Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Principles for Singing the Psalms

My church sings Psalms. We do not sing only Psalms - we use the Trinity Hymnal (1990) in addition to the Book of Psalms for Singing (1973) - but on a given Lord's Day usually about half of our songs will be from the Psalms, sometimes more. Singing (or praying) the Psalms can be a bit confusing when someone is unfamiliar with how to interpret and apply them in the new covenant era. So here are a few principles to keep in mind when singing the Psalms today.

1. View the lyrics of the Psalms as formative words. The Psalms are God's word, as well as words intended to be sung by His people. Thus, not only do they teach you truths (about God, Jesus, the church, yourself), but they are designed to shape your affections, your prayers, and your hopes as they teach you how to direct and express them. And so when you come to a Psalm that rubs you the wrong way, seek to understand it properly and then let the Psalm form your sensibilities, rather than let your sensibilities judge the Psalm.

2. Jesus is the Davidic king and the head of Israel. When you sing of David, the king, or the anointed one in the Psalms, think primarily of Jesus Christ. For one thing, Christ is the Greek word for “anointed one.” Psalm 2 is a classic example here - it refers to God's anointed king in Zion, and this is applied to Jesus Christ several times in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 4:23-31). And Jesus, as king, embodies and represents His people and takes up their songs on His lips. Psalm 69, for example, does not talk about the Christ explicitly, but in the New Testament it is applied to Jesus as one who embodied and represented His people (Rom. 15:3, John 2:17, Acts 1:20). So there are various ways the Psalms can be fulfilled in Christ, and sometimes they can apply to him and to us to the extent that we are united with Christ (e.g. his suffering and exaltation is related to our suffering and exaltation).

3. The church of Jesus Christ is the people of God, His dwelling place. So when you sing of Israel, Zion, city of God, temple, take these as references to the church of Jesus Christ. The "us" in the Psalms refers to us who are in covenant with God through Christ. This is a point made several times in the New Testament: those in Christ are the offspring and heirs of Abraham (Gal. 3:29), apostate Jews were taken out of Israel and believing Gentiles are grafted into it (Rom. 11), the church is the temple and dwelling place of God (1 Cor. 3:16-17, 2 Cor. 6:16, Eph. 2:19-22). The New Testament applies the "us" of the Psalms to the church (Rom. 8:36).

4. These are songs for God's people. They were collected in the book of Psalms for their use by God's people, to give expression to shared desires and to shape a common identity. So sing them as a Christian. If you cannot relate to things said in them personally, you can still sing them by identifying with Christ and His body. Perhaps you don't feel like your suffering is like that described in Psalm 22, but you identify with Christ who did suffer in that way, and with the church who suffers in that way as a body and in some of its individual members.

5. Related to this, conflict in the Psalms is covenantal not personal. As a consequences of the other principles above, the enemies referred to in the Psalms are the enemies of Christ and His church. The Psalms are not expressions of personal vengeance and bitterness, but of covenant loyalty. When we sing them, we side with Christ and His church against their enemies and with God's justice against wickedness and tyranny. Just as with God’s proclamations of judgement (e.g. Jonah 3), there is an implicit understanding that these curses are conditioned on a lack of repentance (a condition made explicit in Psalm 7:12). If these enemies repent and turn to Christ, then God’s wrath is satisfied in His Son and the person is forgiven. We desire both that God’s justice be established and that all peoples be saved, and we find both desires expressed in the Psalms (see the desire for the salvation of the nations in Psalm 67).

So with these in mind, sing the Psalms with your voices and with the heart. Sing them so that they begin to dwell within you, shaping your desires and affections and the way you see this world. Sing them from day to day, as well as on the Lord's Day. Sing them on your own, and sing them with others - your family, friends, and church. "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16)

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