The Relationship of Psalms to Hymns and Choruses

Most Protestant worship services devote a section of the worship service to congregational singing. Typically, a congregation will sing hymns, choruses, or some combination of these. Yet, for the vast majority of Christians throughout history, the primary act of singing would have been the Psalms, even if other songs were also sung.

One of the most important verses in the New Testament about worship is found in Colossians 3:16, where Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” This passage contains an important insight into the nature of worship. The New Testament anticipates the people of God writing new acts of worship but also assumes that the Psalms will remain at the core of Christian worship.

The early church took Paul at his word, as we see several Christian hymns emerging right in the pages of the New Testament. There are the obvious examples that have been carried over into Christian liturgy, such as Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79) and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). But there are many others, such as the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, the resurrection hymn of Ephesians 5:14, and the mystery of godliness hymn of I Timothy 3:16. Then, of course, there are many hymns found in the book of Revelation, which are sometimes referred to as the songs of heaven since they are found on the lips of the four living creatures (Rev. 4:8; 4:11), the angels (Rev. 5:9,10; 5:12; 7:15-17; 11:15; 12:10-12; 16:4-7; 18:1-3, 4-8, 16, 17, 19-24), the twenty four elders (Rev. 17:17, 18), the twenty four elders with the four living creatures (Rev. 19:4, 5), and the redeemed (Rev. 5:13; 7:10; 15:3, 4; 19:6-8). It is clear that heaven is filled with worship and singing. Therefore, since the church represents the scattered outposts of heaven on earth, the vibrancy of worship that we see in heaven should be anticipated in and through the hymns and spirit-filled utterances of the church of Jesus Christ.

Hymns and choruses have been written throughout church history. However, beginning with the 18th century, hymns gradually began to overtake the Psalms as the primary way the church worshipped. However, the Psalms were never meant to be supplanted by newer acts of worship. The Book of Psalms remains the only inspired worship book, and it serves as the ongoing foundation of worship that unites the people of God, even as we experience the wonderful diversity of hymns and choruses that are also written and sung across the ages.

The Book of Psalms is like the church’s public square, our shared space that emphasizes our unity with all Christians everywhere. Why are the Psalms so crucial as a foundation for worship? There are three reasons why the Psalms should be retained as the foundation for all other acts of worship.

First, The Psalms connect us to the entire Bible.

The Psalms are more than mere songs of praise. They are also filled with the theology of the whole of Scripture, which becomes embedded into the worship of God’s people. This why the Psalms have sometimes been called the “sung Torah.” The Psalms draw from all across the Law, the historical books, the wisdom literature and the prophets. Likewise, the Book of Psalms is the most quoted book in the New Testament. Thus, by reading or singing the Psalms, you are encountering the entirety of Scripture, but within the context of worship.

Second, the scope of the Psalms is far wider than later songs of worship.

If you reflect on what is typically sung in churches, whether hymns or choruses, they, broadly speaking, fall into the category of “praise and worship,” which take a similar amount of time to sing. However, there are several ways that the poetry in the Psalms is quite different from what we are accustomed to in our normal Sunday worship.

First, the thematic scope of the Psalms far exceeds what we normally encounter in hymns and choruses. The 150 psalms are like a collection of 150 separate spiritual journeys, some short, some long; some for individuals, some for the entire congregation. These journeys take us through a stunning array of human experiences, including praise, lament, thanksgiving, penitence, recitation of history, wisdom for life, worldview of the wicked, questions (even accusations) directed toward God, imprecations and curses, messianic aspirations, instruction and admonition.

It is precisely the breadth of this genre that makes the Psalms seem, for some, so odd and even unsuitable for a Sunday morning worship service. Indeed, the more transparent, sometimes disturbing, subject matter has led the modern church to either diminish or eliminate the Psalms completely from modern worship. Others tend to “cherry pick” a few “praise and worship” verses that may occur in a psalm but ripped out of its larger, sometimes painful, context. Yet, when we only sing or recite a few psalms, or select the more comfortable portions of a particular psalm, we lose the impact of the whole journey and therefore miss the formation that would happen within us along the way. Each psalm in its entirety is part of the inspired word of God.  The Psalms are unfolding for us a vast cartography of authentic life in tension with the real world, yet all within the larger context of unwavering trust in God who is guiding all of those journeys.

Second, the scope of the Psalms is broader than contemporary songs of worship through the myriad of voices in the Psalms. The Psalms contain many more voices than we are accustomed to in ordinary hymns and choruses. In the Psalms we find the voice of God to His people, the voice of the psalmist to God, the voice of the psalmist to the people, the voice of the psalmist to his own soul, the voice of the psalmist to the wicked, and even the voice and thoughts of the wicked themselves. Frequently, these voices can shift even within a single psalm.

The Psalms seem to be very interested in building within the believer an entire worldview that understands not only the character and will of God (which we might expect) but also the character and intentions of the wicked (which may surprise us).

Third, the length and timing of a psalm is another way that the scope of the Psalms is quite different from that of a hymn or a chorus. We are all creatures of time, and we all carry an inner sense of the “appropriate length” of various things we encounter in our lives. Whether we are watching a movie, waiting for a red light to turn green, anticipating the coming of spring, or listening to a sermon, we have certain internal ideas about how long various experiences should normally be. This same expectation comes into worship as well. Many of the well-known hymns that we sing in churches were originally written with as many as 10 or 15 verses. But modern hymn books generally only present four or five verses at the most, because the idea of singing 10 or 15 verses of a hymn seems to exceed the unspoken but widely held idea about the appropriate length of an act of worship. Hymns and choruses rarely last beyond five minutes.

A psalm must be approached as a different kind of worship vehicle than a hymn or a chorus. If we think we are singing a hymn or chorus, we will have unnecessary dissonance. With a psalm, the journey of the words is the primary driver of the worship, and the music carries you on the journey. Some journeys like Psalm 117 are quite short and would be considered very short by a hymn or chorus standard. Other psalms, like 78, are much longer. The point is to experience the full journey, whether short or long, and not have any set expectation as to how long a psalm “should” be. Just as in life, some journeys are short (to the convenience store) and some are long (traveling to see the Grand Canyon), but both journeys have their own internal integrity.

I encourage you all to spend more time with the Psalms. They will change your life. But you have to approach them as something quite different from the normal hymns and choruses we sing.


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