In March 2014 edition of New Horizons Rev. Donald M. Poundstone wrote an article titled “Do We Really Need A Psalter-Hymnal?” in which he argues that “not all the psalms as originally written are suitable for corporate Christian praise and prayer.” But is it really true that the book of Psalms flows out of the old Mosaic covenant, thus some particular psalms or statements in specific psalms are not applicable to the worship of God’s people in the new covenant, as Mr. Poundstone tries to make the case for? Is it theologically justified and biblically warranted to say that some portions of God’s inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word are only for the church of the Old Testament, and the church of the New Testament can no longer use these portions in signing within the context of worship?
I agree with Mr. Poundstone’s point that the Psalms are written before the event of Christ (i.e. His birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension). Yet they point to Him and foreshadow His work. Thus Christ is, in fact, present in the Psalms in types of institutions, figures, events, and direct prophecies. Therefore, we certainly need hymns to reflect the reality of fulfillment of these types and prophecies in Christ and to complement the shadows of His person and work in the Psalms. Still, it is necessary to use all the Psalms alongside hymns in the corporate worship of God’s people in the new covenant.
Mr. Poundstone lists four “problems” in singing all the psalms in public worship. His first concern has to do with the imprecatory psalms. This is a legitimate concern and one that needs to be handled with extreme care. But let us not forget that all the psalms, including the imprecatory ones, are inspired by God’s Spirit and are profitable for teaching and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). In the imprecatory psalms, Mr. Poundstone argues, the Psalmist “was praying against those who persecuted him.” However, the Psalmist never prayed that he may be permitted to take vengeance on his enemies, but always that God would become his avenger (Pss. 7:6; 35:1; 58:6; 59:5). When the Psalmist prays against his enemies he is in effect praying against God’s enemies who resist His will and seek to destroy His people (Ps. 139:19-22). These prayers are not written from a personal bitter malice that seeks revenge but from a holy zeal and godly fervor for the fame of God’s own name among the nations. They reflect the Psalmist’s abhorrence of sin and evil (Pss. 51:3, 9; 139:23-24), and his awareness of God’s justice, sovereignty, intolerance for wickedness, and righteous reign in all the affairs of man. Moreover, the Psalmist represents God’s people and speaks not out of his own experience as an individual per se, rather, out of Israel’s struggle with wicked and evil people who seek to destroy them (Ps. 137:7-9). Thus, the Psalmist is identifying with God’s holiness and righteous wrath and leading His congregation in seeking the vindication of God’s people, and ultimately God’s own name.
The question now comes: Is there a room in the New Testament worship of God’s people to pray for the destruction of His enemies by asking for God’s holy and righteous wrath?
It is important to notice that Christ Himself used these psalms and recognized that they are pointing to Him (John 15:25 from Ps. 69:4, “They hated me without cause”; John 2:17 from Ps. 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me”; Matt. 27:34 from Ps. 69:21, “They gave me poison for food”). Likewise, Paul quoted the same Psalm (Ps. 69) in Romans 11:9-10. Elsewhere, he pronounced similar imprecatory statements (1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 1:8-9). Furthermore, we are told that the saints in heaven worship God and offer prayers of an imprecatory nature. They explicitly ask the sovereign, holy, and true Lord “how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). This prayer echoes psalms 79:10 and 94:3 which are imprecatory psalms! The saints in heaven are not rebuked for this question/prayer (after all saints in heaven do not sin and therefore are never rebuked). Rather, they are told to rest assured in God’s wisdom of unfolding events in history (v. 11). Elsewhere in the book of Revelation we read of God’s people in heaven worshiping and praying for God’s wrath (Rev. 11:18; 19:2). Thus, it is appropriate that we pray and sing these psalms to ask Christ to vindicate His holy name, through the vindication of His church, by destroying the enemies of righteousness, just as He preserves those who love His name. This does not go against loving our enemies and praying for them as Mr. Poundstone tries to demonstrate. When it comes to relating to our personal enemies we are to love them and pray for their salvation. However, when it comes to God’s holy name and the welfare of His church we are to ask God to execute His righteous vengeance for His name’s sake. Therefore, there is no clash between the Psalmist’s holy desires for God’s revenge and Christ’s commands to love our enemies, as Mr. Poundstone argues for this false dichotomy, since both deal with two different situations.
While I agree with Futato’s point that Mr. Poundstone’s quotes about the foreshowing nature of the imprecatory psalms as they prefigure the final judgment, I see no reason to not use them today for the same shadowing function. Why are they appropriate only for the Old Testament era and not for our era now? Since the two eras await the same reality in the future, that is the final judgment.
Mr. Poundstone’s second concern is our response to suffering and persecution. I agree with Mr. Poundstone’s premise that we are to rejoice in suffering for the sake of Christ. Nevertheless, we are not to seek after suffering, ask for suffering, or pray for suffering to come. Rather, we are taught by Christ to escape from persecution as much as possible (Matt. 10:14-16).
In several places Mr. Poundstone implicitly says that the imprecations found in the psalms are sentiments of the Psalmist’s own heart and not those of the Holy Spirit. He says “Christ and the gift of Holy Spirit have made a big difference!” when it comes to the New Testament instructions of how to respond to life’s trails. A statement like this weakens the doctrine of inspiration of the Scripture and the authority of God’s Word in the Old Testament. Let us not forget that when Paul says “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (1 Tim. 3:16) he had primarily the Old Testament Scriptures in mind since the New Testament was not written in its entirety. These same Old Testament sacred writings are able to make one wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 3:15). These writings are fully confirmed, to which we will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts (2 Pet. 1:19).
Mr. Poundstone’s call to make these “gloomy words” found in some psalms “sound Christian” by giving the Psalmist a Christian voice when used in singing goes against our apostolic faith of God’s Spirit who “spake by the prophets.” His quest for a Christianizing reading of the Psalms ultimately strikes at the authority and capability of the Psalms to speak on its own terms as God’s Word given to His people in all ages. This lies at the heart of the unity of the Christian Bible.
Mr. Poundstone’s third difficulty with singing all the psalms has to do with the attitude displayed toward the nations. I think it is fair to say that there is some confusion in Mr. Poundstone’s argument between what the Old Testament teaches and how the people of Israel acted, what is prescriptive and what is descriptive. The hostility pious Jews showed towards heathen neighbors was not always authorized by the Scriptures of the Old Testament (e.g. Jonah). There was a certain era where Israel had to deal with gentiles in a holy war manner authorized by the Lord Himself. But in general Israel was called to be light unto the nations (Isa. 42:6; 49:6; 60:3). This ultimately was fulfilled in the person and work of Christ and carried out by the mission of the church in the New Testament. Singing all the psalms does not create a conflict with the church’s mission to the nations. It only puts things in perspective. While we carry the good news to the ends of the earth, we are reminded that those who reject Christ’s gospel are held captive by their sin until the coming righteous wrath of God in Christ. When we sign all the psalms we join the Psalmist in praying for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Mr. Poundstone’s fourth objection to using all the psalms in singing lies in the matter of a future life. Mr. Poundstone makes the point that the living hope is only accessible to New Testament saints and that Old Testament saints were left with “expressions of dread, anxiety, or uncertainty about the future.” An argument like this downplays Christ’s work in the Old Testament. Old Testament saints were saved by grace alone in Christ alone just as we are (Acts 1:12). The incarnation of Christ discloses the relationship between the Father and the Son that has always been true from eternity, namely, that they are one in their being. So if the Son’s claim to be the revealer of the Father is true (Matt. 11:27), then the Son has always been the revealer of the Father from eternity. Because this ontological reality about the incarnate Christ holds true for both Testaments, it ultimately establishes the ontological preconditions for the christological witness and living hope inherent in Old Testament Scriptures including the Psalms. Furthermore, we are informed that Old Testament saints died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar (Heb. 11:13). They were seeking a heavenly homeland that God has prepared for them and the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb. 11:10, 16). What better living hope can one have than this?!
Mr. Poundstone wishes to make a sharp distinction between the era of the shadows in the Psalms and the gospel era. While there are elements of discontinuity due to the progressive nature of God’s self-revelation and the unfolding of the plan of redemption, one is not free to choose certain passages to use in worship while ruling out others. The church of Christ is better served by singing all the Psalms when they are put in the right context and with the framework of Christ’s deed in His fist coming, His current ongoing role in heaven, and His consummate work in His second coming. May church members be equipped to address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with their heart.
Rev. Dr. Sherif L. Gendy