by Tony Grant
Some History of Psalmody
Psalmody is the singing of the biblical psalms in the worship service. Hymnody is the singing of extrabiblical, poetic, and musical compositions in worship.
The singing of the psalms is a three thousand-year-old tradition going back to Solomon’s temple, and, in one form or another, the church has always sung the Psalms. This tradition was recovered especially during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.
John Calvin and his followers in Geneva held a strict view of what was acceptable in worship, and limited their music to the biblical psalms, New Testament hymns and a few other portions of Scripture. The Calvinist emphasis on the authority of the Word of God made it important to produce a singable psalmody that changed the words of the Bible as little as possible. The Genevan Psalter (first edition 1542) set a high standard for the metrical psalters that were to follow in the Reformed churches of Holland, England and Scotland. A Psalter is a collection of psalms, a book of psalms, that have been altered, for better or for worse, so that they are singable. Many of the tunes used in later editions of the Genevan Psalter were composed by Louis Bourgeois. For example, #544 in The Hymnbook is the “Doxology.” The hymn tune is "Old Hundredth." The author is Louis Bourgeois. This tune is from a later edition of the Psalter—1551, so we have already sung a psalm this morning, from the Genevan Psalter.
John Knox was a student of John Calvin in Geneva. Knox went back to Scotland and founded what we now call Presbyterianism. Thus, all Presbyterian churches have a Scottish background. Knox being a good reformer insisted on Psalm singing in church.
When Presbyterians came to America, they were all Psalm singers. When three Associate Presbyteries and a Reformed Presbytery joined in 1782 to form the Associate Reformed Church, that church sang from a Psalter.
In 1822, when the Associate Reformed Synod of the South separated from the Associate Reformed Church and went its own way, it reaffirmed the practice of exclusive psalmody. The Synod of the South would eventually change its name to The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, but it did not immediately change its position on Psalm singing. Robert Lathan writes that in 1871 the Synod adopted the following statement:
It is the will of God, that the sacred songs contained in the Book of Psalms be sung in His worship, both public and private, to the end of the world; and the rich variety and perfect purity of their matter, the blessing of God upon them in every age, and the edification of the church thence arising, set the propriety of singing them in a convincing light; nor shall any human composures be sung in any of the Associate Reformed churches.
[Robert Lathan, History of the Associate Reformed Synod of the South, (Published in Harrisburg PA for the author, 1882, Reprinted as Volume 1 of the "Set of Six" for the ARP Bicentennial Celebration, 1982) p416.]
This regulation not only maintains that the Psalms should be sung in church, but forbids the use of “human composures.” By the way, I should note that Lathan was the second pastor of this church, which was known in those days as the Yorkville Associate Reformed Church.
Lowry Ware and James W. Gettys note that ARPs “proudly called themselves ‘the psalm singing Presbyterians.’ There were serious suggestions that the denomination adopt this as its formal name as late as the 1880’s.” [Lowry Ware and James W. Gettys, The Second Century: A History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterians 1882-1982. (Published as Volume 3 of the "Set of Six" for the ARP Bicentennial Celebration, 1982) p61]
But exclusive psalmody was always a controversial position. ARP’s were always trying to explain to the world why they held such a peculiar stance. “Rev. R. F. Bradley of Troy, S. C. founded an eight page monthly called The Psalm Singer which began in 1885.” [Ibid 61]. His declared intention was to furnish arguments and reasons for Psalm singing.
Understand that these ARPs were not endorsing any particular version of the psalms or any particular psalter. But in the Shorter Catechism they read that the Second Commandment forbade "the worshipping of God by images, or any other way not appointed in his word." To their mind, when a congregation sang “human composures,” they were singing in a way “not appointed in his word.” They would say that “if God wanted us to sing it, he would have put it in the Bible.” Moreover, they would say that the hymn books prepared by various denominations are all sectarian. They all promote their particular dogmas, and thereby perpetuate division of the church. The Book of Psalms though is a common ground on which the whole church may stand
But many problems arose from exclusive psalmody. For example, could ARP’s visit other churches that did not sing Psalms? Could ARP ministers take part in services where hymns were used? If you believe in exclusive psalmody, the answer to both those questions is No—which basically meant that ARPs could not have fellowship with other Christians. For example, this past Thursday I attended a National Day of Prayer service at city hall. A song that was sung was “Sweet Hour of Prayer”—beautiful song, not a psalm. In an earlier time, I would have been prohibited by Synod from participating in such a meeting. But the main problem with singing only Psalms in church was that a lot of ARPs just did not like it.
All of this came to a head in May of 1946 when Synod voted on the following question: “Shall the Synod approve a book of praise comprising the Psalms and selected Hymns, the use of which is to be optional with individual congregations?” Synod approved that question by ten votes.
I am glad they did. I cannot imagine not being able to have fellowship with other Christians. I cannot imagine not being able to sing the great hymns of the faith like “Amazing Grace” “Joy to the World,” or “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” But having said that we should note that ARPs did not give up Psalm singing in 1946. We simply allowed hymns to be sung as well as Psalms. The intention was that psalm singing would remain a part of our congregational worship. The Hymnbook that you have in the pews includes many psalms. All the songs we are singing today are metrical psalms.
And we ought to sing the Psalms. They are part of, an important part of, our praise of God. This is the main idea we find in PS 145. God’s people praise God. It is an idea that we find in many places in the Bible. ICH 23:30 records that one of the offices of the Levites was "to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord, and likewise at even." PS 146:2 says, "While I live will I praise the Lord: I will sing praise unto my God while I have any being."
One of the gifts the wise men brought to the baby Jesus was frankincense. Frankincense was burnt on the temple altar, and the smoke rising up represented the praises of God’s people rising up to God. Frankincense has a sweet smell as it burns, and Scripture tells us that the ascending praises of God’s people are a sweet smell in the nostrils of the Lord. This is figurative language, of course; nevertheless, the meaning of the figure is a spiritual truth. Our praise of God in song and prayer is part of our consecration of ourselves to God.
Praise My God
The first word of PS145 is "I." This tells us who should praise God. "I will extol thee, my God, 0 king." The Psalmist says, "This is something I am going to do." If I am bound to God through Christ, I will say which side I am on. I will boast of God and brag about God.
I will magnify God and exalt God because God is king. We have a democratic form of government in the United States of America, but we have a king. Our king is the Lord God, and what a joy it is to have such a king. "0 king," the Psalmist says, and the word is a sweet sound on his lips. To him God alone is king. He will accept no other ruler. He is content with God because God is not a tyrant. God is not some monster up in the sky who might destroy us without reason or to punish us on a whim. God’s ways are ways of pleasantness, his paths are paths of love. Thus, we love to praise and glorify God.
We glorify God now because God is king of our hearts now. We long for that day when Christ will return and reign as king of the whole earth as well. Thus, we pray in the Lord’s prayer, "Thy kingdom come." The return of Jesus Christ is the final triumph of good over evil, it is our final union with God, and we look forward to that, but the power of our faith is not in looking forward to something that has not yet happened. It is rejoicing in something that is happening right now in our own souls.
Notice that v1 of Ps. 145 identifies the God we will extol as MY God. The word "extol" is from Latin and means literally "to lift up out of." In our English usage it means "to lift up with praise." I lift up God with praises not because he is the God of the nations, though he is, and not because he is the God of the universe, though he is. I lift God up with praises because he is my God.
After the Resurrection, when the Lord appeared to doubting Thomas, and the Lord said to Thomas, "Touch me and prove to yourself that I am real and believe," Thomas did not touch Christ He no longer needed that proof. Instead he said, "My Lord and my God." Thus he affirmed his belief that Jesus is a personal expression to us of divine power. And if Jesus is that, then we are bound to praise him. If we believe that Jesus Christ was God to us, then I should praise him because he is "My Lord and my God."
Persist in Praise
Notice how serious the Psalmist is about praise. Four times he mentions the verb "will" in the first two verses. "I will extol thee." "I will bless thy name." "Everyday will I bless thee." "I will praise thy name." The Psalmist says that this is my personal God who moves upon my soul, and thus I will persist in praise--today, tomorrow, and forever.
And we receive benefits from praising God. The more we praise God, the more we receive a blessing. People ask, "What would lift us high above the trials of life? What would help us to bear the burdens of everyday living?" Here is the answer: Songs of praise for the Most High. When the band plays a peppy tune, the soldier marches briskly along. When old time sailors were pulling up the anchor of the ship, they chanted a happy song to make the work go quickly. This is a truth that we sometimes forget: Happy songs are oil for the squeaky wheels of life. They smooth out the jerkiness and the roughness, the bumps and potholes of our pilgrim road.
Of course, the admonition to praise God is directed to the people of God. Those who are not children of God cannot rightly praise God. Ps. 50:16 gives this warning: "Unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth." The wicked are those who prefer the darkness of the devil and refuse the light. The Bible says that it does them no good to prattle on about God’s law and God’s covenant. The wicked are the enemies of God, and God accepts not either their prayers or their praises. The lesson then is that we are to be reconciled to God through the light of Christ, and then we can praise him. And our praises are a token to us that our hearts are renewed by the grace of God and that we are truly saved.
Because of Who God Is
We praise God because we appreciate who God is. Look at vs 3 "Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is unsearchable." The greatness of God is so far beyond our understanding that we can only adore and admire him. Yet because this God is still our God, his greatness is a source of happiness to us, and the more we think upon God’s greatness, the happier we become. God is great in love, God is great in holiness, God is great in power. God has created us; God is bringing his work to fruition through us; Thus, our praises never cease.
I do not profess to fully comprehend infinite God. "His greatness is unsearchable." God is the creative power of all life. I do not understand why God, being that great power, lets things happen the way they do, but I recognize that I am not God. Thus, I am content to believe that things are going the way they ought to go, and happening the way they ought to happen. Thus, I am content to praise God.
I praise God for what I do know about God, and because of what I know about God, praise can never be a second-class, insignificant, or trifling business. God has bestowed the sunshine of his love upon us. God has bestowed the gentle rain of his grace upon us. Should we not return unto him a harvest of worship and adoration and reverence and exaltation? Surely if we love God, we praise God
Perhaps this is the reason we do not have much praise in our songs and prayers. We do not really love God. Jesus said that the first commandment is to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, mind, and soul." Perhaps we should ask ourselves how seriously we take what Jesus said. Do we really love God that much? The thing we love is the thing we are interested in, and the thing we think about all the time, and the thing we talk about all the time. If we do not talk much or think much about God, it probably indicates that we do not take God very seriously. And we should. God is the most serious thing there is.
When the Psalmist says, "I will bless thy name," he means that he loves God so much that he wishes the best for God. To bless a person is to wish that person well and to be willing to do what we can for her. To bless God is not only to praise God in words but to praise God in deeds. It is to devote ourselves to God’s cause. Thus, we bless God by working for the fulfillment of God’s purpose. You see then that songs and prayers of praise lead us quickly to works of praise. If we believe in the God who was in Christ, then our deeds for God’s cause will rise up together with our spoken praises of his name.
Practice for Paradise
Let us conclude then. We praise God in song and prayer, in word and deed, to prepare for our place in heaven. Heaven is filled with praises. How can we hope to get to heaven if we have not begun to practice our praises here? This life is a school. Here we prepare for graduation into heaven. If we flunk praising God in this life, how can we expect to be admitted to heaven where that will be one of our primary activities. Therefore, we should learn the essential elements of heavenly praise by practicing praise here and now. Thus, when we get to heaven we may take our place among the white-robed singers and say, "I have been practicing these songs for years. I praised God while I was in the world of sin and suffering, and now that I am set free from the bondage of the flesh, I take up the same song to sing more sweetly to the same Lord." Amen.