Why Do We Fight Psalm-Singing?

At the recent Ligonier Escondido conference, we were asked in the Q&A about how to handle the singing of dubious church music. I responded by saying that the last thing we want to do is sing heresy back to the Lord. Obviously, we should have a measure of trust in our leadership to oversee the music we are singing, that it is sound. But largely, in today’s church scene, this entire question presupposes a model of worship where the worship team selects the music without any real accountability. It would be surprising if any worship leader today was acquainted with the actual music guidelines for corporate worship in a given church.

When it comes to today’s church music, we have run so far from the actual, God-given standard that most don’t even know one exists. I was struck by this reading Abraham Kuyper’s comments about church music in “Our Worship” (Eerdmans, 2009). Think for a minute how far we drifted away from the original standard. Before there was big box worship, bands, guitars and drums, and mindless mantras that led us into ecstatic stupor, there was a struggle over psalms versus hymns. Yes, even the idea of hymn singing is now outdated.

In the Netherlands, Kuyper claims that hymns were introduced in 1807 by “unlawful ecclesiastical might”. Those of our tradition might be surprised to know the history of Protestant churches with regard to this practice and would do well to know one of our forefather’s struggles with regard to the singing of hymns. Though Kuyper did believe that the church has a right in principle to produce “sung-prayers”, as he designated, you feel his deep struggle over hymn-singing. The following statements from Kuyper are worth considering:

We thus defend the use of hymns, but we should remember the following:

1. In Holy Scripture we do not find a separate collection of prayers, but we do find a separate collection of psalms.

2. The spiritual depth of the psalms exceeds by far anything that afterward was composed as a church hymn and was sometimes claimed to be even more spiritual.

3. Whenever hymns came into the churches, they always seemed, first, to push back the psalms, and then to supplant them.

4. The psalms have always echoed the enduring, eternal keynote of the pious heart, while hymns usually had a temporary quality and were marked by what was popular at the moment.

5. Hymns in most cases led to the singing of choirs, with the congregation become listeners.

6. In the struggle between hymn and psalm, all nominal members favored the hymns over the psalms while the truly pious members were much more inclined to use the psalms rather than the hymns.

It’s interestesting to see how far removed we are from this discussion. If the psalms far exceed anything man can write, and hymns pander to fads, lead to choirs, and facilitate dullness in the nominal members–these are no small concerns–then why are we so reactive to the idea that we should be singing the psalms?

Kuyper again:

When you compare the poetic and religious quality of the hymnal with our Psalter, the former looks like a child’s play. Gilded tin and real gold have nothing in common. And yet the inferior hymnal was quickly given such prominence by persons in leadership that for a long time most ministers chose one psalm to six or seven hymns. And the psalms used were usually a few that were generally well-known, sometimes no more than two dozen, and they were chosen over and over again. Hymns stole the scene and psalms were mainly forgotten. And if you ask now who preferred the hymns and who the psalms, history teaches that the majority of people in the church who held fast to the confession of the fathers preferred the psalms while those who had drifted away from the truth idolized the hymns.

The claim here is a strong one, Kuyper says that those who prefer psalms held fast the confession of their fathers, and those who idolized hymns drifted from the truth. His point, too, about gilded tin and real gold is indisputable.

Here’s a comparison:

Hymn: “He Leadeth Me” vs. 1-2

He leadeth me, O blessed thought!
O words with heav’nly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
Refrain:
He leadeth me, He leadeth me,
By His own hand He leadeth me;
His faithful foll’wer I would be,
For by His hand He leadeth me.
Sometimes ’mid scenes of deepest gloom,
Sometimes where Eden’s bowers bloom,
By waters still, o’er troubled sea,
Still ’tis His hand that leadeth me.

Refrain:
He leadeth me, He leadeth me,
By His own hand He leadeth me;
His faithful foll’wer I would be,
For by His hand He leadeth me.

Compare with:

Psalm 25: A Psalm on God Leading His People
Psalm 25:1-12

To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
2 O my God, I trust in You;
Let me not be ashamed;
Let not my enemies triumph over me.
3 Indeed, let no one who waits on You be ashamed;
Let those be ashamed who deal treacherously without cause.

4 Show me Your ways, O LORD; Teach me Your paths.
5 Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation;
On You I wait all the day.

6 Remember, O LORD,
Your tender mercies and Your lovingkindnesses,
For they are from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth,
nor my transgressions;
According to Your mercy remember me,
For Your goodness’ sake, O LORD.

8 Good and upright is the LORD;
Therefore He teaches sinners in the way.
9 The humble He guides in justice,
And the humble He teaches His way.
10 All the paths of the LORD are mercy and truth,
To such as keep His covenant and His testimonies.
11 For Your name’s sake, O LORD,
Pardon my iniquity, for it is great.

12 Who is the man that fears the LORD?
Him shall He teach in the way He chooses.

Wherever one stands on the issue what is needed is a positive view and appreciation of the benefits of psalm-singing. It is the solution to the contemporary struggles the church has over music. And hopefully people will be won to the practice not because they feel forced but because they see how joyful, freeing, and protective it is to sing God’s Word back to him.

3 comments

  1. Gordon’s article misses the point because of its reliance on traditionalism. While traditions have tradeoffs, traditionalism denies the existence of those tradeoffs in favor of authoritarianism. And thus, the heavy reliance on Kuyper seems to have supplanted reliance on the scriptures which, ironically, is the claim made about how singing hymns replace the singing of the Psalms.

    Hymns have their value in how well they express our worship and describe the Christian life in accordance with the Scriptures. But where hymns have an advantage over Psalm singing is that they are expressing our worship and the Christian life as how people are experiencing it now in today’s language using music that is familiar to people today. Hymns have drawbacks when our worship and/or our interpretation of our experiences teach concepts that go against the Scriptures.

    And while Psalm singing helps offset the disadvantages of hymn singing, exclusive Psalm singing doesn’t encourage us to find new or our own personal ways of worship and describing our Christian lives. In essence, the disadvantage of Psalm singing teaches us to merely be parrots while it entices us to believe that our ways of worship and describing the Christian life are protected from errors.

    The value of hymns and other worship songs should be determined by how the concepts found in their words compare with what is taught in the Scriptures. There are some wonderful hymns and worship songs that we could all learn and benefit from. And using them does not preclude us from singing psalms.

  2. We had a woman come into our church one Sunday night. After the service she asked me a question ” How come you don’t sing more upbeat music. I responded that we the psalms because it is more pleasing to the Lord to sing His word back to Him. When the words of the world come into the church then it slowly turns into entertainment.

    • I couldn’t agree more. Words from the world infiltrating the church will lead to more worldliness and destruction.

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