Psalm Singing: Why and How

PsalmsFirst appearance at SharperIron posted 2/12/09.

In many conservative gospel-preaching churches, the only thing rarer than drums is Psalms singing. This seems particularly odd in view of the fact that most of these churches insist on musical worship that is biblical, that is deeply rooted in history, and that has stood the test of time. What songs are more biblical, more historically rooted, and more timeless than the 150 songs that God Himself breathed out more than 2,000 years ago?

Why sing Psalms?

Every worship leader should serve with the conviction that the flock he leads needs to be singing the psalms regularly in corporate worship services. This conviction is rooted in three realities.

First, the psalms are songs. In other words, they were originally written as poetry to be sung. As songs, then, these compositions cannot be fully appreciated or experienced as God intended them to be apart from singing. Experiencing the psalms in a non-musical way would be like trying to experience Handel’s Messiah by simply reading the text. So while the psalms need to studied, prayed, and preached, we also need to experience them as worship songs.

Second, the psalms are God-breathed songs. The book of Psalms is the only God-breathed hymnal in existence. That fact should carry some weight when we make decisions about which songs to include in corporate worship!

Third, by example and command the New Testament urges believers in Jesus Christ to sing psalms. Apparently Jesus led His disciples in singing a psalm after the last supper (Matt. 26:30). Worship in the early church included Psalms singing (1 Cor. 14:26). Also, the Bible clearly urges New Testament believers to sing psalms as an evidence of Spirit-controlled living (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

But how?

Once we’re convinced that God’s people should be singing the psalms as part of their regular worship, we must figure out how to actually do so. This is not easy. In the first place, the solution is going to involve a learning curve of at least five to ten years. Given the fact that most congregations have never sung one whole psalm, we’re talking about learning 150 new songs! But more than that, even though dozens of options exist for each psalm, choosing the best metrical text and tune is not a simple thing. Three years ago when I began to search for psalms our church could sing, I began with three possible options, each of which I ruled out for various reasons.

Option 1: Sing Psalms in Our Hymnal

My first proposed solution was to simply sing the psalms included in our hymnal. To name a few, our hymnal includes “Search me, O God” (from Ps. 139:21–24), “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (from Ps. 90), “How Majestic Is Your Name” (from Ps. eight), “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” (from Ps. 23), “Joy to the World” (from Ps. 98:4–9) and “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven” (based on Ps. 103). Though I greatly love these hymns and though I want our church to be singing these hymns, this solution was insufficient for three reasons. First, the hymnal contains few of the 150 psalms. Second, in most cases, the psalm-based hymns in the hymnal are fairly loose meditations based on the psalms rather than the actual psalms themselves. Third, in most cases, each psalm-based hymn only covered a portion of the psalm it reflected. In other words, after singing the psalm-based hymns in our hymnal, our church couldn’t really claim that we had actually sung the psalms.

Option 2: Sing from Historic English Psalters

Second, I considered teaching our church to sing from the historic English psalters. Most believers are not aware that dozens of English psalters have been printed since Gutenburg invented the printing press—1562, 1564, 1640, 1650, 1696, and 1719, to mention some. In fact, you may remember learning in your junior high history class that the first book printed in America was The Bay Psalm Book, a complete collection of metrical songs for congregational worship. A great Web site (www.cgmusic.com) offers a vast collection of these psalters. However, this option had several drawbacks as well. First, most of these psalms are full of archaic language and awkward grammatical inversions. Second, many of them seemed to me to evidence a forced and unartistic wedding of text and music. Third, I struggled with the quality of the tunes themselves. Although I’m not a trained musician, I sensed that many of the old tunes were more of a logical conglomeration of notes rather than an artistically crafted and emotionally engaging piece of music. Because of this, I didn’t believe that it would be worth the years of effort to teach our people these tunes.

Option 3: Sing from a Modern Psalter

The last option I considered was using a modern psalter. To this point, the best that I have come across are The Book of Psalms for Singing and the Trinity Psalter (both of which are published by Crown & Covenant, Pittsburgh). These are outstanding publications especially because they are translations rather than paraphrases. However, I didn’t go with this option primarily because these metrical psalms still employ archaic language which inhibits understanding and therefore inhibits worship. (I am excited that Crown & Covenant is presently in a decade–long process of translating a new modern–English metrical psalter.)

Option 4: Start Writing Psalms to Appropriate Familiar Tunes

Having ruled out those three options, I went with a fourth—I decided to try to begin writing my own metrical versions of several psalms. Having said that, let me take a minute to correct a few potential misunderstandings. First, I don’t think that I’m a great poet, and I don’t think that my texts are better than all others. I do think that my texts are more helpful for me (as I’ll explain below) and probably are more helpful for those in the congregation I serve. Second, I’m not disregarding all the contributions of psalm-based hymnody within our hymnal and the psalms in historic and modern psalters. Each of these sources contain some helpful texts and tunes (for example, we love singing “Joy to the World,” which anticipates Jesus’ second coming; and we use William Kethe’s 1561 text for Psalm 100). I’m simply saying that none of these sources provided a satisfying, one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of how to regularly sing the psalms in the congregational worship of a twenty-first century American church. Lastly, I don’t think myopically that I’m the only one today who is writing psalm texts and tunes worthy of singing in congregational worship. Over the last several years, many songwriters have composed excellent psalm texts and tunes (Townend’s “The Lord’s My Shepherd” immediately comes to mind as one example). Again, I’ve written mine because I believe they are most useful at this time for the congregation I serve.

Lessons learned

As soon as I started composing my own metrical versions, I learned two things. First, I discovered that the method is extremely enjoyable and engaging for Bible meditation. (My wife would say that it’s engaging to the point of distraction.) I now refer to writing Bible–based poetry as “Biblical meditation on steroids.” I’ve never known anything that forces such cogitation. Second, I discovered that the psalms are explicitly and implicitly saturated with Jesus Christ (something I had always been told but had never really seen for myself). Because of this fact, I immediately felt that my metrical psalms would be incomplete without somehow incorporating the New Testament fulfillments in Jesus Christ. However, in showing each psalm’s relation to Christ, I’ve taken a different approach from Isaac Watts in his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. Rather than being interlaced throughout, the Christological references are reserved for the conclusion so we can sing the closest approximation to the God-breathed psalm.

In the end, my versions of the psalms follow these six self–imposed guidelines. First, these metrical songs are complete psalms. Second, they are paraphrases because paraphrasing allows more liberty in the Hebrew–to–metrical–English jump and because it allows for slightly interpretive explanations that aid understanding. Third, they are written in contemporary language. I’ve deliberately tried to avoid awkward inversions and difficult vocabulary. Fourth, I wrote each poem with a tune in mind—one that is fairly well known and is appropriate in its emotional expressiveness. The familiarity of the tune allows for immediate usage in our church. Writing with the tune in mind also ensured a more natural wedding of text to music. Fifth, as I already noted, I’ve written each psalm with at least one stanza that shows the psalm’s explicit or implicit references to the Lord Jesus. Lastly, I’ve written with the goal that these psalms be in the public domain and available for any church to use without expense, provided that the stipulations explained at ChurchWorksMedia.com are honored. My overarching desire is that these metrical psalms would rivet your attention in worship on the Lord Jesus, whose Person and work are at the heart of the entire Bible, are at the heart of the psalms, and should be at the heart of our lives and churches.


Joe Tyrpak is assistant pastor at Tri-County Bible Church, where he has served since July 2005. A gifted artist, he graduated from BJU in May of 2000 with a BA in graphic design. He pursued his graduate training from Bob Jones University Seminary while designing textbooks at BJU Press and teaching design at Bob Jones Academy. In 2005 he graduated with an MDiv. God has blessed him and his wife, Hannah, with two daughters. He is an author and composer with Church Works Media.

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There are 2 Comments

Ed Vasicek's picture

The Psalms are great for singing in a church meeting, but they are out of vogue with the modern worship fads because many of them are in the third person and are about the Lord, not TO Him. Take Psalm 1, 2, 23, 27, 119, some of the most famous Psalms; they are directed to our brothers and sisters and are about the Lord. Others, of course, are prayers directly to the Lord.

You can see how the Psalms model Colossians 3:16-17 (NASB)

Quote:
16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Since the popular worship fads are usually vertical (I think Rick Warren advocates this, for example), the idea of admonishing others with songs in church is repugnant to many. They think everything has to be directed to God. The Psalms, on the other hand, provide the perfect balance. Some are predominantly horizontal, other predominantly vertical, while many are mixed.

We can learn a lot from the Psalms and God's Word if we let it set the agenda. A few years back, I tried to introduce modern paraphrases/ tunes constructed from the Psalms, but they didn't go over with the music people (I know what I like, but I really do not know what good music is); still, some of you might check out this site. The guy reworks the Psalms and sets them to chorus-style tunes. Here is the link:
http://www.psalmistry.com/ http://www.psalmistry.com/

You can click on the music index, pick the Psalm, listen by choosing midi or mp3, and even download free sheet music. This site is great for your personal times with the Lord; you can sing along and let the words really become meaningful.

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

One of the great things about the Psalms is the wide variety. You've got your didactic material but also plenty of "heart-to-hearts" where the Psalmist is directing his thoughts to God.
Like Psalm 40, 51, 18, 22, 23, 30, 31, 121, etc.

Then you have some second person Psalms (Psalm 20 is interesting in that regard).

It would be interesting to see whether there is more of one than the other, but I'm not sure what it would prove. We need them all.

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