We are in the midst of a liturgical and musical reformation, but this should not leave us bewildered. We are called to rejoice in all that we do, and this includes rejoicing in all that we may have to learn or unlearn. We may sometimes be challenged, but we should not be overwhelmed. We may be stirred up to love and good works, but we should not be beaten down in discouragement. And this is why the Scriptures are so important in this process.
For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding. (Psalm 47:7).
As we praise the Lord in our music, what is it that we do? God is worthy of all the musical praise we can render, but we should sing our praises, as this text says, with understanding. We begin with an understanding of who God is—the King of all the earth, and our praise proceeds from this. We do not praise ourselves “into” this understanding; this understanding causes the redeemed human soul to burst, and all the pieces are found to be in some sense musical.
Psalms through the years
The people of God have been singing the psalms since they were first composed. Some eras were more completely given over to the music of God’s songbook than others. In the history of the church, our era is a time when the psalms have been most neglected, and in a most grievous way. Even allowing for monastic corruptions, Benedictine monks would chant through the entire psalter on a weekly basis, and had it more than memorized. But the Reformation went beyond this, and sought to restore the whole psalter to the whole congregation. For example, in 1523, Luther set forth liturgical reforms, which included the congregation hearing entire psalms and not just snippets of them. But it was left to the Calvinists to establish the pattern of adapting the whole psalter for congregational singing. This was one of the central factors in the Reformation becoming the cultural tsunami that it became.
But we have lost our heritage. We are now in a position where it is possible for Christians to speak about the necessity of restoring the psalms to the Church.
It is not just important to do what God says to do. We are to do it the way He says to do it. We all know the value of Bible memorization. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Ps. 119:11). What we do not reflect on is that this passage is a line from a song, and not an abstraction in a systematic tome. We all know that we memorize “to music” far more readily than any other way. Memorizing without music is like grape nuts without the milk. Consider these two passages together.
And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord (Eph. 5:18-19).
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16).
We are commanded to do something, and that something is to be accomplished through the singing of the entire psalter. The three words used here (odes, hymns, and psalms) were the headings for the various kinds of songs in the Greek version of the psalter. Now what is that something? The word of Christ is to dwell in us richly. That is what fills us. In this place, the Spirit is not the one who fills, but rather the agent who does the filling. Using the psalter, the Holy Spirit spreads the word of Christ into all the corners of your life.
THE CHOIR MILITANT
In the public worship of God, the choir is in the vanguard of the battle. “And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth for ever” (2 Chron. 20:21). There are two points of application here that are worth considering. The first is that a vanguard is now where the main body of the army will be. We are (all of us) advancing. Secondly, because this is spiritual warfare, it is permissible to have women in the choir (Neh. 7:67). But it is emphatically not permissible to have a shortage of men there.
There has never been a society without poetry. There have been societies without prose. But in the modern era, the pressure is on us to become more and more mundane or pedestrian. In the Highlands of Scotland, there used to be ministers who chanted/sang their sermons. While no one is agitating for this, we do want to glorify as much of our speech to God as is consistent with the nature of that speech. This is why, for example, we want to sing the Lord’s prayer, and (down the road) the creed This is not absolutely necessary, but remember it is a form of adornment.
GROWTH IS CHALLENGING
Remember what we are called to. We must praise the Lord with understanding. This understanding must be shaped and formed by Scripture. But this means we must get that Scripture inside of us. But if we are to do this the way the Bible says to do it, we must figure out a way to sing the Bible. We must begin explicitly with the psalter, but we do not limit ourselves to this.
This means that, if the word of Christ is to dwell in you richly, caused to do so by the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit must have the raw materials He has required for this gift. Take care that “I don’t like learning these psalms” doesn’t really mean “I don’t want the word of Christ to dwell in me richly.” If you are preferring one psalm over another, this is not a problem. But if you are preferring no psalm to learning the psalms, then let the Spirit do His work of filling.
SHORT CATECHISM FOR LITTLE SAINTS
The Scriptures are kind enough to tell us what we should learn to sing.
Why do we worship in the order we do?
Because God commands us to confess to Him, give ourselves to Him, and fellowship with Him.
How does the word of Christ fill us?
Through singing psalms in the power of the Holy Spirit.