Drifting from the Psalter

Our church has recently been discussing life in the Spirit, focusing upon the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. We found that pursuing this subject led us to the way Paul portrays the corporate reality of life in the Spirit: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.”[1] While we were doing this study, I read an article on weaving the Psalter into our corporate worship by James Jordan. Jordan gave me the uncomfortable sensation that I was ignoring plain inferences that I should be making from the quite descriptive Pauline passage quoted above.

Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. When asked to describe what ‘walking in the Spirit’ objectively looks like, I never heard anyone from my small group answer with this description.  I was curious about the distinction between psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Jordan replied:

We don’t need even to discuss what “hymns and spiritual songs” are, because we have not yet mastered the psalms. Once we know all 150 psalms, we can then decide what are appropriate hymns and spiritual songs.

The argument is that the evangelical church has slowly left off the historic practice of singing the Psalter in corporate and private worship. And Jordan isn’t referring to dynamic paraphrases of the Psalms put into song, but the actual texts of Scripture themselves:

Text psalms preserve the poetic parallelism of the Scripture, and thus accentuate the dialogical and antiphonal theology of the psalter. Moreover, metrical psalms must of necessity be “dynamically equivalent,” rephrasing ideas, omitting certain words, emphasizing others, substituting other names for God in order to make the rhyme come out, etc. Metrical psalms are like Biblical paraphrases – useful, but no substitute. Metrical psalms are one application of the psalter, but they are not a substitute for the psalter.

It’s an arresting article, but it doesn’t provide suggestions on where to learn more. I’m grateful that our church has a weekly practice of responsively reading portions of Scripture together in between singing and the sermon. Many of these readings come from the Psalms. However, it does seem that we could experience them more fully if we sang them together as well.

In order to give you an idea of what Jordan says we’re missing, and to demonstrate how seriously he takes this subject, allow me to quote one more segment:

[I]f we drift from the psalms – the war chants of the Prince of peace – we shall drift into an easy and lax piety. The inner warfare will be de-emphasized, and the warfare for the world will disappear. The focus of hymns tends to be on matters easier for us to talk about, such as suffering and happiness. How many hymns, etc., do you know of that ask God to judge the enemy? I can think of one, by Luther, and it is psalm-based. In the face of abortion, pornography, rape, drug addiction, Islam… nothing less than psalms will do. The fact of the matter is that the present generation of American Christians will either learn to sing psalms, or it will die.

I hope you have a chance to read the article. I’ll be discussing this with my brothers and sisters at church. If you have any experience or information about how churches would begin this sort of practice, please let me know.

[1] Ephesians 5:19

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