A very important part of our liturgy (public worship) is our singing, which is a form of corporate prayer. The scriptures command us to sing: Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord (Eph 5:19). “Singing” does not have one special place in the liturgy; rather, we sing throughout the worship service in response to the greeting, the law, the ministry of the word, etc.
We sing psalms, canticles, and hymns.
The psalms are the inspired 150 psalms of the book of Psalms. This is God’s first gift of song given to the church. Lately, we have been busy revising them. It is good to have them in contemporary English. When the Holy Spirit inspired them, they were written in the Hebrew of the day. We should sing them in the English of the day. There is a consistency to the Psalter since they were all written in the same language in the same era. Furthermore, at least exactly half have the same human author, King David. Seventy-three of the Psalms are identified as “of David” while we know from the New Testament that Psalms 2 and 95 were also penned by the “sweet psalmist of Israel.”
We sing the psalms to tunes written mostly in Geneva during the Reformation, hence they are called “Genevan tunes.” John Calvin was pivotal in this. By 1562, in just twenty-five years, all 150 psalms had been versified in French and set to these tunes. The tunes are catholic in the true sense of the word. The psalms are sung to these tunes in many languages throughout the world, in French, Dutch, German, Hungarian, Portuguese, Indonesian, English, Afrikaans, Czech, and Italian. Calvin also taught us to sing in unison–not to say that there is anything wrong with harmonizing. But Calvin said it was good for God’s people to praise the Lord with one voice.
Our hymn section contains canticles and hymns. Canticles are versifications of parts of scripture that are not Psalms. Famous canticles are the Ten Commandments and the Songs of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon. Our hymnary contains many other canticles as well (though we call them “hymns”).
Then we also have what are more properly called “hymns.” They are not so much based on a specific passage of scripture as a song based on a theme or someone’s reflections upon an aspect of the gospel. The Canadian Reformed Churches have always said that such hymns are appropriate to sing in the worship service, providing they meet certain criteria. If you are interested in following this up, you can read the Principles and Guidelines as you will find them in the front of the Augment.
Sometimes people observe that we seem to be a bit inconsistent in that while we are modernizing the language of the psalms, we are leaving many archaic expressions in the hymn section. There is a reason for that. As noted above, there should be a uniformity and modern tone to the psalms reflecting the modern and uniform qualities they had when first composed. The hymns, however, span both a millennium in time and the globe in space in their composition. A collection of hymns, by its very nature, will be eclectic. One cannot get around that. Just as the uniformity of the Psalter is part of its particular beauty, so the eclecticism of a hymnary is part of its peculiar charm. Furthermore, it would be inappropriate to alter well-known classic English hymns sung by Christians throughout the world. We do not want our own Canadian Reformed version of the classic English hymns. Also, some hymns are protected by copyright, and they may not be changed. For example, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” may not be published as “Great is Your Faithfulness” as it is copyrighted.
And so we sing! May the Lord bless us as we sing to Him our songs of praise. "Praise the Lord … and sing praises to him, all you peoples" (Rom 15:11 NIV).