There are a number of reasons why some Christians make use exclusively of the book Psalms for singing in corporate worship. Chief among these reasons is what is commonly called the ‘Regulative Principle of Worship’ (RPW). I must admit that I sympathize with many of these reasons, and I myself believe the RPW is a biblical principle to be applied to corporate worship, although I would differ with many on specifics. It is not the RPW that I will address in this post, but rather its application in deciding what should be sung by God’s people when they gather together to give him his due praise. Further, I believe those who hold to these views have good intentions and that they are seeking to glorify God and keep their worship, and entire lives, pure before God. Nonetheless, I believe that the Scriptures, with the Westminster Confession (WCF) attesting to its truths, makes clear that this practice of exclusive psalmody is both unbiblical and unhelpful for the congregation because the Psalms themselves are shadowy.
“For That Time Sufficient”
The WCF makes clear the Scriptures teaching that the Old Testament (OT) as a whole, including its ordinances, teachings, songs, stories, prophecies, etc. “were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation” (WCF 7:5) These means that the book of Psalms was indeed sufficient and efficacious in pointing God’s people, the nation of Israel, to the promise of his Son who would, by faith, redeem his people to himself. While sufficient, however, the Psalms, and the OT as a whole, were shadowy. (Col 2:17; Her 1:1-3; etc.) Christ is there, in the Psalms, but he is not there revealed in his fullness. The New Testament (NT), on the other hand, holds forth Christ with “more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy” for both the Jew and the Gentile. (WCF 7:6)
What does this have to do with the songs that we sing? In his book entitled Worship in Spirit and Truth, theologian John Frame helpfully points out that “to limit one’s praise to the Psalms is to worship God without the name of Jesus on one’s lips.” The only name under heaven and earth by which men shall be saved, is left off of the congregations life when they are singing. But it is not just the name of Jesus that we are concerned about:
“Christian worship demands more than the language of anticipation [which is found in the Psalms]. It demands the language of fulfillment and completeness for that is what is distinctive about New Testament faith. It is precisiely the accomplishment of God’s mighty works [anticipated and prophesied about in the Psalms] that evokes praise in Scripture.”
When the leaders in the church keep the language of fulfillment found in the NT, and specifically the name and fullness of the person and work of Jesus found therein, out of the congregations singing, they are essentially starving their people in this area of song. They are leaving their congregation in the shadows when the most heart stirring of expression is being used to express truths and build one another up. I am not saying that the Psalms and OT should not be read or sang, they must be for many reasons, but they do not put forth Christ in his fullness as does the NT.
Imagine if after knowing what my wife looked like I decided that, for whatever reason, I was going to keep my eyes fixed on her shadow and not on her actual body. I would be starving myself of seeing the full radiant beauty of my wife! Does my wife’s shadow exhibit her beauty, frame, and person? Of course. But it is only her shadow, and it would be stupid of me to starve my eyes of the beauty of my wife.
So should Christ’s church sing the Psalms when they are gathered? Yes! In fact, I recently worshipped with a church that sang the Psalms, and it was sadly enough the first time I had sung a Psalm that had not been almost entirely rewritten. It was beautiful, engaging, and edifying. I would encourage pastors everywhere to make use of the Psalms in their worship. I don’t know how I made it through being a Christian for ten years without singing a single Psalm while worshipping with the people of God.
However, there needs to be a balance. The language of our songs should be marinated with Scripture, both Old Testament and New. Psalms should be sung word for word, or rewritten with the name and fullness of the doctrine of Christ found in the NT. Just as when a preacher opens to Psalm 2, he doesn’t exposit the text and leave out the clearer focus that the NT gives us to this Psalm. Rather, he explains to the congregation its meaning, anticipation, and fulfillment found in Christ. This should be applied to our use of the Psalms in worship.
Note: I acknowledge that there are those who have ‘updated’ the Psalms to give them the language of fulfillment found in the NT and to include the name and fulness of Jesus. I commend these efforts and think that this should be a more heavily used practice. But those who do this and still keep their congregation in the book of Psalms are, I believe, are being inconsistent.