Have you ever asked yourself: “What should we sing to praise God acceptably?”
Now you may wonder why we even need to ask the question. But God takes quite seriously the way he is worshipped. The first three of the 10 Commandments deal with whom we are to worship and how we should worship: We are to have no other gods before us. We are not to worship God with man-made images. And we are not to take God’s name in vain. You can even make the case that God’s heaviest judgments came on the nation of Israel, not because of immorality as we usually think of it, but because – in various ways – Israel had profaned the worship of God.
And, in the New Testament, the writer of the Bible book of Hebrews – in one of the book’s strongest warning passages – declares in no uncertain terms that we are to offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and with awe – for our God is a consuming fire.
Singing, of course, is not the only part of our worship. In Christian worship there are prayers, the reading of the Word of God, the preaching of the Word of God, offerings and many other things that we call the elements of worship. But singing is not a small part of that worship. God’s people are called to come into his presence with singing. We are to sing of the Lord’s steadfast love and justice. We are to make music to him. Those redeemed by him are to sing to the Lord a new song. We are to sing to the Lord, bless his name, and tell of his salvation from day to day. The music and singing of God’s people now are meant to be a foretaste of a New Creation in which everything that has breath will praise the Lord.
But we need to ask ourselves: What should we sing to praise God acceptably?
Some would say “Anything that is sincere. “ We should most certainly be sincere in what we sing, but we easily forget that we can be sincerely wrong. And to sing wrong things to God is not acceptable.
Others would answer: “We should sing what comes from a full heart.” And, certainly, even as we should be sincere in our singing, we should sing with a full heart. We’re called to praise God with our whole heart. But the heart alone is not a sure guide. The Word of God tells us that the heart – in itself – is deceitful and desperately wicked. And deceitful and wicked things are not acceptable to God.
And, if we’re really honest, we have to admit that many people (and perhaps we ourselves) would say, “I’ll sing to God what I like.” But the Word of God disapproves of something called will-worship – worshipping God in the way I devise. Rather than ask what we like in our worship (including our singing), we should ask what God likes: What’s acceptable to Him?
Above all else, our worship is to be scriptural. God has exalted above all things His name and His word. Acceptable worship is worship of the Name – the very essence – of God by way of His Word. If man is not to live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God, it stands to reason that the most acceptable singing is singing that is framed by and faithful to the Word of God.
Our songs for worship certainly must be sing-able. They must be suitable. But, above all, they must be scriptural.
Now worship songs that is scriptural can come in different forms:
• We can actually take portions of Scripture (like the 10 Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer) and put them in forms to sing with appropriate tunes. Sometimes this is done by what is called chanting.
• Or, we can take the teachings of Scripture and express them in the form of what we commonly call a hymn. This form of scriptural singing is what you’ll find in Christian hymn books.
• But we can also take the actual songs used in the Word of God, put them into what’s called “metrical form”, and sing them with tunes that fit that portion of the Scriptures. This is most commonly done with the Bible’s own songs, the 150 songs that compose the Bible’s book of Psalms.
Over the centuries, the Christian Church has used all of these forms of scriptural singing; but the Psalms (if not used exclusively in worship) have always been a prominent part of Christian worship – precisely because they are songs. They’re meant to be sung as well as read. Some would even understand the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” spoken of in the Bible books of Ephesians and Colossians as a reference to the three types of Psalms found in what we often call The Psalter – the entire book of Psalms.
The great Reformer, John Calvin, said of the Psalms: There is no other Book in which there is to be found more magnificent commendations of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness towards his Church. There is no other Book in which there are recorded so many deliverances, or where the evidences and experiences of the fatherly provision and care of God are celebrated with such splendid explanation. In short, there is no other Book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise.
It’s no coincidence that the first book printed in North America was the Bay Psalm Book – first printed in 1640 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since that time, dozens of Psalters or Psalter Hymnals have been published in the United States. And now, there’s one more – this one produced as a joint effort of two Christian church bodies.
In the year 2006, the 73d General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church authorized its Committee on Christian Education to develop a Psalter-Hymnal which was to include musical settings of all 150 Psalms, in their entirety, with as much accuracy and as little language and confusing syntax as possible for use in congregations of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and beyond. Five years later, in 2011, the 78th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church gave approval to its committee that was working on the Psalter-Hymnal project to work with a similar committee of the United Reformed Churches in North America. The goal was to produce a Psalter-Hymnal as a joint publication of the two Church bodies. After nearly twelve years of work, that Psalter-Hymnal – the Trinity Psalter Hymnal- is to be released in 2018, published by Great Commission Publications. This will be a major contribution to churches, Christian families, and Christian individuals who want to worship music that is sing-able, suitable, and – above all – scriptural.
Today we’ll be introducing the new Trinity Psalter-Hymnal, and we’ll also be thinking together about that important question: What should we sing to praise God acceptably?”
My guests today are Rev. Danny Olinger, the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Dr. Bryan Estelle, Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary, California. Both have worked on the Trinity Psalter Hymnal from the beginning. They’ll fill us in on some of the fascinating building blocks that make up a massive project like this. And they’ll help us to better understand the elements of singing that brings glory to God.
Danny Olinger and Dr. Bryan Estelle, welcome to this week’s Visit to the Pastor’s Study.
Listen to the full program here:
Yours in the King of Kings,