This is my third post on the art of Psalm-singing; you can see the other two here:
Psalm-singing has a wonderfully storied history; from its roots in the Old Testament temple worship, it’s compilation by Ezra into its present form, to its continued use by the New Testament church. As we move from the Old Testament times, we find that Psalms were used from the earliest days of the church, and continued to be used for centuries. In fact, it’s not until recently that they began to fall by the wayside.
In the New Testament
Music has always been an important component of worshipping God, and that emphasis continues in the New Testament. References to our early Christian brother singing are common, and it’s likely that Psalms were widely used. If, as most scholars believe, the Psalm book was compiled by Ezra, then it’s likely the apostles (and Jesus’ other followers) would have grown up singing the Psalms. Imagine the excitement they must have felt: growing up singing about the coming Messiah, and then getting to see, hear, and touch the One they had sung about for so long!
It’s likely that the hymn Jesus and His disciples sung at the last supper (Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26) was a Psalm. This was during Passover, and a part of the Great Hallel (Psalms 114:5-118) was traditionally sung as part of the Passover celebration.. Jesus certainly displayed an intimate knowledge of the Psalms; He quoted the Psalms on the cross, and in the Garden of Gethsamane.
Paul wrote several times about the power of music for edifying; in fact, he specifically command us to sing Psalms! If, as is supposed, Paul grew up singing the Psalms, perhaps he even sang them when he was imprisoned with Silas.
James also recognized the role of the Psalms in the Christian’s life; in James 5:13 exhorts those that are merry to sing Psalms!
Psalm-singing, since the time of the apostles, has been a major element of worship.
As time went on, monastic orders developed highly rigid schedules of Psalm-singing. These orders had specific prepared times per day, where certain prayers would be prayed, and Psalms chanted or sung. Some orders had as many as 8 prescribed times of praying and singing per day! St. Benedict had a system of prayers at vigils (midnight), lauds (3 am), prime (6) terce (9) sext (noon) none (3) vespers (6) and compline (9). Many would sing through the Psalms every week!
An important note is that these prescribed times were meant for monks; the average Catholic parishioner likely would not be so involved. As time went on, the Catholic Church moved away from congregational singing, and began to have performances by monastic choirs instead. Often, these performances were in Latin; not only was the congregation barred from singing, but they could not even understand what was being sung!
This is partly why during the Reformation, great emphasis was placed on congregational singing. For quite a while, the Psalter was almost exclusively the church songbook. It would have been very common for each believer to have his Bible and his own Psalter! Psalms would be sung not only in corporate worship, but also in private times of devotion. Families would sing the Psalms together as preparation for corporate worship time. It wasn’t until Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley that hymns began to overtake Psalms as the primary form of worship music. It created quite a controversy as well! Many in those times believed that only God-inspired words were appropriate for use in corporate singing, although hymns might be fine for personal use.
It should be noted, of course, that we don’t agree with these groups on doctrine or practice. I’m not advocating we join a monastic order or sing through the Psalter every week. Many reformed churches held Psalms to be the ONLY songs acceptable for worship; that position isn’t consistent with what the Bible says. The Bible specifically gives us the freedom to sing hymns and spiritual songs as well as Psalms. But, these men had a great respect for the Psalms, as well they should! We can learn from the high value they placed on the Psalms.
From the Old Testament days when they were written to the modern time, the Psalms have been a great source of joy, comfort, exhortation, and worship for believers. We would do well to continue the tradition of Psalm-singing today!