises there have always been differences over the application of the regulating principle of Scripture in this area, and has no interest in advancing exaggerated underpinning for the practice.

While this book is not intended as an exhaustive study of the principles underlying the practice of singing only the Psalter in public worship, it certainly seeks to commend that practice and show its foundation, for what God has given ought not to be neglected. At the same time it is hoped that those who do not expect to be persuaded of the position will at least wish to see a much greater use of the Psalter than is common at the present time.

Much of current practice in Christian worship is alarming to older Christians. One thinks not only of endlessly repeated choruses with limited content, but the whole approach to worship: the use of mime and dance, rock bands and drama – the whole sweep of practices which seem to have turned worship into entertainment. With incredible arrogance we sinful creatures seem to think that whatever pleases us must be acceptable with God. We hardly hear anyone ask, “Does this please God? Is it what he has commanded?” This book does not want to encourage a reversion to traditional ways of worship from the Victorian age, but it aims to encourage an examination of principles for the singing and musical content of worship.

Some broad principles

The practice of exclusive use of the Psalter in public worship does not rest on a few isolated texts but on broad principles of Scripture. Some of these principles can be stated as follows:

1. Worship has a covenant context
All true worship is obedient response in the context of God’s covenant. True worship is a right response to God’s initiative and God’s word. We do not seek him but he seeks us, finds us, redeems us and lays commandments which are not burdensome on us. God’s word is a word of salvation in Christ, the mediator of the new covenant. The response is obedience to “all things that Christ has commanded” (Matt 28:20). Obedience is not a means of establishing a new relationship with God (that would be legalism) but it is the fruit of the new relationship established by God in his grace. This was so in the Old Testament also where the preface to the ten commandments (Ex 20:1-2) declares that because the Lord has redeemed his people they are bound to the response of obedience.
2. The covenant’s heart: God with us
In the Old Testament God chose to dwell with his people (Ex 25:8 cf. Rev 21:3). The tabernacle is variously described as “the tent of dwelling” (Ex chs. 25/27; “the tent of meeting” (Ex chs.28/31) or “the tent of testimony” (Ex 38:21). All this indicates that God was represented as dwelling with his people; they could meet with him there, and they were to keep his testimony. The temple built by Solomon c.950 BC and rebuilt in Haggai’s day (c.516 BC) was just the permanent form of the portable tabernacle. The arrangements and furnishings were designed to teach spiritual truths, many of which are expounded in the Epistle to the Hebrews. This epistle emphasises the point that the earthly sanctuary was a copy of a heavenly original. With this agree Haggai’s words that the glory of the rebuilt house of God would be greater when the Desired of All Nations should come (Haggai. 2:6-9).

When Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19; Matt 26:60f; 27:40; Mark 14:57-59; 15:29; Acts 6:14) he was speaking of “the temple of his body” (John 2:21). This shows us that the death of Jesus and his resurrection involved the institution of a new temple of which the old was a picture. In short, the new covenant effected by Christ’s death and resurrection replaced the Mosaic covenant and the old temple was replaced by the new temple which is the Christian church, the dwelling place of God through the Spirit of which Jesus is the cornerstone (cf. also Eph 2:18-22; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 6:16).

Through Jesus, God comes to us: we meet with him and we live out our lives for him, the righteousness of the law being fulfilled in us who walk according to the Spirit (Romans 8:4). Since Christ has entered into the heavenly sanctuary, into the very presence of God, there to appear before the Father on behalf of his people, Christians have no holy buildings on earth, and no symbolic structures or worship (other than baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Christ in the Gospel is not symbol but reality. Thus we come boldly to the throne from which grace is dispensed.

3. The songs of God’s temple – inspired and authorised
The use of songs in the praise service of the Old Testament temple was according to divine direction and the materials used were inspired. “The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, his word was on my tongue” (2 Sam 23:2). The Psalms are specifically noted by the Saviour himself, following his resurrection, as speaking of him, and doubtless his instruction formed the basis of the very common use of the psalms by the disciples in their teaching. More than 100 psalms are alluded to in the New Testament and about half of all Old Testament quotations in it are from the Psalter. No one can prove uninspired materials are commanded in the New Testament and everything favours the view that the Psalter, now come into its own with the coming of Christ, was intended to form the hymnbook of the Christian church, the spiritual temple, and to be the means of offering the sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:15).

a. The Psalter is meant to be sung
The Psalter is poetry in a form which loses little or nothing in translation, since rhyme of words is not a feature of the original Hebrew. Rhyme as we know it is replaced by parallelism or a kind of rhyme of thought, by which one line matches, contrasts or develops the thought of the previous line. Efforts to show a definite metrical structure have not proved successful, and we are left to recognise a simple and flexible rhythm. This involves a pattern of stressed syllables, often three or four to a phrase, interspersed with an indefinite number of weak syllables.

This poetry is meant to be sung, and its content is appropriate to all ages and circumstances. Even those believers who wish to supplement it with uninspired material admit this. This being so the Psalter ought to be used extensively. In fact it is not so used. One gratefully acknowledges that significant parts of the Psalter are read in some of the liturgical churches. But relatively few are sung by the congregations, and this is particularly so in fine evangelical churches professing a high regard for God’s word.

b. The Psalter is inspired
There are many doctrinally correct and beautiful compositions in hymnbooks. That there is a place for them in a Christian’s life is not doubted. But is the inspired Psalter, the word of Christ, to be displaced by them in the worship of the gathered people of God? We do not substitute a reading from Wesley’s Sermons or Calvin’s Institutes for our Scripture reading in the worship service. Why then should we displace the inspired songs by other compositions which, however true and beautiful, are not breathed out by God in the way the Psalter is?

c. The Psalter is authorised
In the Church of Christ we must rest content with what Christ has instituted. We must not add nor must we take away from what he has commanded. This is the truly ecumenical principle, and it is also the way to preserve true liberty of conscience. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to his word; or beside it, if matters of faith or worship” (Westminster Confession 20:2 corrected text cf. 21:1; see also Belgic Confession Art 7; Baptist Confession of 1689 21:2). But human inventiveness and human traditions did not begin and end with the Pharisees. It is endemic to sinful man to think he is free to supply deficiencies he supposes are found in the worship prescribed in Holy Scripture.

The implications of the inspired character of Scripture and the Psalter as part of Scripture are well stated by the findings of the Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God presented to the Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (USA) in 1947 by Professor John Murray and Dr William Young:

“1. There is no warrant in Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in public worship.
2. There is explicit authority for the use of inspired songs.
3. The songs of divine worship must therefore be limited to the songs of Scripture, for they alone are inspired.
4. The Book of Psalms has provided us with the kind of compositions for which we have the authority of Scripture.
5. We are therefore certain of divine sanction and approval in the singing of the Psalms.
6. We are not certain that other songs were intended to be sung in the worship of God, even though the use of other inspired songs does not violate the fundamental principle in which Scripture authorisation is explicit, namely, the use of inspired songs.
7. In view of the uncertainty with respect to the use of other inspired songs we should confine ourselves to the Book of Psalms.”

4. The covenant law
Jesus reminds us that love to God and love to man are the basis of the Old Testament (Matt 22:34-40). What is involved in love for God is covered by the first four commandments (following the Hebrew text). The first of the ten commandments requires that the Lord alone be acknowledged as God for there is only one God, and thus only one truth. At the heart of true worship is acknowledgement of the total rule of the God of salvation. Hence, Jesus is Lord. At the heart of false worship is rejection of this. In other words, whenever man defines reality by himself we see the essence of idolatry. The second commandment deals with the lawful approach to this one God: the approach to God must be consistent with his character and so we can approach him only in the way he commands. He must be worshipped “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). The third command forbids taking God’s name in vain. This means far more than forbidding casual use of the actual name of God. “Christ teaches that God’s name is comprehended in the heavens, the earth, the temple, the altar (Matt 5:34), because his glory is conspicuous in them. Consequently, God’s name is profaned whenever any detraction is made from his supreme wisdom, infinite power, justice, truth, clemency and rectitude.” The fourth commandment reminds us that although all our life is to be consecrated to the Divine glory, God claims one day in seven for himself, a day that is made for man to rest and rejoice in God, and which points to his eternal destiny with God when his work is done. The last six commandments express love to one’s fellows, since he who loves God must love those who bear the Divine image.

5. Scripture is sufficient
Scripture, as God’s covenant word, is the revelation of his will for what we are to believe and do, and it is a sufficient revelation. It is able to equip the believer thoroughly for every good work because it is sufficient in teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16-17). It therefore does not need supplementing by other materials. So far as singing is concerned the Bible teaches that this has a vertical dimension (singing to the Lord) but also a horizontal dimension (teaching and admonishing one another by the singing). This points to inspired materials.

6. Outside the covenant: man is disqualified
Man is a sinner but he is still a worshipper. In fact, he is incurably religious, but apart from God’s grace he does not know what he worships (John 4:22). He lives a lie because he rationalises away the truth of God and suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). He thinks up worship from his own heart (1 Kings 12:26-28). He dresses himself in religious garb to justify himself, but having no sovereign God he has no sure hope and no future. His worship is false, his service fruitless. Compared to the utterly pagan he may have some considerable knowledge as did the Samaritans and the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. But the words of Jesus to the Samaritans stand: You Samaritans do not know what you worship; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22); and to the Pharisees: “They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men” (Matt 15:9 quoting Isaiah 29:13). Thus we are directed again to the word of God.

Further, the way of salvation through Christ confirms man’s disqualification since Christ does not act in such a way as to supplement our efforts or to allow our efforts to supplement his obedience. Rather, Christ acts as the sinner’s substitute so that God is just and the one who justifies whoever believes in Jesus. When we seek acceptance ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’ we must not think that any thing we do, even in worship, measures up to the righteousness God requires. Our worship is accepted because Christ is the perfect worshipper, the obedient servant, and we are accepted in him by grace through faith. Thus we cannot dispense with the Psalter which, as we will see, is in a real sense the song of Christ for his people.

7. An historical note
So far as the public worship of the Christian church is concerned the Psalter reigned supreme for several centuries with a virtual monopoly during most ages of the church’s near 2,000 year history. It would appear that something is unbalanced about our worship practices in the 20th century when the average hymnbook of perhaps 600 items contains only a dozen or so psalms for congregational use; many have few more than the obligatory Psalm 23.