Psalmody and the Use of Old Covenant Language

In the minds of many, the exclusive use of psalms in worship conflicts with the gospel language of the new covenant, particularly as we are now free from the old covenant ceremonies that are scattered throughout the psalms. Indeed, the very mention of bulls, rams and sacrifices brings to mind the warning of Hebrews about not going back to the shadows and ceremonies of the law. In light of the finished work of Christ, surely then God would not have intended for us to use the Psalms as the song book for the New Testament church. 

In reply, let us consider the following points:

1) Though it does not absolutely negate the objection, one could mitigate it by asking: how many Psalms actually use such language? There are, in fact, merely six: Psalms 20:3; 26:6; 50:8; 66:15; 107:22 & 118:27. Even if you add the psalms that talk about priests (Psalms 78:64; 99:6; 132:9,16) and the temple (where these references unambiguously refer to the earthly temple – Psalms 5:7; 27:4; 48:9; 65:4; 68:29; 79:1; 138:2) less than 14% of the Psalms make use of old covenant language.[1] 

2) Anytime the Old Testament is read in public worship it forces us to come to terms with the sacrificial and priestly system that is no longer in practice. However every godly Christian will value this, knowing that God intended it for our instruction (2 Timothy 3:16).[2] If this is true of the reading of the Old Testament in general, why would it not be true of the Psalms in particular? Unless we desire to obliterate the entire Old Testament from the canon of scripture, we will always have old covenant ceremonial language spoken in the worship of the church.

3) It should be noted that the changes from old covenant to new covenant worship are not corrections of an imperfect system but an unfolding, progressive revelation as the church moved from immaturity to maturity (Galatians 4:1ff). Even in the natural sense, an adult can look back with fondness at his youth recollecting that the experiences of the past are what have made him what he is today. So too those who were not partakers of the old covenant are still bound to the one covenant of grace that God made with the Jews as Paul explains in Romans 11 i.e. the in-grafted branches  partake of the root (see vs. 17). Their story is truly ours as well. 

4) Though it would be a sin to try to live in the past (Hebrews 10:1ff.), it would also be a sin to forget the past (1 Corinthians 10:6 & Romans 15:4). Singing the old covenant language reminds us where we came from so that we can know where we are going. No one would fault Abraham for remembering God’s faithfulness in Ur as long as he didn’t long to return there. So too the new covenant believer must always remember the old ways to remind him how he ought to be grateful for the new ways (see Acts 15:10; Colossians 2:13&14; Hebrews 8:7ff.).

5) Yet we also discover that the priestly and sacrificial language is used in the New Testament to refer to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection for the believer (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:7; Romans 12:1; Hebrews 7,10:21,13:11&12; 1 Peter 2:5). Certainly the new covenant believer has every reason to understand, interpret and sing the language of bulls, goats and the like in light of this reality.[3] Indeed Psalm 141:2 already anticipates this interpretation when it speaks of the prayer of the saint as being “as incense” and the lifting up of hands as being “as the evening sacrifice.” Something similar is found in Psalm 119:105: “Accept, I beseech thee, the the freewill offerings of my mouth…”

6) More to the point, should one write attempt to write a hymn based on several portions of Revelation, the same type of language would be invoked: altars, incense, the Lamb and the temple are all included as part of the imagery of heaven. However, we understand this language to be symbolic of the heavenly reality and thus not to be received in a crassly literal sense.

7) The Psalms themselves utilise new covenant language, not merely in anticipation of the coming redemption but as if the redemption has already been accomplished. See, for example, how the Psalms describe the redemption of Christ in apostolic teaching: Matthew 27:46, Acts 2:25-28 & Hebrews 10:5-9.

8) Furthermore the Psalms themselves, in many places, clearly teach the insufficiency of these sacrifices: Psalms 50:10-13; 51:16-17; 69:30-31. Thus when we sing the Psalms we hear that God himself did not accept these as the way to atonement or forgiveness.

9) The Psalms also remind us to forsake all other helpers and trust in God alone for salvation: Psalms 20:7; 27:1; 62:2; 118:9; 146:3. When we sing the Psalms we hear that no mere creature can save us from our sins (Hebrews 10:4).

10) The Psalms also teach the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over that of the Levitical: Psalm 110. When we sing this Psalm we hear that Christ alone is our high priest (see Hebrews 7:11-28).

11) The Psalms also speak directly to the sacrifice and atoning grace of Christ: Psalms 16:8-11; 40:7-8. When we sing the Psalms we not only hear about Christ but even the very words of our Shepherd exhorting us to look to him: e.g. Psalm 22:1.

12) By way of comparison these so called difficulties in the Psalms are trifles compared to errors of man-made hymns. It is far preferable to sing about “antiquated” practices that God once approved than to sing of utter falsehoods and errors about God or convictions and statements that have not received God’s approval.

-Daniel Kok © 2017

1This percentage is, in fact, far less when considering these statements compared to the actual number of verses in the Psalms.
2Even if not every portion immediately speaks with the language of the greater light of the new covenant. Moreover, this objection could also be leveled against the reading of Psalms. Unless we desire to obliterate the Psalms from the canon of scripture, we will always have the Old covenant ceremonial language spoken in the worship of the church.
3“Today, the Christian Church sings the Psalms with an understanding superior to what the Jewish Church had. Only after the coming of Christ could God’s people sing the Psalms with a clarity about the King, his kingdom, and the eschatological victory which will be sealed for his Church by his coming. God meant the Psalms for his Church in this age: whatever things were written before were written for our learning and admonition, upon whom the end of the ages have come (Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:11). And God meant the Psalms to edify and bless his people.” RPCNA Synod’s Study Committee on Worship. “The Psalms in the Worship of the Church.” Submitted to the Synod of the RPCNA, June 2004. First Reformed Presbyterian of Cambridge. PDF article.