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
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).