"May we then sing all Psalms?" - Rev. G. VanDooren (bio)
Taken from Clarion Vol. 20, No. 16, Aug. 9, 1990
WHY THIS STRANGE QUESTION?
Among the reactions received by the Committee for the Book of Praise, re: the provisional Hymn section, one letter caught my special attention. The ,"my" expresses that what follows is not the opinion of the Committee, but is for the personal responsibility of the present writer.
The brother asks, "Are we allowed to sing Hymn 12, '0 Come, 0 Come Emmanuel . . .' while this prayer was already heard by God twenty centuries ago? Can we pray with a straight face that Emmanuel may come to ransom captive Israel . . . . ? How can we as New Testament churches 'mourn in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear' while Christ has promised, 'See I am with you all the days, even to the end of the world?'" He fears that, in singing this hymn, we become infected by a Romanist "dramatization" of events that have passed long age, and "act them out," "play them," so to speak, as though they happen today, or still are to happen.
An interesting and legitimate question, indeed! The first purpose of these lines is not to answer his questions and/or defend the singing of Hymn 12. Instead, I counter this question with a question of my own.
MAY WE SING ALL PSALMS?
This question sounds heretical, as though not all Psalms are divinely inspired. Yet, if we should not sing Hymn 12 that prays for the coming of Emmanuel, may we then sing those Psalms or parts of Psalms which speak from the point of view that Christ Jesus has not yet come in the flesh and has not yet died for our sins and risen again, and so forth?
This question is valid, especially when we remember the word of Paul, "I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also," I Corinthians 14:15. We must realize what we sing, and not thoughtlessly repeat well known words that for us as New Testament congregation are "obsolete," Hebrews 8.13. Everyone who "sings with the mind" will in due time feel this question arise in his own heart.
The intention of this article is not to say that we ought not to sing about events that happened to Israel long ago, like the deliverance from Egypt and so many more mighty acts of the LORD. The Church is one: the author of Psalm 66 teaches that very clearly when, having mentioned the deliverance from Egypt (in his days: long ago), he adds in verse 6, "There did we rejoice in Him!" What the LORD did for His people in olden days He did for us also.
Thus, in asking whether we can still sing all Psalms, we must narrow down the question to those (parts of) Psalms which clearly refer to the future coming of the Messiah, and also those which speak about situations, conditions, and ceremonies which have been fulfilled and abolished by the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
"READY TO VANISH AWAY"
We wonder if the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, who wrote these words, would be enthusiastic about singing all Psalms, without (as the brother wrote) "dramatization," "acting out" things that have passed away.
It is time for some examples, They can be divided into at least four categories. In those Psalms that have a clear "advent" sound:
1. the Messiah must yet come;
2. those that picture God's Covenant people as a special nation, separated from the whole world by the "wall of partition;"
3. those that sing about Jerusalem as the city of God;
4. and of the temple with the altar;
5. what about the Psalms that make us sing about bringing bullocks, etc., to Thy altar?
As to the first category (the Messiah not yet come), one may, without giving specific examples, say that to a degree all Psalms have that "tone." When we sing them ("with the mind"!), we kind of "dramatize" them, interpreting them as New Testament congregation as now fulfilled. Therefore, we cannot sing them literally, when Zion (mentioned about forty times in the Psalms) was still the Old Testament prefiguration of what was to come.
Of the second category we mention, as an example, Psalm 147:20. Although various rhymings have changed the text, the literal, inspired wording is, "He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know His ordinances." Since Pentecost this simply is no longer true. The wall of partition has come down: "You are no longer strangers but fellow-citizens with the saints and members of the household of God," Ephesians 2:11-22. The LORD would not be pleased if we meant, with singing this Psalm, that Jacob's people is the only nation that received His ordinances. ALL nations may and must receive them, Matthew 28:19,20,
Then come the Psalms that sing about the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon, and the city of Jerusalem in which God has chosen to dwell, Moses was inspired when he gave the details of how the sanctuary had to be built. But Paul was also inspired when he wrote that now, in the dispensation of fulfilment through Christ, the city of Jerusalem is "Hagar," to be abolished and replaced by "Jerusalem in heaven which is the mother of us all."
This means that when we sing these Psalms (quite a few!) , we no longer think of the same "object" that the poet had in mind. The temple of Solomon is gone, and when "we go about Thy altar" we must exercise our mind quite a bit. Examples: the beloved Psalms 48,84,122.
Psalms 26:6, 43:4, 51:19, 118:27 speak about the altar. When one has understood the central message of the Letter to the Hebrews, one knows that that altar, meant in these Psalms, has become obsolete, and has vanished away. The same goes for the sacrifices, Psalms 20:23, 54:6, 107:22, 116:16, 118:27, 141:2, etc.
It must be admitted that the Psalms, like 51:19, say the same as the later prophets, i.e., that the LORD is more interested in a broken heart and a contrite spirit than in many sacrifices that are brought without such a heart and spirit. It is also true that most of the time, when the Psalms speak of sacrifices, they think of sacrifices of thanks and praise. Nevertheless, they breathe the climate of the old and obsolete temple with its altars and sacrifices which were ceremonies and shadows, pointing to the coming Messiah, Who has come.
One more example should be mentioned. This writer knows that not everyone shares his problem, namely, how can we sing Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" when at the Holy Supper we confess that Christ was forsaken "that we might be accepted by God and nevermore be forsaken by Him?"
Those who have no objection to singing this, sing these words not of themselves. They "present" the words of the Son of David. We do not wish to use the term "play acting" for this, but it cannot be denied that we put ourselves then, for a moment, in the "role" of our Saviour, remembering with gratitude that they do not refer to us!
The same goes for the above mentioned Psalms. There is no Jacob's nation any longer that lived within the wall of partition. There is no temple and altar any longer. Our only sacrifice is giving our lives as a living sacrifice of thanksgiving. We no longer sing the songs hamaaloth, as though we leave our hometown and travel to the earthly Jerusalem. We transpose all such Psalms into New Testament terms, taking into full consideration what the New Testament (Paul, Hebrews, etc.) teaches about the passing away of the shadows. As a minister once exclaimed from the pulpit: "We do not sing Jewish Psalms anymore!"
If the brother, who has objections against Hymn 12, "0 Come, 0 Come, Emmanuel," would be consistent, he should also ask, "How can we with a straight face sing about the temple in Jerusalem, the altar, and other ceremonies, when we know that in Christ they have all vanished away?"
As to Hymn 12, it must be kept in mind that for the Old Testament "seer" the first and second coming was one-and-the-same event, as, for example, Joel saw Pentecost, and Peter quoted him, speaking about a darkened sun and a blood red moon: "in the last days."
We learn from Paul, I Corinthians 16:22, that there is room in the New Testament church to sing, "Maranatha!," or in other words, "0 Come, 0 Come, Emmanuel!" When we sing all five stanzas of this Hymn, we do it the way we sing many Psalms. The last lines are that paradise will be regained and hell forever shut.
Thus we combine the longing for the future as old Israel sang it, with our own longing, and these two are, in the terms of the prophecy, one.
That's why we can indeed sing all Psalms, also Psalm 126, 137, and others which speak about "lonely exiles here." The days of Antichrist will teach us in a cruel way what this "exile" means for those who have refused the mark of the beast.
Rev. G. VANDOOREN