Posted by: joelrbeeke | August 23, 2008

John Calvin on Piety - Part Eight

Piety in the Psalter

Calvin views the Psalms as the canonical manual of piety. In the preface to his five-volume commentary on the Psalms—his largest exposition of any Bible book—Calvin writes: “There is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this exercise of piety.”   Calvin’s preoccupation with the Psalter was motivated by his belief that the Psalms teach and inspire genuine piety the following ways:

  • As the revelation from God, the Psalms teach us about God. Because they are theological as well as doxological, they are our sung creed.
  • They offer the divine remedy for our needs. They present Christ in His person, offices, sufferings, death, resurrection, and ascension. They announce the way of salvation, proclaiming the blessedness of justification by faith alone and the necessity of sanctification by the Spirit with the Word.
  • They demonstrate God’s amazing goodness and invite us to meditate on His grace and mercy. They lead us to repentance and to fear God, to trust in His Word, and to hope in His mercy.
  • They teach us to flee to the God of salvation through prayer and show us how to bring our requests to God.  They show us how to pray confidently in the midst of adversity.
  • They show us the depth of communion we may enjoy with our covenant-keeping God. They show how the living church is God’s bride, God’s children, and God’s flock.
  • They provide a vehicle for communal worship. Many use first-person plural pronouns (“we,” “our”) to indicate this communal aspect, but even those with first-person singular pronouns include all who love the Lord and are committed to Him. They move us to trust and praise God and to love our neighbors. They prompt reliance on God’s promises, zeal for Him and His house, and compassion for the suffering.
  • They cover the full range of spiritual experience, including faith and unbelief, joy in God and sorrow over sin, divine presence and divine desertion. As Calvin says, they are “an anatomy of all parts of the soul.”  We still see our affections and spiritual maladies in the words of the psalmists. When we read about their experiences, we are drawn to self-examination and faith by the grace of the Spirit. The psalms of David, especially, are like a mirror in which we are led to praise God and find rest in His sovereign purposes.

Calvin immersed himself in the Psalms for twenty-five years as a commentator, preacher, biblical scholar, and worship leader.  Early on, he began work on metrical versions of the Psalms to be used in public worship. On January 16, 1537, shortly after his arrival in Geneva, Calvin asked his council to introduce the singing of Psalms into church worship. He recruited the talents of other men, such as Clement Marot, Louis Bourgeois, and Theodore Beza, to produce the Genevan Psalter. That work would take twenty-five years to complete. The first collection (1539) contained eighteen Psalms, six of which Calvin put into verse. The rest were done by the French poet, Marot. An expanded version (1542) containing thirty-five Psalms was next, followed by one of forty-nine Psalms (1543). Calvin wrote the preface to both of those, commending the practice of congregational singing. After Marot’s death in 1544, Calvin encouraged Beza to put the rest of the Psalms into verse. Two years before his death in 1562, Calvin rejoiced to see the first complete edition of the Genevan Psalter.

The Genevan Psalter is furnished with a remarkable collection of 125 melodies, written specifically for the Psalms by outstanding musicians, of whom Louis Bourgeois is the best known. The tunes are melodic, distinctive, and reverent.  They clearly express Calvin’s convictions that piety is best promoted when priority is given to text over tune, while recognizing that Psalms deserve their own music. Since music should help the reception of the Word, Calvin says, it should be “weighty, dignified, majestic, and modest”—fitting attitudes for a sinful creature in the presence of God.  This protects the sovereignty of God in worship and conduces proper conformity between the believer’s inward disposition and his outward confession.

Psalmsinging is one of the four principle acts of church worship, Calvin believed. It is an extension of prayer. It is also the most significant vocal contribution of people in the service. Psalms were sung in Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon services. Beginning in 1546, a printed table indicated which Psalms were to be sung on each occasion. Psalters were assigned to each service according to the texts that were preached. By 1562, three Psalms were sung at each service.

Calvin believed that corporate singing subdued the fallen heart and retrained wayward affections in the way of piety. Like preaching and the sacraments, Psalmsinging disciplines the heart’s affections in the school of faith and lifts the believer to God. Psalmsinging amplifies the effect of the Word upon the heart and multiplies the spiritual energy of the church. “The Psalms can stimulate us to raise our hearts to God and arouse us to an ardor in invoking as well as in exalting with praises the glory of his name,” Calvin writes.  With the Spirit’s direction, Psalmsinging tunes the hearts of believers for glory.

The Genevan Psalter was an integral part of Calvinist worship for centuries. It set the standard for succeeding French Reformed psalm books as well as those in English, Dutch, German, and Hungarian. As a devotional book, it warmed the hearts of thousands, but the people who sang from it understood that its power was not in the book or its words, but in the Spirit who impressed those words on their hearts.
The Genevan Psalter promoted piety by stimulating a spirituality of the Word that was corporate and liturgical, and that broke down the distinction between liturgy and life. The Calvinists freely sang the Psalms not only in their churches, but also in homes and workplaces, on the streets and in the fields.  The singing of Psalms became a “means of Huguenot self-identification.”  This pious exercise became a cultural emblem. In short, as T. Hartley Hall writes, “In scriptural or metrical versions, the Psalms, together with the stately tunes to which they were early set, are clearly the heart and soul of Reformed piety.”


  1. [...] Joel Beeke provides us with some valuable insights into Calvin’s approach to the Psalms here.  Said Calvin: “There is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of [...]

  2. The Biblical overarching view of our God as the only “I AM THAT I AM” is immeasurable and without comparison to anything in human thoughts and human ways. Our words just fall flat and rightly fail to come to any degree of sufficiency to embrace all the praise, honor, glory, and praise due this Supreme One, who has given us life so that we may make every attempt to do so.

    The Psalter is about this God’s World of Wonder for everyone who can gaze upon these marvels without end and each breath becomes another gift of opportunity to do so. Don’t we so often fail to recognize this? Does our God ever fail to see a single bird that falls to the ground? Or even like one, hear our cry when we are in the trap and snares of life which bind us tight to this earth?

    Raise your eyes even to just one of those flying birds around you and dare to give your Creator the glory for seeing things which can only come from the ways and thoughts of such a Master!

    I cannot wrap my thoughts around such a God! And all I long for is the embrace that will never let me go! This is the cry echoing throughout the Psalter.

  3. [...] Calvin on Piety in the Psalter John Calvin on Piety - Part Eight � The Calvin 500 Blog (August 23, 2008) [...]

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