Singing Psalms — Why Not the Whole Enchilada?

Frank Ezinga has another interesting post over here about the singing of Psalms. Specifically, he’s interested in tracing the history of why so many Reformed churches only sing very select parts of the psalms, rather than whole Psalms.  He believes there’s a historical reason for this and he provides a musical sample to prove his point.  If you’re familiar at all with the Genevan tunes as sung in Canadian Reformed Churches, this sample will probably be unrecognizable.

I’ve always agreed with Frank:  we ought to strive for singing whole Psalms.  I know that sometimes it’s impractical — Psalm 119 being the classic example.  My personal guideline is that if it has five stanzas or less, we normally sing the whole thing.  I don’t think that’s unreasonable.  By that guideline, with the latest revision of the Book of Praise there are some 72 Psalms that can easily be sung in their entirety.  There are quite a few more that have six or seven short stanzas that could also be sung whole.  Psalms of eight or nine stanzas can be split and the whole psalm can still be sung in the worship service, even if not all at once.

I know that if I’m sitting in church and the minister selects, say stanzas 1 and 5 of Psalm 146, I always feel cheated.  It’s only five stanzas — why not sing the whole thing?  It’s a beautiful Psalm.  Sometimes, however, even ministers get squeamish about some of the content of the Psalms.  A classic example is Psalm 95 and its last two stanzas.  The Psalm starts off encouraging praise for God and then stanza 4:

Today, would you but hear His voice:

Do not repeat your father’s choice

who stubbornly with Me contended;

at Massah’s rock and Meribah

they tested me although they saw

how they by Me had been defended.

And stanza 5:

For forty years they wearied Me,

I said, “They show no loyalty.”

Their hardened hearts resist My favour;

My ways they foolishly ignore.”

And so I in my anger swore:

“Into my rest they’ll enter never.”

I can remember attending a Psalm-sing at a Free Church of Scotland congregation some years ago.  I requested Psalm 95 (from the RPCNA Book of Psalms for Singing).  The minister presiding asked the congregation to sing it, but left off the last part because he thought it was awkward for us to sing that.  I’ve seen many CanRC ministers do that too and I’m just as guilty as anyone.  Why are we so squeamish?  We have no problem reading the whole of Psalm 95, why such a problem with singing it?  Are we afraid that someone might be offended?  Then we may just as well drop the reading of the Law.  It makes no sense.  Let’s sing whole Psalms as much as possible.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

One response to “Singing Psalms — Why Not the Whole Enchilada?

  • Nicole

    Thanks for an interesting post. For the most part, I agree with you and Frank. I also feel a bit like “huh? why can’t we sing the rest?”

    But you question why if we can read an entire psalm, why can’t we sing the entire psalm?

    From a non-officebearer’s perspective, allow me to offer up what I think may be a stumbling block. When we read the psalms, or hear them read off the pulpit — it’s not as personal. If Martin reads Psalm 95 at the dinner table, I can “distance” myself from the uncomfortable part. I can recognize that this is directly related to Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s anger with them. If this is preached on, I can expect a solid Reformed exegesis on the meaning BEHIND the psalm, and how it also points to Christ. BUT, if I sing it ….. I am PERSONALLY voicing these words! Many people, myself included, feel that singing is a way of speaking to God. It’s a form of prayer. So when I sing the words “into my rest they’ll enter never”, the thought pops up ” who me? I’ll never enter his rest? who won’t? why am I singing this?”. There IS a difference for those of us in the pew, I think. Many, many pastors don’t EVER take the time to explain why this particular psalm (and any other psalm) is even part of the liturgy, let alone how we can understand it while we sing. That needs to change, and I hope the Theological college can address this need.

    I also wonder if singing a stanza or two actually does have it’s place. For instance, in response to the reading of the Law ….there may be a particular verse of a psalm that is particularly fitting to help the congregation remind themselves of their need for Christ. When we wish to bring comfort to someone, or encourage someone, we often, if not always, take a verse or two out of a specific chapter of the Bible and quote it. Isn’t singing a stanza or two the same thing? I think it really depends on WHY a minister only chooses one stanza or all of them.

    Also, I wanted to point out the practicality of singing 5 or 6 verses 5 or 6 times each service. That’s ALOT of singing and not everyone enjoys it as much as the next person. There’s also the time crunch. Especially for us in the a.m. service in Aldergrove …. we only have 1 hour 15 minutes to be in that sanctuary. The preaching of the Word should never take a backseat to the singing. I know these can these points can all be argued against with comments such as “we should ALL enjoy singing because we’re commanded to” or “enjoyment isn’t paramount in the worship service”, as well as “time isn’t an issue generally speaking for most churches”. Be that as it may, I’m just looking at some realistic practicalities.

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