Throughout Christian history, the church has sung the Psalms, though by the encouragements I have recently seen, it’s a practice that has fallen off in some traditions. Many who encourage us to sing the Psalms make specific claims about what this will accomplish. It will preserve us from vapid worship, restore a dignity and depth to corporate praise, and remind us of God’s power to aid us. Perhaps, but maybe not.
One feature of our sung worship that too few consider is the way text and tune interact. In fact, a mediocre text can be enhanced by a great tune, but a great text can also be harmed by the wrong tune. Every tune, music itself has a character that it imparts to the words we sing. Many want to elevate the words to be of chief importance, and “Christian music” is more or less Christian words sung to music we like. With the Psalms this is slightly different because unlike a hymn or other worship song, the text of the Psalms is itself the inspired, inerrant word of God. God himself is the lyricist! Yet it’s still the case that the music we put to psalms can impart a character to them. The Genevan Psalter had tunes of a certain kind; lots of long notes, very few melismas. (One syllable stretched over many notes.) Since then, various composers have created other tunes. The point is, one can read the Psalms aloud and interact with God’s word. When we sing them, the tune acts as a medium, subtly influencing our perception of the texts. It’s also very common that we need to paraphrase the words to get them to fit the syllabic pattern of a tune. So, we are singing psalm(ish) songs, but it’s another layer of indirection between the song and the Psalm. A poorly paraphrased psalm to a lousy tune won’t do much. We should at least be aware of these factor.
Another feature when we sing is that the sound of the pronounced words has its own kind of music. This is why rhyming has been a feature of hymns. The Psalms were written in Hebrew, and unless we are singing in Hebrew, we are one step removed from the music of that language. Consonants, gutturals, vowels–when a psalmist uses a certain word, does he do so to pair that sound with a sentiment? Acrostic psalms, too, get lost in translation, unless someone paraphrases them to preserve that.
Finally, the theological context of the Psalms is not always our theological context. Yes, there is a commonality of experience of all God’s people throughout salvation history, but there are also differences in the covenants. The covenant Israel was under is not the one Christians are part of. The New Covenant had not yet come, and so we find David and others crying out for vengeance, and rejoicing at the death of their enemies. The imprecatory psalms contain a lot of this language. We read “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps 137:9) Yet Paul says “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” We can allegorize these psalms and spiritualize it such that we are praying God would intervene in hard situations we face. In so doing, we soften the visceral opposition against enemies that these psalms invoked, but we risk domesticating them, diminishing the cry for vengeance that was legitimate for the Israelites.
The Psalms are God’s Word, and they contain a record of God’s faithfulness to his people, his protection of them, and prophecies of God’s Anointed—the Lord Jesus. We always gain by meditating on God’s truth. I am not discouraging Psalm singing. I am encouraging us to recognize what is, and isn’t, happening when we do. A few things to consider. Putting a tune we like to a Psalm isn’t magic. As any tune will color the words we sing to it, so we should recognize that is true of the Psalms also. Choose tunes whose character is not contrary to the words. We enter into the sentiments of these ancient Israelites through the Psalms. God was a present help to his people then, as he is now. But, in how we regard those who oppose us, we have direct instruction to do otherwise than they did: to love our enemies. Bearing that difference in mind is important.
Matt Ferris lives in Wheaton, Illinois and is involved in Bible study ministry in his local church. He is also active in children's ministry and has written a number of hymns. His books include Evangelicals Adrift: Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism, If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life and Losing Religion, Finding Jesus: Moving beyond Cultural Christianity. He and his wife have been married since 1987 and have four adult children and six grandchildren. He blogs at gentlemantheologian.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ferrismattic.