What Shall We Sing? (2)

All that the Lord requires of his church, all that he has commanded, he has graciously provided for in the holy scriptures, “For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large” (The Belgic Confession, Article 7). The Psalter is designed for singing praise to God, hence the Hebrew title, ‘Sepher Tehillim’ i.e., the Book of Praises. It is well known that the early church sang the Psalms, also from early times different countries from Egypt to Romania, so language is not a hindrance. The singing of the Psalms is directly stated in the Old Testament, “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms” (Psalm 95:2). Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works” (Psalm 105:2). The same is stated in thirty-seven Psalms altogether. What could be clearer than that? It is commanded in the book of Chronicles, “Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him, talk ye of all his wondrous works” (1Chronicles 16:9). It is directly commanded in the New Testament. “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). “Let 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).

The Singing of Psalms in the New Testament:

The Book of Psalms is quoted times without number in the New Testament. A great degree of theology, i.e., knowledge of God and experience is derived from the Psalms. The Lord Jesus himself claims this, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44). Hence the conviction that Christ is in all the scriptures. “The voice of Christ and His church was well-nigh the only voice to be heard in the Psalms” (Augustine). It is the voice of the Saviour and his people, theology and experience, knowledge of Christ and the experience of his elect people. The Psalter was of great significance to Israel of old, it inspired hope. But are they not of even richer Christological significance to the New Testament church? This is why they are quoted so often in the New Testament. The Psalter is timeless, and its neglect in Christian worship is tragic.

Matthew & Mark

At the time of the Passover, “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives” (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26). The word translated hymn, ‘υμνησαντεσ’ in the original New Testament Greek, is referring to the second part of the Hallel, Psalms 115-118, 120-137, with which the Passover was normally concluded. As Jesus is faced with the cross and all its ramifications, in psalmody, he pledges to keep his vows, What shall I render unto the LORD for all his benefits toward me? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD. I will pay my vows unto the LORD now in the presence of all his people” (Psalm 116:12-14). Concluding with the declaration that ultimately he shall not die, but live, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the LORD” (Psalm 118:17). Thus we are given an insight to the mind of Christ, at time of severe trial, he trusts in God, as he predicted he would, “who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God” (Isaiah 50:10). He trusts his Father and our Father to guide him through his suffering and death. And this trust, faith is expressed, not with an uninspired hymn or chorus, but a song of praise from the Psalter.

Acts & Hebrews

The apostle Paul in prison, “and at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God. Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Acts 16:25). The word again in the original New Testament Greek is ‘υμνουν,’ lyrical worship, in other words. “What they sang we, of course, do not know, but the psalms of David have ever been dear to those who suffer, we may be sure they’re praying songs were not just a weary wail” (R Lenski). Doubtless singing, chanting what they knew by heart, that is, had previously learned, and I cannot perceive anything but scripture to have been in the apostolic at that time. The only other reference to this word is in the book of Hebrews, “I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee” (Psalm 22:22). Speaking of Jesus in relation to the saints of God. The only other New Testament reference is in Corinthians in the context of worship, “how is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm” (1Corinthians 14:26). More likely to be a spontaneous charismatic utterance, such gifts then yet being extant, but no longer.

Ephesians & Colossians

In reference to the inward life of the praise of the believer. Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesian 5:19). “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). Filled with the Spirit, the word of Christ indwelling. The infilling of the former, the Holy Spirit, brings the latter, the indwelling of the word of Christ. The Holy Spirit’s task is what? To take the things of Christ and reveal them to God’s people, “therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (John 16:15). And the outworking of this is, praise, inward, a glorious transformation of the soul, which commences with the rebirth of a child of God. I don’t think that it would be a stretch to assume that it would be existing compositions that would be used for this purpose, or else the saints would be bemused. What psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Well, specifically, the word of Christ. Where do we find the word of Christ? In Scripture, nowhere else, “all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2Timothy 3:16). Inspired, God-breathed. Does the word spiritual (πνευματικαισ) qualify the word song? Or perhaps all three words, spiritual psalms, hymns and songs? There has been and still is much debate over this matter. But, there is no evidence, justification here for any uninspired matter in the public congregational worship of God’s people. Sound exegesis will not bear the load. In the Septuagint, a then-popular translation in Greek of the Old Testament, psalm titles had all three of these terms, psalm, hymn, and song. In some instances, all three were used, in Psalm seventy-six two of them are used together, psalm and song. The word psalm (παλμοις) is used eighty-seven times in the Old Testament Septuagint. It is used sixty-seven times for psalm titles. In the New Testament, it used seven times. The word hymn (υμνοις) is used seventeen times, thirteen in the book of Psalms and once in the New Testament. The Greek word for song, ορ ode (ωδαισ) is used eighty times, thirty-six times in psalm titles. All three are used throughout the psalms. In the New Testament apart from Hebrews, the only other use of the song (ωδην) is in the book of Revelation (Revelation 5:9; 14:3; 15:3). None of them refers to hymns. It is spiritual, it is the word of Christ (Colossians 3:16). It is Psalms. The three terms correspond, agree, conform to each other, not an unusual thing in the Bible, i.e., “Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know” (Acts 2:22).

James & Romans

We have two references, Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:13 3). “And 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). Again the word usually translated hymn (υμιν) in James, and (παλω) psallo in Romans. In suffering or joy sing psalms, praises to God. The latter word in Romans is used fifty-six times in the Septuagint and mostly in the book of Psalms. But note here that Paul finds a basis for the Gentiles to sing psalms to God, where? In the book of Psalms, Therefore will I give thanks unto thee, O LORD, among the heathen, and sing praises unto thy name” (Psalm 18:49). There is no support for the use of any uninspired songs in any of these New Testament references.

The Suggestion of New Testament Hymns

The songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon. We would have no objection to their use, but few would advocate that there would be a purpose in doing so. They were inspired and used in a particular, specific historical-redemptive context. Some do refer to or make claim for fragments of hymns in such references as these Ephesians 5:14; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; 1Timothy 3:16. It is claimed that they witness the development of Christian liturgy. What do we say of such?

Speculative

There is no uncontradicted evidence that such is the case. William Binnie in his excellent and exhaustive work on the Psalms entitled “A Pathway to the Psalter” calls such precarious. A lot of ingenious and careful research has been done and there is still no universal agreement. It cannot be shown that they were ever in fact sung. No New Testament writer quotes the same fragment twice. It is hypothetical, to say the least in the absence of discernible laws. Simply the presence of lofty speech and an integrated structure does not necessarily denote a hymn.

Inconclusive

Even if the above were to be proved it would not be evidence for a developing liturgy. Even Providence is against such, for none of those fragments has come down to us. Do you not think that if the Holy Spirit required the church to use such, would he not have preserved them? Again, there is no evidence, no warrant, for uninspired hymns. Where New Testament praise is concerned the matter is inconclusive, imaginative, even.

The Sum of the Matter

Worship is a serious matter, it is what we are saved for. The sweet Psalmist of Israel says, Give unto the LORD, O ye mighty, give unto the LORD glory and strength. Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 29:1-2). The church in the Old Testament asked the very pertinent question, that does not even seem to be in the mind of today’s church, Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good” (Micah 6:6-9). To be content with what the Lord has given, provided in his word. Is it incomplete, insufficient? Again, the confessional testimony, “These Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein…The doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects” (The Belgic Confession, Article 7). Nothing is missing that must be added from another source. This is the truth of the sufficiency of scripture that the Reformation had in mind when it confessed “sola scriptura,” that is, “scripture alone.” The Psalter is divinely appointed we can be assured of that. But that assurance we do not have in singing hymns and modern-day choruses.

The Psalms are Sufficient

Some do make a fair point that the actual name of Jesus is not there. But Christ himself is there, in all the Psalms. All are related to him, for each relates to the redemption that he accomplished.

The Psalms are Productive

They produce biblical piety. With the best will in the world, hymns are just human compositions. They will never take you any deeper than their author. However biblical they may be they will always fall short of the piety, the devotion found in the Psalms. For the Psalmist experienced the direct and powerful influence of the Holy Spirit. It is a distinct mark of the shallowness of spirituality in today’s church in its neglect of the Psalms in public worship.

The Psalms are Powerful

It is the word of God! How can it not be powerful? However attractive the modern songs be at the human level, they are not any more palatable to the unsaved, who are dead to spiritual realities. And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience: Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Ephesians 2:1-3). It is only when the Inspirer of the Psalms regenerates, makes new that anyone begins to understand the Psalms and develop true godliness. The Psalms are powerful, mighty, they have moulded Christian piety for generations, in the early church, at the time of the Reformation, the Puritans and many more.

“It might seem unnecessary to state that this truth about the public worship of the church is binding upon the individual believer. He may not participate in any worship that “add(s) unto or take(s) away anything from the word of God” concerning public worship, including preaching that either adds to or takes away from the “doctrine” of scripture. But the behaviour of many confessing Reformed Christians demonstrates that the statement is necessary. Many enthusiastically engage in public worship that sins against the regulative principle of worship. They suppose that the manner of worship is merely a matter of their own discretion and decision. What they like or find moving governs their conduct in worship. With their church, they add to and subtract from what “God requires of us,” as they please. They please themselves in their worship. They do not please God. All their fervour in this will-worship is fervent disobedience to God.

By “the whole manner of worship,” the confession also refers to the content of the faith and the substance of the entire, holy, Christian life of the Reformed believer. This too is the worship of God. All that the Christian must believe unto salvation and all that makes up the saved, Christian life are taught in scripture. To this, none may add. From this, none may take away. “Doctrine” in this article (The Belgic Confession, Article 7), of the Confession (“the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects”) must be taken broadly in the sense of the teaching of scripture, whether of belief or of behaviour” (D Engelsma).

The eschatological Lamb of God looms over and through the Book of Praise, the Psalms. The One enthroned now and coming soon to judge the world in righteousness. One day we will all stand before him and give account for the entirety of our lives. “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (Psalm 32:1).

(James R Hamilton, March 2019)
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