Why Your Church Should Sing Psalms

In this article I will try to convince you that churches that do not sing Psalms—perhaps yours—should do so. Sadly, those I seek to persuade include almost all modern Evangelical Churches. We will start somewhat far afield with the book of Judges, but just stick with it.

Anarchy in Worship

If you know anything about the book of Judges, you know that it chronicles a time when there was “no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” usually pretty awful stuff. The narrator of Judges tells us this four times in the space of five chapters (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). These closing chapters are an epilogue to the book. And by this point in the story, the attentive reader wonders what the priests and Levites are up to, since they have not been mentioned yet. Those priests and Levites who are supposed to be teaching the Law to the people and administering the worship of God—where have they been? Why have the twelve tribes been embracing idolatry so eagerly and repeatedly?

Our curiosity is answered in chapters 17–21, where we are given two stories about two different Levites. The first of these is a Levite who has put his priestly services up for sale to any rube with an idolatrous household shrine. A man named Micah from the highlands of Ephraim takes him up on this (Judges 17–18). The second is a Levite who gives his concubine up to death by gang rape, in what is perhaps the most disturbing domestic incident in all the Bible (Judges 19–21). The piety of these two, it seems, could fit in a thimble and leave most of the thimble still empty.

Since the reigning sin of Israel in Judges is idolatry, and since the two-part epilogue gives us tales of Levites with all the virtue of hyenas, I take it that everyone “doing what was right in his own eyes” is not just statement about general wickedness, but primarily a statement about corrupt worship. In fact, the phrase probably comes from Deuteronomy 12:8, where “doing what is right in your own eyes” specifically describes anarchy in worship.

The Psalmist King

Furthermore, Judges suggests that there was corrupt worship, liturgical anarchy, because there was no king. This then implies that one of the primary functions of the king of Israel was to ensure that the worship was done properly. This is exactly what we find to be the assumption as the Old Testament progresses. David, the founder of Israel’s monarchy, was the “Psalmist of Israel” and the one who organized what would become temple worship (1 Chronicles 22–29) before Solomon built and dedicated the temple.

Subsequently, the kings of Israel and Judah regularly have their careers judged with reference to idolatry and whether or not they tore down the high places (1 Kings 16:13, 26; 2 Kings 12:3; 15:35; etc.). The reforms put in place by the good kings Hezekiah and Josiah were very much reforms in the area of worship (2 Chronicles 29:20ff; 2 Chronicles 35:1-19).

It seems to have been an expectation, at least among the Samaritans, that the messianic king would be a new David in this regard—he would teach about worship. When the Samaritan woman spoke to Jesus about worship, she said, “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will tell us all things” (John 4:25). This is in response to Jesus’ famous statement that the hour was now here when true worshipers would worship the Father in Spirit and Truth.

Among other things, Jesus is alluding to the fact that worship involves coming into the presence of God, and with the coming of Christ (the Truth or substance, cf. John 1:17) and the gift of the Spirit, worship can now be done “in Spirit and Truth” instead of by the mediation of animal sacrifice and a priest in Jerusalem. We can enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the way that he opened for us (Hebrews 10:19-22). Jesus is the true worshiper, the High Priest who enters into the presence of God, and we enter with and in him.

That is what worshiping in Spirit and Truth refers to. In line with this, Hebrews 2:12 quotes from Psalm 22:22, identifying Jesus as the speaker of the psalm, and he speaks there as leader of the corporate praise of God’s people: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation [ἐκκλησίᾳ, ekklesia, i.e., church] I will sing your praise.”

Jesus Leads Us in Psalms of Worship

So let us put this together, remembering that I am trying to build a case that we should sing Psalms.

First, the king of God’s people has the duty of instituting and protecting true worship.

Second, King Jesus fulfills this role by instituting the worship of the New Covenant, which is worship in Spirit and Truth, by uniting us with himself through the Spirit and bringing us with him into the presence of the Father.

Third, the New Testament recognizes that Christ himself sings God’s praise in the midst of the church. He is the worship leader.

So now, we might ask, what is the substance of the praise that Jesus sings? Well, perhaps it is more, but it is certainly nothing less, than the Psalms. Clearly he is the singer of Psalm 22, already referenced, but it is not only Psalm 22 of which the New Testament makes Jesus the first-person speaker (see Acts 2:25-28;  Romans 15:3; etc.). Even during his earthly life, Jesus would have joined with his fellow Israelites in the synagogue and at the festivals, regularly singing all of the Psalms.

As the true representative of God’s people, Jesus would be singing them more truly than anyone else ever could. Take for example the “hymn” Jesus sang with the Twelve after the Last Supper (Mark 14:26). Most scholars agree that this was the Hallel, the Passover hymn of Psalm 113–118. Read Psalm 118 especially, and you will have a profound window into the mind of Christ on the night in which he was betrayed. To sum this point up, Peter tells us that the Psalmists were moved to write what they wrote by the Spirit of Christ in them (1 Peter 1:11)—their words are really his words.

The Command to Sing Psalms

An excellent and necessary way for the church to express this reality is to sing the Psalms in its corporate worship. Historically, this is what churches everywhere did until relatively recently. In the 18th and 19th century English-speaking world, the Psalms got shoved aside in favor of hymns, and then hymns got shoved aside in the later 20th century in favor of simpler praise songs. Now we debate whether to use Chris Tomlin and the Gettys (“contemporary”), or Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley (“traditional”).

David has fallen out of the picture entirely. But it only makes sense that in union with King Jesus who structures the worship of his people and leads them in praise to the Father, the substance of our praise would be the King’s own words of worship.

In fact, I would suggest that the church’s ability to engage and confront the culture, to speak prophetically to the world, our ability to sustain any coherent or truly biblical relationship to politics, and our understanding of emotion and its proper expression, have all suffered as a result of our losing the Psalms.

If none of the above moves you or is convincing at all, we have simple commands, which should be enough:

but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:18-19).

Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).

Let the “word of Christ dwell among you richly“? What richer way for the words of Christ to dwell in his people than for them to sing his own words every week? It would not be long before we would have many of them memorized, so that like the psalmist also said, “I have stored your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

Those interested in purchasing a psalter for worship should consider the Trinity Psalter Hymnal (2018).