Don’t miss this point. When we sing the Psalms as Christian worship, we experience our communion with Jesus in a way that no man-made hymn or song could ever do. For when we sing the Psalms, we sing the very words of our Savior as he redeems our miseries and carries us to realms of glory. Beloved, sing the words of Jesus as he takes on our humiliation and raises us in his exaltation. Sing the Psalms as Christian worship and experience your redemption like you never have before.
How to Sing the Psalms as Christian Worship
Reforming Worship: Biblical Foundations to Worship God by the Word of God
Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
April 5, 2020
That the Christian church should sing the Psalms is indisputable. The Bible commands as much not once, but twice in the New Testament (Eph 5:19; Col. 3:16). That the use of “psalms” in those two passages refers to the Psalms of David (e.g., the 150 psalms of the Old Testament) is backed by over 2000 years of Church practice across all three major branches of Christendom—some movements within those branches still singing predominantly or exclusively from the Psalter. Now, why Psalm singing has fallen out of practice in far too many churches is not the focus of this message. But the question of how to sing the Psalms as Christian worship is.
One reason people find Psalm-singing inaccessible is that they have not been given a biblical framework for how to understand the Psalms as Christian worship. So, this message intends to show you how to sing them as Christian Worship by teaching you how to see Christ in the Psalms, and then how to deepen the experience of your union and communion with Jesus as you sing them. You will learn a Christ-centered hermeneutic that will enable a richer theological experience as you sing the Psalms, and I pray, thereby, that you will also gain a more intimate experience of your union with your Savior.
Christ is everywhere in the Psalms. Sometimes he is the voice of the psalmist. At other times, he is the object of the psalmist’s prayers. At all times, Christ’s mediatorial work on our behalf is in view. The Psalms contain the experience of Christ as our Redeemer in both his ministries of humiliation and exaltation. If you want to experience Jesus in a brand new way, sing the Psalms. If you want to grow in Christ-likeness, learn to sing the Psalms. There you will sing with him and to him because the Psalms are the words of Christ. That is, after all, why Paul exhorts us to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly…singing psalms” (Col. 3:16).
How to See Christ in the Psalms
The Book of Hebrews gives us a window into the biblical basis—or hermeneutic—for seeing Christ in the Psalms. The writer shows us that the Psalms are both the prayers of Christ and prayers to Christ. They can also be objects of Trinitarian communication. Gaining a grasp of how the New Testament interprets the Psalms will unlock and a hermeneutical principle that will help you understand the Psalms in layers and depths that you never imagined.
Hebrews shows us how to interpret the Psalms as Christian worship in three fundamental ways. Each section will include two examples of how the writer uses the Psalter to help us learn how to see Christ in the Psalms.
1. Christ as the Subject of Christian Worship in the Psalms
First, Hebrews shows us how to see Christ as the subject of Christian worship in the Psalms. Here we will see how the epistle uses Psalm 2 and Psalm 110 to show us how Christ is the subject of the Psalms.
The supremacy of Christ over all things is the resounding theme of Hebrews. Starting that theme, the writer argues for the supremacy of Jesus over angels in chapter one. The writer uses the Psalms to defend his argument. In verse 5, the writer asks,
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”?
—Hebrews 1:5 (citing Psalm 2:7)
Hebrews cites Psalm 2:7 to show that Christ is the subject of this psalm. Here we see an example of Trinitarian communication in the Psalter. The Father is speaking directly to the Son. In other words, Jesus is the subject of Psalm 2. The amount of Christological treasures in Psalm 2 is overwhelming. Suffice it to say that this Psalm is a marvelous demonstration of the psalmist writing about Jesus. The words themselves become divine communication from the Father to the Son, and in turn, the psalmist exhorts us to worship the Messiah.
Hebrews 5 is another example where the writer shows that Jesus is the subject of the Psalms. There he uses Psalm 110 to defend the claim that Jesus holds an eternal priesthood that was given to him by the Father.
So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”
—Hebrews 5:5-6 (citing Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:4)
The writer cites Psalm 110 multiple times in Hebrews (see also Heb. 1.13; 7:17, 21). Psalm 110 is another example of Trinitarian communication. Here the Father appoints the Son to an eternal priesthood. In this Psalm, Christ is once again the subject of the psalm. Throughout the book of Hebrews, there is no notion that the Psalms are an antiquated book of worship reserved for the Old Covenant period. The Psalms are all about Christ, and their relevance is absolute for the New Testament church because Jesus is their fulfillment.
2. Christ as the Object of Christian Worship in the Psalms
Second, Hebrews demonstrates that Christ is the object of Christian worship in the Psalms. Again, defending the supremacy of Christ over angels, the writer says,
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
—Hebrews 1:8-9 (citing Psalm 45:6,7)
Hebrews argues that Jesus is supreme over angels because he is God! That is to say that Christ is the God that we worship in the Psalms. In the same chapter, the writer says,
And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.”
—Hebrews 1:10-12 (citing Psalm 102:25-27)
Citing Psalm 102, the writer shows us again that Christ is the object of Christian worship in the Psalms. We must get our minds around this. The personal name of God, given to us in the Old Testament, is Yahweh (cf. Exod. 3:14-15; 34:6-7). Anytime you see “LORD” in all caps in your English translation (or HERREN in your Norwegian translation), the translators are indicating that they are translating Yahweh from the Hebrew manuscript. Psalm 102 addresses the prayer to Yahweh (Psalm 102:1). So, when the writer attributes these words to Jesus, he is arguing that Jesus is supreme over angels because he is Yahweh himself.
Hebrews gives us a critical principle for Christian worship. Every time that we sing to the Lord in the Psalms, we are singing to Christ as the object of our praise. Our prayers, our laments, and our praises from the Psalms are all addressed to Christ as God. That alone should inspire us to sing the Psalms as Christian Worship. Here we have divinely inspired worship lyrics to praise our Savior!
3. Christ as the Leader of Christian Worship in the Psalms
Third, Hebrews shows us that the Psalms are the very words of Christ. When you sing the Psalms, you hear Jesus speaking directly to you. In this way, Jesus is our divine worship leader as we sing his words in the Psalms! For example, in Hebrews 2, the writer argues,
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
—Hebrews 2:11-12 (citing Psalm 22:22)
By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is speaking through the psalmist, saying to the Father, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” When we sing the Psalms, Jesus is leading us in worship!
We find another example of Jesus speaking in the Psalms in Hebrew 10. There the writer argues,
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’ ”
—Hebrews 10:5-7 (citing Psalm 40:6-8)
Here again, we see an example of Trinitarian dialogue in the Psalms, but this time the Son is speaking to the Father. Hebrews tells us that it is Jesus himself, who speaks through the Psalmist. The theme of worship leader continues in Psalm 40 when Jesus prays, “But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the LORD!” (Psalm 40:16).
When we sing the Psalms, we sing the very words of Christ. Psalm singing is Christian worship because Christ is the subject, the object and the worship leader in the Psalms. These interpretive principles are not the cleaver inventions of scholars. They come from Scripture interpreting Scripture. Hebrews gives us three biblically authorized principles for singing the Psalms as Christian worship.
While Hebrews gives us three authorized principles for interpreting the Psalms, that does not mean that it is always easy to understand them. For example, how do you know if the psalm points to Jesus as the subject, object or speaker? Or, can he be all three? This challenge leads to our second point.
How to Commune with Christ in the Psalms
How can Christ be the subject, object and worship leader at the same time? The answer to this is a vital key for experience our communion with Christ in the Psalms. The mysteries of the Trinity as well as the hypostatic union of Jesus being both fully God and fully man lead us to realms incomprehensible. Nevertheless, orthodox Christianity affirms the biblical teaching that Jesus is fully God. That is, Jesus is the God of the Old Testament. As we have already shown, Jesus is Yahweh. At the same time, orthodox Christianity also affirms the biblical teaching that Jesus is fully man. That is why Paul can say, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
So, why did he become a man? The second person of the Trinity became a man to redeem us as our mediator. As the God-man, Jesus took our place in his life, death, and resurrection. He lived the life before the Father that we failed to live. He bore the wrath of God that our sins deserved. And he was raised to know life to share with us the glory that we could not merit. Thus, God became man that he might redeem us from our sins and raise us in glory. We become heirs and partakers of these very promises by our union with Christ.
So, what does this have to do with the Psalms? When we sing the Psalms, we experience our communion with Christ in both his ministry of humiliation and exaltation. In the Psalms, the God-man can sing to the Father in union with us, and, at the same time, we can sing to him as God. Jesus can be both the subject and object of the Psalm at the same time.
Likewise, Jesus can take on the sins of the Psalmist as our Redeemer. Take Psalm 40 as an example that Hebrews uses to show Jesus speaking in the Psalms (Heb. 10:5-7). Later in that psalm, Jesus says, “My iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head” (Psalm 40:12b). The Bible is clear that Jesus was sinless. But if Jesus is speaking in this psalm, how can he talk about his iniquities? We cannot miss this point. When Jesus speaks of his iniquities in Psalm 40, he is speaking as our redeemer. Jesus takes on the sins of the human psalmist as our redeemer.
Don’t miss this point. When we sing the Psalms as Christian worship, we experience our communion with Jesus in a way that no man-made hymn or song could ever do. For when we sing the Psalms, we sing the very words of our Savior as he redeems our miseries and carries us to realms of glory. Beloved, sing the words of Jesus as he takes on our humiliation and raises us in his exaltation (sing Psalm 16 or Psalm 22, and you will know what I mean). Sing the Psalms as Christian worship and experience your redemption like you never have before.
By way of application, we must understand the Psalms are not fast food contemporary Christian worship lyrics. It takes time and practice to grow in your understanding and ability to sing the Psalms as Christian worship. But if you value your union and communion with Christ, your training here will payback unimaginable dividends.
To help you sing the Psalms as Christian worship, I close with a few next steps.
1. Start singing the Psalms in your personal devotions
Sing through one Psalm a day and practice interpreting it according to the principles that we learned from Hebrews above. Of course, if you are going to sing the Psalms, you will need a metrical psalter. There are many to choose from. The Trinity Psalter is an excellent choice. One that I often recommend is the Book of Psalms for Worship. What makes this an accessible starting point is that it comes with an app. In the app, you can listen to the tune to aid your ability to read the music and sing along.
As you study the Psalm that you are singing, a few questions may help you see Christ.
- How does Jesus speak in this psalm as our worship leader?
- How does Jesus redeem us in this psalm as our mediator?
- How does Jesus show us how to live in this psalm as our model?
- How does this psalm call us to worship Jesus as our God (Yahweh)?
Let me illustrate by using these questions with Psalm 1. As our worship leader, Jesus declares the life and the outcome of the righteous. As our mediator, Jesus redeems us from our failure to follow the path of the righteous, he accepts our penalty for failing to do it, and he gives us the outcome of his righteous life. As our model, Jesus demonstrates the way of righteous living. As our God, we can praise Jesus for his redeeming grace and we can pray to him for sanctifying grace to follow his example.
2. Study Hebrew’s Psalter hermeneutics for yourself
The most important way to be convinced that we should sing the Psalms as Christian worship is by studying the Bible for yourself. I have given you a sample of how the book of Hebrews interprets the Psalms, but you need to consider it for yourself.
3. Learn about Christ’s mediatorial work in the Westminster Standards
The more you understand the dimensions of Christ’s mediation, the better you will see and comprehend those themes in the Psalms. The Westminster Standards are a treasure trove of information to help you understand the mediatorial work of Christ as our Redeemer. For the relevant passages, study chapter 8 of the Confession, questions 36-57 and 65-90 in the Larger Catechism, and questions 21-28 in the Shorter Catechism.
4. Pastors, give the words of Christ to your congregation
When you can sing the actual words of Christ, it makes you less exciting to sing merely human words about him. The more time that I have spent singing the words of Christ in the Psalms, the more I want to shout out to the worship leaders, when I attend a Psalmless service, “Give me Christ! I want to hear from Jesus! I want to sing the songs of my Savior!” With so much talk today about experiential worship. There is no greater experience of intimacy with Jesus than to sing his very words. Along with participation in baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there is no greater experience of our union and communion with Christ than in singing his words in the Psalter. For a pastor serving in a Psalmless tradition, this can be daunting. I would encourage you to start with low-hanging fruit. Begin with psalms like Psalm 23 or Psalm 121. These are great places to give your congregation a taste for Psalm singing.
A Personal Appeal
I have been privileged to lead God’s people in worship since the age of sixteen. For most of that journey, I stood on stage with a guitar leading humanly composed songs and hymns. They were theologically rich songs and hymns, but they were not the Psalms. Today, I mostly lead the congregation from the Psalms, as we sing together with nothing but our voices. You can use music if you wish. I have no intention to speak against that—unless you depend upon music as a new means of grace.
I close with this personal story to simply say that when I discovered a psalter for the first time a decade ago, it completely transformed the way that I understood worship. At the time, I was leading worship in a non-Psalm-singing setting. For most of that time, Psalm singing was merely something that I used in my personal devotions. It felt awkward to me for a long time, and even more, if I thought about trying to transform my church into a Psalm-singing congregation.
Today I serve as a Presbyterian minister, and Psalm singing is at the heart of traditional Reformed and Presbyterian worship. I share these words about how to sing the Psalms as Christian worship with the hope and prayer that God will use it to reform the worship of God in my own denomination, as well as your worship too—even if it is only in your personal devotions.
The Bible commands that we sing the Psalms as Christian worship, and the book of Hebrews is a remarkable demonstration of how we can see, savior, and sing the glory of Christ in the Psalms.
Christian, you need a place where you can find Christ amid your sorrows. You need to see Christ in your grief, and you need to look to him in hope. There is no place in the Bible, quite like the Psalms, to do just that in prayer and song. The Psalms are the words of Christ, and with the apostle Paul, my prayer is that the word of Christ would dwell in you, and all the more richly, now that you have learned a few biblical principles for how to sing the Psalms as Christian worship.
 To this point, I highly recommend the article by Terry Johnson, “The History of Psalm Singing in the Christian Church,” in Sing a New Song: Recovering Psalm Singing for the Twenty-First Century (ed. Joel R. Beeke and Anthony T. Selvaggio; Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 41.