Scriptural Praise: The Case for Exclusive Psalmody by Martyn McGeown

Scriptural Praise: The Case for Exclusive Psalmody

Martyn McGeown

1. The “Regulative Principle” of Worship

How do we determine what is acceptable in the worship of God? The Bible teaches that God has not left it open to the whim of man how He is to be worshipped. Many people believe that if something is not forbidden, then it is allowed. For example, they would admit that images are wrong but claim that puppet shows are acceptable, since God does not—in so many words—forbid puppet shows, and “Sure, it is nice for the children.” However, the Bible’s teaching on worship reaches farther than a mere prohibition of images. The Word of God teaches the “regulative principle of worship.” Simply put, this means that unless God has specifically commanded something in His worship, we may not do it. Take the example of Nadab and Abihu. They sinned and were consumed by fire. Why? What did they do wrong? They offered “strange fire” (Lev. 10:1). What was strange about this fire? Was it fire offered to an idol? No. All we are told is that it was fire “which [the Lord] commanded them not” (Lev. 10:1). Later on, wicked king Jeroboam set up idols in Dan and Bethel. This in itself was a grave sin, but the passage also teaches that he disregarded the feast days commanded in the Old Testament and instead “offered” on days and months which he “had devised of his own heart” (I Kings 12:33). The LORD is greatly provoked by the presumption of men who add to His worship. He asks, “who hath required this at your hand?” (Isa. 1:12). When people think to themselves, “Wouldn’t it be nice to do such and such in the worship service?” they are guilty of “will worship” (Col. 2:23).

What are the elements of worship commanded by God in the New Testament? The reading and preaching of the Bible, prayer, the singing of praises, offerings and the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Those elements are clear! If anyone claims that we should have other elements in the worship of God, he must demonstrate a scriptural warrant for such things. Can we have drama in the worship? Can we have puppet shows? Can we have testimonies, even testimonies by women? What about choirs and soloists? What scriptural warrant is there for these things? It would appear that “strange fire” is being offered in many churches in our land! Of course, many people offer this “strange fire” in sincerity, not having studied the Bible. This is a sad reflection on many churches and their pastors, who “have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2).

2. What Shall We Sing?

Earlier we said that one of the elements of worship is the singing of praises. This raises a further question, What shall we sing? Many immediately forget that the “regulative principle” also regulates the content of our singing. They say, “We can sing anything as long as it is nice, makes us feel close to God and is scriptural.” In practice, however, “niceness” and an alleged “closeness” to God take precedence in the thinking of most, and the “scriptural” aspect is not given the priority it deserves. In fact, a large number in the church fail to “sing with understanding” (Ps. 47:7). They get emotionally involved in what they are singing, but really don’t think about the words. Singing ought to be a thinking activity, as much as reading God’s Word and hearing it preached. Christians ought to be “sober minded” (Titus 2:6). Paul says he will “sing with the Spirit and [he] will sing with the understanding also” (I Cor. 14:15) and warns against a situation in worship where the “understanding is unfruitful” (v. 14). Praise-time is not an opportunity to become irrational and to be carried away by emotionalism. Rather, we ought to meditate on the words we sing, and consider, “Are these words suitable to be sung in the praise of the Almighty?” How can we determine which words God would have us sing? The regulative principle would have us search the Scriptures for the answer.

It is irrefutable that God has given us a book of praises, the Psalms. The Bible exhorts us repeatedly in the Old and New Testaments to sing psalms (I Chron. 16:9; Ps. 105:2; James 5:13). The Bible says that the Psalm writers were men of God moved by the Holy Ghost (I Peter 1:21) and that they were equipped by the Spirit to provide songs for God’s people to sing (II Sam. 23:1-2).

Many people believe that the Psalms are good to sing. Again, they are convinced that they are “nice,” but the fact that they are scriptural, divinely inspired and inerrant does not really impress them that much. They don’t deny that the Psalms are biblical songs and that they are divinely inspired and inerrant, but it just is not paramount in their thoughts. “Niceness” is the key, so much so that they like the so-called “nice psalms,” such as Psalm 23, but they would not dream of singing Psalm 11:5, Psalm 5:5 or Psalm 139:9. Since they don’t have the right priorities in their thinking, when another supposedly “nice” song is presented to them, they will readily sing that as well as, or indeed instead of, inspired Psalms, which may or may not be considered “nice.” In today’s church world, God-breathed Psalms (II Tim. 3:16) are being replaced by “hymns” written by men or women who supposedly have something new to offer, which the Holy Spirit writing in the Psalms did not give the church. Look around you! Many churches never sing Psalms, and others (because they come from a Psalm singing tradition) still sing a few Psalms, but the majority of the songs they use are “hymns.” God’s songs have been gradually been pushed aside, in favour of new “hymns” written by men whose thoughts are “vanity” (Ps. 94:11).

Nowhere in the New Testament are we commanded to write “hymns.” By “hymn” I mean a modern non-inspired human composition to be sung in the church. David needed a spiritual gift or anointing to be “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (II Sam. 23:1) but in the New Testament there is no “hymn-writing gift” given to the church. It would therefore be presumption for anyone to write a song to be used in the public worship of God. Paul writes that when the believers came together “every one of [them had] a psalm” (I Cor. 14:26). Most historians agree that the early church sang only Psalms. Hymns (in the modern sense) were added later, often by heretics who wanted to introduce their false teachings through the medium of song. This is a very successful way of introducing heresy into the church. It matters little what is preached, if you can get people to sing your doctrine. If the sermons do not match the “hymns” sung, confusion follows.

But what about Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19? Imagine yourself in Colossae or Ephesus (churches consisting largely of newly converted pagans) and you receive a letter from the Apostle Paul. Paul exhorts you to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” What would you have understood by that? There is no evidence that the believers of that fledgling church had any hymns (in the modern sense). Where would they have got them? After all, this was a long time before Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley! What did the believers have? They had the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. That was their Bible, the Bible of the Greek-speaking world, and the version from which the apostles usually quoted. In what we call the book of Psalms there are three main words used to describe the various types of songs: psalmoihymnoi and odai. These are the three words Paul uses in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. A striking example is Psalm 76. In the title of Psalm 76 in the Septuagint the three terms—psalmoihymnoi and odai—appear together. It seems reasonable to assume, then, that the Ephesians and Colossians would have understood that Paul was giving instruction concerning the full use of the Psalter in their praise.

That the Psalms are what Paul meant can be seen from the context of these texts. To blindly assume that “hymns” means what we think hymns are today is to miss the point.

Colossians 3:16 says, “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.” The Psalms, not modern “hymns” are the “word of Christ.” The Psalms are filled with “wisdom” and the glory and majesty of God. Some “hymns” are filled with nonsense and degrade the majesty of God. In the Psalms we “teach” one another because they are weighty and full of sound doctrine about God. In the Psalms we “admonish” one another. Many of the “hymns” are sentimental fluff, and either teach nothing substantial or teach error. Read through the Psalms. You can learn more about God in the Psalms, than in a million modern “hymns.”

Ephesians 5:18b-19 says, “be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Since the Spirit authored the Psalms, the way to be filled with the Spirit and to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24) is to sing His inspired songs with faith and joy. You can hardly be filled with the Spirit by singing songs written by mere men, many of whom were heretics and many of whose songs promote errors about God in the minds of believers.

(A very interesting article outlining some of the heresies and heretics found in many modern hymnbooks can be read here.)

For example, “O perfect Love, all human thought transcending” and “See! In yonder manger low” were written by Romanists, and “Nearer my God to thee” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory” were written by Unitarians, which the Apostle John calls “antichrists” (I John 2:22). Do we want (or does God command us) to sing songs penned by papists and antichrists, or the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of the Holy Spirit? (Incidentally, the word “spiritual” describing the “songs” in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 means “of the Spirit.” Can modern “hymn-writers” claim that their songs are “of the Spirit?” Obviously not!)

What did Jesus sing? As a Jew, He sang the Psalms. In Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 we are told that Christ and His disciples sang “an hymn.” If we come to the passage and assume that “hymn” means what the modern world thinks a hymn is, we will grossly misunderstand the Bible. Jesus did not sing, “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah” or “Immortal, Invisible, God only wise” (written by a liberal, anti-sabbatarian minister) or some other “hymn” that we know today, nor did He and His disciples compose a “hymn” for the occasion. They sang the Psalms, as was the custom at the Passover. Similarly, when Paul and Silas “sang praises” in prison, they would have used the “book of praises,” which we call the Psalms (Acts 16:25). Paul, of course, would have known and memorised Psalms from childhood. He had no need to write new praises, the Psalms were (and are) sufficient.

Since we have seen there is no scriptural warrant to sing “hymns,” Christians ought to use the “hymn book” (the Psalter) which God has provided for the glory of His Name and the edification of His church. The songs of mere men simply will not do, no matter how “nice” they might be.

3. Objections

a) “But I don’t like the Psalms! They are dry, boring and difficult to sing!”

First of all, whether we “like” the Psalms or not is irrelevant. We have seen that God commands us to sing His Psalms. Remember that worship is not designed to make us “feel good” but is a way of showing our gratitude to God. Jesus says the way in which we show our love and devotion towards Him is by “keeping his commandments” (John 14:15, 21), and the Apostle John confirms this in his Epistle (I John 2:3-4; 3:24). If God commands us to sing Psalms, we must do so! Moreover, “his commandments are not grievous” (I John 5:3). If we find the Psalms boring, we ought to confess this as a sin before God, and ask God to “incline [our] heart unto [His] testimonies” (Ps. 119:36). We ought to lament before God our spiritual coldness that we prefer the “hymns” of sinful men to the God-breathed Psalms of the Holy Spirit. If we seek God in this way, He will show us that His Psalms are sweet like honey (Ps. 119:103) and precious like gold (Ps. 19:10). If we find the Psalms difficult to understand, we need to study them more, for they, like all Scripture, are profitable (II Tim. 3:16). How we need to dig deep into the Psalms! Then we can say, “I rejoice at thy word, as one that findeth great spoil” (Ps. 119:162).

b) The Psalms are in the Old Testament and therefore unsuitable for the New Testament church

We have seen that the New Testament Christians in Ephesus and Colossae were enjoined to sing the Psalms. Also James exhorts us to sing them (James 5:13). God’s song book declares the glory of the unchangeable God, so the “God of Jacob” (Ps. 114:7; 146:5) is the God of the New Testament church. Jesus said that the Psalms spoke about Him (Luke 24:44). Indeed, Jesus died with the Psalms on His lips (Ps. 22:1). The Psalms speak of Christ, of His birth (Ps. 2:7; 22:10), His death (Ps. 22:14-18) and His resurrection (Ps. 16:10). I could easily continue. In short, one could hardly imagine a more Christ-filled book. The more one studies the Psalms, the more one finds Christ in them.

One of the reasons many think the Psalms unsuitable is that they think that the Old Testament people of God and the New Testament are separate bodies. Some people even believe that the Jews were saved by works in the Old Testament, and that Christians are saved by grace in the New! “What is the point of New Testament Christians singing about Jerusalem?” they ask. “Why all this talk about Zion, the cities of Judah, Israel and Jacob? What has that to do with us?” This thinking makes much of the Bible irrelevant. Israel is the Old Testament church! Acts 7:38 speaks of “the church in the wilderness” (at the time of Moses). The New Testament church and Israel together are the one body of Christ. Christ has one body, the church (OT and NT) and one Bride, the church (OT and NT). The Old Testament saints (David, Noah, Abraham [John 8:56] and all the rest) were saved the same way New Testament Christians are—through faith alone in Jesus Christ (Rom. 4) and by grace alone, by having their sins forgiven in the blood of Christ. New Testament Christians, although consisting largely of Gentiles, are real Jews (Rom. 2:28-29), the real circumcision (Phil. 3:3), truly Abraham’s seed (Gal. 3:29), citizens of heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26) and those who “have come to mount Zion” (Heb. 12:22). The carnal Jews of today are not true Jews, for “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6). To the ungodly unbelieving Jews of his day, John the Baptist said, “And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham” (Matt. 3:9). Peter speaks of Christians as “lively stones” (I Peter 2:5). Amos 9:11-13 says that God will “raise up the tabernacle of David that is fallen” and “bring again the captivity of my people of Israel”. On first glance, this would appear to refer to the literal Jews of Palestine, but the Apostle James refers this prophecy to the gathering of the Gentiles into the New Testament church (Acts 15:14-18). It has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of a national Israel. This gathering of the Gentiles into the church was no after-thought, for “known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world” (v. 18).

When, therefore, we sing in the Psalms about Israel, Jacob, Jerusalem, mount Zion, the cities of Judah, the temple, etc., we are singing about the church. We are perfectly right to sing these in the New Testament and derive much profit by doing so.

c) The Scottish Metrical Version is only a paraphrase

Many churches which practice exclusive psalmody today use the Scottish Metrical Version (SMV). A few say that this version is not faithful and that those who use it and claim to practice exclusive psalmody are simply singing a poetic paraphrase of the Psalms. Even if that charge were true, that in itself would not disprove exclusive psalmody, and legitimise hymn-singing. If the people who bring up this red herring (and that is what it is) really were concerned about this, they would commission a new “more accurate” translation of the Psalter for use in the church. What do they do instead? They criticise those who use the SMV and continue to sing hymns!

However, the slander against the SMV is untrue. The Westminster Assembly decided to make a faithful metrical Psalter. The scholars who worked on the Psalter were painstaking. They went back to the original Hebrew and were more concerned about accuracy than whether it was pleasing to the eye or ear. (Thankfully, they produced something which is both accurate and pleasing to the ear.) The production of the SMV took years to complete: it was not a rushed job by any means. Leading Puritans wrote of it, “The translation that is now put into thy hands cometh nearest to the original of any that we have seen.” Robert Murray McCheyne declared, “It is truly an admirable translation from the Hebrew, and is frequently more correct than the prose version” (quoted in Malcolm H. Watts, God’s Hymnbook for the Christian Church [James Begg Society, 2003], p. 20; for further information on the SMV, read this article).

d) You cannot sing the titles

The person who makes such as objection is really clutching at straws. The title of Psalm 52 reads, “To the chief musician, Maschil, a psalm of David, when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul and said unto him, David is come to the house of Ahimelech.” Obviously, we are not to sing that. That does not make the case for exclusive psalmody one whit weaker! The “hymn” “Mine eyes have seen the glory” has a title, “The Battle-Hymn of the Republic.” Nobody, in our experience, sings that title either!

e) The tunes are not inspired

God has not given us inspired tunes. Do those who make this argument really expect God to have inspired a section (perhaps at the end of the book of Psalms) with some sort of musical notation? God has given us inspired words and a command to sing them and singing requires tunes, of course! The regulative principle of worship specifies the principles of how to worship God. We are told to “assemble” on the Lord’s Day (Heb. 10:25) but we are not told at what time, or for how long or how often. We are told that there must be preaching, but we are not told if the sermon should be 45 minutes or an hour and a half (as was often the case with the Puritans) or if the text should be taken from Jeremiah or John or elsewhere in the Scriptures. The tunes to which we sing the Psalms are simply necessary means by which we fulfil the scriptural injunction to sing God’s Psalms.

f) The “hymn-writers” were great men of God and were “inspired” too

We have seen that some of the applauded “hymn” writers taught errors or were heretics. Even the soundest of men are sinners, and liable to error (James 3:2). “Hymn” writers are definitely not inspired in the biblical sense. “Inspired” in the Bible means God-breathed (II Tim. 3:16). The penmen of the Scriptures were specially prepared and moved by the Holy Ghost (II Peter 1:21) so that the very words used are the words of God. In this sense—verbal inspiration—the Psalms, as well as the whole Bible, are inspired. No hymn-writer can claim biblical inspiration. To claim otherwise is to attack the doctrine of Scripture.

g) David committed adultery so why sing his songs?

If we take that attitude, we would have to disregard the whole Bible. Every human “author” of the Bible was a sinner. David committed adultery, Isaiah was a man of unclean lips (Isa. 6:5), Paul was the chief of sinners (I Tim. 1:15), and Peter denied Christ (Matt. 26:74), yet all these men were used of God to write parts of the Scriptures. Ultimately, the Author of the Bible, including the Psalms, is the Holy Spirit Himself (Acts 1:16). David, despite his grievous sins (of which we sing in Psalms 32 and 51), was “raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel” (II Sam. 23:1). David got his credentials to be the songwriter of the church from God Himself. Where did the much-vaunted modern “hymn-writers” get their credentials?

h) We cannot sing the name “Jesus,” if we sing the Psalms!

We answer with four initial considerations.

First, a great many modern “hymns” do not contain the name Jesus, especially those written by Unitarians.

Second, Christians and especially those who claim to be Presbyterian and Reformed ought rather to ask, Where are wecommanded to sing the word Jesus? For the regulative principle (which is included in the confessions of these churches) would demand a warrant for singing the word “Jesus” in our public worship.

Third, were the Reformed fathers wrong and was their praise deficient when they sang only the God breathed Psalms for centuries (which don’t include the word “Jesus”)?

Fourth, why does it have to be the name “Jesus?” What about the other names and titles given Him? The Psalms refer to our Lord as the “anointed” or the “Messiah” (Hebrew) or “Christ” as we transliterate the Greek equivalent. Thus we sing of “the LORD and his anointed” (Ps. 2:2) and we praise our Saviour by singing “thy God hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness” (Ps. 45:7). The following are some of the other titles given to Christ in the Psalms: Son of God (Ps. 2:7), son of man (Ps. 8:1), shepherd (Ps. 23:1; 80:1), the priest after the order of Melchizedek (Ps. 110:4), redeemer (Ps. 19:14), the stone which the builders rejected (Ps. 118:22) and judge of all the earth (Ps. 98:9). In the Psalms, Jesus is also called LORD, Lord, God, our rock, our stronghold, our high tower, our fortress, our strength, the horn of our salvation, our buckler, etc.

Most importantly, the question rests upon a misunderstanding of the biblical idea of “name.” “Name” as used of God (and the Three Persons of the Godhead) means not merely the combination of vowels and consonants vocalised or written. RatherGod’s name is God revealed. And what does the “name” “Jesus” mean? “Jesus” is a transliteration of the Greek equivalent for Joshua, which means “Jehovah salvation.” Thus the angel instructs Joseph, “thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shallsave his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Though the word “Jesus” is not found in the Psalms, the name “Jesus” most certainly is. In fact, the Psalms are full of the name of Jesus, Jehovah salvation. “Salvation belongeth unto the LORD” (Ps. 3:8), “the salvation of Israel” (Ps. 14:7), “we will rejoice in thy salvation and in the name of our God” (Ps. 20:5), “O Lord my salvation” (Ps. 38:22) and “the salvation of God” (Ps. 50:23) are but a few examples. When old Simeon in the temple said, “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:30) he spoke of seeing Jesus, whom he termed “thy salvation.”

We can turn this criticism on its head. In many “hymns” the word “Jesus” is found, but the name “Jesus” is corrupted or denied by Arminian authors teaching universal, ineffectual atonement depending on the (alleged) free will of the sinner. Then, contrary to the name Jesus (“Jehovah salvation”) and the Psalms (“Salvation belongeth unto the LORD” [Ps. 3:8]), the people are singing about “another Jesus” and “another gospel” (II Cor. 11:4)—the gospel that depends not on Jesus (Jehovah salvation) alone but on Jehovah and the (alleged) free will of the sinner.

It is therefore ludicrous to suggest, as some have, that to forbid the singing of uninspired human compositions in the church’s Lord’s Day services, is similar to the ungodly priests and Sadducees, who commanded the apostles “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18). We preach Christ crucified, we pray in Jesus’ name and we teach and admonish one another with the Psalms—as God commands us.