Friday, August 07, 2009
Singing Psalms, and only Psalms, on Sunday
I had a unique experience recently. I attended my first Psalms-only service in Scotland. The church was a Free Church of Scotland that has been exclusive in singing Psalms without instruments and no hymns for nearly a hundred years. I had set a post on Luther to hit that commented that I could never be a Psalms-only puritan. However, the experience was unique and enlightening.
Our choir came to the Free Church early, leaving behind their hymns and songs that they often sing by themselves to adopt Psalms sung by the whole congregation. Then, they practiced in a small building that was very unforgiving to those that sang off key. Then, as the practice wrapped up, a few early congregants filtered in. Mostly the older crowd getting their usual seats. But I watched the members as the choir finished preparing. As the choir sang, I saw an elderly woman singing along, knowing every word to Psalm 127. I knew none of the words. But this woman heard the first few lines and could join right in. The next Psalm they sang, she joined in again. The fact hit me: This lady probably knows all 150 Psalms from singing them every Sunday! I know Psalm 1, 8, 23 and parts of 51. My opposition to Psalms-only missed an important virtue of Psalms-only singing: The congregation begins to memorize the book of the Bible that Calvin called “an anatomy of the soul.” Laments, praises, confession, all in this rich book.
Such a fact does not change my mind that there are good reasons not to be Psalms-only. First, one must feel hypocritical every time you sing Psalm 150, that commands instruments to be used in the worship of God. Second, one has to be stricter than Paul who quotes from early new hymns in his epistles (Phil 2:5-11, Col 1:15-20). Finally, one must do interpretive gymnastics to get around the command to “sing a new song.”
Yet, the choice today seems to be between singing Psalms-only and singing no Psalms. We may sing a song that lifts a few lines from a Psalm, but never the whole thing. We sing the line “Your love endures forever,” in tons of songs, but barely touch the parts that show specific instances of God's love. Though I think being Psalms exclusive is not warranted by Scripture, I do think they have a richer experience and diet of worship than we Christians who rarely, if ever, sing Psalms at all. Somehow, I don't think God will chide the Psalms-only people in heaven as much as the no-Psalms Christians. Our music director at PCPC has a vision for a new Psalter with new music and updated metric words, to re-introduce the Psalms to a Church that has forgotten them. Few things, in my opinion, could be better for the diet of the Church in worship in America.
An example of Scottish Psalms singing: Psalm 23 sung by the congregation mp3.