This is not a trick question. It is a very real biblical concern that relates to the public and private worship of God. Paul writes to the church at Ephesus and instructs them:
Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father (5:18b-20).
Clearly the important thing to bear in mind is that our worship comes to God through the name of the only mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5). But what about the content of the songs we sing?
There has been much discussion as to the difference between ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ in this passage but there has not been discussion as to whether this includes the singing of literal psalms. So what has happened to the singing of psalms? Maybe some think it is old fashioned, or maybe people consider that psalms are not available in modern English or perhaps some believe that modern song writers are better able to explain the cross, the Trinity or our contemporary situation. While it is true that the Wesley brothers wrote some great hymns like ‘And Can it Be’, this does not appear to be the main concern of the apostle Paul.
The Westminster Assembly and Westminster Confession clarified the matter regarding ‘Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day’; they conclude:
The reading of Scriptures with godly fear; the sound conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart: as also the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ: are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God.
The literal singing of psalms was the conclusion of the Westminster divines and this practice needs to be recovered in our day. Some may ask ‘does this subject really matter to the church?’ Here are a number of reasons why the singing of Psalms (meaning the 150 Psalms as recorded in the Bible) is crucial:
• Paul commands this in Ephesians 5:19 and Col. 3:16, therefore it is a test of our obedience to the authority of Scripture.
• By singing psalms in modern English to modern tunes (For example I sang a version of Psalm 51 recently to the tune from ‘Rock of Ages’ and also I sang Psalm 136 to the tune from ‘When peace like a river’.) we are singing with pure words, without any human tainting of false doctrine.
• The psalms express the whole range of human emotions. Most hymns or contemporary songs tend to focus on the jubilation or celebratory aspect of praise. This may not be most pastorally helpful.
• Singing Psalms like Psalm 10, 13, 16, 142 etc help the church to see that it is possible to bring praise to God in the deepest trials that we face.
This is enough for now, but I suggest that you think through for yourself why it is important to recover the singing of psalms as part of our worship in our congregational singing. We must not forget that the high point of worship in reformed circles is the sermon and not just singing. How do we respond to this short challenge that I have written? For now, let us turn our face to God in prayer and ask Him to lead the way in this crucial matter, to show us how we can work towards recovering what has in most circles been sadly lost.