The Psalms are not the Christian’s hymnbook
I propose to argue that this is wrong:
“It is significant that the New Testament writers left us so few psalms of their own. The way they use the Psalms suggests that they did not think they needed to write many new songs — the Psalms as they stood were already a Christian hymnbook.”
(Andrew Shead and Andrew Cameron, Stirred by a Noble Theme, 159–160)
Here’s why I think this is wrong: The Psalms are a pre-Christian hymnbook, and the New Testament leads us to expect new ‘psalms’ to be written. Firstly, we are hard pressed to find a person in the New Testament after Jesus using a psalm to pray or praise. Secondly, we find in the New Testament very many new songs. Thirdly, the book of Psalms itself leads us to expect a new song-book. Fourthly, the book of Psalms is pre-Christian and many cannot be prayed by a Christian without serious mental gymnastics.
I hope no one will hear me saying that Christians cannot learn from the Psalms. They are, of course, Christian Scriptures. I personally read Psalms daily, and my prayers and singing have been informed by them. In fact, I LOVE the Psalms. Hear me: I’m not just saying that for rhetorical effect. I really, really, deeply love the Psalms. I have learned so much from them. They have shaped my view of God, my view of relating to God, and especially my view of praying to God and singing to him.
But I rarely pray them per se, and even less often would I sing them. Let me explain in 4 points.
1. New Testament Usage of Psalms… or lack of it
Firstly, I dispute that ‘the way they use the Psalms suggest that they did not think they needed to write many new songs.’ If this was true we would expect to see in the New Testament many instances of the Psalms being used as prayers and songs of praise. But that is exactly what is not found. Of course, Jesus prays the Psalms — as we would expect if he is the Davidic Messiah. But that does not of itself mean that we should make them our prayers. Jesus prayed “Eloi Eloi Lama Sabachthani” precisely in order to make it unnecessary and even inappropriate for us to pray it! But if we turn to Acts and the Epistles, we find the Psalms everywhere — as a theological sourcebook, a book of fulfilled prophecy, but not being prayed by Christians.
I suppose to sustain this claim I need to deal with Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 (and 1 Corinthians 14:26). First of all, I am not arguing that we shouldn’t sing Psalms at all. I may have overstated my position earlier: many psalms are pre-Christian, but some others need no transposition to be used by Christians. Psalm 16 can be taken up by a Christian and sung to our hearts’ content. But this is a long way from implying that ‘the Psalms as they stood were already a Christian hymnbook’. Indeed, if ‘psalms’ in Eph 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 means ‘things from the book called Psalms’ then we are at least also to sing ‘hymns’ and ‘spiritual songs’. But actually, there are reasons to hesitate before jumping to the book “Psalms” from the word ‘psalms’ in those verses.
We are accustomed to thinking of the book named ‘Psalms’ when we hear the word ‘psalm’. So we talk about ‘Psalm 32’, even though it is actually a ‘Maskil’, whatever that is. Within the book of Psalms, certain songs (but not all) are labelled ‘psalms’. It seems to me that a ‘psalm’ is really a genre. You can find some ‘psalms-type’ songs in the book that in English (but not Hebrew nor early LXX manuscripts) bears the name Psalms, but that does not mean that Paul intended those particular songs to be sung. Rather, he intended songs of the genre ‘psalms’ to be sung.
As O’Brien says in his commentary on Ephesians:
‘It is not possible to distinguish sharply between the three terms, ‘psalms’, ‘hymns’, and ‘songs’. They are the most common words used in the LXX for religious songs, and occur interchangeably in the titles of the psalms. The first, ‘psalm’, is employed by Luke of the Old Testament psalms, though it came to be used more generally of a song of praise (1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16) of which the Old Testament psalms were probably regarded as spiritual prototypes. (O’Brien, 1999, 395–396)’.
So having dealt with these words, what examples are left of the Psalms being used as prayers or songs in the New Testament? I’m yet to find a place in the New Testament where we see that modelled. Luke knows the word ‘Psalm’ but does not use it to refer to any Christian worship (Acts 16:25). The closest I can find are Romans 8:36, 2 Timothy 4:17, and Hebrews 13:6 (James Hely Hutchinson, Stirred by a Noble Theme, ed. Shead, page 45). But these are a far cry from using the Psalms as prayers or songs! The most that can be said about Romans 8:36 is that 2 lines from a Psalm have been embedded in a new song or prayer. Paul cites from the Psalm, but he does not take the song up and use it. 2 Timothy 4:17 is really just an allusion, drawing on Psalmic imagery, but no more than that. Hebrews 13:6 is the most interesting, but again the writer is drawing on a few lines from a Psalm and re-appropriating them. He is certainly not using them as ‘a Christian hymnbook’. As argued above, there are certain Psalms and certain lines in the Psalms that Christians can easily appropriate, but that is not the same as calling it a Christian hymnbook. Thus I conclude my first point: there is no example in the New Testament of a Psalm being used as a Christian hymn or prayer.
2. New Songs in the New Testament
Secondly, we find in the New Testament very many new songs. The most obvious place to begin is the book of Revelation. Surprisingly for a book so rich in Old Testament allusions, we find that ‘they sang a new song’, songs concerning the Lamb (Revelation 5:9–10; 12–14; Rev 14:3). Of course we have not left the language of the book of Psalms behind, but it has been re-written: Revelation 7:10 draws on Psalm 3:8 (’Salvation belongs to Yahweh, your blessing be on your people’) but transposes it to a higher key: ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’.
New acts of God’s redemptive history inspired new songs: the Exodus (Exodus 15), the establishment of the Monarchy (2 Samuel 22), the completion of the temple (1 Kings 8), even the laments of judgment (Lamentations). So it’s no surprise that we find new songs at the birth of the true Monarch (Luke 1:46–55, 67–79), and then we find the church composing Hymns after his exaltation (see hymnody in Philippians 2:6–11, Colossians 1:15–20, Ephesians 5:14b, 1 Tim 3:16, 2 Tim 2:11–13). Ephesians chapter 1 represents a new Berakah (Jewish extended blessing, ‘Blessed be’) in the vein of Psalm 113:2, 144:1 and so on. We have new prayers modelled in the Lord’s Prayer and Paul’s prayers. And this is, of course, natural. With Christ’s coming, the new act of redemption, indeed the greatest act of redemption, we need to update our hymnbooks: so now it is not enough simply to sing ‘the song of Moses’, we must also sing ‘the song of the Lamb’ (Rev 15:3–4, c.f. Revelation 19:6–8).
3. Psalms leads us to expect a new song-book
Thirdly, the book of Psalms itself leads us to expect a new song-book. I alluded to this in the previous paragraph. From the beginning, God’s new acts inspired new songs (Gen 2:23). Thus the book of Psalms shows evidence of the development of new songs in new contexts. It is a fitting response to a new mercy: “He put a new song in my mouth” (Psalm 40:3). Indeed we are instructed to do this: “Sing to him a new song” (Psalm 33:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1, Isaiah 42:10). This does not mean we forget the old songs any more than the exilic community forgot the song of Moses (Psalm 90). But I ask: does this book, which exhorts new songs, intend to be the final word on praise? Or does it anticipate, even demand, that when the long-awaited-one comes, we will continue the same impulse that lead to the first Psalm book?
The absence of a New Testament song-book (not that there are none at all, see above) could be interpreted two ways. Maybe it is because we are expected to use the old one. But more likely, it is an invitation to create a new one. Israel, as a national church, was able to have one song book in one language for one culture. But what sort of song book would suit a church for all nations scattered through millennia and across the globe? The book of Psalms has set the example: not because it has calcified as our hymnbook, but rather because its authors were devoted to the task of writing new songs in response to new mercies. The book of Psalms thus expects us to be creating a new song book — or new song books.
4. The Psalms are not ‘Christian songs’
Fourthly and finally: the book of Psalms is pre-Christian and many cannot be prayed by a Christian without serious mental gymnastics. These are the songs of an Old Covenant people. I am not here troubled particularly by the imprecatory Psalms. If they are troubling to a Christian, they are not the most uncomfortable things in the Psalms for a Christian to pray.
How can a Christian pray the Psalms written from exile that lament God’s judgment? Can a Christian really pray “Why have you rejected us forever, God? Why does your anger burn against the sheep of your pasture?” (Psalm 74) Can a Christian for whom ‘there is no condemnation’ really pray that? A Christian may have emotions like that, subjectively, but that is not the reality for them. To allegorise the Psalm that way is to take an objective judgment from God that was real and turn it into a subjective feeling of an imagined condemnation. It is to twist Scripture and mislead people.
There are other things in Psalms that are pre-Christian as well. The false-gospel of Prosperity theology feeds on the Psalms because they were written in an Old Covenant setting, with it’s promises of material blessing for obedience. Psalm 128 promises financial success, happiness, and fertility for covenant obedience. But we live in the New Testament, with different (better!) promises and the Now-but-not-yet. Of course there is a sense in which these words are true for the Christian, but it requires mental gymnastics to get there; as written they are not quite right. Psalm 128 is better exposited than prayed. Perhaps after exposition, a congregation would be in the right biblical-theological frame of mind to pray this Psalm, making the appropriate mental adjustments along the way. But as it stands, this Psalm is not something a Christian can pick up and pray. It is based on different promises. This is simple Biblical Theology.
Likewise with every Psalm that concerns ‘the house of the Lord’, the ‘city of the Lord’, and even ‘the law of the Lord’. The Christian is in a qualitatively different relationship to all of these things so that praying the Psalms as written is misleading, allegorical, or just plain confusing. They are not Christian songs.
We have examples of truly Christian songs in the Bible, and, I have argued that we have explicit and implicit encouragement to write and sing our own new songs. If this puts me at odds with Christian tradition, I do not take that lightly. But Christian tradition has been wrong before. Perhaps the recent decline of praying and singing the Psalms is connected with the rise in the last century of new insights into Biblical Theology. I’m comfortable with that. At any rate, we can say that the Psalms are not the Christian’s hymnbook.