Singing the Psalms in Worship, Pt. 2

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.

16 Responses to Singing the Psalms in Worship, Pt. 2

  1. Allan March 27, 2007 at 7:26 PM #


    Thank you for continuing this topic. I do thank God for brothers and sisters who are willing, in faith, to limit themselves to the singing of the Psalms because they see it as an expression of submission to the Word of God. Thank you my brothers and sisters for your example and for your zeal to be guided by the Word.

    My fundamental question would be this (and I think you have already asked this in effect): God obviously allows uninspired men and women to preach and to pray their own thoughts and expressions of praise back to God audibly. The Bible is no less our prayer book and our sermon book and our poetry book than it is our hymn book. But we are not restricted to only praying prayers or preaching sermons or reciting poetry verbatum from the Bible.

    What is it, then, about singing? What, in the minds of the EP folk, is unique about this one form of expression?

    Painters can paint new subjects as an expression of worship to God. Builders can build places of worship to the glory of God independent of any set forms in the Bible. I can pray for hours on end extolling and rejoicing audibly in all the New Testament reveals about my Savior. But if, in the course of that prayer, I put those words to some tune I am become “unbiblical?” I cannot get my mind around it.

    It seems the God who concludes the Psalms with a call to praise and worship God with every conceivable instrument is not pointing us to llimiting our expressiveness in worship, but rather maximizing it.

  2. Mark Warnock March 27, 2007 at 7:26 PM #

    Let’s not forget the command (in the psalms) to “sing to the Lord a new song.”

    I take that as a perpetual exhortation to find new expressions of musical praise…

    It could be that your exclusive psalmists are really defending a cultural practice, not a theological premise.

  3. JD Longmire March 27, 2007 at 10:06 PM #

    I think a key understanding of the RPW is not only to focus on the negative aspects but also on the positive aspects.

    That is – not focus solely on the “Thou shalt not”, so as to restrict the worship of God in a narrow and legalistic way, but also focus on the requirement that we are to worship God as completely as He has commanded through Scripture, as well – heart, soul, mind, strength – and all that is tied to it.

    Regulate does not mean legalistically restrict or prohibit – regulation helps to insure we do not abuse the liberty given and allow the freedom we have to be bounded by the Holy Spirit and Scripture. The HS and Scripture combined define worshiping in spirit and truth.

    We must be careful not to create commandments where none exist, thus becoming one who would “strain at a gnat” of some invented stricture, thus “swallowing the camel” of legalism just as the Pharisees did in their misguided zeal.

    2 Corinthians 3:17
    Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

    Lest we forget – liberty is bounded freedom and in the case of Christians, we are bounded by the Holy Spirit and Scripture. Christ’s public ministry began by first proclaiming freedom. He then demonstrated the bounds of this freedom with His life and teaching, then prompting the men who would record His actions and significant teachings through the Holy Spirit.

    The RPW is a wonderful guiding principle, but we must be careful not to turn it into a heavy yoke. In the areas Scripture is clear – clear adherence is mandated – where it is not so clear – there is liberty. That is – liberty within the boundaries of the Scriptural mandate – what I believe has been determined as “circumstantial”.

    1 Chronicles 16:29
    Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;bring an offering and come before him!Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness

    Psalm 29:2
    Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness.

    Psalm 96:9
    Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!

    Finally – holiness – as evidenced most clearly by our Lord and Saviour – is not iterating out every rule that could possibly be implied from Scripture and adhering legalistically to it.

    Holiness for us is worshiping God in Spirit and truth…and where the Spirit of Lord is there is liberty.

    Again – Liberty is freedom within the boundaries of the Holy Spirit and Scripture. It is not in the polar extremes of licentiousness anarchy or Pharisaical legalism.

  4. Sean McDonald March 28, 2007 at 5:24 PM #

    Bob, thank you for seeking to discuss this matter in a kind and Christian manner. Although we may disagree, I pray that we can still behave ourselves as brethren, of the same Father, with a common calling by our common Lord.

    1. Concerning the supposed confusion of different elements or parts of worship (i.e. Psalms containing prayer, teaching, etc.), I will point you to what you previously wrote regarding the regulative principle of worship: “Overall, we attempt to give weight to the elements of worship that Scripture gives weight to… singing, prayer, biblical teaching, the Lord’s Supper, Scripture reading, etc., are repeatedly mentioned in God’s Word.” As you clearly said, these are distinct “elements of worship that Scripture gives weight to.”

    (1.) If the congregation sings praise, and that praise contains the language of prayer and of teaching, that does not mean that the service’s sermon or prayers may be cast aside; that part of the service has not yet been fulfilled.

    (2.) If there is such a close similarity between teaching and singing, why not argue that women and children may preach, since they may sing? or conversely, that they may not sing, because they may not preach?

    (3.) Is it not significant that God gave a “Book of Praises,” but not a Book of Prayers, or Book of Sermons? Does this not indicate, not only that they are distinct elements or parts of worship, but that they are regulated after different fashions?

    2. My main point regarding the appointment of the Psalter as a hymnbook was (and is) that, since God has appointed particular texts for our use in singing His praise, and has not done so with regard to sermons or prayers, that our singing of praise is regulated with regard to the particular text used. That is, unless God specifically relaxes such a regulation, the only texts that would be permitted to be sung in worship would be texts of His own appointment; and since only the Psalter has been so appointed, that makes the Psalter THE hymnbook, rather than merely A hymnbook.

    3. You did not say much concerning 2 Chronicles 29:30, one of the chief texts upon which I rely for such assertions. As I argued before, this passage seems clearly to use a synecdoche (“the words of David, and of Asaph the seer,” referring to the two most prolific authors of the Psalter) to speak of the whole Psalter; meaning that the whole Psalter is appointed for the purpose of “singing praise unto the LORD.” You only mentioned that musical instruments were likewise appointed in this passage.

    Incidentally, I most frequently turn to this passage to justify my opposition to musical instruments in worship. This is because, (1.) Their use is clearly commanded or appointed, meaning that the use of such instruments must be regulated by God, and cannot fall under our supposed “liberty.” This command must be either moral or ceremonial; if it is moral, we are commanded to use them, without any “liberty” of disobeying that command; if ceremonial, they are abrogated with the rest of the ceremonial laws. (2.) The particulars of their institution clearly manifest that they were ceremonial, since they were connected to a ceremonial office (the Levitical priesthood), a ceremonial place (the Temple), and a ceremonial action (the offering of the sacrifices). With the abrogation of these things, which all recognize, the instruments which were intrinsically bound to them have also been abrogated.

    4. You do not seem to be clearly differentiating between the “Lucan canticles,” the “hymn fragments” of Paul’s epistles, and the “Apocalyptic songs.” These are all distinct things.

    (1.) With the exception of the “Apocalyptic songs,” there is no indication from Scripture itself that these were actual songs, or pieces of lyric poetry; and scholars could be cited to demonstrate the lack of consensus on whether these other pieces were songs.

    (2.) Although we have clear testimony to the singing of Psalms in the Bible and the early church, there is no such testimony regarding the singing of any of these other pieces.

    (3.) You didn’t seem to understand my objection to the singing of the “Apocalyptic songs.” You said, “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)?” The Book of Psalms is just that, a Book of Psalms, or Praises, or Hymns (“Tehillim”), i.e. a Hymnbook. The Book of Revelation is not a hymnbook. It was written for a purpose very distinct from the purpose for the writing of the Psalter. John was inspired by the Holy Ghost to write what he received in a vision. He was not viewing the worship of the local congregation on Patmos. My point was not that it was prophetic (and so constituting an argument against the singing of prophetic portions of the Psalter), but that the book as a whole is a prophecy or vision, not a liturgy or hymnbook.

    I repeat what I said before: “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.” The presence of these songs, or their being sung, in this particular book, grant no warrant for their use in our public worship; unless it will also be argued that these other items are also to be included in our worship.

    (4.) On the supposition that these were all songs, it requires an extra leap in the chain of testimony to conclude that they were sung in the services of the church. One may refer to numerous songs and other pieces written by English and Scottish Presbyterians, such as David Dickson, John Flavel, and Ralph Erskine, who wrote them all for the use of private individuals, and who never dreamed of introducing them into the public worship of the church.

    (5.) On the supposition that these were all songs employed by the church in her public services (which would go contrary to my beliefs of exclusive psalmody; but again, just supposing), there is no warrant to conclude that these were uninspired or non-canonical songs. It is one thing to argue for the use of other inspired songs, in addition to the Psalms; it is another entirely to argue for the use of uninspired songs.

    It is for these reasons (and more) that I cannot find the argument regarding “hymn fragments” to be particularly convincing.

    5. “The voice of Christ and His Church is well nigh the only voice to be heard in the Psalms” (St. Augustine).

    If God had thought the Psalter was insufficient for our purposes under the New Testament, as the matter of our praise, He would have remedied the insufficiency by Himself supplying an inspired New Testament hymnal, just as He gave an inspired Old Testament hymnal. The fact that there is no NT hymnal demonstrates that there is no such insufficiency. The early church made it quite clear that the Psalms were sufficient for the purpose for which God gave them; they sufficiently testify of Christ our Saviour; and the inability to see this testifies, not to our need for other songs, but our need to see the Psalms better, in their true light.

    When we today sing the Psalms, with the additional light and knowledge offered by the New Testament, we keep to God’s ordinance of singing Psalms; we sing with the revelation provided since the Psalms were written, in the words given us for that purpose; and we sing the “new song” commanded us in the Psalms. None of these things can be done in the singing of uninspired or non-canonical songs, of merely human composition.

  5. JD Longmire March 29, 2007 at 7:42 AM #

    Sean said:When we today sing the Psalms, with the additional light and knowledge offered by the New Testament, we keep to God’s ordinance of singing Psalms; we sing with the revelation provided since the Psalms were written, in the words given us for that purpose; and we sing the “new song” commanded us in the Psalms. None of these things can be done in the singing of uninspired or non-canonical songs, of merely human composition.

    3 quick things:

    1. The command to sing new songs is also in Isaiah.

    2. I can follow the RPW and not have to qualify “new song”.

    3. We aren’t “merely” human – we are New Covenant recipients of the Holy Spirit.



  6. Joel March 29, 2007 at 9:56 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?


  7. Sean McDonald March 29, 2007 at 10:52 AM #


    This occurs within the context of Hezekiah’s reformation of worship which occurred during his reign. Only a few verses before, we read, “And he (Hezekiah) set the Levites in the house of the LORD with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps, according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet: for so was the commandment of the LORD by his prophets” (v. 25). And just a few verses later, we read, “So the service of the house of the LORD was set in order” (v. 35). We must therefore see his command as an echo of the divine command to sing the Psalms. The full description of this reformation occurs in chapters 29 through 31. Chapter 31 concludes, “And thus did Hezekiah throughout all Judah, and wrought that which was good and right and truth before the LORD his God. And in every work that he began in the service of the house of God, and in the law, and in the commandments, to seek his God, he did it with all his heart, and prospered” (2 Chron. 31:20, 21).

    Hope this helps.

  8. Joel March 29, 2007 at 5:37 PM #

    Thanks. That helps.

  9. Kyle March 29, 2007 at 5:52 PM #

    [quote]In the areas Scripture is clear – clear adherence is mandated – where it is not so clear – there is liberty. That is – liberty within the boundaries of the Scriptural mandate – what I believe has been determined as “circumstantial”.[/quote]


    [quote]2 Chronicles 29:30, one of the chief texts upon which I rely for such assertions.[/quote]

    I think most will agree that where Scripture is clear, it is clear, and we need to quickly adhere to scripture. However, I am not personally seeing people trying to make a Scriptural mandate “circumstantial” as you describe it, rather the question is whether or not there IS such a scriptural mandate in the first place. My tendency is to believe that you have not presented a compelling case that there is a scriptural mandate for exclusive psalmody.

    Solid doctrine is rarely formed based on one verse of Scripture. When it is (such as the case of, say, the Sixth Commandments prohibiting murder), it is clearly supported not only in the remainder of Scripture, but in the very character and nature of God Himself.

    In my admittedly limited view, I do not see a scriptural “Mandate” for exclusive psalmody. My personal view is that this approach does not have sufficient Scriptural support, and is not supported by what I understand to be Character and Nature of God.

    Two practical thoughts / questions.

    When the Disciples finished the Lord’s Supper in the upper room, Matthew 26 tells us “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” What hymn did they sing? We’re not told.

    My second question is: If the Psalms are to be sung exclusively, what melodies are we to use? What style should we sing in? There are no notes or chords in the Bible. If there is a mandate that we should sing only Psalms, then there should be a mandate that tells us HOW to sing the Psalms. If the Psalms themselves alone are ordained to us for our Worship, then this seems to be the critical missing link.

  10. Joel March 30, 2007 at 1:00 PM #

    2. I can follow the RPW and not have to qualify “new song”.

    What does that mean?

    Sorry for asking so many questions, but I really am curious.

  11. Gary H April 4, 2007 at 9:07 PM #

    I’m impressed that there is such disagreement taking place with such love and respect.

    It’s obvious that we won’t be convincing anyone at each end of the spectrum.

    God is a gracious, loving and understanding God. I truly believe that if one extreme is wrong, it won’t result in any fall from grace or even God’s rejecting of our heartfelt, loving response to our loving God, no matter the basis of our offering. How could a Father who operates in such grace reject gifts of the heart given by His children? (I guess one could argue that in my sincerity I could be sincerely wrong)

    I didn’t plan to, but I guess I’ve revealed my position.

    I hope this makes sense. It’s the middle of the night right now after traveling from the States to Europe and I couldn’t sleep. I apologize for any incoherency.

  12. cavman April 5, 2007 at 10:38 PM #

    I affirm the regulative principle. But I fail to see a place in Scripture where it says “you shall sing these songs and no other”. Where does Scripture call this THE Hymnbook?
    Scripture should regulate the content of the songs we sing. Lyrics that do not conform to the teaching of Scripture should not be used.

    Another question for Psalm singers: If we must only sing the Psalms, why do some change the Psalms to make them singable? I find this in the Bible Song book that my denomination used to use (and many still love).

  13. Dan Bixby April 7, 2007 at 1:15 AM #

    I, too, am sincerely grateful for the spirit of this debate, and for Bob for allowing it. It has helped me to better understand both sides.
    It is important that all who worship God have a reason for how and why they worship. Those who adhere to a Psalter only understanding of the regulative principle often bemoan, with good reason, those who will sing just about anything without a strong, biblical reason for doing so. I appreciate their willingness to stress this point.
    I believe in the regulative principle – that we must worship God in ways He has expressly prescribed – therefore, I must include in my worship of God new songs.

    1) I believe the Bible commands us to sing our own songs to God.
    Some may say that the Scriptures do not tell us to sing “un-inspired” songs, but I believe they do. There are many examples of spontaneous singing of Praise to God in the Scriptures. Yet we are told that we must believe that those who sang spontaneous songs that were recorded were justified in doing so because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. That is fine, but it is the flip side I have a problem with: we must believe that those who sang songs that were not recorded were all singing from the Psalter. So Miriam, Hannah, Deborah and Balak, Mary, Zachariah, and many others sang spontaneously, but Paul and Silas did not? It is precisely because of these examples, and because of commands from the Psalter itself (see Psalm 149 – a command for spontaneous eruption of praise to God, even on our beds!) that I believe we must create new songs of praise to God, and do so in a humble spirit, acknowledging that they, like us, are imperfect, uninspired words and melodies.

    2) It does not seem possible to maintain a consistency with this view without making a complete distinction between corporate worship and private worship. There are, no doubt, practical differences, but the differences should not be incompatible.
    I believe that the Scriptures teach that corporate worship should be the joining of many private worshipers. That is, those who worship God in private, seeking to join their voices together in worship as a unified body. It is the “two or three gathered together” principle.
    Even in Calvin’s introduction to the Genevan Psalter, he seems to argue that corporate worship (singing) should be a mirror of private worship (singing):
    “And yet the practice of singing may extend more widely; it is even in the homes and in the fields an incentive for us, as it were, an organ of praise to God,…”
    His distinction (made later) is rather with songs to “amuse” vs. songs of worship (a distinction most of us would agree with), not songs of private worship vs. songs of public worship.
    If one does see the two as completely different in all aspects, then, at least they can have some consistency, but I don’t see that in the Bible. I believe God deliberately did not tell us what to sing, just like he did not tell us other aspects of church worship and life.
    However, if one maintains that they are related, but believes that the regulative principle dictates Psalter only worship, then how can they consistently apply that principle other areas of church life and worship?
    How can they properly take the Lord’s Supper? They certainly cannot claim to take it in exactly the same manner as did Christ, or the early church (though few would deny it is an act of worship). Or… is it wrong to be baptized anywhere other than a river (which seems to be the only place of baptism mentioned in the Scriptures)? Why do we not meet on the Sabbath?

    3) To use 2 Chronicles 29:30 as a statement that requires us to sing only from the Psalms, seems akin to using Colossians 4:15, which says, “Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house” as a requirement for churches to meet only in a woman’s house.

    4) One must assume that David, Asaph, Solomon, Moses, and others, did NOT write any other hymns that are not included in the canon. This seems unlikely, at best. Obviously, if they did (and I believe there were many others written), they were not inspired. It would then have to be argued that Israel was wrong to sing them.

    I have several other reasons but it is late, and this has gone much longer than I planned. Thanks again for all the good reading.

  14. Whit Roberts June 14, 2007 at 9:49 PM #

    I just encountered this while perusing this excellent site. These 2 articles on Psalmody are the only two with which I disagree. While I do not believe that it is not Scriptural to use songs other than the Psalms in Public and Private Worship, I do believe that it is not Scriptural and does tend to threaten Sola Scriptura to sing song other than the inspired Word of Scripture. I will try to comment later as I have time. There are difference between Elements and Circumstances of Worship. A nice example of circumstance is baptizing in a river as brother Dan pointed out. As R.C. Sproul (not a Exclusive Psalmodist) commented on the Psalms about a “new song”, a new song refers back to the Psalms and not to a new, uninspired song. I will try to give more substantive comments later as I have time.

  15. Tim Bushong February 20, 2008 at 6:56 PM #

    I’m not an ‘Exclusive Psalmodist’ myself, but one who in the last two years has begun singing one Psalm per week (usually the whole Psalm, too) in our corporate worship, and am seeing the difference it makes. Just imagine the healthy state of a church who, along with sound doctrine and obedience, sings such militant, vibrant words on a weekly basis? For the next 100 years? Even just one psalm per week, and your men will want to start swinging spiritual 2-handed Claymores and your children will want to scale walls with this robust, God-magnifying faith! Well, maybe it’ll take a little while, but it sure beats “I just wanna” sung over and over…

    Now that I’m calmed down a bit… Psalm-singing is surely something that we can all agree on- it’s the Word itself- and the metrical ones are simply perfect for a big group of people to sing together. Just keep telling yourself:

    “One down- 149 to go…”

    Of course, #119 is usually sung over a period of weeks!

  16. Banetsi KN Soko August 3, 2017 at 5:29 AM #

    Thank you so much for this!!
    I love to know more on the use of instruments instruments in worship?? Is it right or wrong?

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