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. 



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 —


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. 

Beware of Digging Ditches

Before the early American Presbyterian worship wars between those who preferred the hymns of Isaac Watts and those who preferred Rous' Psalms (although nicknamed such, the Scottish Psalter of 1650 was in fact far removed from the earlier version by Francis Rous), there was Sternhold & Hopkins' edition of the Psalms of David. In the 19th century, Sternhold & Hopkins, nevertheless, was not forgotten. 

In the commentary on the Psalms by William Swan Plumer, he refers to Sternhold & Hopkins twice. One reference is found in his exposition of Psalm 7:15, in which he quotes the metrical version thus: 

"Sternhold and Hopkins have given a version of this and the next verse, which has attracted attention.

He digs a ditch and delves it deep,
In hope to hurt his brother;
But he shall fall into the pit
That he digged up for other.
Thus wrong returneth to the hurt
of him in whom it bred;
And all the mischief that he wrought,
Shall fall upon his head." 

Rev. Plumer had occasion to quote this verse at the 1874 General Assembly of the Southern Presbyterian Church, which was dealing with a controversy at Columbia Theological Seminary, which had enacted a rule requiring faculty and students to attend chapel services on the Lord's Day morning (which, according to Richard McIlwaine, later president of Hampden Sydney College, obstructed professors supplying other pulpits and students desiring to hear other ministers preach). The following was recorded by McIlwaine in his autobiography, Memories of Three Score Years and Ten, pp. 312-313:

"This seems to show that the root of contention was a personal disagreement in the Faculty, and to justify the story narrated to me by Rev. Dr. A.P. Smith, then of Mississippi, but afterwards, for a quarter of a century or more, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Tex. He was a most companionable man, full of life and spirit and bubbling over with good humor. He said that on the adjournment of the session of the Assembly at which these resignations were accepted, he walked out of the house with Dr. Plumer, who took his arm and as they got out of the crowd, asked, 'Do you remember Sternhold and Hopkins' version of such and such a palm?' and on his reply, 'No,' the doctor repeated a verse, as follows:

'He digged a pit, he digged it well,
He digged it for his brudder,
Into that selfsame pit he fell,
Himself and not anudder.'

This narration impresses the fact that we are all liable to err and do err..."

Even servants of Christ, who desire to do right, as McIlwaine acknowledged of those with whom he disagreed on the issue at Columbia Theological Seminary, may yet dig ditches for others into which they themselves fall. May God grant that we be not blind leaders of the blind, leading ourselves and others into ditches. But rather, may we stick close to the light of God's Word, and build bridges over snares rather than dig ditches that are snares. 

David's Harp in Song and Story

The Joseph Clokey family associated with the United Presbyterian Church of North America has a long pedigree that is interwoven to various degrees with the Psalms of David. According to the Rev. Joseph Waddell Clokey, Sr. (1839-1919), his parents, the Rev. Joseph D. Clokey (1801-1884) (who served as moderator of the 1860 General Assembly of the UPCNA and was himself the son of another Joseph Clokey) and his wife Eliza (1808-1889), sang only the Psalms in public, family and private worship. Joseph Waddell Clokey, Jr. (1890-1960) would go on to become a noted composer of both sacred and secular music, as well as a professor of music. His [Jr.'s] adopted son, Art Clokey (1921-2010), was a pioneer in the field of claymation, whose characters include Gumby, and Davey and Goliath (Google honored him with a logo doodle on Oct. 12, 2011). (Art's son, Joseph Clokey, who also very involved in his father's work on Gumby, and Davey and Goliath, himself passed away on March 2, 2018.)

Joseph Waddell Clokey, Sr., meanwhile, authored a fascinating little book called David's Harp in Song and Story, which relates the value and history of the Psalms. Beginning with a series of encomiums on the Book of Psalms, Clokey goes on to trace their usage and appreciation through the centuries - among the Hebrews; within the early Christian Church; during the Dark Ages; within the Reformations of Germany, Switzerland, France, England, Scotland and the Netherlands; and among the American colonies, the New England Puritans, and the American Presbyterians.

Clokey, a UPCNA minister writing in 1896, after describing in fascinating detail the introduction and rise of Watts' hymnody within the American Presbyterian churches (he notes the first official recognition of this took place in a report by William Tennent and Aaron Burr, Sr. in 1753 and, although the Directory of Public Worship was amended in 1788 to allow for hymns, Clokey asserts that it was in 1802 that the PCUSA officially embraced Watts' hymns, and offers a heart-felt appeal to return to Biblical Psalmody in Presbyterian churches, albeit, in his preference, revised in more modern language than the 1650 Scottish Psalter: 

"The author of this work—a pastor of more than twenty years in the Presbyterian Church, has witnessed with pain the 'Passing' of the Bible Psalms. Since the beginning of her 'Hymnal' era our Church has been at sea in the matter of her Psalmody. Her authorization of Hymn-Books means nothing to her congregations. For the first time in her history her authority over her Book of Praise is gone, and the people buy their hymn-books where they please.

The Hymnal of 1874 is already worn out, and the Assembly has sent forth a new one, doubtless to meet the fate of the former one.

The people of the Presbyterian Church, who love what is solid and majestic in their sacred songs, miss something in their modern Hymnals. As an old Psalm-singer, the writer would suggest it is the Bible Psalter we miss. Give us back the old Psalms, dressed in the attractive forms of these modern days, as they can be dressed; and winnow away several hundred of the hymns of our present collection, and the Presbyterian Church will do more to settle her churches in the matter of their Psalmody than will all the decrees of her courts.

It may not be out of place here for the author to suggest to the ministry of his own Church that, whilst they are endeavoring so zealously to maintain that form of doctrine which is given in the Old Confession of Faith, their efforts will prove worthless unless they see that the Psalmody of the Church breathes the same evangelical principles.

Few people read the Confession of Faith, but every week the thoughts and doctrines of our Hymns are sung into our ears and hearts; and the faith which will be held in the future will not be that of your Confession and Creed, but of your Hymnology.

At present, when the hymn-writers and hymn-collectors are so thoroughly imbued with the true doctrines of the Bible, nothing but good can result to the members of the Church. But a wave of decadence may sweep over the future Church, as it has often done in the past, when we may bitterly regret that we have lost control over the material of our Psalmody."

America's Foremost Hymnologist

Widely described as America's "foremost hymnologist," Louis FitzGerald Benson (1855-1930) was born and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His first venture in the practice of law, after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, lasted seven years; but later he studied at Princeton Theological Seminary, graduating in 1887. He was ordained for the ministry in 1888 and pastored a congregation in Germantown, Pennsylvania, until 1894. He later edited Presbyterian and Congregational hymnals, served as special lecturer in Liturgies at Auburn Seminary; served as Honorary Librarian at the Presbyterian Historical Society (1905-1923); and was thrice appointed to serve as the L.P. Stone Lecturer at Princeton Seminary (1906-1907, 1909-1910, 1925-1926). His personal library exceeded 9,000 volumes, and his collection of rare books was notable; many were donated to Princeton, and the Louis F. Benson Hymnology Collection is one of the gems of Princeton Theological Seminary’s Special Collections, being housed at Speer Library. "Among the numerous accolades received by Dr. Benson is a reference to him in the 1920 edition of Grove's Dictionary, as 'a foremost hymnologist.' Dr. Henry Jackson van Dyke called Louis Fitzgerald Benson the foremost hymnologist that America has produced" (Source).

His writings on the history of Psalmody in the Reformed Churches and the development of English hymnody are invaluable to the student of Reformed worship and liturgies. His study of William Shakespeare's use of the metrical Psalter makes for fascinating reading to students of both literature and church history. His Studies of Familiar Hymns gives valuable background information on how many particularly memorable hymns entered Presbyterian worship. He was also a composer of hymns and poems himself. If you have not had the opportunity to read Benson on the history of song in Reformed worship, be sure to look over the works we have added to his page at Log College Press. They represent the finest scholarship of his day on this topic, and have stood the test of time. 

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

(If the author links in this post are broken, please visit our Free PDF Library and click on the author’s page directly.)

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).