Unsung Songs: Why Don’t We Sing Psalms Anymore?

Scott Aniol

opened bible book on grey surface

It has always been a characteristic of God’s people that they are a singing people. This was Paul’s admonition when he commanded Christians in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 to sing. Early church father John Chrysostom emphasized the power of singing when he said, “Nothing so arouses the soul, gives it wings, sets it free from earth, releases it from the prison of the body, teaches it to love wisdom, and to condemn all the things of this life, as concordant melody and sacred song.”1Quoted in James W. McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 80. Ambrose of Milan, a fourth century pastor known as the Father of Latin Hymnody said, “A psalm is the blessing of the people, the praise of God, the joy of liberty, the noise of good cheer, and the echo of gladness.”2Quoted in McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 126. This emphasis on singing continued on through the middle ages and into the Reformation. Martin Luther said, “We have put this music to the living and holy Word of God in order to sing, praise, and honor it. We want the beautiful art of music to be properly used to serve her dear Creator and his Christians. He is thereby praised and honored and we are made better and stronger in faith when his holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music.”3Martin Luther, “Preface to the Burian Hymns,” 1542, in Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 53:327–28. Jonathan Edwards continued this emphasis when he said, “The best, most beautiful, and most perfect way that we have of expressing a sweet concord of mind to each other is by music.”4Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), 2:619.

Yet modern Christians, largely due to rise of secularism in the wake of Enlightenment rationalism, have lost this deep appreciation for song. We have given into the modern penchant for a rationalistic/scientific view of the world, relegating poetry and song to mere entertainment and diversion.

This shift in thinking regarding singing among Christians is evidenced perhaps most starkly in the modern neglect of psalm singing. It is no secret that among evangelicals today the psalms are mostly ignored in corporate worship. Perhaps a line or two will be cited as a transition between songs; maybe a contemporary song will take a phrase from a psalm and repeat it over and over again. But not much more. This despite the fact that the Psalter is the longest book in our Bibles—it contains more words than any other single book in the Bible and almost as many words as the entirety of Paul’s epistles. This despite the fact that the Psalter is the Bible’s most quoted book. This despite the fact that the Psalter is the only book whose contents are singled out by Paul for us to minister to one another in gathered church worship (Col 3:16, Eph 5:19). This despite the fact that the Psalter is just as inspired, just as authoritative, and just as profitable as any other part of Holy Scripture. Jesus himself said in Luke 24:44, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning me,” setting the Psalter right alongside the Law and Prophets in terms of significance and authority for the believer. C. H. Spurgeon was not wrong when he bemoaned, “It is to be feared that the Psalms are by no means so prized as in earlier ages of the church.”5Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 6 (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1882), vii.

Christians Don’t Understand the Psalms

So what happened? Numerous factors contribute to the decline of psalm singing among Christians, but one central reason for contemporary neglect of the Psalter may be that most Christians today do not understand this God-inspired collection of songs. This is perhaps most evident by the fact that, even when Christians today do use the psalms, perhaps in corporate worship or for individual purposes, they tend to exclusively gravitate toward psalms of comfort—Psalm 23 is the most likely, or psalms of praise. In fact, I would suggest that if you asked the average Christian what the dominant theme of the Psalter is, most would likely say that it is praise.

True, the Book of Psalms in Hebrew was originally called Tehillim—“Praises.” We expect to find expressions of praise like “Hallelujah”—Praise the Lord! However, when one gives a little bit of attention to the actual contents of this collection, it becomes apparent that the book was called “Praises,” not actually because the book is just a collection of expressions of praise. In fact, while there are mentions of praise and commitments to praise the Lord throughout the Psalter, the key word “Hallelujah” does not appear in the entire collection until Psalm 104. The last 50 psalms or so are filled with expressions of Hallelujah, but not until Psalm 104; much of the Psalter is not praise.

Deliberate Organization

So why, then, would the whole book be called “Praises” if many of the psalms are not praises, and you don’t even find an emphasis on praise until the very end? Well, we have to remember first of all what we have in the Book of Psalms. Each Psalm is an individual song written by different authors like David, Moses, Solomon, Asaph, and others. But contrary to what many Christians likely assume, this is not just a loosely connected collection of songs. Someone didn’t just decide to collect as many songs as he could and group them together.

Someone did collect these and group them together—probably during or after the Babylonian exile, possibly someone like Ezra or a group of scribes. And these editors arranged the psalms intentionally into five books in a particular order for a specific purpose. Other indications of deliberate organization include groupings by author or theme, couplings of Messianic psalms with Torah psalms, and many others.6For a helpful exploration of many of these clues, see O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015).

This recognition of the deliberate ordering of the Psalter for a particular goal is not new. For example, in the fourth century Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335–394) wrote about “an approach to the systematic observation of the concepts concerning the Psalter in its totality.”7Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa’s Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, trans. Ronald E. Heine, OECS (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 83 Part 1, intro, §2–3; 95, chaps. 5, §37.

This pursuit of understanding the deliberate purpose and arrangement of the psalms among Christians was derailed in the twentieth century, largely as a result of Hermann Gunkel’s approach to the psalms that focused on their genre.8Hermann Gunkel, Die Psalmen: Übersetzt Und Erklärt (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1926). This individualized—and, in many ways, sterilized—the psalms.

Don’t get me wrong—there is certainly much profit to reading and meditating upon one psalm for its own sake; most of the psalms were written as individual compositions, and each psalm can stand on its own. However, as Peter Gentry notes, “What is authoritative as inspired Scripture is the canonical text.”9Peter J. Gentry, “The Text of the Old Testament,” JETS 52 (2009): 19. In other words, God’s intention was not simply for us to have the psalms—he intends for us to have the psalms in a particular arrangement. I agree with James Hamilton when he says, “I would thus attribute inspiration not only to the individual authors of each psalm but also to the editor(s)/anthologist(s) who put the book of Psalms into its canonical form.”10James M. Hamilton, Psalms, Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Bellingham: Lexham Academic, 2021), 1:14. Again, reading individual psalms on their own has great profit, but failing to recognize the inspired, authoritative canonical shape of the psalter is one factor, I believe, that has allowed Christians to gravitate toward a relative few psalms instead of recognizing the value of all of them.

A helpful way of understanding this deliberate organization is to conceive the Psalter as a five-movement cantata. John Walton observes,

The cantata analogy is helpful for it carries with it the idea that many of the pieces may not have been composed specifically for the cantata. Rather, compositions created for other reasons at other times have been woven together into a secondary framework in order to address a particular subject.11John Walton, “Psalms: A Cantata about the Davidic Covenant,” JETS 34 (March 1991): 24.

A cantata is a musical composition in which a composer takes some previously composed songs, combines them with newly composed material, and weaves them together into a unified flow with a logical progression. J. S. Bach, for example, would often take previously composed Lutheran chorales, rearrange and adapt them with his own material, and combine them into a unified composition.

Similarly, each psalm was composed by an individual author in a particular setting for a specific reason. But later, editors moved by the Holy Spirit arranged the order (and possibly in some cases the psalms texts themselves) into five “movements” with deliberate thematic progression as their intent. Thus, the superscriptions containing historical settings for individual psalms do accurately identify their author and situation, but the psalms are not arranged chronologically; rather, the psalms are arranged thematically toward a specific end.

The Power of Poetry and Song

In addition to modern Christians lacking an understanding of the deliberate organization of the Psalter, many also do not recognize the power and purpose of poetry—in the psalms to be sure, but also in the rest of life. Due largely to secularization in the West, most modern people consider art to be merely diversion rather than the rich medium of meaning and formative power that it is. Yet as Peter Ho notes, “As poetry, the form of the Psalter is as important as its thematic content.”12Peter C. W. Ho, The Design of the Psalter: A Macrostructural Analysis (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019), 4. Emphasis added.

In modern psalm studies, poetry has largely been relegated to classification of Hebrew parallelism, much due to the impact of Robert Lowth in the eighteenth century.13A. Baker, “Parallelism: England’s Contribution to Biblical Studies,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 35 (1973): 429–40. Metaphors and other symbolism in the psalms are often considered impediments to discerning the core propositional truth of a psalm. Many psalms are read or preached in the same way one would read or preach a Pauline epistle. This, again, sterilizes the psalms and weakens their intended purpose to form believers in a particular way. As Walter Brueggemann correctly observes, “the Psalms are filled with metaphors that need to be accepted as metaphors and not flattened into descriptive words.” He notes how, in our modernistic society, we believe that “the function of language is only to report and describe what already exists,” and thus we often use the psalms to merely describe what is already in our hearts. “By contrast,” he insists, “in the Psalms the use of language does not describe what is. It evokes into being what does not exist until it has been spoken.”14Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007), 18.

Forming Hearts of Praise

Both of these factors—failing to recognize the deliberate canonical organization of the Psalter and not understanding the purpose and power of poetry—have contributed to the neglect of psalm singing among Christians today. Therefore, the important corrective that will remedy modern deficiency among contemporary psalm usage is to understand this: God has given us the psalms, not merely to find a mood that fits our present state of being, but rather, God has given us the psalms to form us. We need to recognize God’s purpose for the use of psalms in our lives and worship today through the formative intent of the poetry and organization of the psalms.

References

References
1 Quoted in James W. McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 80.
2 Quoted in McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature, 126.
3 Martin Luther, “Preface to the Burian Hymns,” 1542, in Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, eds., Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 53:327–28.
4 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), 2:619.
5 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 6 (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1882), vii.
6 For a helpful exploration of many of these clues, see O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering Their Structure and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2015).
7 Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nyssa’s Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, trans. Ronald E. Heine, OECS (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 83 Part 1, intro, §2–3; 95, chaps. 5, §37.
8 Hermann Gunkel, Die Psalmen: Übersetzt Und Erklärt (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1926).
9 Peter J. Gentry, “The Text of the Old Testament,” JETS 52 (2009): 19.
10 James M. Hamilton, Psalms, Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary (Bellingham: Lexham Academic, 2021), 1:14.
11 John Walton, “Psalms: A Cantata about the Davidic Covenant,” JETS 34 (March 1991): 24.
12 Peter C. W. Ho, The Design of the Psalter: A Macrostructural Analysis (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2019), 4. Emphasis added.
13 A. Baker, “Parallelism: England’s Contribution to Biblical Studies,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 35 (1973): 429–40.
14 Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit, 2nd ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2007), 18.
Author opened bible book on grey surface

Scott Aniol

Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief G3 Ministries

Scott Aniol, PhD, is Executive Vice President and Editor-in-Chief of G3 Ministries. He lectures around the world in churches, conferences, colleges, and seminaries, and he has authored several books and dozens of articles. You can find more, including publications and speaking itinerary, at www.scottaniol.com. Scott and his wife, Becky, have four children: Caleb, Kate, Christopher, and Caroline. You can listen to his podcast here.

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