Singing the Psalms in Worship

I started this post last Friday as a Q&A Friday, but never finished it. Oh well…

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.

  1. 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).
  2. There are Spirit-inspired hymns of praise to God written both before and after the Psalms (Ex. 15; Lk. 1:46-55).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

14 Responses to Singing the Psalms in Worship

  1. Cass March 20, 2007 at 9:36 PM #

    Good one Bob,

    This particular subj. has never really come up around here, but it was really great hearing what you had to say. I agree 100% that the Psalms have so much to offer in praise that it’s a joy to sing them off and on… but it’s not the only thing we can sing when we do.

  2. Don March 20, 2007 at 11:51 PM #


    Thanks for the post, it’s interesting to read your thoughts on the matter.
    I have come from an exclusive Psalmody background, but now worship in a church that sings psalms as well as modern hymns/songs.

    One point I believe should be made however is that today I see a trend to never sing the Psalms, or sing them so rarely that I don’t think we are adhering to Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 3v16, and Ephesians 5v19. As you commented “But just because we’re not restricted to the Psalms doesn’t mean we should never sing them.”

    As a PS – I would encourage you to investigate the different headings/definitions given to the “songs” in the book of Psalms. There are some that are defined as “songs”, and there is some evidence to suggest that the “hymn” that Jesus and the disciples sung following that last Passover was Psalm 116-Psalm 118.

  3. Allan March 21, 2007 at 9:03 AM #


    Thank you for another thoughtful and helpful post. The thing that has always struck me about exclusive Psalmnody is that if we are only to sing the Psalms it means we would never actually sing the name of Jesus Christ. It is difficult to imagine that the God who has exalted the name of Jesus above every name intended His Son’s name never be sung by His people.


  4. Paul Hayes March 21, 2007 at 5:11 PM #

    Bob, thanks for your post.In heaven we will also be singing “new” songs before the throne.
    It’s amazing to see what a biblical word search on “singing a new song” will yield. I got 12 hits. Thanks for all you do. I look forward to each post! Paul

  5. Sean McDonald March 21, 2007 at 9:53 PM #

    I came from a hymn-singing background, but became convinced of exclusive psalmody several years ago, and am now a member in the RPCNA. A few thoughts:

    1. The fact that God has appointed the Psalter to serve as a hymnbook for His people demonstrates that His regulation of song in worship extends to which particular songs or songbook will be used.

    2. None of the songs in Scripture appearing outside of the Psalter, whether in the Old or New Testament, have been appointed by God to be sung in worship, as the Psalter has been appointed (see 2 Chron. 29:30).

    3. Preaching and prayer are elements of worship distinct from singing God’s praise, and are regulated in ways different than this part of worship. Besides, “The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear” is another element of worship, as well as these others (WCF 21.5); but no one supposes that we may add our own words to Scripture. If we may not add books or chapters to the Bible, why would we be allowed to add songs to God’s perfect hymnbook, the Psalter?

    4. The book, as a whole, is called “Sepher Tehillim” — “Book of Praises,” or “Book of Hymns.” Additionally, the statement in 2 Chronicles 29:30, that they should “sing praise unto the LORD with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer,” is clearly a reference to the Psalter as a whole, not singling out particular Psalms as suitable or unsuitable. And if you will say the Psalms are not all suitable to be sung, why not say they are unsuitable to be read as well?

    5. Christ and His apostles found the Psalter to be a sufficient manual of praise. If it were not sufficient, but had to be supplemented by later, new covenant hymns, then God Himself would supply the supposed defect, and add inspired songs to His inspired Psalter. The fact that He has not done so demonstrates that there is no such deficiency in the Psalter.

    6. When we sing the Psalms “with understanding,” we sing of Christ our Saviour, from the Perfect Man of Psalm 1, to the final “Praise ye the LORD” of Psalm 150. It is sheer sentimentalism, and nothing more, which adds uninspired hymns to God’s perfect Psalter, because none of them contain the bare word “Jesus,” though they are full of the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    God gave us His Word; and with and in that word, God gave us a hymnbook. His Word is our only inspired rule of faith and life (Sola Scriptura); and His hymnbook is our only authorized collection of compositions from which to sing His praise (Solum Psalterium).

    God bless!

  6. Jared Olivetti March 22, 2007 at 6:51 AM #

    I’d like to throw my support behind Sean McDonald’s comments, and maybe add a few of my own. I should say I’m a pastor of an RPCNA church, committed to exclusive psalmody.

    1. The debate doesn’t begin with “only psalms or not?” but with the regulative principle. You either must believe that we are free to do in worship whatever is not prohibited, or you are only free to do that which is commanded by God. Those holding to EP obviously begin with the second view, the regulative principle. If one isn’t committed to the RP, this debate almost becomes moot.

    2. If you begin with the RP, then the burden of proof is not on those holding to EP, but on those wishing to introduce uninspired songs into worship. We know that we are to sing psalms (Col 3:16; Ps. 47:7), so psalm-singing should be our basic assumption. Only when God explicitly commands the composing of new songs should we presume to do so.

    3. Re: preaching and praying. For both preaching and praying we have command and example for new covenant believers. Paul instructs us to pray “with every kind of request” (Eph. 6:18) and we see the apostles proclaiming the word uniquely to unique contexts and individuals. But we simply do not see the apostles or early church composing and singing new praise to God. Is this simply Luke’s oversight? Or, more to the point, would God have left out something so important?

    4. Though there may be some historical question, all signs point to the overwhelming use of psalms exclusively in worship in the apostolic and early church.

    5. The psalms speak directly, clearly, distinctly about Jesus. Is some of the language shadowed? Yes, but we have the light of the face of Christ to shine upon the Psalter and thus can revel in their full depth.

    6. Finally, and I can’t stress this enough, Jesus sang the psalms with his disciples! All commentators agree that he sang the great hallel with his disciples in Mt. 26:30. Hopefully, this doesn’t sound trite, but if the Savior didn’t feel a need to compose and sing new praise to the Father, if He relied on the fullness and depth of the Psalter, why shouldn’t we?

    Truly, I hope these comments come across your screen graciously; I realize topics of worship are sensitive and close to the heart of all those who love Christ.

  7. Matthew Westerholm March 22, 2007 at 10:47 AM #


    Thank you for so articulately describing not only your convictions, but also convictions that many people hold. I humbly ask the following questions to try to make sense of what you are saying in my own (very fallen!) mind.

    (1) Do you believe that 2 Chronicles 29:30 is speaking about the 150 Psalms in our bibles today? Weren’t at least some of of the psalms written after the exile? And do you sing the psalms written after Hezekiah or is your cannon of psalms compiled after Hezekiah’s command?

    (2) Do you believe the songs in Revelation (like Revelation 15) are inappropriate for people to sing before the consummation? It seems to be appropriate for us to sing this in heaven, but what is the reason to wait?

    (3) Would you mind clarifying what you mean as “sheer sentimentalism” as the only motivation wishing to corporately sing songs which mention our Savior’s name and describes His perfect work for us on the cross? Sentimentalism for what, exactly?

    (4) Many people consider passages such as Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20 and 1 Timothy 3:16, to be the apostles condoning of new hymns. How do you read such passages?

    <>< Matthew Westerholm

  8. Sean McDonald March 22, 2007 at 6:06 PM #


    Thank you for your charitable response.

    1. I believe that the phrase “the words of David, and of Asaph the seer” is a reference to “the Psalter,” as far as it was completed to that time. When the NT uses the term “scripture” or “scriptures,” it is usually a reference to the OT. However, such commands as “search the scriptures,” or promises as “all scripture is given by inspiration of God,” are rightly understood as today applying equally to the NT Scriptures, following the completion of the canon. Likewise, I believe that 2 Chron. 29:30 gives warrant to sing “the Psalter,” which had a completed canon following the exile.

    2. I do not believe that the book of Revelation presents the forms we are to use in our corporate worship services. Their use of song constitute integral parts of that prophecy, and do not condone our use of such songs in our public worship; any more than the presence of a temple, an altar, incense, harps, etc. condone our use of such forms.

    3. Understand, I believe the Psalms to speak fully and clearly of our Saviour in His person, offices, work, and states. My objection was aimed solely at the objection which I frequently hear, that “If we confine ourselves to the Psalms, we cannot sing the name ‘Jesus.'” Constructed as a syllogism, the argument would run thus:

    Major premise: If we sing only Psalms in worship, we cannot sing the name of Jesus (because the name “Jesus” does not appear in the Psalms).
    Minor premise: But we are commanded to sing the name of Jesus in worship.
    Conclusion: Therefore, our songs in worship must not be limited to the Psalms.

    I would contest the minor premise, as having no Scriptural warrant. But, again, I have never seen such a view presented as anything other than an emotional (not logical or Scriptural) appeal, or “sentimentalism,” as I said; an attachment to the name “Jesus” which insists on that name (and not “Yeshua,” “Joshua,” etc.), even when He is present in His person, offices, work, and states.

    4. I do not understand any such passages as constituting “hymn fragments.” I find no warrant to conclude that they were pieces of poetry, or that they were songs, or that they were sung in public Christian assemblies, or that they were uninspired compositions. I recognize the *possibility* of new hymns having been given by inspiration of the Holy Ghost during the apostolic era, while the canon of the NT was still being completed. Such “charismatic hymns,” whether or not they actually existed, would give no warrant for men today to write uninspired compositions and presume to set them on the same level with the Psalms of Holy Scripture.

  9. Dan Cummins March 23, 2007 at 6:55 PM #

    Bob, what is the process that you go through, for a typical Sunday, to select the worship songs to sing during corporate worship? Also, and maybe this is a similar question, but what would disqualify a song from being sung during corporate worship (I’m coming from the standpoint that there are numerous Christian songs out there, but perhaps not all would serve the congregation during corporate worship)?

  10. Joel March 26, 2007 at 10:52 AM #

    I am confused by the references to 2 Chron. 29:30.

    That passage reads
    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.

    This says that Hezekiah commanded this, not the LORD.

    I don’t read this as any type of commandment.

    What am I missing?


  11. Nathan March 30, 2007 at 1:04 PM #

    Excellent questions and discussion; also see

  12. allan r. turda May 2, 2008 at 12:10 AM #

    I also would like to share some insights to Sean Mcdonald’s position on exclusive spalmody as I am also a pastor commited to such singing in worship. I believe that one of the importance of adhering to the regulative principle of worship is so that we would be kept from error and more error as we understand that as it is true that “the entrance of thy word gives light”, it is equally true that the entrance of one error (that which does not originate from the mind of God or His Word) gives more of that which is the opposite of light.

    You see, every abomination to the Lord has a mother, something or somebody gave birth to it. The bible speaks of “the mother of all abominations”. The reason why we have multitude of christian or gospel songs today that are very dishonoring to God not only in the type of music it bears but also in the doctrine that they convey, is because of man’s supposition that he can improve on what God has already made and provided. Note that God never commanded us to compose but to sing, which implies that whatever is to be sung is already there and was readily provided. The composing of new songs and the addition of instrumental accopaniment are two of the major things that man has thought of in trying to improve the ways of God. All these use of electric guitars and drums with all the gadgets that christians use today not only in worship but in recordings as well, did they not start with the use of the organ which is the mother? The same is true why we have these dishhonoring wordings in many hymns and gospel songs due doctrinal unsoundness.

    I afraid, my inadequacy in trying to express my thoughts about this may be noticed but the very words of The Spalmist is very clear, “As for God His way is Perfect, The word of The Lord is tried.”

  13. KaiB May 3, 2008 at 7:06 PM #

    Your argument against “exclusive Psalmody” is very effective and well-thought out. Usage of the Psalms is a good choice in some corporate worship; for example, the Psalms of ascent could function as a great “call to worship” of sorts. However, the whole Bible tells the whole story about salvation, not just the Psalms. In fact, Paul uses a hymn to tell about the way Jesus humbled himself to death on a cross and was exalted through his resurrection (Phil. 2:5-11)!

  14. Rachel Whitfield May 4, 2008 at 8:56 PM #

    I tend to agree with KaiB. In worship, we are to communicate the truth of the gospel. This does agree with the Psalms in their songs of creation (Ps. 8, 19, 65), of the attributes of God (Ps. 117; 145-105; these are too numerous to count), and of promise (Ps. 22, 105, 107). Bob’s note that the Psalms over foreshadow the truth of Christ’s perfect life, redemptive work, and eternal restoration is an important one, I believe.

    We are communicating truth through the Psalms but not the gospel in its entirety. There is atonement for creation, God’s attributes fleshed out in Christ, and promises fulfilled that we must celebrate and thank God for, whether through the Psalms or other songs of truth.

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