May 30, 2020

iMonk Classic: Learning from the Psalms

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer

Note from CM: This is an excerpt from one of Michael Spencer’s essays called, “Learning from the Psalms,” in which he attempts to show how Scripture can guide us in worship and in our use of music.

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So I would like to present the possibility that the book of Psalms does give us a good basis to evaluate worship music. And these are the criteria that I would use.

1. The presentation of the person of God should follow the clear teaching of the Bible. Biblical words and images are to be strongly preferred. Biblical language should be used in proportion to its use in scripture, so the worship of God as King would exceed worship of him as, for instance, husband.

2. The history of redemption is the great theme of worship, and personal experience cannot be divorced from what God has promised and what God has done in history. Songs that celebrate and recount the history of redemption are to be preferred, particularly as they recount God’s faithfulness, sovereignty and covenant love.

3. While songs of personal experience are appropriate, the great emphasis of worship should be the victory of God and the realities of the Gospel. Music should never obscure that fact that my own experience is not the center of redemptive history.

4. The language of a particular song may be either personal or corporate, but the clear emphasis of a corporate worship service should be the voice of the congregation speaking of their experience with their covenant God. Just as the Psalms integrate the personal into the congregational, so should our music today.

5. Songs that approach worship outside of the framework of Biblical revelation and redemption are to be considered inferior, and their limited use is more appropriate for individual worship rather than the worship of the congregation. We must be clear: They are not wrong, and they may be high expressions of reality and devotion, and still not be appropriate for congregational use.

6. Worship music should invite and encourage all God’s redeemed people to sing together in recounting the great deeds of the Lord on their behalf. Songs by individuals and groups should facilitate the worship of the congregation and not replace it. This should be an important concern for all music.

7. The Psalms have a pattern of declaring an intention to worship God in the congregation as a result of His mercy shown to an individual. Worship music should recognize this, and allow individual praise that invites the congregation to join in praising God for what he demonstrated to one that is true for all.

8. The great events and elements of redemption should joyfully occupy the worship of the church. The experiences and feelings of individuals form part of that worship, but they are not the final substance of it. (The “I” finally becomes the “We.”)

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What about style? Do the Psalms help us settle the issue of what kind of music is appropriate for worship? Fortunately, God is wiser than to lead any one culture to assume that its particular norms and preferences should speak for the church in every time and place. I heard a very good brother make the case that certain hymn tunes conveyed the majesty of God better than others, and not being a relativist, I believe him. The tune of “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the tune of “Jingle Bells” are not interchangeable.

But the majesty of God may be addressed in a variety of musical styles, and as I have said in a previous article, a congregation is under an obligation to represent the diversity of its culture in its worship by the use of what is best in its setting, and what most gives glory to God in a way the entire congregation can affirm and participate in.


  1. I think the melody of a piece of music certainly matters. There is a reason that ‘In Christ Alone’ is such a well loved hymn – alongside its attempt to summarize the gospel, it features a magnificent, towering melody that is the perfect vehicle for its lyric. This is also why it is important that the melody can be sung by the congregation.

    Often an older hymn, with a tune more appropriate to a previous musical age, can be rewritten in order to bring it into the present time, with its own expectations and perceptions. Songwriter’s can be grateful that there is no obligation to be constantly coming up with new material, and that the use of older songs is often preferable.

  2. Jon Bartlett says

    I’m always reluctant to comment on worship issues, as so much is subjective and cultural. (For example, Ben, I find the tune of ‘In Christ alone’ to be so turgid to be almost unsingable – but that’s me and my ‘taste’).

    However, CM, this piece cuts through all this in a most helpful way. My only quibble might be (3). David often seems to write Psalms starting from his personal experience, then channelling this experience to the greater glory of God.

    • Fair enough, art is always subjective. It helps if the bridge section is played between verses 2 and 3 as a counterbalance to the verse tune

      • Jon Bartlett says

        Thanks, Ben for a gracious response. I probably should have said “me and my lack of taste”!