Songs for a Hard Road – The Resurgence of Psalm Singing by God’s People

A growing number of Christian musical groups from around the world are composing new melodies for singing the Psalms in corporate worship. Here's a quick review of Psalm singing - old and new.

Augustine, our great North African father, said that each Psalm had a ‘single body of feeling that vibrates in every syllable’. As Peter Brown has noted, Augustine believed that each Psalm could be presented as a microcosm of the whole Bible — the clear essence of Christianity refracted through in the exotic spectrum of Hebrew poetry. In Augustine’s sermons on the Psalms ‘we begin to hear the songs of Africa’ — the ‘sweet melody of a Psalm sung in the streets.’

Why would anyone sing in church these days, and if they did sing in church, why sing the Psalms? Some have complained that modern praise and worship songs are fluffy, incoherent, shallow, and heretical. In a recent video Bono said modern Christian music is dishonest, while the Psalms are “brutally honest”. We don’t get our theology from rock stars, or change our liturgy because the cool kids include Psalms in their liturgy. So what explains the resurgence of interest in the Psalms and singing the Psalms in corporate worship? The answer is as short as the road from Jericho to Jerusalem (only 15 miles) — but it’s all up hill — quickly ascending 3500 feet.

Jesus and his disciples were probably singing the Songs of Ascent  (Psalms 120-134) along with other Passover pilgrims on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, during the week leading up to his crucifixion. Ascend – Songs for a Hard Road is the name of a forthcoming recording, featuring the 15 Psalms of Ascent in a modern, singable style suitable for use in personal, family, and corporate worship. The ESV Bible is followed verbatim for the text of these new songs, which are composed and recorded by John Tripp. A former opera singer, John has been composing and trying out these singable scripture songs for corporate worship in several PCA and OPC congregations in Michigan and Texas for the past decade. Soon you’ll be able to sing these Psalms in your local congregation.

The Roots of Psalm Singing

Singing the Psalms has been important in most Christian traditions since the early days of the church.   Indeed, the Psalms are the songs Jesus sang; the hymnbook of Israel that King David wrote and compiled. This recent recording of Psalm 127 in Hebrew, provides a wonderful glimpse of what Hebrew Psalm singing might have been like, and we can only speculate that Jesus sang along with Psalm 127, in a similar fashion, the day he turned the water into wine during the wedding at Cana. Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about music at that wedding, so it’s only speculation.

No one really know the tunes and melodies the Hebrews used in worship, however, Suzanne Haik-Vantoura thinks the Masoretic Text provides clues about the music. In her book, The Music of the Bible Revealed, she describes her musical theories. I’m highly skeptical of anyone who claims to have found the “scripture code to musical notation”. The book is thought-provoking,  controversial, and above my pay-grade.

Augustine, our great North African father, said that each Psalm had a ‘single body of feeling that vibrates in every syllable’. As Peter Brown has noted, Augustine believed that each Psalm could be presented as a microcosm of the whole Bible — the clear essence of Christianity refracted through in the exotic spectrum of Hebrew poetry. In Augustine’s sermons on the Psalms ‘we begin to hear the songs of Africa’ — the ‘sweet melody of a Psalm sung in the streets.’  Augustine was enthusiastic about the ‘Mystical Body’ of Christ: a body of which Christ was the head, and all true believers the members. Seen in this light, ‘the Psalms are the record of the emotions of Christ and his members… Just as He had taken on human flesh, so Christ had … opened Himself to human feelings.’

The Coptic church has been singing the Psalms in Arabic for thousands of years, and the Roman Catholic church sang the Psalms in Latin for centuries,  and more recently in English, German, Spanish and other languages. So, the Scottish Presbyterians didn’t invent Psalm singing, although they are historically known for singing only the Psalms in worship, and defending the regulative principle of worship.

“Reformed and Presbyterian folk have always felt strongly about Psalm singing — strongly enough to quarrel about it and to split churches over the issue,” an article in Reformed Worship reminds us:

 We used to sing only the Psalms – what happened?  Why such strong feeling about the singing of psalms? Much of the fervor stems back to John Calvin himself. Calvin wrote: “When we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him.”

The first book printed by the Puritan pilgrims in America was the Bay Psalter in 1640.

Ligon Duncan explains that “Metrical Psalms used to be the core of what was sung in Protestant worship services (by Presbyterians, Anglicans, congregationalists and others). Metrical psalms are biblical psalms that have been versified to fit the various standard meters of tunes in common use for singing in congregational worship. The Protestant reformers wanted to restore congregational singing to the worship of the church, and they wanted Christians to know and sing the psalms as the main ‘hymnbook’ of the church, so they deliberately sought to compile good, singable renditions of biblical psalms and suitable tunes for churches to use in public worship.”

The forthcoming new Psalter Hymnal from the OPC and URC churches is a similar new compilation. As Danny Olinger said in his introduction to the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal, “In these days of societal decay and the pervasive embrace of worldviews antithetical to the Christian faith, what could be more needed? We would affirm that nothing is more needed than all faithful churches calling the world to its only and true hope: the worship and praise of our Triune God, focused particularly on the person and work of Christ, the only Redeemer of humanity and the only one who has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. All praise to our great and gracious God! That is just what the Trinity Psalter Hymnal seeks to promote.”

All People That on Earth Do Dwell

In the words of old Psalm 100, “All people that on earth do dwell, Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice. Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell; Come ye before Him and rejoice.”  Christian musicians all over the world are writing and recording the Psalms – resulting in hundreds of new recordings. Here is a small sampling of many new melodies for the Psalms that are being written. A cursory glance at these new songs reveal many new treasures (and some that are not suitable for congregational singing).

  • Ascend – Songs for a Hard Road – The Psalms of Ascent (Psalms 120-134) sung word for word from the ESV Bible.
  • My Soul Among Lions is a group from Bloomington, Indiana with the ambitious goal of writing and recording new tunes for all 150 Psalms, and “dedicated to restoring the Book of Psalms to its place in Christian worship.”
  • Sons of Korah is an Australian band – devoted to giving a fresh voice to the Biblical Psalms.
  • Shiyr Poets is a group from  Canada recording new music based on the Psalms.
  • The Psalms Project – a group from Sioux Falls, South Dakota – with the goal of setting all 150 Psalms to music, including the essential meaning of every verse; a marriage of King David’s vision with modern worship music.
  • The Psalm Project – a group from the Netherlands recording new tunes for the Psalms in Dutch and English.
  • The Psalm Project Africa – singing the Psalms with African tunes.

Final Note

We just left Jericho a few minutes ago. We are on the road to the new Jerusalem, even unto Mount Zion, the City of our God. What shall we sing on the difficult road ahead?

“Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God! His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King.” (Psalm 48:1-2 ESV)

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.”  (Isaiah 2:2-3 ESV)

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4 ESV)

Douglas Vos, a Deacon in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is President of Reformed Churchmen Publications and Publisher of The Aquila Report. This the first of several articles about singing the Psalms.  Doug resides in Dearborn, Michigan with his wife Jane, and his youngest daughter, Promise Joy. Doug and Jane have 5 children, and 7 grandchildren.