Singing Psalms…

Colossians 3:16 reads:

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (NIV).

The NIV captures it more clearly than the ESV that this teaching and admonishing one another occurs through these psalms, hymns, and songs. And we know this from experience: we are taught through song and many of us remember the lyrics to songs more than Bible verses.

Israel wrote a song to commemorate God’s victory for them over the Egyptians (Ex 15), Moses was given a song from God to teach Israel their future (Deut 32), and the Psalter itself was Israel’s songbook (e.g. see David singing Psalm 18 in 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 105, 96, and 106 in 1 Chronicles 16). It contains songs recounting Israel’s history (e.g. Ps 106) and songs petitioning the Lord to keep his promises for Israel’s future (e.g. Ps 89).

This is not an attempt to engage in the “worship wars,” but while many people sing only Psalms others do not sing the Psalms at all. Yet, the singing of the Psalms is meant to teach us, as Paul specifically notes in Colossians 3:16, about the “message of Christ.” And so, to not sing the Psalms keeps us from this particular grace. There has been recent emphasis on praying Scripture, but seemingly not as much on singing Scripture. Yet I can think of few better ways to “let the message of Christ dwell” in us “richly” than singing the Bible to each other.

Theology is often watered-down, and this is often reflected in the worship songs of today. The first casualty of this “watering-down” is usually the Old Testament. We remember some of the Sunday school stories (think David and Goliath), but thats about it. Its just too foreign a world. Yet Jesus said “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). Jesus thus indicates that he, like Paul, knew that the Psalms contained the “message of Christ.” This view actually permeates the whole New Testament in which the Psalms are quoted over 100 times. Its true. The Old Testament is initially foreign and thus hard, but it is our story, our history that points to Christ and we ought to strive to know it. And so, while singing Psalms about Meribah and Mizpah might initially seem foreign, it is one way to help Christians learn their history (Old Testament) better while also learning deeper the “message of Christ.”

For this reason, in addition to singing songs inspired by the Psalms (see these two albums  that are excellent examples of contemporary songs derived from Psalms) Christians can sing the English translation of the Psalms.

In addition to overcoming the foreign world of the Old Testament there is often the hurdle of the “foreign” (archaic) language that the Psalms for Singing are usually in. Thankfully the Book of Psalms for Worship has updated the English of the Psalms and set them to more modern tunes. Below is a list of some of the more popular songs to which the Psalms are set—here is a full list of the melodies for those who may know more.

  • Take my Life and Let it Be – 2c, 113a
  • Amazing Grace – 3a
  • Be Thou my Vision – 7a, 125
  • Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise – 9b, 29a
  • How Firm a Foundation – 16c
  • And Can it Be? – 20a
  • O Come O Come Immanuel – 22b, 42b
  • When I Survey – 35a, 199u, 145c
  • O For a Thousand Tongues – 43a, 133a
  • Crown Him with Many Crowns – 45c
  • A Mighty Fortress is Our God – 46c
  • Rock of Ages – 51a
  • All Hail the Power – 56b, 66a, 96a
  • On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand – 65d
  • Come Thou Long Expected Jesus – 91a
  • Doxology – 100a
  • There is a Fountain – 107d
  • Holy Holy, Holy – 108a
  • While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks – 117a
  • Come Thou Fount – 119q
  • What a Friend We have in Jesus – 146a

Personally it has been enriching to sing Psalm 22—regularly cited in the New Testament regarding the crucifixion of Jesus—to the tune of “O Come O Come Immanuel” and to confess sin in song by singing Psalm 51, David’s song of confession, to the tune of “Rock of Ages.”

I hope that the singing of the Psalms will in some way cause the “message of Christ” to dwell in us all more richly so that we can teach and admonish one another in greater measure.