Sing Praises with Understanding

When churches push aside Psalm singing and congregational singing for hymns, contemporary music, and choirs, one can be sure that diligent growth in the knowledge of God and His Word do not accompany the trend. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The gradual pushing aside of the Psalms and replacing them with hymns and contemporary music is actually only the symptom of something far worse. The trend indicates that the church in which this is happening is sick with a deadly illness. This deadly illness is an intolerance for true doctrine and a distaste for the knowledge of God as He has revealed Himself in His Word.

At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers, John Calvin among them, put qualified men to work putting the Psalms into singing form for the congregations to sing during worship services. This had to be done, because the Roman Catholic Church had done away with Psalm singing and had replaced congregational singing with choirs in their worship. Not only did the Reformers see to it that Psalm singing was reinstated in the churches, but they also made sure the children and the elderly were instructed in the Psalms.

Today, we sing versifications of the Psalms during our worship services in the Protestant Reformed Churches. Article 69 of our Church Order reads: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the sermon shall be sung.”

It is important to note that we do not sing the Psalms only because this has been the tradition of Reformation churches, although this is important. Rather, we sing the Psalms during our worship services because this is biblical. This is how God has commanded us to worship Him. Two new testament passages indicate that this was the practice of the Church at the time of the apostles. These passages are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 which reads, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Therefore, every church which worships God as He has commanded sings the Psalms as part of their worship. The Spirit of Truth has led the true Church throughout all of history to sing the Psalms. Prior to the Reformation, Psalm singing had been almost completely extinguished.

We must be careful to see from the history of the church that a departure from Psalm singing and apostasy are connected. As a church slowly departs from the truth, the Psalms are slowly pushed aside and replaced with music that fits the lie which is gnawing away at the truth. Two brief examples from church history illustrate this connection. The first occurred about two hundred years ago in the Dutch churches. For nearly two centuries after the Synod of Dordt 1618-19, the churches sang only the Psalms and a few hymns which were direct reproductions of parts of the Bible. However, in 1807, 192 hymns were introduced for singing in the churches, many of which contained doctrinal errors. Not long after, along with other growing apostasy in the churches, the singing of these hymns was made mandatory. This corruption of the worship of God along with other apostasy was one of the factors leading to the Secession of 1834.

The second example is more recent and hits closer to home. In 1932, shortly after the formation of the Protestant Reformed Churches, the CRC changed their Church Order, Article 69, allowing for the use of approved hymns to be sung during worship. In 1934, a large number of these hymns were approved. A few years earlier, in 1926, the Christian Reformed synod allowed for choir singing during worship services. Both of these decisions were made by a church, which only a few years earlier, had rejected the doctrine of God’s particular grace through its approval of the false doctrine of common grace. Ever since 1924, and the adoption of the doctrine of common grace, the CRC has been departing from the truths of Scripture at an increasing rate. If one looks at the Psalter Hymnal used by the CRC today, it is apparent that hymns have pushed aside the Psalms. The Psalms no longer play an important role during the worship services of the CRC. It is also the case that the Psalms no longer play an important role in the lives of the members of the churches where hymns have pushed aside the Psalms.

It is not difficult to see why these churches and individuals no longer want to sing the Psalms. This is because the inspired Psalms speak the truth of the Word of God and those churches and individuals who have gone after the lie don’t want to be confronted with the truth of God and His works contained in the Psalms. Instead, they have invented their own songs which complement the false doctrines they are espousing. While it is true that not every hymn contains false doctrine, it is also true that hymns do not express the truth as sharply as the Psalms do and hymns are not inspired as the Psalms are.

The fact that the Psalms are the inspired word of God and given to us by God for His worship is the main argument that the Reformed believer has against hymn singing during the worship of God. Beyond this, the Reformed believer recognizes the Psalms as deeply spiritual, unlike hymns. Most hymns are shallow and do not require as much spiritual understanding and experience as the Psalms do. It is also true that many false ideas have entered the hearts and thinking of God’s people through the singing of pleasing, but faulty hymns.

The Reformed believer also sees the need for the Psalms to be sung not only during the official worship of God, but also at every occasion that is appropriate for the singing of God’s praises with understanding. Reformed believers, including adults, young people, and children, are those who desire to sing the Psalms at every opportunity they have: in church, at school, in the home, in the car, during choir programs and special numbers, and even at work.

In Psalm 47:6,7 we read, “Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises. For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.” We are to sing these praises, Psalms, in the words of Matthew Henry, “intelligently” and “instructively.” “Intelligently; as those that do yourselves understand why and for what reasons you praise God and what is the meaning of the service. Instructively, as those that desire to make others understand God’s glorious perfections, and to teach them to praise Him.” In Psalm 47 we have many reasons for the praise of God. In verse 2 the reason for our praise is God’s majesty. In verse 2, as well as verses 7-9 we praise God for his sovereignty and dominion. In verses 3-5 we praise God for His care of us. All 150 Psalms are full of matter for the praise of God, and we ought to sing them as those who desire to grow in our knowledge of God and His works and as those who desire to teach others of the great works of God.

It is for this reason that we reject all music that seeks to obscure the great works of God and all music which perverts the truth of God with the lie. The Reformed believer, adult, young person, and child alike has no use for and despises the so-called Christian rock music popular today, and played on such radio stations as WJQ, 99.3 in the Grand Rapids area. The believer does so for a number of reasons. First of all, the lyrics of this type music are not Christian at all, but anti-Christian. One only has to listen to this music for a short time to realize (if the lyrics of the song are intelligible) that the music raises man to the level of God, and the works and power of the One True God are cast aside. Secondly, we ought to despise this music because it blurs the sharp antithesis between the Church and the world. How is it possible to put the words of God to the music of the devil? How can it be that the words of faithfulness, obedience, justice, and judgment could ever be sung to the music which the world uses to sing of adultery, rebellion, chaos, and lawlessness? Thirdly, we ought to run from this music because it is an attempt to draw God’s people away from good music towards worldly music under the disguise of the word “Christian.”

Finally, this music ought to alarm us because it is promoted by those who have long since departed from the truth and have gone after the lie.

At this time of musical upheaval in the church world, let us hold fast to the Rock of God’s Word. Let us sing the Psalms with the gladness, knowledge, and hope which we have in Christ. We carry on a precious heritage. ❖