The Psalms have given voice to God’s people throughout the centuries. They “were used in the public and private worship of devout Israelites Indeed, the Psalms have appropriately been called ‘The Hymnbook of the Old Testament.’”1 The title of the book in Rabbinic literature is Tehillim, or “Praises” and in the Greek Septuagint, Psalmoi (Codex Vaticanus) or Psalterion (Codex Alexandrinus), which indicated “the plucking of stringed instruments.” The Psalms were sung in the worship of ancient Israel, by our Lord Jesus himself, and by the early church. They were sung in homes and private gatherings of devoted believers as the apostles commanded (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). “We now have a book within a larger book (canon) whose words were those of the king and his people to God. But now it is God’s word to us, which we, in turn, sing back to him. And as we sing and preach these psalms, we sing and proclaim God’s king, the Lord Jesus Christ.”2 Believers throughout church history have also sung the Psalms in the lyrics of our cherished hymns. Such steadfastness throughout the ages reveals the power of these God-breathed poems.
Christian history certainly supports a robust use of the Psalms in our worship. In the first few centuries after Jesus, the Psalms generated more commentaries than any other biblical book. By the fourth century, at the latest, the book of Psalms (the Psalter) was being used regularly for Christians to sing. For Benedictine monks, the Rule of Saint Benedict (c. 530) stipulated that all 150 Psalms should be sung each week!3
One reason for the practice of Psalms singing may be that “poetry appeals more directly to the whole person than prose does. It stimulates our imaginations, arouses our emotions, feeds our intellects and addresses our wills.
More than this, poetry is pleasurable. It is attractive to read and even more so to read aloud (or sing).”4 For this reason, Gowan’s message to preachers could well be applied to biblical counselors: “The lyrical form of the psalms remains a challenge for us unless [counselors] have special lyrical gift of their own, how can [biblical counsel]
Christopher Ash, “How to Pray the Psalms,” Desiring God (blog), February 15, 2020, accessed at https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-to-pray-the-psalms. Ash includes four helpful questions to aid us in this practice:
- What would it have meant for David, or the original psalmist, to sing the psalm? How would it have expressed his convictions, his hopes, his prayers, his praises in his original circumstances?
- What would it have meant for old-covenant believers (such as Simeon and Anna in Luke 2) to sing this psalm?
- What might it have meant for Jesus of Nazareth, as the perfect worshiper, to sing this psalm in his earthly life?
- What will it mean for us, as men and women in Christ, as the church of Christ, to make this psalm our own today?
Avoid sounding very pedestrian and dull in comparison with its text?”5 For example, “A sermon on [Psalm 46] shouldn’t flatten its poetry into prose, but will seek to recreate the poem’s sequence of images and their effects. The preacher will help listeners respond emotionally and imaginatively to the earthquake, river, battle, and—especially— the fortress.”6 Consider then some the following benefits of singing the Psalms.
First, we are to sing the Psalms because the enliven the full range of human emotions: “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”7 The poetry of the Psalms speaks to every season of the soul and exposes us in ways that mere prose cannot. Then, as the Psalms delve into our deepest emotions, “they teach us to recognize the inner movements of our own souls, these words become like a mirror to the person singing them.”8 In the Psalms, we encounter righteous anger, heart-wrenching lament, deathly despair, and exuberant praise. In truth, we cannot read the Psalms without resonating with them emotionally. We “feel understood and explained” by them.9
Sometimes psalms address our emotions directly by naming them. Fear (Pss. 2:11–12; 5:7), joy (5:11; 21:6; 100:2), awe (Psalms 8, 139), peace (4:8), comfort (119:76), contrition (51:17; 119:71), relief (4:1; 20:1), confidence (27:3; 46:2–3), and hope (42:5) are among the emotions modeled, commended or commanded in the Psalter. So is love for God’s Word: “O how I love your law!” (119:97); “I delight in your decrees” (119:16). In these poetic lines, love may be more than emotion, but it is certainly not less. The psalmists found joy in Torah: “The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart” (19:8). Following the example of the Hebrew poets, our preaching on their compositions should cultivate joy in and love for the Word of God. The psalmists acknowledge and express depression (32:3-4), broken heartedness (34:18), soul weariness (119:28), anger (109:1-3, 6-12), anxiety (12:1; 22:1), keen longing (143:7), and deep sorrow (Pss 6 and 88). They cry, they complain, they exult, they bless, they curse and praise, celebrate and adore, and they invite us to join them.10
The Psalms then train our affections by giving voice to our experience and directing us, ultimately, to praise our God: “I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the LORD; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Ps 34:1–3). The Psalms, then, are a divinely inspired school for the emotions: “When we are deeply harmed and our anger boils it would be both fruitless (God reads our hearts) and dangerous to suppress those emotions rather than turning them over to God.”11 As Tim Keller taught,
The Psalms take us deep into our own hearts 1,000 times faster than we would ever go if left to ourselves. Religious/moral people tend to want to deny the rawness and reality of their own feelings, especially the darkness of them. The secular world has almost made an idol of emotional self-expression. But the
Psalmists neither “stuff” their feelings nor “ventilate” them. They pray them — they take them into the presence of God until they change or understand them.12
Second, the Psalms as the very words of God, carry more weight for us than the words of men: “The insolent smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts” (119:69). We must always remember that our Creator is the only One who fully knows us and who promises to always speak the truth with us: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (56:3–4). In fact, our God gave to us the Psalms that we might gift them back to him in song: “Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning” (119:54). So, like a father teaching his children to speak, our heavenly Father teaches us this language of his heart. We study God’s Word and meditate on it “day and night” (1:2). We memorize Scripture and press this truth into our minds in a manner that reading alone cannot. Then, as we sing the Psalms, the mode of music aids our memory: “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (119:11).
The Psalms were steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures and cherished throughout history. Therefore, they transport a wealth of theology to believers today. The fourth-century theologian, Athanasius, considered the Psalms “an epitome of the whole Scriptures” and Basil of Caesarea described them as “a compendium of all theology.” Like Augustine, we might prefer “not to hear the singer” whenever we find “the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys.”13 Yet Martin Luther aptly called the Psalms “a little Bible, in which everything that is in the whole Bible is contained.”14 Together, these 150 psalms address various aspects of doctrine relating to God, man, sin, salvation, Scripture, the church, and the final day. We do not read the Psalms, of course, as systematic theology, but more like the classic works of Homer and Shakespeare which convey cultural values through the guise of poetic stories. “The splendor and truth of the Psalter leaves us speechless, until our hearts begin to swell with the song it sings, and we join the chorus of hallelujahs prompted by these pages.”15
Jesus sang the Psalms as a young boy in the home of Joseph and Mary. He sang them in the synagogue with God’s chosen people and in the upper room with his disciples (Mark 14:26). Jesus also quoted from the Psalms and explained how they spoke of him (12:35–37; see Ps 110:1). Some of the Psalms even prophesied his Messianic purpose in the incarnation (Ps 8:4–6; see Heb 2:5–9), his betrayal (Ps 41:9; see Mark 14:20–21), arrest (Ps 2:1–2; see Acts 4:25–26), crucifixion (Ps 22; see Matt 27:35, 39–40, 43, 46), resurrection (Ps 16:8–11; see Acts 2:25–31), and future exaltation (Ps 2:9; see Rev 2:27; 19:15). The Psalms were sung by Christ also speak of Christ to believers in every generation. In fact, Jesus claims by his own authority that the Psalms were about him: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). The apostles preached the Psalms to describe our Savior’s suffering (Pss 22; 35; 41; 55; 69; 109), his messianic claims (Pss 2; 72; 89; 110; 132), his priestly ministry (Ps 95), his being the Son of
Man (Pss 8; 16; 40), and his coming in judgment and redemption (Pss 18; 50; 68; 96–98; 102). Waltke has defined three distinct ways that the Psalms will speak of Jesus:
Some of the psalms are more directly predictive, such as Psalm 2 and Psalm 110. In others David stands as a “type” or picture of Christ and is prospective of him in more subtle ways. In some, the language describes the king in terms that go beyond the historic kings and can refer, finally, only to the Lord Jesus (Ps. 45:6; cf. Heb. 1:8). And we can see from the use of the psalms in the New Testament, both from Jesus and his apostles, that the Davidic king ought to be recognized as prospective of David’s greater son. Often the psalms present the king in his ideal, an ideal of which all David’s other sons fell far short. Yet this ideal anticipates a king still to come. David and his kingdom foreshadow Christ and his kingdom.
When David hands his psalms “to the choirmaster” for the congregation to sing, he gives them to us to sing also. And as ancient Israel sang of their king, so we sing these same psalms now in recognition of their fulfillment in God’s Anointed, the Lord Jesus Christ, who in his death, resurrection, and ascension has inaugurated God’s universal kingdom, and who in his return will bring that rule to glorious consummation.16
The Psalms are included in the soundtrack of our Savior’s life. Therefore, we will come to know him even more dearly as we take the Psalms to heart. Waltke depicts how Christ fulfills the gateway to the Psalter in Psalms 1–2.
Ultimately, in the larger flow of Scripture and even within the Psalter itself, Psalm 1 points us to another Joshua who delights and meditates on God’s law (1:2–3; cf. Josh. 1:8) and therefore leads the people of God aright. Psalm 1 introduces us to the great King of Psalm 2 who as our representative and as the very embodiment of the righteous person of Psalm 1 ascends the hill of the LORD with “clean hands and a pure heart” (24:3–4)—the one who steadfastly refused the counsel of the wicked (Matt. 4:1–11), the one who (unlike King Saul; 1 Sam. 15:22– 23) delighted in the law of the Lord supremely (Matt. 3:17; John 4:34) and followed it perfectly (John 8:44), the one who took our sin to himself and became for us all the righteousness God requires of us (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21), the one who by his Spirit writes God’s law on our hearts (Jer. 31:31–34) and enables us to bear fruit unto God (John 15:1–6; 17:17), and the one who shares his glorious reign with all those who submit to his rule and take refuge in him (Ps. 2:10–12).17
Lastly, the Psalms welcome us into the communion of God’s covenant people who have sung these hymns from the days of ancient Israel and will continue to sing them until our Lord’s return. “Poetry used in worship has a way of trickling down into our assumptions, building out the things we take for granted, and penetrating to the depths of who we are. As we sing the songs of the faith, our drives and urges, appetites and dispositions are brought into line with the stories and direct instructions of the Torah. With the Psalms we sing the warnings of the prophets and their promises of glory right through the dark nights and busy days.”18 The Psalms were meant to be sung communally and enthusiastically: “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Ps 47:1).
The singing of the Psalms was instituted by David, along with stringed instruments and the blowing of trumpets (1 Chr 15–16). They became vital elements in Israel’s corporate worship, first at the tabernacle and then the temple.
There were psalms for every element of Israelite life and ministry. As the community of God’s people grows, we have discovered new ways and means to worship through the Psalms. Yet the common language works to tie us all together. Again, we learn from Luther, “When we are gratified by the language, and sympathize with it, we are certain of being in the communion of saints; and that all saints must have felt as we feel, because we unite with them in uttering the same song of adoration.”19 From generation to generation, God’s people sing as one: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling” (Ps 46:1–3). As Martin Luther would often exhort his coworker for the gospel, “Come, Philipp, let us sing the Psalms.” One of his favorites was Psalm 46 which he had set to music—a hymn we now know as A Mighty Fortress is Our God. “We sing this psalm,” Luther reflected, “because God is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves and defends his church and his word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all the assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.”20
If we are new to singing the Psalms, we can listen to how others have set them set to music. Both the lyrics and the melody of these songs can bring comfort to your soul. Then, as we grow familiar with the practice, we too can learn to sing the Psalms in both our personal and corporate worship. So, let us join with the communion of saints around the world and across the generations: “Oh, magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (34:3).
For Further Study:
Ash, Christopher. “How Can Christians Sing the Psalms?” Gheens Lectures (SBTS). September 18, 2019. Accessed at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/christopher-ash-can-christians-sing-psalms.
Beeke, Joel R. Why Should We Sing Psalms? Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015.
Getty, Keith, and David Robertson. “10 Reasons Your Church Should Sing the Psalms.” TGC (blog), February 22, 2019, accessed at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/10–reasons-your-church-sing-psalms. See also, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Psalms: Ancient + Modern (2018).
19 Bryan Wolfmueller, “Martin Luther’s Introduction to the Psalms,” World Wide Wolfmueller (blog), October 19, 2017, accessed at https://wolfmueller.co/martin-luthers-introduction-psalms.
20 Adapted from Steven J. Lawson, Psalms 1–75, Holman Old Testament Commentary, vol. 11 (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2003), 11–12.
Guthrie, George. “6 Ways the Psalms Sing to Our Fears.” George H. Guthrie (blog), October 6, accessed at https://georgehguthrie.com/new-blog/6-ways-the-psalms-sing-to-my-fears.
Holland, Joe. “Rediscovering the Psalms.” Reformation21 (blog), June 10, 2008, accessed at https://www.reformation21.org/articles/rediscovering-the-psalms.php.
Hubbard, D. A. Psalms for All Seasons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971) and More Psalms for All Seasons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975).
Shane & Shane. Psalms (2 vols.), accessed at https://www.shaneandshane.com/music. The Corner Room. Psalms (3 vols.), accessed at https://www.cornerroommusic.com. The Psalms Project. Psalms (5 vols.), accessed at https://thepsalmsproject.com.
Yuille, J. Stephen. Longing for Home: A Journey Through the Psalms of Ascent. Wapwallopen, PA: Shepherd Press, 2015.
Tom Sugimura pastors New Life Church in Woodland Hills, CA. He trains church planters, international pastors, and biblical counselors. He has also authored two books, Hope for New Dads and God’s Answers to Life’s Most Difficult Questions. He and his wife, Amanda, are busy raising four rambunctious children.