I did not grow up in a church that practised the singing of the Psalms. Growing up, I split my time between two churches with two distinctly different styles of music. The first was a large, very traditional Baptist church that cherished the folksy revival hymns of the late 19th century. Songs such as In the Garden, The Old Rugged Cross, and Softly and Tenderly still bring back memories of my childhood. Then in high school I got connected with a rockin’ charismatic youth group. There we belted out the latest hits by Carmen and Petra and sang Our God is an Awesome God relentlessly. Yet in both of these contexts, what we never sang were the Psalms. In fact, I don’t think I had ever even heard of this practice (or thought it possible) until around twenty years ago.
Going off to college, and then even more so later in seminary, I was gradually introduced to the theology and spirituality of historic evangelical Protestantism. I began reading the works of Spurgeon, Ryle, Owen, and Lloyd-Jones. With this came the discovery that our forefathers cherished singing psalms (and that some even argued for exclusive psalmody). But I still didn’t believe this was an option today. Certainly nobody still sang the Psalms in the 21st century, I assumed.
An unexpected convergence changed things significantly. I preached on Colossians 3:16, and emphasized that the first Christians sang psalms as a regular part of their gatherings. At that time, our church was blessed with an unusually gifted pianist and music leader, and my sermon inspired him to try to introduce psalms into our congregational singing. Somewhere he located a Presbyterian psalter, tweaked the tunes slightly for our context, and we were off to the races. That was about eight years ago, and we have included singing psalms as a regular part of our Sunday gatherings ever since.
Things changed even more dramatically about six months ago when I decided to try singing the Psalms as part of my daily devotions, generally before my prayer time. How has this experiment changed my life? Here are three main ways:
- Psalm-singing has injected my often academic and heady relationship with God with a healthy dose of joy and affection. While my elementary school teachers are probably incredulous to hear this, as an adult I have tended to be a rather scholastic guy. I study Hebrew in my free time and enjoy reading PhD dissertations. This has its advantages, but can foster a relationship with the Lord similar to the relationship one has with a math professor. Thankfully, psalm-singing has worked to counteract this tendency in that the singing of the Psalms simply moves the affections! Praising God with glad gusto, confessing my sin with palatable grief, and crying out for deliverance from my wolf-like enemies has been like transitioning from black-and-white TV to full-colour. Perhaps the reason your Christianity feels more like a lecture hall than a relationship with the living Creator is because you’re not singing the Psalms.
- Psalm-singing has convinced me that the spiritual experiences of the godliest people are often characterized by depression, misery, and darkness. No one can read (or sing) the Psalms without realizing that those who wrote them knew the Lord far better than most of us do. At the same time, no one can read (or sing) the Psalms without realizing that the experiences of the Psalmists were frequently of pain, suffering, and persecution. Under these trials, the Psalmists expressed fear, despair, guilt, loneliness, and shame. Singing the Psalms has convinced me on a deep level that normal Christianity includes frequent times of misery and discouragement, and sometimes even profound despair. While these seasons may not be enjoyable, they are life this side of Heaven, and frankly we shouldn’t be shocked or ashamed by this. Moreover, singing the Psalms has convinced me that it glorifies God not to pretend we feel great when in truth we’re miserable, but to express our misery to the Lord and to cry out for relief. I have come to despise the artificial, happy-clappy, ’victorious life’ sort of Christianity so popular in wider evangelicalism, and to see it as a disgusting misrepresentation, in large part because it so obviously contradicts the spirituality of the Psalms.
- Psalm-singing has convicted me of the superficiality and banality of most modern praise songs. I should warn you that singing psalms regularly will tempt you to be extremely critical of contemporary Christian praise music. It will be difficult to sing “And now I am happy all the day” after having sung Psalm 88. You’ll have a tough time belting out “Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord!” after having sung Psalm 51. And you’ll question whether the writers of In the Garden were even converted after singing Psalm 22. But here’s the deal: such criticism is justified and necessary. Much contemporary Christian praise music is painfully shallow, theologically questionable, and spiritually harmful. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it drives away non-Christians from our churches who can see through our plastic smiles, insincere claims, and fake façades. While I am certainly not an exclusive Psalmody guy, I can definitely see the wisdom in that position and respect its intent. If contemporary Christian praise music were more like the Psalms and less like football rally-songs, everybody would be better off.
I encourage you to try singing the Psalms yourself, at least as part of your personal devotions. Here’s a longer post with some practical suggestions for how to get started. In case anybody is wondering, I use The Psalms of David in Metre, which has all the Psalms in arranged in common metre. Try psalm-singing regularly for three months and let us know how it goes. It just might change your life.
Postscript: Reader Chris Webb has found a website that matches metrical Psalms to the tunes of hymns, which you might find helpful. Also, Berwyn Hoyt has put forward the Reformed Churches of New Zealand provisional hymnal, which has a long list of psalms with music that are free for churches to use.