FRAMING THE PSALMS
In arguing for the practice of “framing the psalms”, giving a very brief explanation of what the psalm we are to sing means and how it touches on our Christian faith and practice, I had no realisation that, in some measure, this had been a traditional practice in Covenanter churches, where the first psalm sung in the service was accompanied by a short explanation.
This is discussed in an entire lecture in Volume 1 of ”Lectures in Pastoral Theology” by R J George (Professor of Theology and Church History in The Covenanter Seminary, Allegheny, 1892-1910”) All three volumes are worth reading.
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 —
1. The Importance of the Explanation of the Psalm.
1.1 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.
1.2. 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: 'T 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.
1.3. It is, in itself, a delightful service.
1.3.1. 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.
1.3.2. 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.
1.3.3. 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.”