Is the Book of Psalms a Psalter?

Most if not all Christians would agree that the book of Psalms were, if not are, meant to be sung and it can be taken for granted that the Psalms have been used this way in Christian worship for centuries.

However some, in response to the claims of the exclusive psalmodist (EP), have questioned whether the book of Psalms are a songbook. They would argue that the Psalms are liturgically “flexible” and function more as a book of common prayer or the like. As such, the Psalter contains songs, prayers and perhaps other material worthy of our worship but is not the church’s psalter or hymnbook as the EP has concluded.[1]

1) It should be acknowledged that there is some overlap or common ground between prayers and psalms. Paul tells the Corinthians that he will pray with the spirit and with understanding as well as sing with the spirit and understanding (1 Corinthians 14:15). In other words, both mind and heart are engaged in both  elements of worship and each ought to be performed by a holy, inward motivation.[2] 

2) However, a distinction exists as well. We see this in the same chapter where Paul instructs the Corinthians: “when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” Here we see that psalms or singing in the church are closely related to matters of proclamation. Paul confirms this in Ephesians 5:18-19 & Colossians 3:16 when he speaks of the singing of the church as “speaking to yourselves” (Ephesians 5:19) and especially letting “the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom and; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…” (Colossians 3:16).   

3) As such, we ought to associate the singing of psalms with inspired forms and sources of worship (like prophecy, tongues and the reading of scripture) and associate praying with a freer form of worship. In short, praying involves words from our own heart and experience than, strictly, that which is contained in the word of God.[3]

4) As we come to the Psalms and see the use of the words prayer(s) and pray in the title of content of the Psalms, we can see its relationship with the songs of the church: intersection with distinction. Various Psalms, for example, originated as prayers: Psalms 17, 86, 90, 102 & 142 all are titled such. This should be no surprise when we see that Psalm 72 ends with the words: “the prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended.” As not all of the aforementioned Psalms are attributed to David, and as the Psalms of David are scattered throughout the Psalter, these words indicate that many of the Psalms came from the heart of David (and others) crying out to his God with supplications and requests. Indeed, the word prayer or prayers are mentioned several times in the content of the Psalms, either as a commendation or an actual supplication.[4]

5) Note, however, two points about the context in which these words are found. All of the Psalms, regardless of the titles, are in a book called elsewhere as Psalms or “songs.” Scripture confirms this elsewhere when we read that God’s people sang the Psalms together (2 Chronicles 29:30 & Matthew 26:30). We are commanded, after all, by the Psalms themselves, to sing psalms (Psalm 105:2).

6) This is reinforced by the more immediate context is that, more particularly, when prayers are requested or made in the Psalms (or Psalm portions), they are done so under the heading of “Psalm” or song. These prayers or, as they often are, a call to prayer, are now put in the mouths of God’s people as part of their praise and worship. As such, they are instructed or being taught about the manner of prayer since sung praise has, as we saw, as one of its distinct characteristics being that of teaching. Therefore when we sing we are encouraging each other to pray.[5]

7) Those Psalms that have the word prayer in their title have, it appears, had their original form preserved but were recast (or repurposed) into a different element. This becomes clear when we think about reason for which they were composed. For it is no coincidence that each of these Psalms are about intense suffering. As written by individuals (e.g. David) they originate from their personal experiences, or those that were common to God’s people at a particular time (e.g. Moses in Psalm 90) but have been given to the church in order that we might express these experiences in a sanctified way (i.e. under the guidance of the Holy Spirit). What better way than to tell God about the evil done to us than by singing the words given for that purpose? Consider the experience of Christians being persecuted in Pakistan:

I asked Kamran why he prefers the Psalms over our modern Christian songs. His response was truthful and straightforward, “When you endure such hardships and persecutions, you don’t want anything else. Modern Christian songs do not have what it takes to carry you through things like this. It is the pure word of God in the Psalms that help us keep our faith.”[6]

8) Furthermore, the Psalms themselves recognise the difference between songs and prayer. In Psalm 42:8 we read: “the Lord will command his lovingkindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life.” When we worship God in song it is “his song” and when we pray it is “my prayer.”

9) By way of comparison, the Psalms contain within them prophecies and portions of it are even exposited as being prophetic. Consider Matthew 27:46; Luke 20:42ff.; Acts 2:25 etc. Yet the Psalms, as a whole, are not classed as or among the prophetic books but amongst the poetical books and, in the Hebrew canon, the book of Psalms follows Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament.

10) It is instructive that when Jesus’ disciples ask him to teach them to pray but not to sing (Luke 11:1ff.). Furthermore, on this occasion, Jesus does not use the Psalms as an aid in praying but, as it were, composes his own. This is also confirmed in Jesus’ personal prayers (John 17 & Luke 22:42) where he speaks from the need of the hour.[7]

11) This objection also runs contrary to the church’s historic use of Psalms. “From the earliest times the Christian community sang the psalms following the practice of the synagogue.”[8] See also the section on church history in “King’s Songs.”

12) Finally, the idea of the Psalter as existing as a kind of a prayer or liturgical book is counter intuitive to the Christian experience. Michael Bushell rightly comments: “The strongest argument for exclusive psalmody is the one that inevitably wells up from within when a sincere Christian begins to sing the psalms with grace in his heart. Once these divine hymns have entered into the heart of a man and he has been fed by the heavenly manna which lies embedded there, he will never be satisfied with earthly counterfeits. And until a man has experienced the psalms in this way, all the sophisticated polemics in the world will not avail to draw him away from his hymns. Acceptance or rejection of the position of exclusive psalmody is, I am fully persuaded, as much a matter of the heart as a matter of the mind.”[9]

1. In some ways this objection is very similar to the thought that since it is lawful to pray to God in our words why would it not also be lawful to sing to God in our own words (as considered here: https://goo.gl/YUYEME). However, since there are some more nuances to the argument before us, I thought it deserved its own, individual response.
2Though certainly all acts or elements of worship should be conducted in this way.
3Q. 178. What is prayer? A. Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God,(a) in the name of Christ,(b) by the help of His Spirit;(c) with confession of our sins,(d) and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.(e)” The Larger Catechism. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1976, page 269.
(a) Ps. 62:8 (b) John 16:23 (c) Romans 8:26 (d) Ps. 32:5-6; Daniel 9:4 (e) Philippians 4:6

4For those who wish to investigate this on their own the following is a comprehensive list: Psalms 4:1; 5:2; 6:9; 17:1; 32:6; 35:13; 39:12;42:8; 54:2; 55:1,17; 61:1; 64:1; 65:2; 66:19,20; 69:13; 72:15; 80:4; 84:8; 86:6; 88:2,13; 102:1,17; 109:4,7; 122:6; 141:2,5; 143:1. 
5Yet far from condemning the use of the Psalms in our prayers or as an aid to prayer, I would commend the whole of scriptures for doing so. Indeed, it would be better that our prayers breathe forth back to God his inspired word rather than simply being the thoughts and dictates of our hearts. But this does not turn the Bible into a prayer book anymore than it turns the book of Psalms into such.
6Cudal, Arnfield. “Persecuted Christians and the Psalms: Lessons We Can Learn.” The 1024 Project. May 15, 2015. Web. Accessed September 30, 2018.
7This is important in light of the fact that proponents of hymns typically speak of how it is necessary to write songs to suit the needs or language of the day and that we do not hear of a similar need for more written prayers. Hence, even in this, there is some acknowledgement of the difference between songs and prayers.
8The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship. Edited by J.G. Davies. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1986, page 450.
9Bushell, Michael. Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody (Third edition). Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 1999, page i.

-Daniel Kok © 2018