PsalmodyExclusive Psalmody or New Covenant Hymnody? By Lee Irons-reviewed by Andrew Cunningham
Review: Exclusive Psalmody or New Covenant Hymnody? By Lee Irons
Before the review begins, I want to stress the importance of accurately representing the opposing position. As Christians we are to be truthful, thoughtful, and take care in how we represent others. In Lee Irons article, we are shown a lack of careful and thoughtful interaction. This is a response to his article to show that he is inaccurate in his claims.
A Response To Lee Irons
The beginning of the article starts with the definition of the regulative principle: “One of the most important aspects of Reformed worship is its insistence that whatever God has not commanded to be done in worship is forbidden. This is known as the regulative principle of worship, a principle that is warranted by the second commandment” (Irons). Here we should commend Irons for getting most of this right. The regulative principle, to an extent, is “whatever is not commanded is forbidden” (Irons). In other words, there must be warrant for anything we do in worship. This does not just include what we do and use but how we do these acts.
However, there are two particular errors I want to correct. He limits this idea to the 2nd Commandment. Although this is the prominent force or command, we have many instances in scripture that would be sufficient to help us understand the regulative principle (Cain and Abel, Golden Calf, Sons of Aaron, Uzziah, John 4, Matt. 15, Col. 2). The second point is described in the first subsection.
The Regulative Principle
It is important to understand what the regulative principle is and is not. “The false version of the regulative principle that is used is: ‘If it is not commanded, it is forbidden.’ In other words, there must be an explicit divine imperative for every worship ordinance in the church. Fundamentalist Baptists argue in this manner when they say, “Where are we commanded in the Bible to baptize infants?” Seventh-day Adventists follow this tactic when they say, ‘Show us where God commanded the apostolic church to rest and worship on Sunday instead of Saturday!’ Anti-regulativists use arguments such as: (a) the worship of the synagogue was never commanded by God; (b) Christ and the apostles attended and approved of synagogue worship; therefore, Christ and the apostles rejected the regulative principle. Once a person understands the true definition of the regulative principle, he will immediately recognize that the objections to Reformed worship offered by Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists and anti-regulativists are not based on Scripture, but on an ignorance of the regulative principle itself. Although it is not uncommon to see a regulativist give a statement such as ‘if it is not commanded, it is forbidden’ as a brief statement or summary of the principle, the Westminster Confession and virtually all Reformed authors define the regulative principle in a much broader fashion. The regulative principle refers not just to explicit commands of Scripture, but also to approved historical examples within the Bible and to good and necessary consequence, i.e., a particular worship practice or ordinance is inferred from many passages of Scripture.” (Schwertley, Regulative, Pg.62)
Dispensational Hermeneutics and the Sufficiency of the Psalter
I am picking individual statements because they seem to portray the whole argument. Statements that he makes seem logical, but when we examine them they fall short. Irons says the arguments for exclusive psalmody (EP) is “dismissed by those whose dispensational hermeneutic has ingrained within their consciousness a deep-seated distrust of any appeal to the OT to find moral standards governing the NT believer. Since the Psalter belongs to the OT canon, it is assumed without argument that it cannot be binding on the NT church.” (Irons) I found this statement fascinating because he goes against this idea later in the article.
He will point out that the psalms alone are not sufficient for us because of furthering redemptive events that will require us to praise God (which I will discuss in light of what is required for composing song in worship). Here I want to directly address the concerns of sufficiency. (To further the point, See Carl Trueman Here)
The Psalms are not only sufficient for New Testament worship, but they are all encompassing of who Christ is, what He has done, and what He will do. “And he said unto them, 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). Brian Schwertley goes more in depth at this point. “The Psalter reveals such a clear portrait of Christ and His work that any suggestion that they are inadequate in their exposition of Christ’s work shows a lack of understanding regarding their content. The Psalms teach Christ’s divinity (Ps. 45:6; 110:1), His eternal sonship (Ps. 2:7), His incarnation (Ps. 8:5; 40:7-9), His mediatorial offices as Prophet (Ps. 40:9-10), Priest (Ps. 110:4), and King (Ps. 2:7-12; 22:28; 45:6; 72; 110:1). The Psalms give us Spirit-inspired details regarding Christ’s betrayal (Ps. 41:9), His agony in the garden (Ps. 22:2); His trial (Ps. 35:11), His rejection (Ps. 22:6; 118:22), His crucifixion (Ps. 22; 69), His burial and resurrection (Ps. 16:9-11), His ascension (Ps. 24:7-10; 47:5; 68:18), and His second coming and judgment (Ps. 50:3-4; 98:6-9). They also tell us of the victory of Christ’s kingdom (Ps. 2:6-12; 45:6 ff.). Some Psalms reveal so much vital information regarding Christ’s person and work that they are called messianic Psalms (Ps. 2, 8, 16, 22, 40, 45, 69, 72, 110).” (Schwertley, Pg.19)
It should be noted that when one says the psalter is insufficient, they are using a dispensational hermeneutic which says the old testament is insufficient for new testament believers. Yet, Christ Himself refutes this point. Not only does He refute this point in Luke 24:44 but he calls them fools (a few verses back) and slow of heart that think they are insufficient. “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).
“Might it not be possible that the Scripture regulates song more like it regulates preaching?” (Irons) Irons blurs the line. Not only has it always been taught that singing is regulated more like the reading of scripture, but he does not understand the purpose of the Psalms in the Canon. The very fact that the song book is in the canon constitutes us to use it in worship.
“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.” (Schwertley, Pg. 5-6).
Prophecy and Inspired Prophets are the Requirements For Writing Songs
“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.” (2 Chron. 29)
“Inspiration is a necessary qualification for writing worship song…. The bible specifies a source for worship song.” (Rev. Robert McCurley)
“There is a biblical connection between prophecy and praise.” (Rev. Robert McCurley)
There is no warrant in scripture for the use of uninspired human composition for song in worship. Zero warrant. However, there is warrant for using inspired compositions in the worship of God. This warrant not only comes from direct command, but implicitly through the writers of these songs who were prophets. Here I want to show the biblical evidence that the song writers were prophets.
David The Prophet
What the following verses will demonstrate is that David is a prophet. When the reformation of Hezekiah happened, Hezekiah not only reformed back to the book (scriptures) but reformed back to biblical worship, giving praise to God using the “words of David, and of Asaph the seer”(V.30).
“Now 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, 2 The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue. 3 The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me, He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” (2 Sam. 23)
“29 Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. 30 Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne” (Acts 2)
“16 Men 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)
When going back to 2 Chronicles 29, we should note something. This event was a reformation back to the book or the scriptures. Included in this reformation is the restoration of biblical worship. When Hezekiah commanded reform, he commanded the Levites “to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer” (v.30).
There are other men mentioned for the task of writing or composing songs. These men are also prophets. (2 Chron. 29:30 – Asaph the Seer, 2 Chon. 35 – Jeduthin, 1 Chron. 25:5 – Heman)
What is a seer?
1 Sam. 9:9 – A seer was a prophet. “9 (Beforetime in Israel, when a man went to enquire of God, thus he spake, Come, and let us go to the seer: for he that is nowcalled a Prophet was beforetime called a Seer.)”
Also, Samuel called himself a seer. “19 And Samuel answered Saul, and said, I am the seer: go up before me unto the high place; for ye shall eat with me to day, and to morrow I will let thee go, and will tell thee all that isin thine heart” (9:19).
Prophecy Producing Song
1 Chron. 25:1-7 – Here we see that prophecy is producing worship song. “Moreover David and the captains of the host separated to the service of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with harps, with psalteries, and with cymbals: and the number of the workmen according to their service was: 2 of the sons of Asaph; Zaccur, and Joseph, and Nethaniah, and Asarelah, the sons of Asaph under the hands of Asaph,which prophesied according to the order of the king. 3 Of Jeduthun: the sons of Jeduthun; Gedaliah, and Zeri, and Jeshaiah, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the hands of their father Jeduthun, who prophesiedwith a harp, to give thanks and to praise the Lord. 4 Of Heman: the sons of Heman; Bukkiah, Mattaniah, Uzziel, Shebuel, and Jerimoth, Hananiah, Hanani, Eliathah, Giddalti, and Romamti-ezer, Joshbekashah, Mallothi, Hothir, and Mahazioth: 5 all these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer in the words of God, to lift up the horn. And God gave to Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. 6 All these were under the hands of their father for song inthe house of the Lord, with cymbals, psalteries, and harps, for the service of the house of God, according to the king’s order to Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman. 7 So the number of them, with their brethren that were instructed in the songs of the Lord, even all that were cunning, was two hundred fourscore and eight.”
Individual Prophets Who Wrote Songs
Deut. 31:19-21 – Moses, as a prophet, was commissioned by God to write a song to be sung for Israel. “19 Now therefore write ye this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel: put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel. 20 For when I shall have brought them into the land which I sware unto their fathers, that floweth with milk and honey; and they shall have eaten and filled themselves, and waxen fat; then will they turn unto other gods, and serve them, and provoke me, and break my covenant. 21 And it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are befallen them, that this song shall testify against them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: for I know their imagination which they go about, even now, before I have brought them into the land which I sware.”
Judges 4:4 – Deborah was a prophetess. “4 And Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lapidoth, she judged Israel at that time.”
Exodus 15:20 – Miriam was a Prophetess. “20 And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”
The point of these are to demonstrate that the prophetic office was necessary for writing song for worship. There is no biblical warrant within scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the worship of God. However, all of these point to the fact that there is warrant for inspired song in worship. I do not think I have to labor much more with the Isaiah and Habakkuk texts. It should go without saying that both of these men are prophets.
New Testament Examples
When Lee Irons uses the Luke passages to portray them as songs, he is not careful. They were not sung, nor is there evidence that they are songs. What do the passages actually say?
Luke 1:46 – “46 And Mary said”
Luke 1: 67 – “67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, andprophesied, saying”
Luke 2: 13-14 – “13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Luke 2: 28 – “28 then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said”
In regards to the “hymn fragments” in Colossians and Philippians it should be noted that these are not songs, Paul is not said to have sung them, and there is not command to sing. “A common method for arguing against exclusive Psalmody is to appeal to the existence of hymnic fragments within the New Testament. The existence of these hymnic fragments, we are told, teaches us that the apostolic church was engaged in hymn writing, and thus we also ought to compose our own hymns. The problem with this argument is that it is not based on solid scriptural evidence, but is basically the speculation of modernistic theologians and commentators. The Greek scholar Delling writes, “Attempts have been made to identify various primitive Christian hymns or hymnal fragments in the N.T. But such identifications must remain hypothetical, particularly as there is in the N.T. no attempt—and this is a point worth noting in itself—to use the Greek style of metrical hymns…. The pieces in the N.T. which take the form of praise are in general so little controlled by any discernable laws that for the most part judgment as to their character as hymns can claim only limited validity.” A study of the literature which speaks of these so-called hymnic fragments reveals that the methodology for determining what is and is not a hymn fragment is totally subjective and unreliable. Subjective speculation does not provide a biblical foundation for church practice, especially in light of the biblical evidence in favor of exclusive Psalmody.
Furthermore, if hymnology flourished in the apostolic church, as many suppose, “it is indeed remarkable that not a single one of these hymns has survived intact outside the New Testament writings. Nor is there a single shred of undisputed historical evidence suggesting the use of such hymns in the Church in the second century. It is just as astounding that not a single one of these ‘hymns’ is identified as such in the New Testament writings themselves.” Since Scripture never identifies the poetic or rhythmical passages as songs or hymns fragments, and since there is not a shred of evidence that these fragments were used for worship songs in the apostolic church, or even in the second century, we can refer to the hymn fragment argument against exclusive Psalmody as the grasping after invisible straws argument.” (Schwertley, Pg. 17)
1 Corinthians 14
Lee Irons goes to 1 Corinthians in order to use this as an argument. His lack of carefulness to the text shows. “In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals with revelatory gifts and the need for intelligibility in the assembly for the edification of the body. He also deals with the closely related issue of proper order in public worship. In this context Paul speaks of the praise as practiced at Corinth: “I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding” (v. 15), “Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (v. 26). Although there are writers who believe that these passages refer to Old Testament Psalms, the majority of interpreters believe that Paul is referring to a type of charismatic hymnody. That is, there were believers at Corinth who received songs of praise by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Whatever position one holds to regarding these passages, one thing is certain: divine inspiration was a prerequisite for writing worship songs at Corinth. Therefore, this passage cannot be used to support the uninspired hymnody practiced today. Since in God’s providence none of these inspired songs were inscripturated, their use was limited to the first century prior to the close of the canon.
These passages, however, are often used to raise a question regarding the sufficiency of the book of Psalms for praise in the new covenant era. If the book of Psalms is sufficient for praise in new covenant churches, then why were other inspired songs of praise used? These passages do not disprove exclusive Psalmody for two reasons. First, these passages do not refer to congregational singing, but rather to a single individual who speaks in tongues or prophecies while singing. Since the revelatory gifts have ceased, this practice is no longer a part of congregational worship. Second, the churches in the apostolic age had to function without a complete New Testament to interpret the Old Testament, thus direct revelation was needed.
‘The Old Testament psalms are in a sense insufficient for the worship needs of the Church in this dispensation, but only in the sense that they require the interpretation of completed New Testament canon to be properly understood, used, and sung. God may well have given the Corinthians such charismatic songs to ‘fill the gap’ until this need was met. This was, in fact, what the charismatic gifts were all about. So the presence of charismatic singing in the early days of the Church cannot be offered as justification for composing new songs now, any more than the exercise of prophetic gifts in the same context can be seen as suggesting the need for new prophetic oracles in the present day.’
Furthermore, even if one accepts the interpretation that 1 Corinthians 14:15, 26 proves that churches today can sing other songs besides the book of Psalms, these passages would only permit the few inspired songs given in Scripture that are not in the book of Psalms and no others. When the revelatory gifts ceased with the death of the apostles, so did the possibility of divinely inspired hymnody.” (Schwertley, Pg. 14-15)
The songs in Revelation are not meant for congregational worship. These songs do not mean what you think they mean. Here is Brian Schwertley to explain: “The Book of Revelation contains a number of examples of worship song (e.g., 4:8, 11; 5:9-13; 7:10-12; 11:17-18; 14:2-3; 15:3-4; 19:1, 2, 5, 8). A question that needs to be answered regarding these songs is: “Do these allusions to worship in heaven teach us anything regarding what we are to sing in public worship and how we are to conduct public worship at the present time?” No, they clearly do not.
The Book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, and therefore was not meant to be a literal guide or pattern for public worship. If it was, we would all be Romanists, for Revelation describes an “altar” (6:9; 8:3, 5; 9:13; 11:1; 14:18; 16:7); “incense” (8:4); “trumpets” (1:10; 4:1; 8:13; 9:14); “harps” (5:8; 14:2; 15:2) and even the “ark of the covenant” (11:19). We also would have to be mystics, for Revelation has every creature, including birds, insects, jellyfish, and worms, etc., praising God (5:13). Apocalyptic literature uses figurative language and dramatic imagery to teach spiritual lessons. “The important thing in watching a drama is not the props, but the message they help to portray.” “The Book of Revelation is filled to overflowing with obscure rites, with thrones and temples, and with a whole host of liturgical acts that cannot possibly relate to our own circumstances of worship. The attempt to derive elements of worship from such apocalyptic literature can only lead to liturgical chaos.” Furthermore, even if one wanted to take the apocalyptic scenes of worship in heaven as normative for the church today, they still would not authorize the use of uninspired hymns, for the songs sung by the angels, four living creatures, and sinless heavenly saints “are in the nature of the case inspired compositions, proceeding as they do from heaven itself and the very throne and presence of God.” But (as noted) the apocalyptic worship scenes with their altar, incense, harps, and other ceremonial images clearly cannot be applied to the new covenant church without Scripture contradicting itself, which is impossible.
Some writers appeal to the “new song” mentioned in Revelation 14:3 as scriptural authorization for the composing of “new songs” today. A study of this phrase in Scripture, however, will prove that the biblical phrase “new song” has nothing to do with composing new uninspired songs after the close of the canon. The phrase “new song” in the Old Testament can refer to a song which has as its theme new mercies or new marvels of God’s power (e.g., 40:3; 98:1). But keep in mind that this phrase is only used to describe songs written under divine inspiration. This fact limits “new songs” to the inspired songs of the Bible. Since the phrase “new song” is only used to describe songs written by people who had the prophetic gift, and did not apply to just any Israelite, it therefore certainly does not apply to Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, or any other uninspired hymn writer.
Another meaning of “new song” refers not to a song describing new mercies, but rather to singing a song anew; that is, with a thankful, rejoicing heart; with a new impulse of gratitude. The song may in fact be very old, but as we apply the inspired song experimentally to our own situation, we sing it anew. This is probably the meaning of “sing a new song” in the Psalms, which use the phrase, yet do not discuss new mercies. For example, Psalm 33 uses the phrase “sing a new song,” and then discusses general well-known doctrines: creation, providence, and hope and trust in God. Also, there is a sense in which all the Old Testament songs are “new songs” for the new covenant Christian, in that we sing the Psalms with an understanding and perspective unknown to Old Testament believers. Because of God’s expression of love in and by Christ, Jesus and the Apostle John can even refer to a well-known Old Testament commandment (Lev. 19:18) as a “new commandment” (Jn. 13:34; 1 Jn. 2:7; 2 Jn. 5)” (Schwertley, Pg. 16).
Eph. 5:19 & Col. 3:16
These two passages seem to be the focal point of his argumentation. If his understanding of these two passages are correct, then his argumentation will follow. However, his first statement discards the rest of his argument. Lee Irons says “according to Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19, the church is commanded to compose hymns” (Irons). Here Irons is flat out wrong. What do the texts actually say? To compose? Or something else?
Eph. 5:19 – “speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord”
Col. 3:16 – “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”
Furthering the point and others, Brian Schwertley labors in these two passages. “Two passages which are crucial to the exclusive Psalmody debate are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. These passages are important because they are used as proof texts by both exclusive Psalm singers and those who use uninspired hymns in worship. Paul writes, “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:18-19). “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” (Col. 3:16).
Before we consider the question of how these passages relate to public worship, we first will consider the question “what does Paul mean by psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs?” This question is very important, for many advocates of uninspired hymnody (who claim to adhere to the regulative principle) point to this passage as proof that uninspired hymns are permitted in public worship by God. When examining passages such as Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, one should not make the common mistake of importing our modern meaning or usage of a word, such as hymn, into what Paul wrote over nineteen hundred years ago. When a person hears the word “hymn” today, he immediately thinks of the extra-biblical non-inspired hymns found in the pews of most churches. The only way to really determine what Paul meant by “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” is to determine how these terms were used by Greek-speaking Christians in the first century.
When interpreting religious terminology used by Paul in his epistles, there are certain rules of interpretation that should be followed. First, the religious thinking and worldview of the apostles was essentially from the Old Testament and Jesus Christ, not Greek heathenism. Therefore, when Paul discusses doctrine or worship, the first place to look for help in understanding religious terms is the Old Testament. We often find Hebrew expressions or terms expressed in koine Greek. Second, we must keep in mind that the churches that Paul founded in Asia consisted of converted Jews, Gentile proselytes to Old Testament Judaism (God-fearers) and Gentile pagans. These churches had a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. When Paul expressed Old Testament ideas to a Greek-speaking audience, he would use the religious terminology of the Septuagint. If the terms hymns (humnois) and spiritual songs (odais pheumatikais) were defined within the New Testament, then looking to the Septuagint for the meaning of these words would be unnecessary. Given the fact, however, that these terms are rarely used in the New Testament and cannot be defined within their immediate context apart from a knowledge of the Old Testament, it would be exegetically irresponsible to ignore how these words are used in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament.
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.”25 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.” 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.
One of the most common objections against the idea that in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 Paul is speaking of the book of Psalms is that it would be absurd for apostle to say, “sing psalms, psalms, and psalms.” This objection fails to consider the fact that a common literary method among the ancient Jews was to use a triadic form of expression to express an idea, act, or object. The Bible contains many examples of triadic expression. For example: Exodus 34:7—“iniquity and transgression and sin”; Deuteronomy 5:31 and 6:1—“commandments and statutes and judgments”; Matthew 22:37—“with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (cf. Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27); Acts 2:22—“miracles and wonders and signs”; Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16—“psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” “The triadic distinction used by Paul would be readily understood by those familiar with their Hebrew OT Psalter or the Greek Septuagint, where the Psalm titles are differentiated psalms, hymns, and songs. This interpretation does justice to the analogy of Scripture, i.e. Scripture is its own best interpreter.”
The interpretation that says that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” refers to the inspired book of Psalms also receives biblical support from the immediate context and grammar of these passages. In Colossians 3:16 we are exhorted: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly….” In this passage the word of Christ is very likely synonymous with the word of God. “In 1 Pet. 1:11 it is stated that ‘the spirit of Christ’ was in the Old Testament prophets and through them testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glory which should follow. If, as is definitely stated, the Spirit of Christ testified these things through the prophets, then Christ was the real Author of those Scriptures. Prominent among those prophecies, which so testified concerning Christ, is the Book of Psalms, and therefore Christ is the Author of the Psalms.” After Paul exhorts the Colossian church to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly, he immediately points them to the book of Psalms; a book which comprehends “most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible;” a book far superior to any human devotional book, which Calvin called “an anatomy of all parts of the soul;” a book which is “a compendium of all divinity.” Do we let the Scriptures, the word of Christ dwell within us when we sing uninspired human compositions in worship? No, we do not! If we are to sing and meditate upon the word of Christ, we must sing the songs that Christ has written by His Spirit—the book of Psalms.
The grammar also supports the contention that Paul was speaking of the book of Psalms. In our English Bibles the adjective “spiritual” only applies to the word songs (“spiritual songs”). In the Greek language, however, when an adjective immediately follows two or more nouns, it applies to all the preceding nouns. John Murray writes,
‘Why does the word pneumatikos [spiritual] qualify odais and not psalmois and hymnois? A reasonable answer to this question is that pneumatikais qualifies all three datives and that its gender (fem.) is due to attraction to the gender of the noun that is closest to it. Another distinct possibility, made particularly plausible by the omission of the copulative in Colossians 3:16, is that “Spiritual songs” are the genus of which “psalms” and “hymns” are the species. This is the view of Meyer, for example. On either of these assumptions the psalms, hymns, and songs are all “Spiritual” and therefore all inspired by the Holy Spirit. The bearing of this upon the question at issue is perfectly apparent. Uninspired hymns are immediately excluded.’
If one wants to argue that spiritual does not apply to psalms and hymns, then one must answer two pertinent questions. First, why would Paul insist on divine inspiration for songs, yet permit uninspired hymns? We can safely assume that Paul was not irrational. Second, given the fact that “psalms” refers to divinely inspired songs, it would be unscriptural not to apply spiritual to that term. Furthermore, since we have already established that the phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” refers to the divinely inspired book of Psalms, it is only natural to apply “spiritual” to all three terms. Since the book of Psalms is composed of divinely inspired or spiritual psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we obey God only when we praise Him using the biblical Psalter; uninspired hymns do not meet the scriptural criteria for authorized praise.
Another question that needs to be considered regarding these passages is: “Do these passages refer to formal public worship services or to informal Christian gatherings?” Since Paul is discussing the mutual edification of believers by singing inspired songs in private worship situations, it would be inconsistent on his part to allow uninspired songs in the more formal public worship settings. “What is proper or improper to be sung in one instance must be seen as proper or improper to be sung in the other. Worship is still worship, whatever its circumstances and regardless of the number of people involved.” “If psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are the limits of the material of songs in praise of God in less formal acts of worship, how much more are they the limits in more formal acts of worship?” (Schwertley, Pg. 10-14).
Historical Witness on Eph. 5 and Col. 3
What did reformers of the first and second reformations or even the next generations think about “Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs”? They made no distinction between them and knew they were a reference to the book of Psalms.
John Calvin: “Now he vppeneth here Songs, Psalms, and Hymns, which differ nothing at all one from another: and therefore I need not too busy myself in setting forth any curious distinction of them.”(Commentary on Ephesians 5)
Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622), English Puritan, scholar in Hebrew and Rabbinics, commenting on Psalm 3: “There be three kinds of songs mentioned in this book: 1. Mizmor, in Greek psalmos, a psalm: 2. Tehillah, in Greek humnos, a hymn or praise: and 3. Shir, in Greek ode, a song or lay. All these three the apostle mentioneth together, where he willeth us to speak to ourselves with ‘psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs,’ Ephesians 5:19.”
John Cotton (1584-1652), New England Congregationalist theologian: “In both which places (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), as the apostle exhorteth us to singing, so he instructeth us what the matter of our song should be, to wit, Psalmes, hymnes, and spirituall Songs. Now these three be the very titles of the Songs of David, as they are delivered to us by the Holy Ghost himself: some of them are called Mizmorim, that is Psalmes; some Tehillim, that is Hymnes; some Shirim, that is Songs, spirituall Songs. Now what reason can be given why the apostle should direct us in our singing to the very titles of David’s Psalms, if it were not his meaning that we should sing them? … The words of David and Asaph, as they were the words of Christ in the mouth of David and Asaph: so they were the words of Christ also in the mouths of the sonnes of Corah, or any other singers in the Temple.”
David Dickson: “The reason of the Precept is from those better fruits which spiritual joy produceth, such are all sorts of spiritu∣al Songs, especially those which are in the holy Scriptures, with which they should mutually edifie one another, and glorifie God from their heart or spiritual affection. A Psalm is a sacred song in general, especially that which is by playing on the harp. A Hymn properly contains Gods praise. An Ode or Song, is a common name.”(Commentary on Eph. 5)
John Gill: “By psalms are meant the Psalms of David, and others which compose the book that goes by that name, for other psalms there are none; and by “hymns” we are to understand, not such as are made by good men, without the inspiration of the Spirit of God; since they are placed between psalms and spiritual songs, made by men inspired by the Holy Ghost; and are put upon a level with them, and to be sung along with them, to the edification of churches; but these are only another name for the Book of Psalms, the running title of which may as well be the Book of Hymns, as it is rendered by Ainsworth; and the psalm which our Lord sung with his disciples after the supper, is called an hymn; and so are the psalms in general called hymns, by Philo the Jew; and songs and hymns by Josephus; and, “songs and praises”, or “hymns”, in the Talmud: and by “spiritual songs” are meant the same Psalms of David, Asaph and the titles of many of them are songs, and sometimes a psalm and song, and song and psalm, a song of degrees; together with all other Scriptural songs, written by inspired men; and which are called “spiritual”, because they are indited by the Spirit of God, consist of spiritual matter, and are designed for spiritual edification; and are opposed to all profane, loose, and wanton songs: these three words answer to the several titles of David’s Psalms”(Commentary on Eph. 5)
Matthew Henry: “We must admonish one another in psalms and hymns. Observe, Singing of psalms is a gospel ordinance: psalmois kai hymnois kai odais—the Psalms of David, and spiritual hymns and odes, collected out of the scripture, and suited to special occasions, instead of their lewd and profane songs in their idolatrous worship. Religious poesy seems countenanced by these expressions and is capable of great edification. But, when we sing psalms, we make no melody unless we sing with grace in our hearts, unless we are suitably affected with what we sing and go along in it with true devotion and understanding. Singing of psalms is a teaching ordinance as well as a praising ordinance; and we are not only to quicken and encourage ourselves, but to teach and admonish one another, mutually excite our affections, and convey instructions.”(Commentary on Col. 3)
John Gill: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you…The Alexandrian copy and Arabic version read, “the word of God”; by which may be meant the whole Scripture, all the writings of the Old and New Testament, which are by inspiration of God, were endited by the spirit of Christ, speak and testify of him, and were written for his sake, and on his account, and therefore may be called his word; and are what should be searched into, carefully attended to, diligently read, and frequently meditated upon; and which are able, under a divine blessing, to furnish with all spiritual wisdom, or to make men wise unto salvation: or by the word of Christ may be meant more especially the Gospel, which Christ is the author of as God, the preacher of as man, and the subject matter of as God-man and Mediator: it is the word concerning him, his person and offices; concerning peace and pardon by his blood, justification by his righteousness, and complete salvation through his obedience, sufferings and death….psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs; referring very probably to the title of several of David’s psalms, (lykvm) ; “Maschil”, which signifies giving instruction, or causing to understand; these psalms, and the singing of them, being appointed as an ordinance, of God to teach, instruct, admonish, and edify the saints”. (Commentary on Col. 3)
Thomas Manton (1620-1677): English Puritan, commenting on Ephesians 5:19: “The learned observe, these are the express titles of David’s Psalms, mizmorim, tehillim, and Shirim, which the Septuagint translate, psalmoi, humnoi, and odai, ‘psalms, hymns, and songs,’ [and] seem to recommend to us the book of David’s Psalms.”
I do not find any real need to further discuss this particular point. The argument goes as follows: We are shown that a new song is written in every redemptive event. Thus we need to write new songs for the redemptive events of the New Covenant church. First, to follow this to its logical conclusion would be impossible. We cannot write every single redemptive act. The argument is based upon the assumption that inspiration by the Holy Spirit is not required. I have demonstrated the contrary. Yet, there seems to be a misunderstanding of the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. “Our view of progressive revelation is not different than that of any other writer who approaches Scripture from a Reformed perspective. Revelation has ‘progressed’ from the Old Testament to the New in the sense that there has been movement from type and shadow to fulfillment in Christ. But that does not mean that the Old Testament had been superseded or that it has become obsolete. The truth of the matter has never been said better than in the old pedagogical phrase: ‘The New is in the Old contained. The Old is in the New explained.’ The Old Testament was reborn with the revelation of Christ. It was not rendered obsolete or irrelevant for New Testament worship. In fact, with the coming of Christ, the Old Testament has finally become fully comprehensible. That is why the New Testament is written using typical language of the Old Testament. It is why the New Testament contains some 344 direct quotes from the Old Testament and some 2,335 identifiable verbal parallels with the Old Testament verses. This is why the ‘progress of revelation’ of which Gordon speaks does not require ‘a corresponding progress in the production of devotional material.’ The new is contained in the old. The ‘progress in production of devotional material’ that Gordon thinks is necessary took place when the light of the New Testament illuminated the Psalter. The Psalter was reborn” (Bushell, Pg. 66-67).
The second thing I must mention is that the term “new song” has been dealt with briefly. However, here are some further remarks:
“There are 9 new song references in the scriptures 6 of which are found in the Psalms alone: Psalms 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9 & 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9 & 14:3.
1) In every reference the command or the description is that of a “new song,” (singular) not new songs (plural). This would appear to be significant in that new songs would refer to an ongoing collection of songs to be written whereas new song would refer to a particular song with its own particular elements and requirements.
2) This is supported by the command that accompanies these descriptions. The new song is to be sung, not composed. The new song must then be provided by God Himself: that is an inspired source other than the singer or singers who are called to praise God.
3) This is demonstrated in the Psalms, where the phrase “new song” is primarily placed at the beginning (not the end) of the Psalm suggesting that it is, in fact, the content of the new song.
4) In Psalm 144:9 (where this is not the case) David says “I will sing a new song” (emphasis mine). Of course this does not necessarily rule out others from joining in, but the context indicates that the previous statement is a personal one: “the one who gives salvation to kings, who delivers David his servant” (emphasis mine). In any case there is no command here to compose a new song. David by the inspiration of the Spirit is the composer; we are the choir.
5) We see this clearly in Psalm 40:3 which reads “He has put a new song in my mouth.” In this verse David, who was the “sweet Psalmist of Israel,” acknowledges that the new song has been given to him by God.. This could not more clearly refer to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
6) In Isaiah 42:10, the prophet borrows the idea of a new song from the Psalms and applies it to a new people, namely to the Gentiles (“from the ends of the earth” cf. vs. 6 where Israel will be a light to the Gentiles). This could either mean that, with the inclusion of the Gentiles new songs would have to be written to celebrate the creation of a “new man” (Ephesians 2:15), or the ‘old’ songs would take on new meaning by being sung by the Gentile converts. It would seem the latter is the case since in Psalm 96 the Psalmist speaks of singing to the Lord a new song in vs. 1 and then calls upon the nations in vs. 7ff. to join him in his praise of God).
7) In fact the singing of Psalms (as a canonical book) is more suitable to the new covenant church than it ever was to the old. The Psalms prolepticaly anticipate the day when Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem. So the language of Israel’s faith as applied to the Gentiles becomes a ‘new song’ i.e. new in meaning without being newly written. In fact it is impossible that a ‘new song’ could only refer to a new situation (i.e. the necessity of songs to be written as the Gentiles were enfolded into Israel) since Israel was commanded to sing a new song before the inclusion of the Gentiles.
8) This understanding of new song meaning an old song sung with new meaning is reinforced by Luke 24:44-45: “How must the words of Psalm 2, or 22, or 45, or 110, or 118 have sounded like new songs to those who had been accustomed to singing them in the shadows of unrevealed realities! The effect of the light of the Gospel upon the remnant of Israel redeemed by His grace was to cause them to sing “as it were, a New Song” unto the Lord – not “new” in substance or content, but “new” in richness of meaning and fullness of glory to the God and Savior of men! Seen in this light, the song of the redeemed, which was “as it were, a new song,” and which could only be learned by them, shows us the wonderful way in which the Psalms come alive with meaning in the full light of Christ’s redemption to those whose eyes are opened to see their testimony concerning Jesus.” Douglas Comin, Worship from Genesis to Revelation
9) In Revelation (5:9 & 14:3) a “new song” is sung in the heavenly realm where the saints are ‘contributing’ to the prophetic whole of the book. It is not a new song in terms of being written by someone for a particular occasion (as with an uninspired hymn). Rightly then G.I. Williamson has noted: “To learn a new song, taught by the Lord, is very different from writing a new song of our own” (The Singing of Psalms in Worship). Furthermore the song in Revelation 14:3 cannot even be learned except by the redeemed of God. That the church is a mixed multitude here below reinforces that this song cannot be an example of new compositions in the militant church for we are not all redeemed in the here and now.
10) The new Jerusalem descends from above; it is heavenly in origin and God’s creation (Revelation 21:2). Likewise the new song does not originate with man but with God (see Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion, page 96).
11) Furthermore there are many examples of new ‘things’ in scripture, none of which require that something entirely new or fresh be made or recognized but only that which was old be renewed or restored to its former glory.
There is a “new commandment” John 13:34; a “new covenant” 2 Corinthians 3:6-7; Hebrews 8:8; we are a “new creation” 2 Corinthians 5:17 and a “new man” Ephesians 2:15 and there is a “new heavens and earth” 2 Peter 3:13. In each of these instances we do not have something entirely new but the old or previously existing commandment, covenant, character and creation renewed, revived and reclaimed. For example, R.L. Dabney argues from John 13:34 that Christ’s new commandment “was only ‘the old command renewed,’ only a re-enactment with an additional motive: Christ’s love for us” (Systematic Theology, page 357).” (Rev. Daniel Kok)
Irons’ article shows a lack of concern for exegeting these passages. He says they say one thing, when I show that they say another. Not only this, but he does not understand basic principles of the Regulative Principle or Exclusive Psalmody. One should be careful in how they represent a position as fact. If you mispresent a position, knowing there is a wealth of information on the topic out there, you are in fact bearing false witness. Please consider that these things have been discussed, written, preached, and held. Exclusive Psalmody is the historical reformed (and early church) position.
Kok, Daniel. Psalmody and Other Songs in Scripture. 2015. Web.http://www.puritanboard.com/showthread.php/86683-Psalmody-and-Other-Songs-in-Scripture
Bushell, Michael. Songs of Zion: The Biblical Basis for Exclusive Psalmody. Norfolk, VA: Norfolk, 2011. Print.
Schwertley, Brian. Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship. 2000. Web.http://www.reformedonline.com/uploads/1/5/0/3/15030584/sola_scriptura_and_the_regulative_principle_of_worship.pdf
McCurley, Robert. “The Singing of Psalms.” The Doctrine of Scripture. Greenville Presbyterian Church. 11 Sept. 2013. Lecture.
Irons, Lee. “Exclusive Psalmody or New Covenant Hymnody?” 1997. Web. 7 Apr. 2016.
For Further Reading:
Books To Read:
Bushell, Michael. Songs of Zion: The Biblical Basis for Exclusive Psalmody. Norfolk, VA: Norfolk, 2011. Print.
LeFebvre, Michael. Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms. Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2010. Print.