When we sing (rather than read) the Psalms, we hear the words differently. We proclaim rather than study and, unless we are dreadful hypocrites, the act of singing Psalms is a declaration of consent. There may be parts of the Psalms we do not understand as well as others and that should provoke us to further study, but it is still important to sing them all. We are not told only to sing the Psalms once we have reached a level of theological acumen. By contrast, the person who sings the hymns of men selects those which he feels to be most true, which accurately reflect his beliefs and experience. We are not given such autonomy with the Psalms. We sing the same songs as children, adults and in old age. We change - the Psalms do not.
When we learn to sing the Psalms off by heart, they enter more richly into our thoughts. We can be so busy with work that must be done that our thoughts may often be encompassed all day with business and worries of some kind. The internet has exacerbated the noise levels in our thoughts. We are attracted to read news items that are of no interest whatsoever and to watch videos on automatic. While we may be more careful to steward the content, the very act of “dossing” in an idle frame of mind can change our horizon line so that during the periods of rest when we are not attending to business, we are absorbing a frivolous and foolish mindset, which unsettles us for keeping God’s commandments. Whether it is learning to be preoccupied about weight or make-up or cars or pretty fantasy pictures of Neverland on Instagram, the distraction changes our frame of reference. So does music. It is unusual now to see anyone walking without headphones in. People want a soundtrack to play in their lives and hardly know how to cope without it. Before we know it, we become passive absorbers of a mindset and feel dislocation when a problem comes and we are suddenly in need of God’s strength.
The intense practice of memorising Psalms allows us to sing God’s praises thoughtfully while our hands our occupied and our minds are free to wander. The difficulty of memorisation compels us to learn each portion of the Psalm, not just the verses that might be selected for use on a bookmark. I am learning Psalm 51 at present and was struck by these words:
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
Salvation is followed by singing, for then we have something to sing about. But is there not more to it? Next the Psalmist says:
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
What could King David mean? For sure, we can open our own lips and make a noise of singing. Why must God open our lips for us? Because we are nothing without Him. King David has sought deliverance from his wicked fall, forgiveness for his transgressions. He seeks mercy from the only source and, knowing that he is helpless before God, he does not even take for granted his ability or his right to sing the Lord’s praise. It is as much a matter of grace as is the redemption he seeks. He is humbled and wants to sing to the glory of God.
This attitude is counter-cultural in the modern Church, but it would not be so if people sang the Psalms. God’s appointed Book of Praise is Holy. It gives us the words which are acceptable to Him and the only poetry that is True. These words will not lead us into vanity and pride. We will not be encouraged to think too highly of ourselves or too meanly of Him. The Psalms enrich our faith in an inexhaustible way, for no man has mined their treasure. And although 150 Psalms sounds a small number compared to a modern hymn book, try to learn the Psalms off by heart and you will find them plentiful enough.
Everything about music today encourages us to an entirely different attitude:
Such words are so commonplace - a declaration of faith in music and adoration of the prophets who write it and the priests who perform it. The religious fervour is intense and equally to be found amongst Christians. But it is not compatible with true faith. No song is worth it. Music is not worth it. Here is the song in question:
Three years ago I felt very honoured to be chosen for a workshop during which Voces 8 rehearsed one of my compositions. I had a qualm at the time, a niggling doubt, as to the morality of people of unknown religious beliefs singing the Words of the Lord. Was it right? Was it acceptable to Him? Or would they sing any words with an equally practiced air of sincerity?
That was 2015. Now, as 2018 draws to a close, it would not be an achievement to have my religious compositions performed by this group or any other. The Lord does not want us to use singing to spread the Gospel. The Lord does not require us to use music to stir people up to the need they have of salvation. Singing is the action of people who are reconciled to God, by the blood of his Son, and in grateful acknowledgement of this, sing the Psalms in praise. This singing does not need to be recorded. Or filmed. Or sold. It does not need an audience or an auditorium. It does not need to be pitch perfect. What did King David say, a few verses later?
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The cool confidence of the modern musician is not quite appropriate. Neither is every setting of the Psalms, just because it is embedded in the cult of Classical music. This, from the Italian Renaissance, leaves me cold and left only to admire the skill of the musicians.
We miss the point when we praise music. Music is a proclamation of worth - God’s worth. Singing the Psalms is a declaration of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We do not praise music. We praise God through music.
Not all music must be Psalm settings. We may have music for entertainment. Sometimes it is pretty. Sometimes it is empty. It is always lighter than air - and I say that as someone who writes both as a bread-and-butter composer for hire. It has no importance beyond a momentary entertainment. Lovely as Enya’s May it Be undoubtedly is, to heap praise upon the rendition above as being spiritually meaningful and justifying our existence is ludicrous. It is all a hoax, a pseudo-religion, the Romanticist’s drug. And the musical return of a composer like Marcello is borrowed glory and someone else’s religion. It is no substitute for singing the Psalms ourselves.
I was challenged by the Rev. Romaine’s example of singing the Psalms every day. It was a worthy example and the rewards continue, for I have only 25 in my memory, and many of those are short. If I could learn them all in the years to come, I would still have to sing them every day in order to keep the words in my memory. This will sound like a chore to most, but what if your sight is poor and when you put glasses on you can see things in focus and walk with more boldness? Such it is to sing the Psalms. And that is why I sing.