April 14, 2014

The Bible's Hymnbook

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

Did you know that the Bible has a hymnbook inside? That’s right, there is one particular portion of the Bible that is meant to be sung – namely, the book of Psalms! That’s why, at the head of certain psalms, you read instructions like: “for the choir director; with stringed instruments” – because the psalms were meant for singing! The book of Psalms (or the psalter, as it is sometimes called) is a kind of Bible hymnbook, putting words into the mouths of God’s people, so that they may sing them back to the Lord!

Now, it may be that the psalter’s musical nature does not surprise you; you may already know that the psalms were meant for singing – not least because the book itself often tells us that we are looking at a song! But most of us did not grow up hearing it actually done. We grew up with the great hymns of the faith, and sometimes with more modern gospel songs and choruses. And we are thankful, today, for a new wave of modern hymn-writers like the Gettys, Stuart Townend, and so on. But many of us did not grow up learning, by example, that the psalms were meant to be sung, too! And so, while we realize that the words on the page before us were sung by David, and Asaph, and their contemporaries … it may not occur to us that they should also be sung by us too!

This was my basic approach to musical worship until just a few years ago. The Indelible Grace CD’s had introduced me to a few psalms set to music. And that was neat. But it had never occurred to me that there might even be a more thorough and disciplined way to sing from the Bible’s songbook. But then I began to listen to some preachers overseas, and to benefit greatly from their preaching of the gospel. And, by and by, I discovered that their congregations sing the psalms exclusively.  Believing, as I heard one man put it, that they are on 'safe ground' when singing the words that God Himself has inspired, these brothers and sisters sing nothing but the psalms when they gather in corporate worship. And so the psalter is, literally, their hymnbook! And they are not an anomaly in the history of the church (psalm singing having been much more of a staple in times gone by).

And so I began thinking to myself: Maybe we moderns are missing out, not singing very often from the Bible’s own hymnbook! I do not necessarily agree with the reasons my brethren give for singing nothing but the psalms. But their commitment to actually sing the inspired words of the Bible makes me realize that we are the poorer if we do not do so. Because there are so many times – maybe especially in times of sin and sorrow – when the psalter says to the Lord exactly what we were thinking or feeling, but didn’t know quite how to put it into words (or if it was even proper for us to put such thoughts into words). And there are other times when the psalms rise to heights of poetic praise that even the best hymns have trouble duplicating. And it is a wonderful thing if we can open the book of psalms and let God put words of prayer and praise right onto our lips – and doubly so if we can add the emotion, and feeling, and aid to memory that comes with song!

So try it out in your own corporate or family worship. Get ahold of a good psalter (like Sing Psalms or The Scottish Psalter of 1650); turn to a psalm that has been particularly helpful, or is particularly timely; count the syllables in each line; find a well-known tune that matches the meter you’ve just counted; and then sing back to the Lord His very own words! You’ll find yourself blessed, encouraged, and with a much better grasp of this wonderful book of the Bible called Psalms. It’s one of the greatest lessons of my nearly twenty years as a Christian – the psalms were meant for singing!

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