More Editorials from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.

The Glorious Psalms (1)

By Rev. James Gracie

This Editorial was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 24, October-December 2001.

SINGING PRAISE is an integral part of the worship of God. And God has not left his Church without a manual for such adulation. In the book of Psalms we have God's glorious volume for prayer and praise. Within the Psalms the principles of true religion are expounded, and Christ - the head of the Church - is portrayed in all His glory. The very words and deepest spiritual experiences of the Lord, experiences that no other human could relate let alone write, are set before us.

The book of Psalms contains the only guaranteed infallible and legitimate material of praise for the worship of God. Only they can fully meet all the spiritual needs of man. They alone, as God's Word, can give true comfort to a dying man. History shows how individuals and nations alike have proven just how invaluable and glorious the Psalms are.

Biblical Times

The Psalms, divinely-inspired and divinely-appointed, were supplied to the Church in the Old Testament. From the time of Jonah through to the close of the Old Testament the Psalms were given a time-honoured place. The Jews divided the Old Testament into three parts: the first division is the Law; the second is the Prophets; and the third, the Hagiographa or Holy Writings. This last division, however, is designated 'The Psalms' by Christ (Luke 24:44) because the book of Psalms stands aloft within the division.

The Psalms were used exclusively by Israel in her worship of the Most High. They were not only sung at the daily and Sabbath worship, but at all the great Jewish festivals e.g. Psalm 118 concludes the great 'Hallel' or hymn sung at the feasts of tabernacle and the Passover.

During times of trouble psalms were sung for encouragement. For example, it was in the cave of Adullam, when persecuted by Saul, that David penned Psalms 57 and 142. And it was with equivalent sentiments that Jonah cried from the belly of the whale, "When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord…" (Jonah 2:7 cf. Psalm 142:3).

Even the common people were acquainted with the Psalms and associated them with the joyous coming of Messiah. For example, when Christ entered into Jerusalem, the common people and the children in the temple took their 'hosanna' from the book of Psalms: "Blessed be he that cometh in the name of the LORD: we have blessed you out of the house of the LORD." (Psalm 118:26 cf. Matthew 21:9).

The Church in the New Testament embraced the Psalms as God's manual of praise. This, no doubt, was encouraged by the fact that the Lord Himself died with the words of a psalm on His lips. The first martyr, Stephen, also died with a psalm on his lips. Paul and Silas at Philippi encouraged themselves by singing psalms throughout the night. We have no record of fresh man-made compositions being employed either by the Lord or by His disciples.

The Early New Testament Church

The Psalms held a special place for the early Church Fathers, particularly those who suffered for the faith. It was with the words of Psalm 115:4-5, "Their idols are silver and gold" that Christians defied the imperial order to sacrifice to Ceasar, and it was with a Psalm on their lips that they met their deaths. For instance, in the persecutions of 288 A.D., Crispin and Crispinian were tortured for their faith. During the prolonged agony they were sustained by the words of Psalm 79:9-10, "Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy Name…Wherefore do the heathen say, Where is now their God?"

When Augustine's mother (Monica) died, he found his greatest comfort in the words of Psalm 101, "My song shall be of mercy and judgement: unto thee, O Lord, will I sing." Forty-three years later, Augustine himself died with his eyes fixed on the Psalms. "The seven Penitential Psalms" says his biographer Possidius "were, by his orders, written out, and placed where he could see them from his bed. These he looked at and read in his days of sickness, weeping often and sore." When he had prepared for his baptism, Augustine had withdrawn to the hills above Milan and had read and reread the Psalms. "How, O God," he says, "did I cry unto Thee, as I read the Psalms of David, those hymns of faith and songs of devotion, which fill the heart against all swellings of pride." He later chose for the motto of his work on The City of God the words, "Very excellent things are spoken of thee, thou city of God" (Psalm 87:2), and began his Confessions with a quotation from Psalm 145:3 "Great is the Lord, and marvellous; worthy to be praised."

As Christianity spread, the Psalms occupy a conspicuous place among Christians. Augustine applied to the Psalms themselves the words of the Psalter that Paul applies to the Gospel, "Their sound is gone out into all lands, and their words into the ends of the world." (Ps.19:4). Basil the Great entered his eternal rest with the words of a psalm on his lips, "Into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Ps.31:5). Origen's love for the Psalms is well recorded, and is testified to by his commentary and notes on them. Both Paulinus (died 431) and Cyril of Alexandria (died 444) passed into the eternal world with the words of Psalm 132:18 on their lips, "I have ordained a lantern for mine Anointed." Athanasius had the Psalms as his constant companion: his Exposition of the Psalms and his Titles of the Psalms are sufficient proof of his attachment to them.

Later Times

While the Lutheran Church adopted original hymnody within divine worship, Calvin and Zwingli - revolting against the human intervention of the priesthood in prayer and praise, as well liturgies - rejected original hymns and treated the Hebrew Psalter as the only inspired manual of praise. The more complete and thorough the Reformation, the greater was the reverence for the Psalms and the higher the place given to God's Infallible Word. Thus, metrical Psalms were used exclusively in the public worship of the Reformed Churches.

In September 1553, John Hooper was imprisoned. In his prison, he wrote a letter (October 13th 1553) to his wife Anne Hooper who had escaped to the continent. He requested her to read and study Psalm 77 because of the "great consolation that it contains for those who are in anguish of mind", and Psalms 6, 22, 30, 31, 38 and 69 for their lessons in "patience and consolation at times when the mind can take no understanding, nor the heart any joy of God's promises."

Nicholas Ridley (1500-1555) recognised the value of the Psalms to family life. He often, as Fox relates, read and expounded Psalm 101 to his household, "being marvellous careful over his family, that they might be a spectacle of all virtue and honesty to others." In France, the chanting of the Psalms was proscribed. Yet this did not stop Colporteurscarrying copies of the Psalms to the remotest parts of the country, and it did not stop the Huguenots singing the Psalms. Francois Leguat and six companions even made their home on the uninhabited Island of Rodrigues in the Indian Ocean in order that there they could sing the Psalms of David without hindrance.

As the Mayflower left with the Pilgrim Fathers for the new world, they took the Psalms with them. The name of the first settlement, Salem, is taken from Psalm 76:2, "At Salem is his tabernacle" At these first settlements, the singing of unaccompanied Psalms characterised worship. This set the pattern, and the Psalms were exclusively sung in the churches and chapels in America until the end of the 18th century. In 1787, when speaking on the framing of the American Constitution, Benjamin Franklin quoted Psalm 127:2, "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it."

In Scotland, the Psalms were the great inspiration of the Covenanters. A description of the field-conventicles demonstrates their place, "At Craigmad, between Falkirk and Moranside, the hills were crowded with ghostly worshippers who were singing Psalm 121, when the persecutors arrived." Alexander Peden took daily support from the Psalms, as did the captives on the Bass Rock and in the dungeons of Dunottar. It was while singing a Psalm that the Covenanters confronted General Dalzell at Rullion Green. And Donald Cargill sang his favourite psalm (Psalm 118:16-end) as he was put to death on the scaffold.

The Psalms continued for some considerable time to hold a unique place within the Church in Scotland. The true descendants of the Disruption of 1843 continue to this day in exclusive psalmody. The Psalms are indeed glorious. They are, after all, nothing less than the hymnody of a glorious God, and are most suitable for use by every generation.