Do the words we sing in worship matter to God? More than most of us realize. What we sing teaches us, shapes us, molds us, and affects us. So it might seem wise to only sing God’s Word, specifically the Psalms, back to him. But, while there is much we can learn from the Psalms for congregational worship, I believe God wants us to sing more than the Psalms when we meet on Sundays. I posted on this topic last week, and a couple folks left gracious comments that offered a different perspective. I started to leave a response in the comments section, but it got so long I thought I’d make it into a new post.
We can’t start this discussion by saying that “God has appointed the Psalter to serve as a hymnbook for His people.” That’s the very point I’m questioning. More precisely, exclusive psalmodists seem to be saying that God intends the Psalter to be THE hymnbook for God’s people. That assumption tends to influence the way different passages are interpreted. For instance, they say that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in Col. 3:16 refers to the Psalter. That might be true, but it’s impossible to prove, and most scholars think it more likely refers to a variety of expressions in the worship of God.
Adhering to the Regulative Principle of worship doesn’t automatically lead to practicing exclusive Psalmody. In other words, believing that everything we do in gathered worship must have an explicit or implicit Scriptural command doesn’t automatically mean that we only sing the Psalms. I had lunch with a “Regulative Principle” friend this past Friday who was surprised that anyone would necessarily connect the two. Our songs are meant to reflect the whole revelation of God, not just one book.
We need to interpret different elements of corporate worship consistently. If preaching and praying are to be regulated differently than songs of praise, what do we do with the Psalms that contain prayers and teaching? Don’t we pray when we sing? Don’t we teach and admonish one another when we sing (Col. 3:16)? If we can’t use songs from the book of Revelation because they’re integral parts of that prophecy, should we sing the parts of the Psalter that are prophetic (e.g., Ps. 110)? We run into all kinds of problems when we try to categorize our responses to God in stricter ways than he himself has.
One gentleman pointed out that Hezekiah instructed Israel to sing praise unto the LORD with the words of David and Asaph in 2 Chron. 29:30. That same passage indicates he also had them use the instruments of David (2 Chron. 29:25-27). I assume that practice doesn’t affect us today.
We have a single example of Christ and the apostles singing from the Psalter in Mt. 26:30. That doesn’t prove in any conclusive sense that God never intended us to sing anything else. Most scholars think we DO see the church composing and singing new songs of praise to God. Mary’s prayer in Luke 1:46-55, Paul’s hymn to Christ in Phil. 2:5-11, and the songs of Revelation are a few examples. Most biblical scholars and historians would identify those as hymns or “hymn fragments” that were sung by the early church.
There’s no question that singing the Psalms (or at least metrical versions) can be and has been a rewarding experience for many Christians. I thank God for those churches today that remind us of the rich resource God has given us in the Psalms. But the most significant reason I don’t think God wants us to sing only the Psalms has to do with his desire to reveal himself in Christ. We aren’t meant to only sing songs where Christ can be seen “in the shadows.” The identity of Christ was a matter of life and death for the early Christians. Was he God or not? Was he to be worshiped or not? The first century church made it clear both in their theology and doxology (teaching and praise) that Jesus was God. The revelation of God in Christ required new songs of praise to be written both for the building up of the church and the spreading of the Gospel. Our situation is no different today.
Let’s not neglect the rich resource of praise that God has given us in the Psalms. But may we never limit ourselves to the language of Old Testament saints who only saw the shadows of the glories that have now been revealed in the Savior, the God-Man, Jesus Christ.