Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs by G. I. Williamson

G. I. Williamson on ‘Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual songs:

“The proper interpretation of scripture terms requires that we discover, not what we mean by these terms when we use them today, but what the inspired writer meant when he used them. And it is one of the oddities of biblical interpretation that this rule is commonly observed with reference to the term ‘psalms’, and commonly disregarded with respect to the terms ‘hymns’ and ‘songs’. For the fact is that all three of these terms are used in the Bible to designate various selections contained in the Old Testament Psalter. In the Greek version of the Old Testament familiar to the Ephesians and Colossians the entire Psalter is entitled ‘Psalms’. In sixty-seven of the titles within the book the word ‘psalm’ is used. However, in six titles the word ‘hymn’ is used, rather than ‘psalm’, and in thirty-five the word ‘song’ appears. Even more important twelve titles use both ‘psalm’ and ‘song’, and two have ‘psalm’ and ‘hymn’. Psalm seventy-six is designated ‘psalm, hymn and song’. And at the end of the first seventy two psalms we read that ‘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 the simple reason that all three were biblical terms for psalms in the book of psalms itself. We are in the habit of using the terms ‘hymns’ and ‘songs’ for those compositions that are not psalms. But Paul and the Christians at Ephesus and Colossae used these terms as the Bible itself uses them, namely, as titles for the various psalms in the Old Testament Psalter. To us it may seem strange, or even unnecessary, that the Holy Spirit would use a variety of titles to describe His inspired compositions. But the fact is that He did so. Just as the Holy Spirit speaks of His ‘commandments and his statutes and his judgmentss’ (Deut.. 30:16, etc.), and of ‘miracles and wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22), so He speaks of His ‘psalms, hymns and songs’. As commandments, statutes and judgmentss are all divine laws in the language of scripture; as miracles and wonders and signs are all supernatural works of God in the language of scripture; so psalms, hymns and songs are the inspired compositions of the Psalter, in the language of scripture itself… The New Testament evidence sustains this conclusion. On the night of the Last Supper Jesus and His disciples sang ‘an hymn’ (Matt. 26:30). Bible expositors admit that this was ‘the second part of the Hallel Psalms (115-118)” which was always sung at the Passover. (New Bible Commentary, p. 835.) Matthew called this psalm a ‘hymn’ because a psalm is a hymn in the terminology of the Bible. To the same effect is the Old Testament quotation in Hebrews 2:12, in which the Greek word ‘hymn’ is quoted from Psalm 22:22. In this quotation from an Old Testament psalm, the word ‘hymn’ is used to denote the singing of psalms because the Old Testament makes no distinction between the two. But if Scripture itself says that psalms are hymns, and that hymns are psalms, why should we make any distinction between them? If we grant that the Apostle used biblical language in a biblical sense there is no more reason to think that he spoke of uninspired hymns in these texts (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19) than to think that he spoke of uninspired psalms, because hymns are inspired psalms in the holy scriptures.”

He goes on in regard to the OPC’s Majority report endeavoring to prove from God’s word that it is ok to sing non inspired songs in the worship of God:

“It is of no small importance that textual proof has never been demonstrated for the use of uninspired songs in worship. No one has yet found even a single scripture text to prove that God commands His Church to sing anything other than the psalms of the Bible in worship. And it is not because men have not searched diligently! A few years ago a Committee of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made such a search. This Committee had a majority in favour of the use of uninspired hymns in worship. And yet, after an exhaustive search through scripture requiring a number of years to complete, such proof could not be found. The Committee Chairman admitted that it is ‘impossible to prove that uninspired songs are authorized in scripture.’ He even said that ‘to demand such proof before one can in good conscience sing uninspired songs is to demand the impossible!’ (The Presbyterian Guardian, Vol. 17, p. 73). This is a grave admission. But it is no more than the facts require. For the bare truth is that no one has found so much as a single text of scripture commanding the use of uninspired songs in divine worship. And remember, we are not to worship God in any other way not commanded in His word.’

From Williamson’s WCF study class:

“[An] element of true worship is ‘the singing of psalms with grace in the heart.’ It will be observed that the Confession [21:5] does not acknowledge the legitimacy of the use of modern hymns in the worship of God, but rather only the psalms of the Old Testament. It is not generally realized today that Presbyterian and Reformed Churches originally used only the inspired psalms, hymns and songs of the Biblical Psalter in divine worship, but such is the case. The Westminster Assembly not only expressed the conviction that only the psalms should be sung in divine worship, but implemented it by preparing a metrical version of the Psalter for use in the Churches … we must record our conviction that the Confession is correct at this point. It is correct, we believe, because it has never been proved that God has commanded his Church to sing the uninspired compositions of men rather than or along with the inspired songs, hymns and psalms of the Psalter in divine worship” (The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes [Philadelphia: P & R, 1964], p. 167).”