Letters on Singing: 3. Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Ephesians 5:19  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 8
Your question as to the authority given in the New Testament for the use of a hymn book in modern Christian assemblies is by no means new and has often been satisfactorily answered. But it may be profitable to refer again to this authority since the habit of testing all our practices by the word of God is one which can never be without value.
It is certain that hymns were used by the saints in the apostles' days. This is clear from the New Testament itself, and will be evident from the following passages which show (1) that the saints were exhorted to make use of such compositions. “Speaking to yourselves, in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:1919Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:19)). “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms [and] hymns [and] spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:1616Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Colossians 3:16)). “Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:1313Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. (James 5:13)). Moreover we find (2) that we have actual examples of such use—at midnight in the prison at Philippi, “Paul and Silas in praying were singing praises to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:2525And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them. (Acts 16:25). W. K.); at Corinth it was the custom to sing when assembled together. “How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, let all things be done unto edifying” (1 Cor. 14:2626How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. (1 Corinthians 14:26)). The apostle reproved them, not for the practice of singing (1 Cor. 14:1515What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Corinthians 14:15)), but for the confusion arising from the exercise of self-will in the assembly. Surely nothing needs to be added to the citation of these passages to prove that the early saints were in the regular habit of singing praise to the Lord, since both precept and practice unite in a clear testimony to that effect.
The phrase, “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” indicates that the compositions known and sung by the assembly at the beginning were varied in character, though of course of equal value in expressing the mind of the saints at different times. It is however difficult to exactly determine the definition of each term or even to point out its salient features. A psalm may have been an elevated address or invocation to God: a hymn welled up in praise and thanksgiving, while a song would be based on an intelligent apprehension of the mind of God,1 and possibly partook more of a didactic character, as well as introduced practical experience in the ways of God. However that may be, it is certain that the Spirit led the saints into the expression of the various emotions of their hearts Godward by psalm, hymn, or song, as was most suited.
PSALM (ψαλμός): referring to book of Psalms, Luke 20:42. 24:44, Acts 1:20; 13:3320For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take. (Acts 1:20)
33God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee. (Acts 13:33)
. “Every one hath a psalm” (1 Cor. 14.). “Speaking to yourselves in psalms” (Eph. 5:1919Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:19), Col. 3:1616Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Colossians 3:16)). “I will sing (ψ.) unto thy name” (Rom. 15:99And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. (Romans 15:9)). “I will sing (ψ.) with the spirit” &c. (1 Cor. 14:1515What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Corinthians 14:15)). “Singing and making melody (ψ). in your hearts” (Eph. 5:1919Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:19)). “Is any merry? let him sing (ψ.)” (James 5:1313Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. (James 5:13)).
These compositions have not been preserved among the writings of the New Testament, thus affording a contrast with the ancient economy. Israel possessed an inspired psalmody; but the Christian possesses the Spirit whereby the book of Psalms was inspired (2 Sam. 23:1, 21Now these be the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said, 2The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue. (2 Samuel 23:1‑2); Acts 1:1616Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus. (Acts 1:16)). He Who came upon the sweet singer of Israel intermittently, abides with the Christian continuously according to the promise of the Lord (John 14:16, 1716And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; 17Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (John 14:16‑17)). And He remains to lead the hearts and minds of the saints into that form of worship which the Father seeks. So that to confine the exercises of prayer and praise to certain stereotyped expressions is a virtual affront to the sovereignty of the ever present Spirit.
In the early church there were undoubtedly those fitted to compose Christian hymns suited for singing in the assembly. Whether these hymns were collected and how they were circulated among the saints, are, with kindred questions subjects partaking more of curiosity than practical value. Doubtless the memory was made more use of than in modern days, when the multiplication and spread of copies is such a simple matter. At any rate we observe Paul and Silas in the midnight darkness of the Philippian dungeon, not praying only, but singing aloud, as their fellow-prisoners could testify. It is highly probable therefore that they knew their hymns by heart. And one cannot refrain from adding at this juncture that we shall do well to heed the example of the apostles in this particular.
Familiarity with sacred verse is, as we shall presently see, recognized in scripture as a means of comfort and instruction. There is no question that hymn writing is just as much an exercise of gift in the assembly as exposition or exhortation and ought to be owned as such. And of course we do not imply that the authorship of hymns is by any means limited to the pastors, teachers or evangelists. But a good hymn by whomsoever composed is distinguished by the application of the truth of scripture to the emotions and needs of the spiritual nature and must confessedly be of the Spirit; and as such it is to be recognized and valued and loved by all. And why should it not be committed to memory? Why should saints be unable to sing the hymns they love most unless their books are before their eyes? Did James expect that the brother who was “merry,” would wait to get his book before he sang? It is almost certain that if this were the case his spirit of joyousness would have waned, if not altogether vanished, before he hit upon a suitable psalm
If then there are no inspired hymns preserved for use in the assemblies of the saints, what is there to guide the believer to-day, seeing there are many thousands of hymns extant in the English tongue alone? A selection must unavoidably be made; and the question presents itself as to what principles should be followed in the selection. This however goes rather beyond the main subject of these letters which is the singing rather than the selection of hymns. The recent articles on this topic in the B. T. will be of great service in this direction, especially if the references made are carefully studied.
But a further remark may be helpful to you as an individual in the actual matter of singing. One criterion alone there is by which to judge what should or should not be sung. And that criterion is the scripture of truth. It cannot be too much insisted on that the Father seeks that singing as well as every other form of worship should be “in truth.” The spiritual understanding is enlightened that it may offer intelligent praise. So that when a hymn is proposed to be sung, its sentiments should be carefully compared with the teaching of the word, not of course in a spirit of petty carping criticism, but in the fear of the Lord. For it must not be overlooked that there is a wide difference between perusing a hymn in private and in singing the same, whether in home devotion or in the assembly. In reading a hymn we view it as the production of a certain author and seek to discover its beauty and correctness; but in singing it to the Lord, we make its expressions our own; hence the importance that as far as possible they should be in strict accordance with the only standard of truth. How shall we justify ourselves to the Lord for singing to Him what we know or what we ought to know is contrary to the plain teaching of His own word!
As the term “psalms” has been quoted more than once, a few additional words seem called for upon the use of the Jewish psalter in the worship of Christian assemblies. And it is truly lamentable to think that saints should so far close their eyes to the true character of the Christian calling and hopes as delineated in the New Testament, as to adopt, as the expression of their own hearts, words and sentiments which are utterly incongruous with their own status before God.
It must be admitted by all that the book of Psalms formed an integral part of the religion of Israel, as established in the Old Testament. And if the sacrifices of the temple are superseded, are not its songs? If circumcision is subversive of Christianity (Gal. 5:44Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace. (Galatians 5:4)), can we without forfeiture of privilege import the psalmody of the circumcised into the very forefront of Christian worship? It is in point of fact a retrogression from grace to law.
The sharply defined contrast between the teaching of the Old Testament and the New as to worship has already been alluded to in these letters. To enumerate all the points of distinction would be a lengthy task. And here for obvious reasons one or two must suffice.
It must be readily acknowledged that the Psalms are instinct with hopes and promises of earthly and national deliverance which involve the subjugation and utter destruction of the enemies of Israel. This deliverance is to be effected by the advent of Messiah the Prince, Whose mighty power will judge and overthrow the nations and exalt Israel to a place of supreme honor and blessedness in the earth. Righteousness not grace, hope not faith, future not present blessing, vague trust not confident assurance are the prevailing principles in these songs of Jehovah. Moreover the blessing of the Gentiles is ever shown to be subordinate to that of Israel, in contrast to the unity of the Spirit which entirely obliterates all national distinctions (Gal. 3:2828There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)). So that the points of contrast are so great and of such primary moment as to preclude the praises of the Jew from being adequate for the Christian, or in any degree suited to his heavenly calling. Their full and proper use in worship is for “that day,” when all Israel shall be saved.
Of course while there is much that is peculiar to Israel and which the Christian cannot intelligently take on his lips to sing to God, there are many portions which have a common reference to Jewish and Gentile believers. The under current of piety and devotion is there for our profit, and will profit us so much the more as we apprehend the true relationship of the worshippers for whose use these songs were provided by God Himself. The New Testament guides as to what is suitable or otherwise. We are authorized to adopt the words of the Psalmist and boldly say, “The Lord is my helper and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb. 13:66So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me. (Hebrews 13:6); Psa. 118:77The Lord taketh my part with them that help me: therefore shall I see my desire upon them that hate me. (Psalm 118:7)). But how can the Christian who is enjoined by example and precept to pray for his enemies and to return them good for evil, adopt such language as Psa. 55:1515Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them. (Psalm 55:15)? “Let death seize upon them and let them go down quick into hell; for wickedness is in their dwellings and among them.” And this is not an isolated instance by any means. Passages occur throughout which are altogether unsuitable for the lips of the Christian; though proper for the dispensation they contemplate. Amongst others the following may be referred to as examples: Psa. 2:9; 3:7; 6:10; 7; 9:3, 15; 10:15-18; 11:6; 18:47, 48; 21:9; 28:4; 34:16, 21; 35; 37:2, 9, 20; 40:14, 15; 48; 52:5; 54:5; 58; 59; 60; 66:3; 68:2; 69:22-28; 70; 71:1-13; 72:4; 74; 75:8, 8; 79; 92:9; 97:3; 101:8; 109; 112:8, 10; 132:18; 139:19; 143:12; 144:11; 149:6-99Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel. (Psalm 2:9)
7Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God: for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly. (Psalm 3:7)
10Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed: let them return and be ashamed suddenly. (Psalm 6:10)
3When mine enemies are turned back, they shall fall and perish at thy presence. (Psalm 9:3)
15The heathen are sunk down in the pit that they made: in the net which they hid is their own foot taken. (Psalm 9:15)
15Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: seek out his wickedness till thou find none. 16The Lord is King for ever and ever: the heathen are perished out of his land. 17Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear: 18To judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress. (Psalm 10:15‑18)
6Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest: this shall be the portion of their cup. (Psalm 11:6)
47It is God that avengeth me, and subdueth the people under me. 48He delivereth me from mine enemies: yea, thou liftest me up above those that rise up against me: thou hast delivered me from the violent man. (Psalm 18:47‑48)
9Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger: the Lord shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour them. (Psalm 21:9)
4Give them according to their deeds, and according to the wickedness of their endeavors: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert. (Psalm 28:4)
16The face of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. (Psalm 34:16)
21Evil shall slay the wicked: and they that hate the righteous shall be desolate. (Psalm 34:21)
2For they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb. (Psalm 37:2)
9For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth. (Psalm 37:9)
20But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away. (Psalm 37:20)
14Let them be ashamed and confounded together that seek after my soul to destroy it; let them be driven backward and put to shame that wish me evil. 15Let them be desolate for a reward of their shame that say unto me, Aha, aha. (Psalm 40:14‑15)
5God shall likewise destroy thee for ever, he shall take thee away, and pluck thee out of thy dwelling place, and root thee out of the land of the living. Selah. (Psalm 52:5)
5He shall reward evil unto mine enemies: cut them off in thy truth. (Psalm 54:5)
3Say unto God, How terrible art thou in thy works! through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies submit themselves unto thee. (Psalm 66:3)
2As smoke is driven away, so drive them away: as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God. (Psalm 68:2)
22Let their table become a snare before them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap. 23Let their eyes be darkened, that they see not; and make their loins continually to shake. 24Pour out thine indignation upon them, and let thy wrathful anger take hold of them. 25Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents. 26For they persecute him whom thou hast smitten; and they talk to the grief of those whom thou hast wounded. 27Add iniquity unto their iniquity: and let them not come into thy righteousness. 28Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the righteous. (Psalm 69:22‑28)
1In thee, O Lord, do I put my trust: let me never be put to confusion. 2Deliver me in thy righteousness, and cause me to escape: incline thine ear unto me, and save me. 3Be thou my strong habitation, whereunto I may continually resort: thou hast given commandment to save me; for thou art my rock and my fortress. 4Deliver me, O my God, out of the hand of the wicked, out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man. 5For thou art my hope, O Lord God: thou art my trust from my youth. 6By thee have I been holden up from the womb: thou art he that took me out of my mother's bowels: my praise shall be continually of thee. 7I am as a wonder unto many; but thou art my strong refuge. 8Let my mouth be filled with thy praise and with thy honor all the day. 9Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength faileth. 10For mine enemies speak against me; and they that lay wait for my soul take counsel together, 11Saying, God hath forsaken him: persecute and take him; for there is none to deliver him. 12O God, be not far from me: O my God, make haste for my help. 13Let them be confounded and consumed that are adversaries to my soul; let them be covered with reproach and dishonor that seek my hurt. (Psalm 71:1‑13)
4He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor. (Psalm 72:4)
8For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them. (Psalm 75:8)
8For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red; it is full of mixture; and he poureth out of the same: but the dregs thereof, all the wicked of the earth shall wring them out, and drink them. (Psalm 75:8)
9For, lo, thine enemies, O Lord, for, lo, thine enemies shall perish; all the workers of iniquity shall be scattered. (Psalm 92:9)
3A fire goeth before him, and burneth up his enemies round about. (Psalm 97:3)
8I will early destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the Lord. (Psalm 101:8)
8His heart is established, he shall not be afraid, until he see his desire upon his enemies. (Psalm 112:8)
10The wicked shall see it, and be grieved; he shall gnash with his teeth, and melt away: the desire of the wicked shall perish. (Psalm 112:10)
18His enemies will I clothe with shame: but upon himself shall his crown flourish. (Psalm 132:18)
19Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men. (Psalm 139:19)
12And of thy mercy cut off mine enemies, and destroy all them that afflict my soul: for I am thy servant. (Psalm 143:12)
11Rid me, and deliver me from the hand of strange children, whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood: (Psalm 144:11)
6Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a twoedged sword in their hand; 7To execute vengeance upon the heathen, and punishments upon the people; 8To bind their kings with chains, and their nobles with fetters of iron; 9To execute upon them the judgment written: this honor have all his saints. Praise ye the Lord. (Psalm 149:6‑9)
A consideration of these and similar passages proves conclusively that the Psalms cannot be consistently used in Christian devotion, containing as they do so much that is utterly opposed to grace. And the following remark is really antagonistic to the truth, though a prevailing sentiment with many. “Surely of all books the inspired psalter commands our choice as a manual of devotion. These ‘choral songs of Israel,' especially when accompanied with their appropriate music, are well adapted to carry into execution the injunction of the apostle, if indeed this inspired hymn book be not, as some suppose, the immediate object here had in view, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord' (Eph. 5:19).2
It is utter confusion of thought to assume as is here and commonly done that the term “psalms” has an exclusive reference to those found in the Old Testament. And this confusion arises from not acknowledging the entirely different relationship in which the Jew stood from that of the believer now. Israel worshipped God as Jehovah. The Christian worships God as Father. And praise to Jehovah differs fundamentally from praise to the Father, and thus it is the psalms of David do not express the fuller revelations of the New Testament. Do we get anything in the series of songs that implies the knowledge of the Father and the Son? Not a word; for the simple reason that the Son had not then revealed the Father (Matt. 11:2727All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him. (Matthew 11:27); John 1:1818No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1:18)). Now, on the contrary, the very babes in Christ are characterized as knowing the Father (1 John 2:1313I write unto you, fathers, because ye have known him that is from the beginning. I write unto you, young men, because ye have overcome the wicked one. I write unto you, little children, because ye have known the Father. (1 John 2:13)), thus surpassing the most advanced Jew.
So that the Psalms are utterly inadequate as expressions of the spiritual emotions even of the very young in the faith. It is blessedly true that God speaks by means of them to the believer; but it is a serious perversion of the truth to suppose that the Christian ought to make use of them as a means of speaking to God in worship and praise.
Yours faithfully in our Lord,