Peter J. Wallace
“In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away” (Heb. 8:13). If the Mosaic covenant is obsolete and vanishing, then why should we sing the Psalms? Aren’t the Psalms the songbook of an obsolete covenant?
It is true that the Psalms are the songbook of an obsolete covenant—in the same sense that the Ten Commandments are the law of an obsolete covenant—and the whole Old Testament itself is an obsolete covenant! And yet, Paul writes that “all Scripture [the whole obsolete testament] is breathed-out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Furthermore, there is not a single sentiment in the Psalms that is not echoed in the New Testament as well.
I would suggest that the Westminster Confession’s threefold division of the law provides us with a helpful way to think about the Psalms as well:
1. Even as “the moral law doth forever bind all” (19.5), so also the five books of the Psalms express “a perfect rule of righteousness” (19.2)—and, for that matter, a perfect rule of piety.
2. There are many ceremonial references in the Psalms, “prefiguring Christ, his graces, actions, sufferings, and benefits” (19.3), such as references to ceremonial cleansing in Psalm 51, and offerings and sacrifices in numerous psalms.
3. There are many judicial statements in the Psalms, “not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require” (19.4)—such as the particular statements regarding Edom, Babylon, Philistia, or Doeg the Edomite.
In the same way that we should study the whole law in order to (1) learn what duty God requires of us, (2) learn about Christ from the ceremonies, and (3) learn equity from the judicials, even so we should sing the whole Psalter in order to (1) learn what piety God requires of us, (2) learn about Christ from the types and symbols, and (3) learn equity from the way that the Psalms speak of rulers and nations.
In the Trinity Hymnal editions of 1961 and 1990, the OPC followed a principle of “selective psalmody,” which used partial psalms or highly paraphrased psalms in order to give David a new covenant flavor. In so doing, Trinity Hymnal omitted most of the “darker” themes of the Psalms—themes of judgment, death, and cursing. But according to the New Testament, the way the Psalms talk about judgment, death, and cursing are not obsolete! As we will see, Jesus and the apostles speak in very similar ways—sometimes even quoting the “worst” parts of the Psalms! Historically, psalmody has always been at the foundation of good hymnody. When all 150 psalms are sung and prized, you will find the best hymns. When psalmody deteriorates, hymnody also follows. The following essay is a brief summary of my argument.
What is our biblical warrant for congregational singing? I would suggest that Revelation 15:2–4 provides a clear example or model of congregational singing. The congregation of those who have conquered the beast and its image “sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” The book of Revelation provides the pattern for biblical worship—showing, indeed, that the pattern of Old Testament worship was modeled after heavenly worship. I would suggest that congregational singing is a part of the eschatological pattern that we seek to imitate and in which we participate by faith.
What does this have to do with the question of what the Christian church should sing? The songs of heavenly worship are not simply the Psalms of the Old Testament. The song of Revelation 15 is described as “the song of Moses” and “the song of the Lamb.”
If the pattern for Christian worship is the heavenly pattern, then there is no biblical warrant for exclusive psalmody. Nonetheless, since the Psalms are the God-inspired hymnal of the Old Testament church, they provide the foundation and pattern for the New Testament hymnal.
Why should we sing all 150 psalms? Because it is right and proper to sing God’s word back to him. This is why our congregation sings versions of Deuteronomy 6, Habakkuk 3, Jonah 2, Joel 2, Zephaniah 3, Zechariah 9, Micah 7, and the songs of Daniel, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Hannah, Deborah, and Moses (Ex. 15). Too often we assume that the songs of the church are “prayers,” but in fact, the songs of the church may also be where the church takes up the Word of God on our lips and sings it back to him. After all, many psalms are not “prayers,” but recitations of the mighty deeds of God. Singing is not just the “prayers of the people,” but also the admonition of the Word of God!
This may help us think about the more challenging psalms. After all, there are some psalms that are really hard to sing. For example, Psalm 137:8–9 says:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!
This passages declares a blessing on the one who destroys “daughter Babylon” (cities are often called “daughters” in the Old Testament). Given that Revelation 17–18 speaks of the fall of Babylon and her destruction, it is worth noting the cry of the heavenly host in Revelation 19:1–2:
Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.
We need to remember that vengeance is a good thing. Scripture warns us not to take revenge, but also gives us God’s promise, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Therefore, according to Paul in Romans 12, we should pray that God will bring vengeance against those who seek to destroy us.
Of course, this raises a serious question: when is it appropriate to pray for God’s destruction of our enemies? After all, Jesus did pray, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), and Stephen cried out to Jesus, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). It is worth noting that this same attitude is present in the Psalms. David says in Psalms 35 and 109 that he prayed for his enemies and afflicted himself in fasting for their healing when they were sick. But there comes a time when David asks God to destroy them. Likewise, we need to understand that Jesus’ prayer, “Father, forgive them,” does not mean that we never pray for vengeance.
Paul explains this in Romans 11:9–10, where he applies the curses of Psalm 69:22–23 to first-century Israel:
Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs forever.
Here Paul says that David’s imprecation against his enemies should be applied to rebellious Jews in his own day. Paul will not seek to make God’s curse come to pass (he will not wage war against rebellious Israel), but he will pray that God will make it happen.
Paul says in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” Some would say that this is conclusive evidence that Christians should never curse those who persecute them. And it is true that Christians should not revile and swear like the nations do. But remember that five verses later, Paul says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). In other words, Christians should never seek to do anything to curse their enemies, but we should pray that God will bring vengeance—as in Psalm 94.
Congregational singing is where the church participates in the songs of the heavenly assembly. As such, we should use the songs of the old covenant in the same way that we use readings from the old covenant. And as the word of Christ dwells in us richly, perhaps once again in our daily lives we will begin “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [our] hearts to God” (Col. 3:16).
While we often prefer to avoid themes of darkness, depression, cursing, and death, we cannot do so without ignoring New Testament teaching on the subject. One of the best ways of renewing our understanding and piety in such matters would be to resume singing the “hard” psalms, singing them in the light of the glory of Christ.
Of course, congregational singing should not be limited to the 150 psalms, but it will always be nourished and enriched by the Psalter. But the relation between psalmody and good hymnody will have to wait for another essay!
Peter Wallace, an OP minister, serves as stated supply at Michiana Covenant Presbyterian Church in Granger, Ind. He served on the Composition Subcommittee of the Psalter-Hymnal project. His blog “Cross and Kingdom” at http://michianacovenant.org/cross-and-kingdom contains an expansion of this article. New Horizons, March 2014.