Songs of the Soul
The special significance of the Psalms is their subjective element. Note Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly … singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (ESV, italics added). Geerhardus Vos clarifies this subjective element. “The deeper fundamental character of the Psalter consists in this that it voices the subjective response to the objective doings of God for and among his people. Subjective responsiveness is the specific quality of these songs. As prophecy is objective, being the address of Jehovah to Israel in word and act, so the Psalter is subjective, being the answer of Israel to divine speech.”
When we take the words of the Psalms on our lips, God guides us in responding to Him both objectively, the words we sing, and subjectively, the feelings and emotions we express. Calvin puts it just this way:
I have been accustomed to call this book, I think not inappropriately, An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated” As we sing the Psalms, the Spirit dissects our souls. He lays bare our raw emotions. He counters our deep-seated, tightly held hypocrisies. Then, when we cry out to God, and vent our emotions, the Spirit provides us an “unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise[which] cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms …
Calvin’s emphasis on the subjective element in the Psalter goes back to Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373) and his “Letter to Marcellinus Concerning the Psalms.”[A]mong all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Savior’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.
Imagine songs for worship that give you divinely inspired words to express all your longings, griefs, sorrows, and praise. Imagine a book designed and edited by God for this purpose. The Psalter is such a book. Athanasius says that “the marvel with the Psalter is that … the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up.”
Geerhardus Vos begins a sermon titled Songs from the Soul (1902) with these stunning remarks.
The Psalter is of all books of the Bible that book which gives expression to the experimental side of religion. … Hence the Psalter has been at all times that part of Scripture to which believers have most readily turned and upon which they have chiefly depended for the nourishment of the inner religious life of the heart. … Our Lord himself, who had a perfect religious experience … found his inner life portrayed in the Psalter and in some of the highest moments of his ministry borrowed from it the language in which his soul spoke to God, thus recognizing that a more perfect language for communion with God cannot be framed.
A language more perfect than the Psalms for communion with God cannot be framed. How can this be? It is inspired language. It is language breathed out by God. It is language given to us by the Holy Spirit. It is language given to us for the expression of our own hearts and souls. The language of the Psalms is, therefore, useful and suitable and functional for all peoples in all times. Vos continues, “At first sight, this may easily seem strange to us … But for the very reason that the Psalms reflect the experimental religion of the heart, which is unvarying at all times and under all circumstances, we need not greatly wonder at this.
Fallen human nature is always the same. The operations of sin within the heart are ever the same. The work of the Spirit within the human heart is ever the same. The Psalms, songs especially fit for the expression of the soul, are therefore useful and suitable and functional for all peoples in all ages. Grasping this subjective element is a key to understanding Psalmody.