A Reformed elder once told me that he objected to the (exclusive) singing of Psalms because they were too difficult to understand. In particular, he was concerned about his young daughter who would, in his view, not be able to comprehend what she was singing. Others, too, balk at the singing of Psalms because they relate words, concepts and history that are unfamiliar to the average person. Is this objection justified?
1) First of all, churches should strive that all persons, young and old, knowledgeable and ignorant, understand all the components of the worship service. Gospel preaching is not necessarily eloquent, and certainly not before it is plain (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). Can our songs be otherwise?
2) Second of all, we should admit that there are Psalms and portions of Psalms that are not easy to comprehend. However, Paul also says that even the simplicity of the gospel is a mystery to fallen man (1 Corinthians 2:6). Therefore, our ultimate guideline for communication of truth cannot be what may be understood, but all the counsel of God’s word (Acts 20:27).
3) Indeed, complexity is a characteristic of many places in scripture, not just the Psalms. If we applied this rule of “understanding” to our reading of the Bible we would not advance far beyond the gospels, and even then we would have difficulties (see Matthew 24 & Luke 16:9-12 for example).
4) Peter says that some unlearned and unstable, wrest Paul’s words to their destruction, in part because there “some things hard to be understood” (2 Peter 3:16). Must we not read Paul in the public assembly just because there are some that will bring judgment upon themselves? But see Colossians 4:16.
5) God has good reason to make his word to be obscure, and this is true of the some of the Psalms (or portions thereof) in particular: “I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old” Psalm 78:2. This very text is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 13:35 to show why he spoke to the multitude in parables. cf. Psalm 49:4
6) Paul says that he will “sing with the understanding (1 Corinthians 14:15),” not shape songs according to the level of understanding. Perhaps it is no coincidence that this phrase is borrowed from the Psalter itself (Psalm 47:7).
7) Paul also tells the Colossians to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…” (Colossians 3:16). The Psalms of the Bible are not in need of replacement or amendment, but those who sing them are in need of wisdom. Proverbs 4:5 “Get wisdom, get understanding…”
“Underneath all the emotion that pulsates through the Psalter, there lies a deep water of serious thought and reflection. The feeling here is not the substitute for faith, it is the natural outcome of faith, the wave-swell of the sea, when the wind of the Lord has blown upon it. If one will only read and sing with the understanding, he shall perceive that the Psalmists pray and sing out of a rich knowledge of God.”
8) Perhaps, then, our difficulties with the Psalms have to do with our lack of asking God for help to understand (James 1:5), than they do in any interpretive or applicatory issues. Are we going to be students of the word or are we going to dictate to God what it should say to us?
9) God has written the Old Testament for our instruction and learning. (Romans 15:4 & 1 Corinthians 10:11). Let us apply ourselves to it: “Open thy mouth wide and I will fill it!” (Psalm 81:10).
10) Furthermore, Paul indicates that since he is no longer a child he has put away childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). If there are portions of the Psalms that are difficult to understand, we must seek to be mature and to mature that we can understand them. Christians must stop demanding that everything be spoon fed to them (Hebrews 5:11-6:3).
11) Thus the Psalms are no more difficult than God has intended for his people. He wants us to reach up and out and by doing so, and grow in grace. “The psalms are not, in general, hard to understand. There is, indeed, an unfathomable depth of meaning in them; but no man finds fault with a well on account of its depth, if the water rises to the surface.”
12) Generally speaking it is agreed that the teaching of Jesus is easier to understand, say, compared to the teaching of Paul. One of the reasons for that is that Jesus’ teaching is full of illustrations and tends to be less (overtly) didactic than Paul. But when we sing the Psalms we see many of these illustrations used: tree, rivers, lead, potter’s vessel, shield (from Psalms 1-3) etc. The Psalms too are full of such word pictures.
13) Children themselves are either directly addressed in the Psalms or spoken of (Psalms 34:11, 78:4-6, 90:16, 103:17, 127:3,4, 128:3,6, 148:12). And even the simple & the fool will receive plenty of instruction in the Psalms (Psalms 19:7, 75:4, 94:8, 107:17, 119:130).
14) But children also grow up and then are in need of solid food. The Psalms instruct the aged (Psalms 37:25, 71:9,18, 92:14) along with the young (Psalm 148:12), and give nourishment to disciples of every stage of maturity and development. If the Psalms were only for the weak and easy to understand, with what would those who were more advanced in faith be fed?
15) We should also admit that there is some language in the Psalms that reflect practices and places of a people that are no longer with us. Yet this too has a purpose for our benefit. See Psalmody and the Use of Old Covenant Language
16) But this is also true of the New Testament. If our songs are supposed to be based on what is readily understandable, does anyone from our time instinctively know about Laodicea, baptism for the dead or Jason? Any song based on scripture, unless it is completely stripped of any reference to biblical types & language, will present some gap in understanding.
17) The Bible’s language is for the Bible’s people because it is from the Bible’s God. The book of Psalms is our language because these are the songs of the people of faith: “And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD” (Psalm 40:3 -emphasis mine).
1. Vos, Geerhardus. “Eschatology of The Psalter.” Gordon Faculty Online. Gordon College. Web. 16, January, 2016.
2. Cooke H., John Edgar & Thomas Houston. The True Psalmody or, the Bible Psalms the Church’s Only Manual of Praise. Belfast: James Johnston, 1861, page 188.
3. Many thanks to Donald Keddie for this line of thinking.