The Explanation of the Psalm

The current Directory of Public Worship of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) alludes to a long-standing custom to be found within Covenanter worship services: the explanation of the psalm to be sung.

"10. The Psalms have a depth of meaning and beauty that will repay the most careful study. It is vitally important that the congregation understand what is sung. Therefore, it is helpful for the elders to make brief comments on the Psalms sung. It is particularly helpful if one of the Psalms is selected for a more substantial, succinct explanation by an elder before it is sung. Attention should be given to how the Psalm reveals the work of Christ and the blessings of the New Covenant."

Robert J. George devoted several pages to this topic in the first volume of his Lectures in Pastoral Theology (1911), pp. 117-124. The first portion of his remarks is reproduced here for consideration. 

"LECTURE XII

THE EXPLANATION OF THE PSALM

The explanation of the Psalm to be sung at the opening of the Sabbath morning service is a long established custom in the Covenanter Church. Formerly other Presbyterian churches had the same practice. Now it is scarcely known except in the two Covenanter bodies. In regard to this service let us observe —

I

The Importance of the Explanation of the Psalm.

I. It is essential to the intelligent use of the Psalms.

The Psalms need to be expounded. They cannot be seen in all their beauty, or felt in the fullness of their power without explanation. While their truths are adapted to all times, many of them are set forth in the imagery and phraseology of a former dispensation — which need to be unfolded to reveal their spiritual import.

Not only do they need to be explained, but they will bear explanation. In this they differ from hymns of human production. Dr. James Kennedy was accustomed to tell of an old Scotch minister who in his native land was used to explaining the Psalm. Removing to this country and finding the hymns in use, he undertook to explain a hymn. After several unsatisfactory efforts to expand the thought he closed the service in disgust, saying: 'Brethren, I can take naething oot o' that, for there's naething in it.' But the Psalms of the Bible are wells of salvation out of which we may draw water with joy, and the well is deep.

2. The explanation of the Psalm is a beautiful and appropriate introduction to the services.

The Book of Psalms is the devotional book of the Bible. It is eminently fitting that assembled worshipers should turn at once to a lesson from the Divine Word. And what could be more reasonable or natural than to find that morning lesson in the devotional book. And this is what many do, even of those who do not employ the Psalms for praise. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me: 'I always take my morning lesson from the Psalms.' This is very suggestive.

Young gentlemen: Instead of regarding the practice of Explaining the Psalm as an old-fashioned, antiquated custom to be borne with only until it can be gotten rid of, we should recognize in it a beautiful and helpful service which places our church in the foremost rank of those who are striving to restore the word of God to its true and commanding position in the services of His house, and which should inspire us with a purpose to advance this part of our public worship to the highest possible perfection.

3. It is, in itself, a delightful service.

(1) It must be so from the character of the Book of Psalms.

I will quote one or two testimonies on this point. Athanasius writes: —

'They appear to me a mirror of the soul of every one who sings them. They enable him to perceive his own emotions, and to express them in the words of the Psalms. He who hears them read receives them as if they were spoken to him. We cannot conceive of anything richer than the Book of Psalms. If you need penitence; if anguish or temptation have befallen you; if you have escaped persecution or oppression, or are immersed in deep affliction; concerning each and all you may find instruction and state it to God in the words of the Psalter.' 

Ambrose says: ''The law instructs, history informs, prophecy predicts, correction censures, and morals exhort. But in the Book of Psalms you find the fruit of all these as well as a remedy for the salvation of the soul. The Psalter deserves to be called the praise of God, the glory of man, the voice of the church, and the most beneficial confession of faith. In the Psalms delight and instruction vie with one another. We read for instruction and sing for enjoyment.' 

Many such eulogies have been pronounced upon this book by the most eminent and saintly men of all ages. It cannot be otherwise than a delightful service that brings forth the rich treasures of this book for the devotional exercises of God's people on the Sabbath morning.

(2) This is the testimony of our people.

The most spiritual members of a congregation will often say that the explanation of the Psalm is to them the most uplifting service of the day. So unanimous is the testimony of good people to the delight they have found in the service that when it is otherwise there must be a fault either in the manner of explanation, or in the complaining hearer.

(3) This is the testimony of outsiders.

By these I mean attendants from sister churches which do not use or do not explain the Psalms. They frequently speak of this as a unique, striking, profitable, and even beautiful service.

Young gentlemen: Let me urge you to exalt in your minds the claims of this service and to devote to it your best gifts — let the entrance to the temple of worship be by the 'Gate that is called Beautiful,' so that on the very threshold, the worshipers will be reminded that it is God's house, and that God Himself is within."

Pastor George wrote further on this topic regarding "What Should Be the Character of This Explanation?" and "Suggestions As to Methods." His counsel to pastors who perform this function in the worship service includes recommended commentaries on the Psalms; suggested time limits on the explanation of the Psalm to be sung; the devotional character of the explanation; and encouragement to center the focus of the explanation of the Psalm on the Person of Christ. 

The exclusive place of the Psalms in Covenanter worship is well known. The explanation of the Psalms to be sung is perhaps less so. But it is worth taking a look at Pastor George's guidance on this point to better appreciate the importance Covenanters place on singing with understanding ("For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding," Ps. 47:7). 

A Catechism on Praise

Alexander Cameron Blaikie (1804-1885) was the author of a catechism on church government and a catechism on praise in worship. The latter work was originally published in 1849. It is now available to read at Log College Press here

The Associate Church minister James Patterson Miller, as he was preparing to leave New York on a missionary assignment to Oregon, where he would die tragically in an explosion, once wrote, "I make it a text-book in my Bible classes. As I intend to leave New York, in October 1850, for Oregon, please send me 200 copies for distribution in that territory." 

This catechism on praise in worship was republished by the James Begg Society in 2003. It has stood the test of time because it is a concise summary of the principles of historic Presbyterian worship. Take time to download it for further study, and consider what this 19th century Presbyterian minister had to say about the proper principles for Biblical praise in worship. 

Jure Divino Presbyterianism

"The Southern Presbyterian Church was committed from its initial organization in 1861 to a theory of the church advanced by Thomas Cartwright in England in the latter part of the 16th century, embodied in the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1581) and championed by James Henley Thornwell and other Southern Presbyterian divines as over against Charles Hodge of Princeton in the 1850's." -- Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 2: 1861-1890, p. 414.

As Thompson goes on to relate, John Lafayette Girardeau summed up the Southern Presbyterian position well, historically known as jure divino Presbyterianism, or divine right Presbyterianism, as he laid it out in a sermon before the General Assembly of 1875: 

"There are two supreme obligations which this final charge of the Lord Jesus lays upon the  heart of the church. The first is the transcendent duty of universal evangelization. The second is the inculcation and maintenance of the truth which Christ, the prophet of the church, has taught, and the commands which Christ, the king of the church, has enjoined. The call of the gospel is to be addressed to all the sons of men, and when they accept it, and are gathered into the fold of the church, she is to teach them all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. There are obviously a positive and a negative aspect of this charge to the church, — positive, in that she is directed to teach all that Christ has commanded; negative, in that she is implicitly prohibited from teaching anything which He has not commanded. The negative duty is a necessary inference from the command which enforces the positive. Here, then, we have the principle tinctured with the blood of our Puritan, Covenanter and Huguenot forefathers — that what is not commanded, either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures, is prohibited to the  church. She can utter no new doctrine, make no new laws, ordain no new forms of government, and invent no new modes of worship. This is but a statement of a fundamental principle of Protestantism, contra-distinguishing it from Rationalism on the one hand and Romanism on the other, — that the Scriptures, as the word of Christ, are the complete and ultimate rule  of faith and duty. They are complete, since they furnish as perfect a provision for the spiritual, as does nature for the physical, wants of man, and, therefore, exclude every other rule as unnecessary and superfluous. They are ultimate because, being the word of God, they must pronounce infallibly and supremely upon all questions relating to religious faith and practice.  The duty of the church, consequently, to conform herself strictly to the divine word, and her guilt and danger in departing from it would seem to be transparently evident. But the clearest principles, through the blindness, fallibility, and perverseness of the human mind, frequently prove inoperative in actual experience; and the history of the church furnishes lamentable proof that the great, regulative truth of the completeness and supremacy of the Scriptures constitutes no exception to this remark. Because we are Protestants, and Presbyterian Protestants, because the doctrine of the perfection and ultimate authority of the word lies at the root of our system and is embodied in our standards, we are not, therefore, free from the peril attending the failure of the church to conform herself in all things to the revealed will of Christ, and her tendency to rely upon her own folly instead of His wisdom" ("The Discretionary Power of the Church," Sermons, p. 370-371).

What Are the Limits of Church Authority?

As we have noted before, few questions are more important than to understand the nature and limits of church power. How do we distinguish between circumstances of worship and prescribed elements? May the Church authorize ceremonies in worship not commanded in Scripture?

The answer is clear from the Westminster Assembly: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also" and "But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture" (Westminster Confession of Faith 20:2; 21:1).

On this topic, we have previously highlighted John Bailey Adger (1810-1899)'s 1884 article on "Church Power." He affirms: "Our doctrine, our discipline, our worship, are all divine and revealed things, to which the Church can add, from which she can take away, nothing. No more discretion has the Church in regulating those who compose her membership. She can make no new laws to bind their conscience. Neither contrary to, nor yet beside the Scripture, can she impose any new duties not imposed on men by the Word. On the other hand, she cannot make anything to be sinful which God himself has not forbidden. In fine, the Church has no lawmaking power, except as to circumstances of time and place, order and decency, which, from the nature of the case, Scripture could not regulate, and which must needs be left, and have therefore been left, to human discretion. All the power which the Church has about laws is declarative and ministerial. Her officers are servants of the Lord, and declare not their own will, but the Lord's, and that only as he makes it known in the Word, which is open to all men, and which every man is entitled to judge of and interpret for himself."

We would also bring your attention two additional works by John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898): 1) The Discretionary Power of the Church (a sermon preached in 1875, found in his Sermons, wherein he quotes James Henley Thornwell so profoundly; and 2) Individual Liberty and Church Authority, a sermon preached in 1889. 

These works help to clarify that ecclesiastical authority is ministerial and delegated, not authoritative in itself. Adger and Girardeau have correctly and helpfully exposited the nature and limits of church authority, limiting it to what God has authorized, and not going beyond that. Take time to study these works, and to address what a very important question that every Christian must face. 

We have a lot of early American Presbyterian resources on psalmody on our website - take a look.

From the time of the introduction of Isaac Watts’ psalm paraphrases into the American Presbyterian church in the mid-18th century (see Julius Melton, Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787 [1967, 2001], pp. 11-12), the content of praise in public worship has been a matter of controversy. Though challenged by New School views on worship, the streams of Presbyterianism found among the Reformed Presbyterian (Covenanter), Associate Reformed Presbyterian, and United Presbyterian branches throughout the 19th century were all marked by a consistent desire to sing the Psalms of David in worship. A sampling of their literature on the subject is as follows:

1) William Marshall (1740-1802), The Propriety of Singing the Psalms of David in New Testament Worship (1776);

2) Thomas Clark (c. 1720-1792), Plain Reasons, Why Neither Dr. Watts' Imitation of the Psalms, nor His Other Poems, Nor Any Other Human Composition, Ought to be Used in the Praises of the Great God our Saviour (1783, 1828);

3) John Anderson (1748-1830), Vindiciae Cantus Dominici: 1. A Discourse on the Duty of Singing the Book of Psalms in Solemn Worship. 2. A Vindication of the Doctrine Taught in the Preceding Discourse (1800);

4) James Renwick Willson (1780-1853), Review of Harris on Psalmody (1825);

5) Robert Reid (1781-1844), Doctor Watts’ Preface to the Psalms of David (1826);

6) William Sommerville (1800-1876), The Psalms of David Designed for Standing Use in the Church (1835), republished later as The Exclusive Claims of David's Psalms (1855);

7) John Taylor Pressly (1795-1870), Review of Ralston’s Inquiry (1848);

8) Robert James Dodds (1824-1870), A Reply to Morton on Psalmody: To Which is Added a Condensed Argument for the Use of Psalmody (1851);

9)  Gilbert McMaster (1778-1854), An Apology for the Book of Psalms (4th ed., 1852);

10) James McLeod Willson (1809-1866) et al., The True Psalmody (1859) (reprinted in 1861, 1883 and available in print today here);

11) John Black Johnston (1802-1882), Psalmody: An Examination of the Authority for Making Uninspired Songs, and For Using Them in the Formal Worship of God (1871);

12) William D. Ralston (1835-1894), Talks on Psalmody in the Matthews Family (1877);

13) James Alexander Grier (1846-1918), Notes on Psalmody (1900) (republished in 2015 under the title A Primer on Exclusive Psalmody); and

14) John McNaugher (1857-1947), ed., The Psalms in Worship (1907).

We hope in the future to add to the Log College Press website, Alexander Blaikie (1804-1885), Catechism on Praise (1849, reprinted in 1997 and 2003 by the James Begg Society); as well as John Thomas Chalmers (1860-1902), Ten Reasons Why the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church Adheres to the Exclusive Use of the Inspired Psalter in the Worship of God (1900).