Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A Brief Case for Exclusive Psalmody

My intention here is not to present a full case for exclusive psalmody.  I don't feel a need to do this because of so many others who have done a great job of making that case.  For starters, I would recommend Rev. Brian Schwertley's thorough article on the subject.  I would also recommend Rev. G. I. Williamson's article.  (On the question of musical instruments in worship, Williamson and Schwertley have written another couple of useful articles.)  I would also recommend a book by Michael Bushell entitled Songs of Zion: The Biblical Basis for Exclusive Psalmody.  I myself have not yet read this book (due to the most recent edition being a bit pricy), but I have heard this book recommended so many times from so many people that I'm pretty sure it is a very useful book on the subject.  Another useful article on this subject is the minority report submitted to the General Assembly of the OPC in 1947 while the OPC was investigating the question of songs in worship.  There is also a very helpful website devoted to the defense and practice of exclusive psalmody where many great and useful theoretical and practical resources can be found.

My intention here is simply to make a very brief argument for exclusive psalmody and then make some general comments on the subject.


The "regulative principle of worship" tells us to keep three categories of actions distinct: 1. things commanded, 2. things forbidden, and 3. things indifferent.  Since we are not to add to or subtract from God's law (Deuteronomy 12:32, etc.), we must avoid making things forbidden that God has not made forbidden, making things commanded or necessary that God has not made commanded or necessary, etc.  The exclusive psalmody position is simply this:  God has commanded us to sing psalms from the Book of Psalms in our worship of God (both in public and in private and family worship), and he has not commanded us to sing anything else in our worship of God.  Therefore, the singing of psalms in worship is a thing commanded, while the singing of anything else is a thing indifferent (since God has not forbidden the singing of other songs either).  We can distinguish a narrower and a looser definition of the word "worship."  In the broader sense, it includes (or should include) anything at all that we do, for "whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).  In this sense, mowing the lawn is an act of worship.  In the narrower sense of the word, "worship" refers to acts done in devotion to God that are specifically commanded by God and therefore can be said to be intrinsically pleasing to him (so that he is pleased when they are done and displeased if they are not done).  The exclusive psalmody position is that as the singing of psalms is commanded and no other songs are commanded, only the singing of psalms should be done in the worship of the church (using "worship" in the narrower sense).  This distinction is especially important when we speak of the public worship of the church, because a public worship service is a commanded event.  When the elders of the church call for a public worship service, the congregation is required to attend and participate, and therefore what is done in such a service is considered to be an offering up to God of that which is required by him.  To include the singing of anything other than the psalms in the worship service, then, is to require the people of God to engage in an act of singing that God has not required of them, which is to impose unlawfully upon their consciences and to confuse God's special worship with acts that are indifferent.  And this is to add to God's law, which is forbidden.


So now that we have a (hopefully) clear understanding of what exclusive psalmody is, the next question is, Why should we think it to be true?  Well, here's a brief argument (again, not intended to cover all bases and respond to every possible objection):

1. God has commanded us to sing as part of his worship.  This is evident to anyone who picks up the Bible and spends any significant amount of time looking through it.  There are commands to sing all over the Bible (including many in the Book of Psalms itself).  A few examples are Ephesians 5:9, Colossians 3:16, James 5:13, Psalm 104:33, etc., etc.

2. More specifically, God has commanded us to sing the psalms in the Book of Psalms in his worship.  How do we know this?  Well, for one thing, God has given us a worship hymn book right in the middle of the Bible.  If God gives you a hymn book--that is, a collection of songs designed for the worship of his people--it seems rather obvious that you should use it.  The first time I ever heard a psalm sung in worship as such (so far as I can recall) was when I was 22 years old.  I thought it was odd to hear people actually singing a part of the Bible.  How strange!  Now, I look back at my past and around at the various churches and think it odd that it occurs to so few evangelical Christians today (as opposed to in the past, when psalm-singing was normal and pretty much universal in the church) that God might actually want us to sing the book of songs that he gave us.

God has specifically commanded his people to use the book of songs he has given them in his worship.  In addition to his general command to sing, he has specifically prescribed the Book of Psalms in his worship.  See, for example, 2 Chronicles 29:30:

Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshipped.

This is clearly a reference to what we now call "The Book of Psalms."  It may not have been completed at that time, but the Chronicles passage clearly implies a collected book of songs for use in worship, and as we have such a collected book in our Bible which has a number of songs written by David and Asaph in it, I think it is safe to say that the Book of Psalms is the current, completed version of this collection.  There are other inspired songs recorded in the Scriptures elsewhere, some of which made it into the Book of Psalms and some of which didn't.  The distinction seems to be that some songs were intended for specific circumstantial use (like the song of Miriam in Exodus 15) while others were intended for the ongoing, regular worship of the people of God.  The church as a whole, in its ongoing regular worship, is to use the Book of Psalms, but there is no evidence that it is commanded to sing the songs not included in it.  In conclusion, the evidence of the Old Testament tells us that the people were commanded as part of their ongoing worship to sing the psalms, but it never gives us any indication that they were commanded to sing anything else.  Therefore, we can conclude based on the Old Testament data that the singing of psalms is commanded and the singing of other songs is indifferent.

But is singing from the Book of Psalms required in New Testament times, or only in Old Testament times?  A good rule of thumb when dealing with God's commands, considering that we are not to add to or diminish from his law, is that if God commands us to do something, we continue to observe that command until or unless God gives us some indication that we are to stop.  There is no evidence in the Scriptures that we are no longer to use the Book of Psalms in worship.  It is still there in our Bibles.  There is no obvious reason arising from it why we shouldn't sing it anymore.  One argument that might be made against using it in New Testament times is that the command to sing psalms was a part of the ceremonial law which was abrogated by the coming of Christ.  It is true that the singing of psalms was a part of the ceremonial worship of the OT people of God, and it is true that ceremonial worship as such (including, for example, the Temple worship, animal sacrifices, incense, etc.) was abrogated with the coming of Christ.  However, not all aspects of Old Testament worship have been abrogated.  The New Testament tells us that some elements of worship, such as having a holy convocation once a week, reading the Scriptures, the preaching of the Scriptures, and other things continue in New Testament times.  The command to sing is also repeated in the New Testament (as I noted earlier), which tells us that the element of singing in worship continues in New Testament times.  Does the New Testament alter the Old Testament's instructions as to what we should sing?  No, it doesn't.  It never annuls the Book of Psalms, nor does it provide anything else in addition to it.  Therefore, it follows that the New Testament people of God should continue to sing the Book of Psalms in their worship.

3. There is no evidence that anything besides the Book of Psalms is commanded for use by the people of God in their ongoing, regular worship.  There is not much to add here.  There is not even the slightest, clear hint of any command to sing uninspired songs in worship anywhere in the Old or New Testaments.  Some people think that there is such a command in Ephesians 5:9 and Colossians 3:16, because there Paul commands us to sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs."  Well, isn't that a clear command to sing not just psalms, but hymns and spiritual songs as well?  "Psalms" refers to the songs in the Book of Psalms, "hymns" refers to the songs of John Newton, Isaac Watts, etc., and "spiritual songs" refers to . . . contemporary worship songs like "Shine, Jesus, Shine"?  Obviously, people who make this argument often don't think it out fully.  The fact is that "psalms," "hymns," and "songs," are all words used by the Scripture to refer to the songs in the Book of Psalms!  Here is Rev. Schwertley on this point (footnote references added), pp. 11-12:

When we examine the Septuagint, we find that the terms psalm (psalmos), hymn (humnos), and song (odee) used by Paul clearly refers to the Old Testament book of Psalms and not ancient or modern uninspired hymns or songs. Bushell writes, “Psalmos ...occurs some 87 times in the Septuagint, some 78 of which are in the Psalms themselves, and 67 times in the psalm titles. It also forms the title to the Greek version of the psalter.... Humnos ...occurs some 17 times in the Septuagint, 13 of which are in the Psalms, six times in the titles. In 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Chronicles and Nehemiah there are some 16 examples in which the Psalms are called ‘hymns’ (humnoi) or ‘songs’ (odai) and the singing of them is called ‘hymning’ (humneo, humnodeo, humnesis).... Odee ...occurs some 80 times in the Septuagint, 45 of which are in the Psalms, 36 in the Psalm titles.” [Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, pp. 85-86.] In twelve Psalm titles we find both “psalm” and “song”; and, in two others we find “psalm” and “hymn.” “Psalm seventy-six is designated ‘psalm, hymn and song.’ And at the end of the first seventy two psalms we read ‘the hymns of David the son of Jesse are ended’ (Ps. 72:20). In other words, there is no more reason to think that the Apostle referred to psalms when he said ‘psalms,’ than when he said ‘hymns’ and ‘songs,’ for all three were biblical terms for psalms in the book of psalms itself.” [G.I. Williamson, The Singing of Praise in the Worship of God, p. 6.] To ignore how Paul’s audience would have understood these terms and how these terms are defined by the Bible; and then instead to import non-biblical modern meanings into these terms is exegetical malpractice.

So there is no evidence from these passages for a command to sing uninspired songs as a part of worship.  But what about other inspired songs recorded in the Scriptures?  I dealt with this a bit earlier.  While there are other songs and poems recorded in the Scriptures outside the Book of Psalms, there is no evidence that these songs are commanded to be used in the regular, ongoing worship of the people of God, unlike with the Book of Psalms.  Therefore, their presence is Scripture does not constitute evidence that we are commanded to sing them in our worship.  As I said earlier, the fact that we are given a collected book of songs for worship and these other songs are not included in it points to these songs as having been deliberately and specifically left out of the songs commanded to be sung in the ongoing worship of the people of God.

4. Therefore, in light of the above, we must conclude that we are commanded to sing the Book of Psalms as part of our worship and that we are not commanded to sing anything else.  Therefore, we should sing only the Book of Psalms in our worship (using "worship" in the narrower sense) and particularly in the public worship of the church.  The Westminster Confession (chapter 1, section 5) captures this well when it describes the ordinary elements of Christian worship (leaving out prayer, because it is addressed elsewhere in the same chapter):

The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings, upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religious manner. 

The Westminster Form of Presbyterial Church-Government also puts this well in its description of the "ordinances in a particular congregation":

THE ordinances in a single congregation are, prayer, thanksgiving, and singing of psalms, the word read, (although there follow no immediate explication of what is read,) the word expounded and applied, catechising, the sacraments administered, collection made for the poor, dismissing the people with a blessing.

We are not simply commanded to sing in a general sense, but it is the "singing of psalms" that is commanded.


I want to add to my above argument one more piece relating to instrumental music.  Again, see my links above to delve into a deeper look at the issue, but, in short, the main argument against using musical instruments in worship is that they are not commanded to be used in worship.  Instrumental music was a part of the ceremonial worship of the Old Testament, but that has been abolished in New Testament times, and there is no New Testament command to continue it.  Therefore, we cannot consider it commanded, etc.  Sometimes people argue that it can still be included because it is not a separate element of worship but rather a part of singing, perhaps as it provides accompaniment that aids in singing.  But the fact is that it is indeed a separate element.  It provides something that singing does not.  It adds its own unique contribution when it is used in worship.  It has the ability to stir the emotions in a unique way, for example.  It was very distinctly commanded and organized in the Old Testament dispensation (see 2 Chronicles 29, for example).  Also, singing is quite possible without it, so it is not required as part of the essence of singing.  Therefore, there ought to be a command for its use if it is going to be used in the worship of the church.  (Under normal circumstances at least--philosopher that I am, I can see a hypothetical argument being made that there might be circumstances where people are so awful at singing that they simply cannot do it without some instrumental accompaniment.  In such a case, perhaps a minimal accompaniment could be allowed.  But does this situation ever actually exist in reality?  Unless accompaniment can be shown to be truly necessary, I think it should be avoided because of the natural tendency of musical instrumentation to add its own distinct element to the experience of worship.)


Many comments could be made upon the benefits and implications of exclusive psalmody and the regulative principle of worship.  One comment that comes to my mind at this time is how the regulative principle, and its implication in exclusive psalmody and the avoidance of musical instrumentation in worship, keeps Christians from lording over the consciences of other Christians.  I enjoy psalm singing, but I also enjoy many other types of music.  Just this morning, I was listening to Enya, who is one of my favorite artists.  I also enjoy classical, traditional Japanese, Middle Eastern, Medieval and Renaissance, some contemporary Christian, celtic, and other kinds of music.  I'm quite sure that not everyone shares all of my tastes in music.  And I know I don't share a taste for all the music that suits other people either (such as country music, which I take on pure faith that some people somehow actually find enjoyable).  If I were to craft a worship service according to my taste in music, who knows what sorts of weird elements I might bring into it?  What songs would I use?  What forms of music would I employ?  What instruments would I use?  The end result would be that I would be imposing my own musical preferences on the entire congregation, forcing them to employ in their worship things that I personally find useful and enjoyable but which are not commanded and which may not be useful or enjoyable for others.  Not everyone gets out of my music what I get out of it.  It is not my place to impose that which is unique to myself on everyone else as if it were on par with what God has commanded for all.  The regulative principle reminds us to keep up a firm distinction between the worship of the people of God, which is something we all have in common together and which is intrinsically pleasing to God, and other activities we as individuals (or as voluntary groups) may find enjoyable and useful to engage in but which are not essential elements in God's commanded worship for his people.  Employing the regulative principle in worship allows the people of God to find unity in what God has given to all of us and to avoid imposing ourselves as lords over each other (which usually leads to schisms in the church).  And it allows God to define his own worship that is intrinsically pleasing to him, which is something that is his prerogative alone.

UPDATE 6/18/14:  For those interested in the history of psalm-singing in the worship of the church (in addition to the resources already cited above), here, here, and here are a few articles for starters.  The articles do not agree with each other in every point, but they are useful as a place to dive into further historical investigation on this subject.

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