Psalm singing is better, part 3

This is the third of three posts, in which I poke most churches and most of my friends in the eye. I am throwing down some ways in which the psalms broaden the soul of the church.

The psalms show us that God grants salvation in the real world. Not just heaven when we die, but security in the land, peace in the city, healing of the body, extension of physical life, food for the hungry, sight for the blind, and freedom for prisoners. It is liberation from the rule of false gods, demons, and empires. Many of the psalms rejoice in an individual’s communion with God (“I remember you on my bed, and meditate upon you in the watches of the night.”), but just as many locate salvation in the defeat of enemies, victory in battle, and God’s care in everyday life. This is just what wealthy Christians (as well as poor) need to hear: our well-being (salvation in the fullest sense of the term) is wholly dependent on God’s daily mercy. We do not get our own daily bread, nor protect ourselves with our wealth or military might. Rather, we receive every good thing from him. Insipid praise choruses that talk about getting to know God undermine their own stated aims. By refusing to sing to the rider in the deserts, the widow’s help, the one who makes me strong so that I can bend a bow of bronze, we come to know God less and less.

The psalms lead us into theologically uncomfortable places. They are the substance of a conversation in which Nestorians and Jacobites, Orthodox and Catholic, and a host of non-fundamentalists participate. Postliberals like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder; “new perspective” proponents like N. T. Wright; theonomists like James Jordan; Dooyeweerdians like Richard Mouw; evangelical Anglicans like Oliver O’Donovan. These people see things very differently than we do. Sometimes, we may say, they stray beyond the pale. But they recognize Christ as Lord and worship him in the singing of psalms, shaping their self-understanding and theology in a way that transcends culture, denomination, and even place in the theological spectrum. You cannot be a serious psalm singer and be unecumenical in your outlook.

The psalms give us the true eschatological perspective. The righteous inherit the earth: “The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever.” Demonic powers are being and will be completely overthrown by the tangible rule of God: “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.’ Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” The promise of just judgment goes hand in hand with the missionary promises of God: “For you will judge the peoples with equity / To nations of the whole earth a governor you’ll be. / O God, let peoples praise you, let all the peoples praise! The earth has brought its bounty throughout its harvest days.” (Psalm 67:3-6,Book of Psalms for Worship). This is not mere “postmillenialism,” though it ratifies the joyful expectation inherent in that school of thought. It recognizes in one movement God’s perfectly just judgment of nations, of his own people, and of each soul among them and his mercy and grace toward mankind and the whole of creation. God’s promise to Eve is fulfilled: the smoke of evil’s ruin goes up forever and ever, and to our joy we are on the right side of that victory.

Psalm singing is better, part 2

This is the second of three posts, in which I poke most churches and most of my friends in the eye. I am throwing down some ways in which the psalms broaden the soul of the church.

The psalms speak in discomfitingly glowing terms of God’s law. There may not be an ultimate theological tension between God’s grace and his call to obedience, but there is certainly a practical experiential one. Most Protestants smooth this out by basically ignoring God’s law. But Jesus did not, and Paul did not: “the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” The psalms and their admiration for God’s self-revelation in the law do not balance out the New Testament: they explain it. God’s righteous character, and perfect demands are set forth. If taken seriously these lead us inexorably to our need for a law-keeper who can take our place, and a sacrifice to make atonement for our sins. But the law is practical for us as well, just as it was for ancient Israel: though many applications of the law change, it shows us how to live.

The psalms teach us what justice looks like. “…. [L]ift up a song to him who rides through the deserts; his name is Yah; exult before him! Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home; he leads out the prisoners to prosperity; but the rebellious dwell in a parched land.” The righteous king is one who “delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper … has pity on the weak and the needy … From oppression and violence he redeems their live, and precious is their blood in his sight.” God’s justice is not merely procedural but substantial as well. And his justice becomes the model for our justice. We are not to show partiality, because he does not. We are not to simply go with the crowd in their “judgment” because each of us (and communities as a whole) will stand before the tribunal of God, who is “angry [with sin] every day.”

Psalm singing is better than whatever it is you do

Full disclosure, sure to displease many: I am an ordained pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, a historic Christian denomination whose practice of worship is marked by the singing only of psalms, a cappella. Fuller disclosure, likely to displease some of the rest: in contrast to some brothers inside my denomination and a few other little ones, I don’t think it is sinful to do other than we do.

But, and this is the gist of my blog post, I think the habitual singing of anything other than the biblical psalms is an unwise practice that narrows the soul of the church.

Notice I don’t say “the souls of Christians.” I mean that when the church neglects to sing psalms and instead chooses to sing Watts’ or Crosby’s or the Wesley’s hymns, or sing praise choruses, or what have you, it atrophies in important ways. Why? because uninspired songs inevitably reflect and therefore reinforce the culture and concerns of their provenance, with poor results. Therefore English-speaking hymnody reinforces a spiritualized view of the church, an individualistic understanding of salvation, and dulls the witness of God’s people.

The psalms recognize that God’s people are a political entity, a polis, a city. It is God’s people who will be vindicated among the nations. They – not just individuals – are the objects of God’s lovingkindness, the recipients of his grace. They have a standing among the nations. They are to be respected as a separate community. In the Christian context this is no longer a community that takes up arms against its enemies, but it is a polis nonetheless, and should be respected as such by its members and by outsiders. The Muslims in their heresy nonetheless preserve this sense of the universal community – the umma – to which all believers belong, and which has a position in the world. The papists (I use the word intentionally) do the same: they even have a human leader of the polis.

The psalms talk about God’s people having enemies. I have enemies – human and especially spiritual, who seek after my life. We have enemies, and we cry out to God to overcome them for his own glory’s sake. This is part and parcel of being a political entity. It makes middle class Americans uncomfortable to talk this way, but it is a faithful account of the experience of the overwhelming number of God’s people now and through the ages. How else are we to think of secular fundamentalists in American and Europe? Al-Shabaab in North Africa or or Al-Qaeda in the Middle East? Pretender messiahs like Kim Jong-Il or Emperor Akihito? Along with human enemies, the Bible has a more robust demonology than most American evangelicals do. The psalms do not emphasize this fact but do recognize it.