Jacob sent me this question:
What is your take on the exclusive use of Psalms in worship?…Since the Psalms were the only Spirit-inspired songs given to the people of God, and because instrument use in the Old Testament is tied to ceremonial law (which was done away with in the New Testament), the belief is that true corporate worship in song is comprised of Psalm singing without instrumentation. Also, it is noted that there are no commands to write uninspired songs of worship in the Bible. What do you think?
The other day, Don left a comment also asking what I thought about the Psalms in worship, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to answer both questions.
Jacob is referring to “exclusive Psalmody” – the belief that Christians should only use the book of Psalms for congregational worship. Believe it or not, up until the mid-18th century, most Protestant churches practiced exclusive Psalmody. Today, it’s most often associated with some Presbyterian and Reformed churches that follow the regulative principle of worship, although not all churches that adhere to the regulative principle practice exclusive psalmody.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was used by God in a unique way to introduce songs of praise other than Psalms to the church (although he also “Christianized” 138 of the Psalms). He felt the church should sing songs based on Scripture that were “freely composed,” including Scriptural references and subjective responses to the truths being sung. He believed that the Psalms, as valuable as they are in Christian worship, were insufficient to express the full range of Christian experience. In the Preface to his Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), he pointed out the value and divine nature of the Psalms, but went on to show their inadequacy for fully Christian worship:
There are a thousand Lines in it which were not made for a Saint in our Day, to assume as his own; There are also many deficiencies of Light and Glory which our Lord Jesus and his Apostles have supplied in the Writings of the New Testament; and with this Advantage I have composed these spiritual Songs which are now presented to the World.
I’ve never found the arguments for only singing the Psalms very compelling. Here are a few reasons why.
- God never tells us in Scripture to use only the Psalms when we sing his praise. The book of Revelation contains songs of praise that are distinct from the Psalms, and it’s impossible to prove that Paul was only speaking of the book of Psalms when he instructed us to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16).
- There are Spirit-inspired hymns of praise to God written both before and after the Psalms (Ex. 15; Lk. 1:46-55).
- If God allows us to pray with our own words and preach with our own words in meetings, it follows that we should be able to sing with our own words. Nowhere in Scripture does God say that we can only use his exact words when singing to him.
- I’m not sure God intended us to sing all of the Psalms in corporate worship. As far as we know, that wasn’t the practice of the first century synagogues or churches. Many Psalms are individualistic in nature, some are filled with Old Testament temple imagery, and others call for the destruction of Israel’s national enemies.
- Most importantly, the Psalms only foreshadow the reality of our salvation, which is Christ. They only hint at the glorious realities of the Jesus’ incarnation, his perfect life, his substitutionary death, his resurrection, and his ascension to the Father’s right hand. How can we not specifically celebrate so great a salvation?
There are other reasons to forego singing only the Psalms in worship. But just because we’re not restricted to the Psalms doesn’t mean we should never sing them. Besides, the Psalms tell us a great deal about how we should sing, pray, and relate to God.
But I’ll save my thoughts on that for another post.