Singing Psalms and Hymns

Throughout our worship services we sing songs to the Lord. Singing has always been a practice of God’s people, going back to when Israel sang a beautiful hymn of praise to God after being delivered from Egypt by passing through the Red Sea,

“I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise Him…” (Ex. 15:1–2).

We also have the example of King David, who composed over 70 psalms and appointed 4,000 musicians and 288 singers to “offer praises to the LORD” in the temple (1 Chron. 23:5, 25:7). Over and over again the psalms (which themselves are songs) tell God’s people to sing unto the Lord (Ps. 33:3, 98:4–6).

In the New Testament, we find Jesus and the disciples singing “a hymn” after the Last Supper (Mk. 14:26), which scholars believe to have most likely been the Hallel psalms (113–118) which were sung when celebrating Passover. In Acts 4:25 the believers “lifted their voices together to God” and quoted Psalm 2 and later on we read of St Paul and Silas singing hymns together while in prison (Acts 16:25). Throughout the Epistles we are instructed to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:18, Col. 3:16) and to sing praise when cheerful (Jas. 5:13).

This practice of singing was described by John Calvin as a type of public prayer offered to the Lord.[1] We do not sing during our worship services to sprinkle in some art or entertainment. Nor do we use song merely as a pedagogical tool to convey doctrine the way a sermon does. Instead, the church sings psalms and hymns to praise and glorify God our Lord, for “psalmody is not primarily thematic, decorative, or didactic, but doxological.[2]

Singing Psalms

Notably, our congregation sings many psalms, rather than just hymns or contemporary worship music. There are a number of reasons to prioritize psalm singing in worship. First, the Psalter is a divinely-inspired book of songs given by God to his Church. John Calvin exclusively used psalms in Genevan worship, arguing that

“No one is able to sing things worthy of God other than that which he has received from God: That is why we have searched here and there and all over, we cannot find better songs, nor songs more appropriate to use than the Psalms of David: for these have been given to us by the Holy Spirit himself. And so it is when we sing them we can be sure that God Himself has put the words in our mouths, as though he himself were singing in us to the praise of his glory.”[3]

While we will dare to express minor disagreement with Calvin regarding his exclusive use of psalms in the next section, his point stands. Why would we neglect to sing that which God has prepared for His people? That which we can be confident He will receive with gladness from us? To do so would be the height of folly—a folly that much of the modern church has succumbed to.

Second, psalms fit the tenor of worship. The writer of Hebrews calls us to offer to God acceptable worship, “with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28b–29). Psalms, when put to appropriate music, more accurately reflect the character of God than many hymns or contemporary music can. Following St Paul’s admonition to be “fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11), psalms offer God’s people the opportunity to sing songs that are both formal and lively, that express a zealous and militant joy. If the church is to conquer the nations with the gospel, the psalter serves well as a battle hymnal. As Douglas Wilson has asked, “What is a good thing to sing while swinging a battering ram at the gates of the enemy? There are many to choose from, but why not Psalm 68? ‘God shall arise and by His might, put all His enemies to flight.’”[4]

Third, evidence shows that the early church sang psalms when worshiping the Lord. In addition to the writings on psalms of St Augustine and St Basil the Great, we have an interesting account of St Athanasius holed up in a church with men after him, in which he “ordered the recitation of a psalm; and when the melodious chant of the psalm arose, all [the people] went out through one of the church doors” allowing him to escape.[5]

Singing Hymns

If Psalms are so important and helpful, the question arises as to why we should bother singing hymns at all? To start, it would be helpful to get rid of a common but poor argument in support of singing hymns. Some well-meaning Christians try to use St Paul’s command to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19) as a support for singing songs outside of the Psalter. However, this argument does not hold weight because in the Septuagint these three words are used throughout the book as headings for the psalms. Therefore, its highly likely that Paul is simply referring to the Psalter in this passage. So then, what are our reasons for not embracing exclusive-psalmody like many Reformed churches?

First, quite simply, nothing in Scripture demands the exclusive use of psalms, and we see both in early church history and in the Reformed tradition the use of hymns. Calvin himself, while strongly preferring and practicing exclusive-psalmody, had no objection to other Reformed churches that sang hymns (and many did).[6] In defense of hymns, the reformer from Constance named Johannes Zwick appealed to Tertullian who wrote that “…each one is called upon to sing to God before the congregation, as he is able, something from the Holy Scriptures or something of his own composition” (emphasis added).[7] This practice seems similar to what St Paul observes of the Corinthian worship, writing, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor. 14:26).

Another argument for the use of man-made hymns could be taken from the life of Hezekiah. After recovering from an illness, Hezekiah writes a song to the Lord which is preserved in Isaiah 38. However, it appears that Hezekiah composed more than one song when he writes, “we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD” (Isa. 38:20). These weren’t just personal songs, but songs used in corporate worship. However, only one of them is recorded in Scripture.

Lastly, it appears that in St Paul’s epistles we find two hymns that scholars believe reflect the hymnody of Greek-speaking congregations at the time.[8] These are the magnificent Christological hymns in Philippians 2:5–11 and Colossians 1:15–20.

The historical and biblical evidence regarding the use of hymns from outside of Scripture is such that Hughes Oliphant Old (a proponent of psalm-singing) wrote, “There is little question that the first Christians wrote hymns to Christ and sang them in their worship side by side with the psalms they sang as fulfilled prophecies of the coming Messiah.”[9]

Find other posts in this series here.

[1] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Black Mountain, NC: Worship Press), 256.
[2] Ibid. 253-254.
[3] Ibid. 259.
[4] Douglas Wilson, A Primer on Worship and Reformation (Moscow, ID: Canon Press), 64.
[5] Hughes Oliphant Old, The Patristic Roots of Reformed Worship (Black Mountain, NC: Worship Press), 257.
[6] Ibid. 252.
[7] Ibid. 260.
[8] Ibid. 37.
[9] Ibid., 38.

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