Why Christians Sing the Psalms

The Hebrew Bible calls the Psalter תהלים, tehillim which means “praises.” The title “Book of Psalms,” comes from Luke 20:42 where our Lord called the Psalter by this name and Peter did as well in the early Church as recorded in Acts 1:20. Whether we are considering the Hebrews or Christians from the beginnings of the Church, believers have always highly esteemed and treasured the Psalms. Christians corporately in common worship should regularly sing the Psalms for many reasons.

Believers have always highly esteemed and treasured the psalms.
First, consider that the Apostle Paul in NT Scriptures issue commands to do so by “addressing one another in psalms,” (Eph 5:19) and also, he adds, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms” (Col 3:16). In the passage from Ephesians, the Greek grammar uses plural participles that indicate how the practical outworking of being filled with the Spirit will manifest itself in the Christian community. Surely, out of gratitude, we want to fulfill the commands of God. Certainly, Christians are filled with the Spirit and one natural consequence (among others) of this according to the Apostle will be the practice of singing psalms. Of course, when we turn back to the OT Scriptures, especially to the Psalter itself, we see the same commands set forth before the Hebrews. Numerous Psalms command the community to sing God’s praises (e.g., especially the climactic collection at the end of the Psalter, Psalms 146-150).

Second, Christians should sing the psalms because they hold such a unique place in Holy Scripture. Consider the fact that we have here a collection of prayers, which were sung by those godly Hebrews that went before us. As Geerhardus Vos taught us, this is the fundamental character of the Psalter: the voice of response to the objective deeds of God among his people. Furthermore, consider that this collection is not merely the prayerful words of humans, but they are also the very inspired words of God. When we sing the Psalms, not only are we joining with others who went before us to sing unto the true God in his own inspired words, we are also singing prayers that our Lord Jesus Christ used as his prayer book and that he himself sang in praise and anguish. What a privilege it is to join with saints and Savior lifting our united praise to the living God.

Third, Christians should sing the psalms because it is a great – perhaps the greatest – schoolhouse of prayer. Not only are we praying as our incarnate Savior did, not only are we praying as our godly forefathers did, but we are learning what we should pray and how we should sing those prayers. In a word, we are learning what our attitude should be in light of the vision of the past and the future that the Psalter often describes. There are many genres in the Psalms (e.g. laments, hymns, thanksgivings, wisdom, royal) but that is so we may be instructed in our most holy faith with all its multifaceted truths. The Psalter is like a beautiful diamond in this regard with many facets that refract various beams of colored light. But the Psalter is also like a great cathedral in which all the various parts, some added at different times and in different places, with a view to producing a unified and sublime whole, have now been bequeathed to the church that she may enter and learn how to pray through song. In this beautiful space, we learn not only what to pray, but how to pray. And we learn this not only from the bare words recorded there for us, first in Hebrew, and now translated into our own languages, but we also learn in this cathedral-like schoolhouse of prayer how to pray by the beautiful form in which the words, like jewels, are set. In the Psalter, we learn how to appreciate the rich theology set forth in the words and we learn that they are resplendent because they are set in a form that is beautiful, both in individual Psalms and in the final whole of what we call the Book of Psalms.

Fourth, this leads to the next reason (and perhaps the most important one) for why Christians sing the Psalms. We sing the Psalms because they are about Christ and the Gospel, indeed the whole kingdom of God up unto the last day is even described in the book of Psalms. This assumes, for example, that the great battle described in Ps 149 is not only referencing a battle against the Canaanites but is also a picture of the last great battle when Jesus conquers his foes and final retribution falls on the heads of God’s enemies. Then, Ps 150 in such a construal is the peaceful calm that follows the victory with an extravagant summons to prayer and praise.

we sing the psalms because they are about christ and the gospel

It is at just this point that we potentially enter the fray of debate. Many well-meaning Christians have been wary of suggesting that the entire Psalter showcases Christ and his Gospel. Many of these concerns have been well founded because of fears of allegorizing. The WCF (1.9), for example, makes the important point that the true and full sense of any Scripture is not manifold but one. The Westminster Divines are probably setting forth this truth in response to some of the “free-range allegory” that existed before the time of the Reformation. Some, such as Luther for example, tried to overcome these methods by saying the Christ was indeed to “literal sense.” Others, like Calvin were cautious to make too quick an application to Christ without appreciating the original historical horizon of the human author and his environment. Calvin thought this would scandalize the Jews and eclipse the importance of the original human author and audience (this tendency earned him the label “the Judaizing Calvin” among some).

Although Calvin did show great concern to maintain the literal sense of any Psalm in the context of its historical sense, Calvin also recognized that there was another author, the Primary and Divine Author, in addition to the human one. Although he thought that there was a single sense communicated in these Psalms, the Divine author could intend these statements in the Psalms to have other future referents as well, an extended meaning. For example, a statement about King David could and often should also be applied to David’s greater son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Calvin picked up this methodological principle from classical rhetoric. When he read a Psalm against the whole kingdom of Christ, he understood that attempting to exhaust the meaning of any statement in the Psalm by means of a single temporal fulfillment reduced to the original horizon and historical context of the Psalm could prove to be an impoverishment of the divinely intended meaning of the text. The meaning of any given Psalm is more than just referencing the original historical horizon of the Psalm, as important as this is. Merely seeing how the canonical Scriptures use Psalm 2, for example, should illustrate this point adequately.

A theological argument may be added to the methodological one. If the WCF 2.3 is a correct representation of biblical truth that Christ is of one substance, power, and eternity with the Father (a condition not contrary to fact), and that Christ is therefore God himself, then when we see and sing the covenantal name of God revealed in the Psalter or there is a reference to the one true God in the Psalter, then we are seeing, singing, and speaking about the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, we need to remember that when we are singing out of the book of Psalms about God, we are also singing about Christ. This coheres with the observation in Luke 24:26-27 and 44-47 that our Lord revealed to the disciples on the road to Emmaus that the OT Scriptures bore witness to him.

Traditionally, only certain Psalms that are explicitly quoted in the NT with reference to Christ have been considered Messianic (Pss 2,8,16, 22, 40, 68, 69, 89, 109, 110, 118, and 132). Add to this the fact that some NT passages more subtly allude to the Psalter and now the list grows (e.g., Psalm 31:5 alluded to in Luke 23:46). The Church has not always done that well understanding how the OT is echoed within the OT itself let alone within the NT. But Luke 24 testifies the all the OT Scriptures point to Christ.

It does not follow of course that all Psalms are directly about Christ. Some are more indirect in their approach. When we think about Christ and his gospel in the Psalms in this manner we are on the right path. In this way, the Royal Psalms are seen to showcase Christ the king even if they are not directly quoted in the NT. Or Psalm 73, a wonderful wisdom Psalm of re-orientation after 16 verses of disorientation, suggests that Christ is the consummation of wisdom which is taught throughout the NT. Or Psalm 91, which is a Psalm of Trust, teaches us that Christ prevailed where Israel failed. This is how Matt 4:6 and Luke 4: 10-11 apply this Psalm to our Lord’s own temptation by Satan.

All of what is said here does not eviscerate the practical application of the Psalter to our present lives. Quite the contrary. The majesty of God is set forth with sublime splendor in the Psalms. By singing the Psalms, we sing of the noble dignity of our Lord. But this is far from mere abstract, objective contemplation. We observe in the Psalter that there is a posture that “translates . . . into an eager desire for witnessing the fulfillment of the prospect.” How may the church grow in her missionary outreach and zeal? Sing the Psalms in common worship.

The “Problem” of Imprecatory Psalms

In dealing with the subject of imprecations in the Psalms, Chalmers Martin said that “There are in the whole Psalter not more than eighteen psalms that contain any element of imprecation, and, in most of these this element is a very minor one, embodied in a single line . . . it may be, or in a single verse.” Chalmers continues to enunciate a number of principles that should be recognized when dealing with these imprecations: they are “the expression of the longing of an Old Testament saint for the vindication of God’s righteousness,” they are “utterances of zeal for God and God’s kingdom,” and “these fierce-sounding utterances are an Old Testament saint’s expression of his abhorrence of sin,” and finally, they are “prophetic teachings as to the attitude of God toward sin and impenitent and persistent sinners.”

Another commendable approach that helps us understand the role of imprecations in the Psalms is the one that builds on M.G. Kline’s concept of “intrusion ethics.” Kline, building on the eschatological concepts developed by Geerhardus Vos, helps us understand the intrusion character of his deeds especially in reference the common grace order. God “intrudes” the heavenly into our common grace field of existence. This has to be taken into consideration whenever one is trying to do ethics from the Old Testament. This means that the realm of heaven breaks in occasionally into the sea of our existence.

The Realm of heaven breaks in occasionally into the sea of our existence.

First, note that this concept of intrusion ethics is not given to marginalize the permanent and abiding role of the Moral Law of God. Professor Kline years ago said, “….this concept of Intrusion Ethics is not prejudicial to the permanent validity of the moral law of Moses. The distinction made is not one of different standards, for the Law of Moses is recognized “bolder relief the basic structure of that Covenant in its historical unfolding and in so doing inevitably displays its essential unity.”

There are two ways of looking at intrusion here. First, that which is “beyond” is breaking in (looking at it in future and temporal terms), and what is transcendent and above is breaking in (looking at it in spatial terms). It is important to distinguish “the holy” and “the common” in this regard, during common grace epochs. And it is important to recognize that intrusion assumes a variety of forms. When the final judgment comes for believers and unbelievers is one such example. For believers, however, the final judgment of the elect has been intruded into history at the cross. Therefore, the Last Judgment for God’s elect is “The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect;” however, for those outside of Christ, the Last Judgment is a manifestation “of his justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient” (See WCF 33:2). The resurrection is also an intrusion in that it brings about a total healing, although that healing is inaugurated in this present age but not yet fully consummated.

In the Old Testament period, the Hebrews experienced a manifestation of the kingdom of God in an external sense; it included both an external kingdom realm and reign. They lived during the monarchy in a true theocracy. Israel existed in a geopolitical realm that was an intrusion of heaven into earth in some sense. This theocracy was coexistent with common grace; however, at the end of time, we will have the full consummation of the Kingdom of God and therefore, there will be no more common grace. This comes in the final judgment. Common Grace will be finally eclipsed. Consequently therefore, the elect are judged at the cross; the damned at the end of time.

Consider, for example, the imagery of Revelation 19. There will be no more common grace at the time described here. Then there will be a reversal of the kind of thing that has been happening throughout the church age. Now, we as New Testament believers are functioning in the sphere of common grace ethics. We are to love our enemies. We are not to give room to the bitterness of personal vengeance. We are to strive by God’s grace to love our enemies as well as our friends. We never know when “a Saul might become a Paul.” Will this ethic continue forever? No; the terms of our ethics will change at the end of time and in the final judgment. Then we shall share the same posture towards the enemies of God that he will have, a very sobering thought especially if we have kith and kin that are outside of Christ. Having these big biblical and theological categories in mind helps us to think rightly about the imprecations in the Psalms.

Without these proper theological categories, then the Israelites should be considered as butchers and robbers. But that is not the case. This wasn’t a just war as recorded in the history of Israel in the manner that we think of a “just war” today in our own time; rather, this was a holy war mandated by God. In other words, the OT is not behind the times.

Israel was ahead of its time since she pictured there in shadowy types and shadows the consummation of the ages and Christ’s Kingdom having come at the end of time. Considering this, Joshua, the Son of Nun is a type of Christ at the end of time. Think of all the early warriors in the theocracy, it’s the early ones (Moses, Joshua & Caleb) who are zealous for the land in the right sense. They are so concerned for the holiness of God’s name – i.e., that all would redound to His Glory. Joshua took away the common grace rights of the Canaanites young and old, women and children as well. To do so involves a completely different ethic than Jesus gave to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

It was only as time went on in the theocracy that the Hebrews began to wane in their zeal for God. The point is clear enough. This is no Geneva Convention recorded here in the history of Israel or in the Psalter: this is sanctioned holy war. Why? God wanted to build a little heaven on earth, so to speak. This category and concept of Old Testament ethics helps explain imprecations in the Psalms as well. If you take Chalmers Martin’s principles above and place them within the umbrella of this Old Testament concept of intrusion ethics, i.e., that during the theocracy eschatology/heaven “break in” into our earthly existence, then you may have some explanatory power for these extraordinary statements of imprecations in the Psalms.

In this view, the theocracy in Israel would clearly fit under a type. When we read about the history of Israel, we need to remember that it is pointing forward towards something. Indeed, the theocracy as recorded in the history of Israel is one big symbol of intrusion. Just as we see at the end of the world where evil powers are dispossessed, so too that was going on in the theocracy. If you merely analyze the history of Israel in terms of common grace, then, you will have difficulties with much of what is represented there, including the imprecations in the Psalms. But even more may be said.

For example, the question remains, “How can a NT Christian sing these imprecations?” We can be helped here by RTS Professor, Richard P. Belcher’s thoughtful comments. He recognizes that “any view that sets up a dichotomy between the Old Testament and New Testament on this issue in order to question the legitimacy of these psalms is to be rejected.” He continues, “The comparison between Psalms 109 and 137 and Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:44 is like comparing apples to oranges. Jesus is clearly speaking against personal revenge, which the Old Testament is also against (Lev. 19:18; Prov. 25: 21-22 quoted by Paul in Romans 12:20). The Old Testament recognizes that revenge belongs to God (Deut. 32:35; Ps. 94:1).”

Belcher’s view is to first state that any view that contrasts this with the NT and says that these imprecations are statements of personal revenge cannot be right since the OT itself excludes personal revenge (e.g., Lev. 19:18; Prov. 25: 21-22). Furthermore, even David, as an OT saint can be seen not taking personal revenge several times, e.g. 1 Sam 24 and 26; 2 Sam 16: 5-14. The OT and NT agree in their view against personal revenge. Indeed, there are even curses in the NT, e.g., against those that preach a different Gospel (Gal 1). So, at this point, instead of going into further detail, we will merely summarize some of the principles that Belcher incorporates in his efforts for NT Christians to see the contemporary relevance of the Psalms of imprecation.

First, it is important to consider the OT context whenever we are dealing with an imprecation. Consider Psalm 137, it has to do with the exile where people have lost most precious things like sons and daughters, and the Temple. This can help us understand the strength of the emotion expressed. Even in Psalms like 109 and 137, the faithful Hebrew commits these matters into the hands of God. Prayer in the face of such injustices can remind us that all matters will be eternally adjudicated by the Lord.

Secondly, we must keep in mind that the concepts of covenant and cursing cannot be separated for the OT saint. In the OT, especially since the Exodus event was the paradigmatic salvation event for these saints, the outlook was that when the Lord came to vindicate his people, he also destroyed their enemies. At this point, Kline’s concept of intrusion ethics, building on Vos’ concept of Israel’s eschatological kingdom should be factored in.

Reckoning with the imprecations in the Psalms is indeed a challenge for the NT saint since when she observes Jesus reading Luke 4:19 at the beginning of his earthly ministry, he quotes Isaiah 61:2, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But our Lord knew very well that the next phrase in Isaiah was “and the day of the vengeance of our God.” That day is only inaugurated but it will indeed be fully consummated at his second advent when common grace ethics are eclipsed and the Day of the Lord will visit all the earth will unrelenting holiness, wrath, and judgment for those outside of Christ. Such judgment is now delayed. It will not always be so.

Consider the curses in Psalm 137 as an example to instruct the NT believer how she or he may pray or sing this in this common grace period. Belcher says the curses here are primarily “directed toward those outside the covenant community.”

The song speaks of the oppression of exile and the taunting of the nations. As a member of the covenant community it would not have been out of place for Jesus to pray this psalm, expressing his solidarity with the suffering of the community under foreign oppression (Rome). The self-imprecation in verses 4-6 would express his desire for the cause of God to triumph. . . Psalm 137 now applies to the new covenant community as they face persecution and oppression in taking the gospel into the entire world. It also expresses the recognition that this world is not our final home and that we are living in a foreign land, not having reached our final destination. . . . Ultimately, Babylon becomes a symbol of any world power that opposes God and his people.

There seems to be another allusion to Psalm 137: 9 in Luke 19:44. Here, Jesus is weeping over Jerusalem, for we know from other places in Scripture that God “takes no delight in the perishing of the wicked” (Ezek 18:23; 33:11 and 2 Pet 3:9); nevertheless, he announces what will come to be regarding Jerusalem because of their recalcitrance and alludes to Psalm 137. Likewise, Psalm 109 is quoted in Acts 1:20-21 to refer to episode of Judas where it seems to be an appropriate application in a Scripture text to those in the covenant community who reject our Lord and Savior ultimately. Judas had betrayed Jesus into the hands of those who had put him to death. Acts 1:21 makes use of Psalm 109:8 it seems in this regard. Of course, these truths should not eclipse the truths that NT Christians live in a world marked by common grace ethics. Moreover, it is important to recognize that the Spirit of God guided the author of Matthew to place the parable of the lost sheep (Matt 18:10-14) right before a central teaching on church discipline (Matt 18:15-20), which is immediately followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:21-35). The posture of NT Christians should be marked by compassion, a deep concern for the plight of those outside Christ, and a radical inclination to forgive as well as a zeal for holiness.

And yet, the NT Christian needs to think in the key of canonical theological grammar. At the consummation of the ages, there will be great rejoicing when Babylon ultimately falls. We long for that Day to come. When Christians sing the imprecations in the Psalms, they are essentially singing a prayer we often pray in common: “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done.” According to the principles outlined above, they are also echoing that wonderful Aramaic wish: Maranatha (Come, our Lord)!

Bryan D. Estelle, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Westminster Seminary California

*citations removed for formatting; available upon request