A Brief Review: Why Our Church Sings Hymns (As Well As Psalms) by Pastor Larry Wilson

psalms

I have answered almost all objections that Larry Wilson brings up in my review with Lee Irons (See Here). This article will be brief. There is only one objection that Wilson brings up that has not necessarily been answered. The objection that Wilson uses against exclusive psalmody is an argument that was made popular back in the 80s and 90s.1

Wilson gets right to the point: “Where did our Lord actually command his church, including the old covenant church, to sing the Psalms in public worship? It does not appear to me that Scriptural commands to “sing psalms” (e.g., 1 Chr. 16:9 KJV; Ps. 105:2 KJV) use the term in the technical sense of songs or prayers from the canonical book of Psalms; they seem to use it in a more generic sense, as in “sing praises to God.” That is, it seems to me that these verses command the element of congregational singing, but they do not necessarily specify the form of the words that will be used in congregational singing.”2 Interestingly, my last post dealt with this complaint. There are in fact commands to sing the praises (psalmos). A quick word study will show that the commands in the book of Psalms to sing the praises of God is a reference to the Psalms themselves. “psalmós – a psalm (“Scripture set to music”). Originally, a psalm (5568 /psalmós) was sung and accompanied by a plucked musical instrument (typically a harp), especially the OT Psalms.”3

Lastly, these things have been dealt with in many writings, sermons, books, etc. However, Brian Schwertley does an excellent job:

“1. Specific Commands

The book of Psalms contains several commands to praise Jehovah with the singing of Psalms. “Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth; Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises. Sing to the LORD with the harp, With the harp and the sound of a psalm, With trumpets and the sound of a horn; Shout joyfully before the LORD, the King” (Psalm 98:4-6). “Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; Talk of all His wondrous works!” (Psalm 105:2). “Oh come, let us sing to the Lord! Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms” (Psalm 95:1-2; cf. Psalms 81:1-2; 100:2).

  1. Designed by God for Singing

That the book of Psalms is clearly designed by God to be sung is indicated by the musical terminology found in the Psalm titles and throughout the Psalms themselves. There is the mention of chief musicians and various types of musical instruments as well as the names of melodies by which certain Psalms were to be sung. The Psalms are constantly referred to as songs, psalms (melodious songs), and hymns. While it is true that the Psalms can be read, chanted, prayed, and so on, they were and are clearly intended to be sung by God’s people.

  1. Historical Examples

There are several biblical historical examples of Psalms used in public worship recorded in the Bible (cf. 1 Chr. 16; 2 Chr. 5:13; 20:21; 29:30; Ezra 3:11). “There are, in fact, numerous indications in the Scriptures that the Psalms or their contemporary (inspired) counterparts were not only performed by the Levitical choirs before the people of God but taught diligently to the ‘common’ people as well (e.g., Ex. 15:1; 2 Sam. 1:18; 2 Chr. 23:13; Ps. 30:4; 137:1 ff.; Mt. 26:30; Jas. 5:13).”9

  1. Placed in the Canon

The fact that God has placed within the canon of inspired Scripture a collection of 150 worship songs itself proves that God requires these songs to be used in public worship. Bushell writes, ‘The Lord has given to us in Scripture a whole book of inspired psalms and then has commanded us to ‘sing psalms.’ Quite apart from the question of whether or not we may sing other songs in worship, is it not the height of foolishness and impiety to stare the Lord in the face, as it were, and insist that we have no obligation to sing the particular psalms that He has been gracious enough to place in our hands?… We would argue that the inclusion of a collection of songs in the canon of Scripture, without any demonstrable limits to their use, constitutes a divine command to use the whole of that book in services of worship. If the Lord hands us a book of psalms, as He has done, and commands us to sing psalms, we have no right, without further instruction, to exclude certain psalms from those that are made available to the Church’.

Those who argue that the placing of an inspired hymnbook in the middle of the canon is not significant and is not a clear indication of what God intends to be used in the church’s worship “might as well argue that the composition of the canon provides no specific indication that the sixty-six books in the canon are those to be used when the word of God is read in the church’s worship.”

  1. Only Inspired Songs Used

A careful examination of the Scripture passages which discuss the songs used in worship and how worship songs were composed reveals that God only authorizes and accepts divinely inspired songs for the praise of Himself. “If when the Bible speaks of the source of worship song, it portrays the text as one produced by divine inspiration, then inspiration is a biblical norm for this ordinance as well.” There are so many examples in the Bible which show the connection between writing songs of praise for the church and prophetic inspiration that it is astounding that this point has been largely ignored by those who claim to hold to the regulative principle. There is the example of the prophetess Miriam who, by divine inspiration, composed a song to celebrate God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Ex. 15:20-21). We also have the inspired song of Deborah the prophetess (Jdg. 5). There are the Spirit-inspired songs of the prophet Isaiah (e.g. 5:1, 26:1 ff., etc.) as well as the divinely inspired song of Mary (Lk. 1:46 ff.). If 1 Corinthians 14:26 refers to Christians composing songs for public worship, these songs were “as is universally admitted, charismatic songs and therefore products of the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.” (The question of whether the new covenant church should sing divinely inspired songs outside of the book of Psalms is dealt with below.)

The Old Testament saints whom God used to write the Psalter wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Note once again that prophetic inspiration and the writing of songs of praise go hand in hand. King David, whom the Bible calls a prophet (2 Chr. 29:25-30), wrote his songs by a special gift of the Holy Spirit (2 Sam. 23:1, 2; Ac. 1:16). The New Testament repeatedly refers to David as a prophet when it quotes his songs (cf. Mt. 22:43-44; Mk. 12:36; Ac. 1:16-17; 2:29- 31; 4:24-25). The worship of the temple musicians and singers is referred to as prophecy in Scripture (1 Chr. 25:1-7). This designation, when applied to song content, obviously means that what they sang was the product of divine inspiration. Thus, the temple musicians and singers who were involved in writing songs for worship did so under the special operation of the Spirit. Heman (who was appointed by David as a worship leader of the sanctuary) is called a “seer” (1 Chr. 25:5) in Scripture; a term synonymous with the word “prophet.” Bushell writes, “Prophetic titles and roles are consistently attributed to the chief temple musicians and singers. Asaph, for example, one of David’s principle musicians (1 Chr. 6:39; 15:17; 16:5 ff.; 2 Chr. 5:12), appointed by him over the service of song and by Solomon in the Temple service, is also called a ‘seer’ and placed alongside David as far as authority in Temple music is concerned (2 Chr. 29:30). Nor ought we to miss the significance of the fact that some 12 of the Old Testament Psalms (50, 73-83) are attributed to Asaph, thus confirming his role as a writer of inspired worship song. Jeduthun, another chief temple singer, is also called a ‘seer’ (2 Chr. 35:15; cf. 25:1; and Pss. 39, 62, and 77 titles).”

The writing of worship songs in the Old Testament was so intimately connected with prophetic inspiration that 2 Kings 23:2 and 2 Chronicles 34:30 use the term “Levite” and “prophet” interchangeably. The worship of Jehovah is so important that nothing less than infallible Spirit-inspired lyrics are acceptable for praise in the church. James A. Kennedy writes,

‘What is praise? The word is derived from the word “price.” But who knows God’s price or value? To prepare a complete and sufficient manual of praise one must know, on the one hand, all the divine excellences, for they are to be set forth in sufficient measure and due proportion; and, on the other hand, the whole range of human devotional feeling called forth by contemplating the divine perfections. But such vast knowledge is only possible to one to whom a divine revelation has been made. And to give adequate expression to this knowledge, divine inspiration is an absolute prerequisite…. God evidently deemed it necessary to have His praises prepared thus, for as a matter of fact He inspired David, Asaph, and others to compose them. And He never puts forth divine power unless it is necessary. God kept the manual of praise strictly under His control. Why should he be indifferent to this matter now? And why should we be put off without a divine book for this dispensation? Are we not as worthy of such a perfect book as the Old Testament Church? ‘

There have been attempts (by opponents of exclusive Psalmody) to refute the assertion that divine inspiration was a requirement for the composition of worship songs to be used by the church. One author argues that the Scripture only requires theological accuracy in the composition of worship songs. The problem with his argument is that he does not offer any scriptural texts or examples to back up his claim—not one. Another author quotes several examples of worship songs that are not found in the book of Psalms as proof that divine inspiration was not necessary. The problem with this person’s argument is that every song he refers to was given by divine inspiration (e.g. Ex. 15:20-21; Jdg. 5; Is. 5:1; 26:1 ff.; Lk. 1:46 ff.; 1 Cor. 14:26). His own argument is self-refuting.

Another author quotes from Isaiah 38:20 (“The Lord was ready to save me; therefore we will sing my songs with stringed instruments all the days of our life, in the house of the Lord”) as proof that uninspired songs were used in public worship in the Old Testament era. This author assumes that since these songs, written by King Hezekiah, were never inscripturated into the canon, therefore they must be uninspired. This argument falls to the ground when we consider that many prophecies and inspired writings did not make it into our Bibles. (There are Old Testament prophets named of whom we have no surviving oracles. There is the missing letter of Paul to the Corinthians as well as the volumes of sayings, proverbs, and teachings that Christ spoke to His disciples, etc.). The fact that Hezekiah’s songs (except the one recorded in Is. 38) did not make it into our Bible does not tell us at all whether or not they were inspired. In fact, the passage under discussion, if anything, indicates that his songs were inspired. Note the transition from the singular (“me”) to the plural (“we”). The king identifies himself with the Levitical choir of the Temple, which as noted above functioned as a musical prophetic guild. In any case, there certainly is not a shred of evidence that Hezekiah composed uninspired songs. That assertion is assumed, not proven.

There are “Reformed” pastors who argue that the fact that every instance of worship song in the Bible is divinely inspired holds no significance for today’s church. They reason that since worship songs are in the Bible, which in itself is divinely inspired, they of necessity must also be inspired. This reasoning is fallacious for two reasons. First, the Bible contains many infallibly recorded statements of uninspired people speaking. The Bible records people lying, people with bad theology, and even Satan lying to Jesus. No one would argue that Satan’s lies were divinely inspired. Second, and even more significant, is the fact that the Holy Spirit emphasizes that worship songs came not from anyone who decided to write a song, but only from seers and prophets. The only way to argue against the sole use of divinely inspired songs in the church is to abandon the regulative principle of worship, either explicitly or by subterfuge. Abandoning the scriptural laws of worship places one outside of Reformed Christianity (with regard to worship) and sets him squarely in the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Anabaptist camp.

  1. The Psalms and Apostolic Worship

The Bible teaches that the Psalms were sung for public and private worship in the apostolic church. The singing of divinely inspired songs in worship is not only an Old Testament worship ordinance, but also a new covenant era ordinance.

Matthew 26:30

In fact, it was Jesus Himself who specifically used the Psalms for praise when He introduced the New Testament ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that immediately after the institution of the Lord’s Supper Jesus and the apostles sang a hymn. “And when they had sung a hymn [lit. ‘when they had hymned’], they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mt. 26:30; cf. Mk. 14:24). The majority of commentators believe that the word “hymn” here refers to a Psalm or Psalms from the “Hallel” (i.e., Ps. 113-118). James Morison writes, “Or Psalm, as it is in the margin and the Geneva: or very literally, And when they had hymned (humnesantes). The word does not imply that it was but one hymn or psalm that was sung or chanted. And if the tradition, preserved among the Jews, is of any weight in such a matter, the hymning at the conclusion of the supper would embrace Psalms cxv., cxvi., cxviii., which constitute the second part of the Jewish Hallelujah, or Hallel, as they call it. The other part of the Hallel consisted of Psalms cxiii., cxiv., which it was customary to chant at the commencement of the feast.”

Matthew Henry points out (in his commentary on the passage) that if Jesus and the disciples had departed from the normal Jewish practice of singing the Psalms after the Paschal meal, it probably would have been recorded in the Gospel accounts, for it would have been a new practice. He then writes, “Singing of psalms is a gospel-ordinance. Christ’s removing the hymn from the close of the passover to the close of the Lord’s Supper, plainly intimates that he intended that ordinance should continue in his church, that, as it had not its birth with the ceremonial law, so it should not die with it.” The Holy Spirit tells us that the Lord of glory sang Psalms at the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Bushell writes, “Psalmody and the Lord’s Supper are no more separable now than psalmody and the Passover ritual were in Old Testament times. There is thus no instance of Scripture that shows more clearly than this the abiding significance of the Old Testament Psalms for the New Testament Church.” Does your church follow the example of Jesus Christ and the Apostles by singing the Spirit-inspired Psalms of Scripture whenever you partake of the body and blood of our precious Savior?

It is providential that when Jesus was about to enter the humiliation, torture, agony, abandonment, and darkness of Golgotha He had the words of victory upon His lips:

The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it. Save now, I pray, O Lord; O Lord, I pray, send now prosperity. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! We have blessed you from the house of the Lord. God is the Lord, and He has given us light; bind the sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will praise You; You are my God, I will exalt You. Oh, give thanks to the Lord, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever (Ps. 118:22-29).

If the head of the church choose the Spirit-inspired Psalms for praise, comfort, and edification, should not His bride do likewise? Who are we to set aside the ordinance of the Son of God?

Acts 16:25

In Acts 16 Paul and Silas are cast into “the inner prison” (v. 24) as a result of mob influence upon the civil magistrates at Philippi. Luke records that “at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (v. 25). The verb used in this passage (humneo) translated as “singing hymns” (NKJV, NIV, RSV), “sang praises” (KJV), “sang hymns” (ASV), “singing hymns of praise” (NASB) is the same word used to describe Psalm singing in Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:24 (cf. also the section below on Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16). Given the fact that pious Jews often committed many of the Psalms to memory for devotional use, many commentators believe Paul and Silas were singing from the book of Psalms. Kistemaker writes, “Paul and Silas not only edify and strengthen themselves, but also provide a witness and a source of encouragement to the other prisoners who listen to their prayers and psalms (compare Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Jas. 5:13).” Lenski writes, “What hymns they sang we, of course, do not know, but the psalms of David have ever been dear to those who suffer, especially also to those who suffer wrong.” Hackett writes, “Their worship consisted chiefly of thanksgiving, the language of which they would desire more or less from the Psalms.” Alexander says, “Praying, hymned (or sang to) God, seems to express, not two distinct acts…but the single act of lyrical worship, or praying…by singing or chanting, perhaps one or more of the many passages in the Book of Psalms peculiarly adapted and intended for the use of prisoners and others under persecution.” Although there is no way for us to know conclusively what Paul and Silas sang, given the fact that there is not a shred of evidence for uninspired hymnody within the New Testament, it is very likely that they were singing Psalms. ‘In any event, there is certainly no evidence here requiring the supposition that materials other than Biblical Psalms would have been used—quite the reverse’….

James 5:13

James 5:13 says “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms.” The verb translated “sing psalms” in the KJV can also legitimately be translated “sing praise.” The phrase “sing praise” (psalleto) itself does not identify the content of what is used to sing praise. Therefore, one must let Scripture interpret Scripture in order to determine its meaning. In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 the noun form of this word (psalmois) refers to the Old Testament Psalms. In 1 Corinthians 14, it refers either to Old Testament Psalms or to divinely inspired songs not preserved in the New Testament canon. In Romans 15:9, it is used in a citation from the Septuagint version of Psalm 18:49. This citation alludes to the Messiah praising God among the nations. When Christ praised Jehovah during his earthly ministry He used the Old Testament Psalms (cf. Mt. 26:30). There is not a shred of biblical evidence that James 5:13 refers to uninspired praise. All the scriptural evidence points in the opposite direction: Spirit-inspired praise. Therefore, this passage cannot be used as a proof text for uninspired materials in worship.”4

I have already addressed Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, 1 Corinthians 14:26, and the Revelation songs in my previous article. It should go without saying that these have already been answered and deny the scriptural command to sing the song book God has so graciously given us.

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References/Endnotes:

  1. For example, Stephen Pribble’s The Regulative Principle and Singing in Worship (Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, 1995; originally published in The Harbinger, January-February, 1994)
  2. Wilson, Larry. Why Our Church Sings Hymns (As Well As Psalms). 2012. Web. http://redeemeropcairdrie.ca/why-our-church-sings-hymns-as-well-as-psalms/
  3. Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007. Print. Forms of the word “Psalmos” are used in Luke 20:42; Luke 24:44; Acts 1:20; Acts 13:33; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16. James 5:13 uses the word “Psaletto” which also means “praise”.
  4. Schwertley, Brian. Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense. 2002. Web. http://www.reformedonline.com/uploads/1/5/0/3/15030584/exclusive_psalmody.pdf
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