Singing the Canonical Psalms (I)

The Uniqueness of the Psalms

The book of Psalms occupies a special, even unique, role in all the Scriptures. First, only the book of Psalms was penned over a period stretching some thousand years, all the way from the Psalm of Moses in the wilderness (Ps. 90) to Judah’s captivity by the rivers of Babylon (Ps. 137). This covers almost all of the period in which the Old Testament was written.

Second, this canonical book stands out in that many human penmen— Moses, David, Solomon, Asaph, Ethan, Heman, the sons of Korah, etc.—wrote it.

Third, it is the longest book in all the Bible, Old and New Testaments, by a long way, consisting of 150 chapters. As is evident in the King James or Authorized Version, the 150 Psalms are arranged in five books (Ps. 1-41; 42-72; 73-89; 90-106; 107-150).

Fourth, this book excels in its comprehensiveness, as the great fathers of the church have observed. Athanasius called it “the epitome of the whole Scripture;” Basil the Great reckoned it “a compendium of all divinity;” for Martin Luther, it was “a little Bible;” John Calvin saw in it “an anatomy of the soul.” Franz Delitzsch declared, “There is no essential New Testament truth not contained in the Psalms.”

The Only Canonical Book for Singing

The four previous qualities in various ways serve the fifth: The book of Psalms or the Psalter is unique in that it alone of the 66 biblical books is written with the express divine purpose of it being sung by God’s people. All the books of Scripture, including the Psalms, are to be read and preached, and are of service in rightly framing prayer, but only the Psalms have the canonical function of a songbook.

First, it is evident that they are songs because the Psalms (except their titles, of course, which are not to be sung) consist exclusively of lyrical poetry with parallelism. Some Psalms even contain refrains, especially Psalm 136.

Second, and even more obviously, in the Psalm headings there are references to “the chief Musician,” to singers (“the sons of Korah”), to musical instruments (Neginoth, Sheminith, Gittith and Alamoth) and various melodies or tunes (Muthlaben, Aijeleth Shahar, Shoshannim, Jonathelemrechokim, Altaschith and Mahaloth Leanoth).

Third, the book is arranged in the form of 150 separate songs from as long as 176 verses (Ps. 119) to the shortest, just 2 verses (Ps. 117).

Fourth, in the Psalter, there are literally scores of commands to sing God’s praise (e.g., Ps. 47; 95-96).

Fifth, King David, the principle penman of the Psalms, is called “the sweet psalmist [or singer] of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1).

Sixth, the very title of the book in Hebrew is Sephir Tehellim, the book of praises. In the Greek Septuagint translation, used by the apostles and the early church, this canonical book is called the Psalms or the Psalter.

Seventh, these Psalms are called in Scripture “the songs of the LORD” in at least three different places (1 Chron. 25:7; 2 Chron. 29:27; Ps. 137:4). The Lord gave these songs and they are to be sung to His glory. They are also called “the songs of Zion” (Ps. 137:3) and “Zion” is God’s church. These Psalms are the Lord’s songs for Zion to be sung by the people of God in His praise.

David has a key role in all of this in that he penned the majority of the Lord’s songs for His church, as 2 Samuel 23:1 explains. First, he is called “the man who was raised up on high,” that is, given this exalted position as the psalmist for God’s church. That is an office in Jehovah’s service and no man can take that to himself (cf. Heb. 5:4). Second, He is called “the anointed of the God of Jacob.” He was raised up on high by being anointed, that is, authorized and equipped by God’s Spirit to write these Psalms for us. Thus, third, he is called “the sweet psalmist of Israel.”

Their Use According to the Old Testament

What does the Old Testament tell us about the historical use of the Psalms? Psalm 30, as indicated by its title, was sung “at the dedication of the house of David,” his royal palace. Psalms were sung when the ark of the covenant was brought up to Jerusalem (1 Chron. 15:16-22, 27-28). David instituted Psalm-singing at the tabernacle for the ark in Jerusalem in 1 Chronicles 16, which quotes, in order, various parts of Psalms 105, 96 and 106. The Levitical Psalm singing was also appointed at Solomon’s temple (1 Chron. 6:31-47).

David appointed 4,000 Levites as musicians (1 Chron. 23:5), including 288 worship leaders (1 Chron. 25:7-31) to praise God with singing (1 Chron. 16:37-42). These men sang the Psalms at the daily morning and evening sacrifices on Jehovah’s altar (1 Chron. 23:30), at the weekly sabbath (cf. Ps. 92), at the monthly new moons and the yearly feasts, such as Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles (cf. Ps. 81:1-5). 1 Chronicles 9:33 says that the Levites sang the Psalms “day and night” at God’s sanctuary in Jerusalem (cf. Ps. 134:1).

When the Old Testament church was reformed under kings Joash (with Jehoiada, the high priest), Hezekiah and Josiah, the church sang the Psalms appointed by David and Asaph (2 Chron. 23:13, 18; 29:25-30; 35:15-16). We read of Psalms being sung on other occasions: at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron. 5:12-13); as the battle songs of Jehoshaphat’s army   when   they   marched   out   to fight the Ammonites, the Moabites and the Edomites (2 Chron. 20:21); at the laying of the foundation of Zerubabbel’s temple (Ezra 3:10-11); and at the dedication of Jerusalem’s rebuilt walls (Neh. 12:24, 27-29, 45-47).

More generally, Psalms were sung when God’s people went up to Jerusalem to keep the three great pilgrimage feasts. Each of fourteen special Psalms were called “A Song of degrees” or ascent or going up, namely, to the temple in the holy city (Ps. 120-134). Certain Psalms were especially sung when the saints were afflicted (Ps. 102) or in “the depths” (Ps. 130). Psalm 137 was first sung by the rivers of Babylon.

The Psalms themselves tell us that they are to be sung by us, the “Gentiles,” in the New Testament age. Psalm 117:1 commands, “O praise the Lord, all ye nations [i.e., not just ethnic Jews]: praise him, all ye people [literally, peoples in the plural].” This is quoted by the apostle Paul in support of his missionary work among the heathen: “Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people [literally, peoples in the plural]” (Rom. 15:11). Psalm 100:1 declares, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands,” including the lands of Singapore and N. Ireland.

The Lord of hosts would have us sing His praise with the canonical Psalter in this New Testament age—an age about which the Psalms themselves speak (e.g., Ps. 22:22-31; 45; 67; 110; etc.). Moreover, God wills us to sing them until the end of the world, which the Psalms describe (e.g., Ps. 50; 98; 102; etc.). All of this is in accordance with David’s being raised up on high as “the sweet psalmist of Israel,” God’s church (2 Sam. 23:1).


Written by: Pastor Angus Stewart | Issue 40