The Psalms pervade the annals of history. We learn from the written testimony of eye-witnesses that Psalm-singing exerted a powerful influence on the spread of the Reformation throughout France. The Huguenots memorized the Psalms and sang them with intensity all day long – in villages and vineyards across the country. A visitor could hear the Psalms in the mouths of children walking to school, workman ploughing their fields, families gathered around the hearth, as well as in casual gatherings and always in public worship. The Reformed armies sang them going into war. At a crucial point in battle, their captain would call upon his men to sing, and the melodious words of Psalm 68 would peal out over the din of canons, as the godly drove themselves like a wedge through their enemies. Psalm-singing permeated their lives.
The Huguenots shared the same inheritance enjoyed by many of the Reformed churches in Europe. And those churches bequeathed this rich heritage to their spiritual heirs. In the intervening years, however, Reformed churches abandoned that legacy, as they broke loose from their biblical moorings and acquiesced to the encroachments of songs of merely human composition. What began as a trickle of uninspired praise grew into a deluge that swept God’s songs out of his churches. The decaying walls of Zion must be set again on unshakeable bedrock. Today we are witnessing a resurgence of interest in Psalm-singing. But if we hope to recover what was lost and to prevent future erosions, then the contemporary Church must return to the Scriptures themselves — and be prepared to follow them fully.
The biblical law of worship restricts all ordinances to what God has expressly appointed, prescribed, commanded and sanctioned in his Word. God prohibits the human innovations of creative ingenuity in worship. This precludes uninspired songs. The Psalms alone serve as our permanent manual of sung praise, God’s inspired hymnbook for all ages. What follows provides a cursory introduction to the biblical basis for this doctrine.
God requires divine inspiration as a qualification for writing worship songs. An inextricable connection exists between prophecy and sung praise. The Old Testament song writers possessed the gift of prophecy, and they recognized the criteria of writing only inspired praise for worship. 2 Sam. 23:1-2 says, “. . . David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said, The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue.” The New Testament corroborates David’s prophetic role in writing songs inspired by the Holy Spirit (e.g., Acts 2:29-31; 1:16). Likewise, Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman served as seers. 1 Sam. 9:9 clarifies, “… for he that is now called a Prophet was beforetime called a Seer.” 1 Chron. 25:1-7 states the case even more explicitly:
“Moreover David and the captains of the host separated to the service of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy … All these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer in the words of God … All these were under the hands of their father for song in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, psalteries, and harps, for the service of the house of God, according to the king’s order to Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman. So the number of them, with their brethren that were instructed in the songs of the Lord, even all that were cunning, was two hundred fourscore and eight.”
Five hundred years later, during the spiritual reformation under King Hezekiah, Judah renewed the commitment to God’s inspired songs. 2 Chron. 29:30 states, “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.”
The same principle could be illustrated throughout the Old Testament, and that standard carries over into the New Testament. The Lord neither commissioned prophets to compose new praise nor did the New Testament contain a collection of new songs. The Psalms maintained their place in the sung praise of the churches. Gentile believers were filled with the Spirit while singing the songs of the Spirit (Eph. 5:18b-19). The very word of Christ in the Psalms dwelt in them richly (Col. 3:16). Even if the New Testament had furnished the Church with new inspired songs, we would have no warrant from Scripture for the use of uninspired human compositions in the singing of God’s praise in worship. The office of prophet has now expired, and the production of inspired songs has ceased.
Scripture provides (and we possess) a complete deposit of inspired songs in the canon of Scripture, accompanied by God’s command to use them in worship. The Psalms, therefore, maintain a unique and authoritative status, restricting us to what God provided in the Bible.
John Calvin writes:
“Now what St. Augustine says is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God unless he has received them from him. Wherefore, when we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him. And furthermore, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts the words in our mouth, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.”
The divine provision of a collection of inspired songs constitutes a prescription for their use. Their mere existence proves this. God provided a canonical text for reading (the sixty-six books of the Bible), thereby confirming the obligation to use it. God appointed singing in his worship, and he supplied the text to be sung. We have no more warrant to substitute man’s songs for God’s songs in worship than we do to substitute the Apocrypha or any other text for Scripture reading in worship. If you walked into a church, and someone handed you a book entitled “worship songs,” you would immediately understand its purpose. God did just that with the Psalms. We must adhere to his appointed ordinances.
God alone stands qualified to establish what is sufficient for his people. The New Testament clearly saw no inadequacy in these songs, and neither has the church throughout the ages. The early church theologian, Athanasius, wrote: “I believe that a man can find nothing more glorious than these Psalms; for they embrace the whole life of man, the affections of his mind, and the motions of his soul. To praise and glorify God, he can select a psalm suited to every occasion, and thus will find that they were written for him.” The Psalms are fully sufficient as a permanent manual of praise. Any misperceived inadequacy in the Psalms for New Testament believers stems from our own spiritual impoverishment, not a deficiency in the Psalms.
Ps. 22:3 rings out, “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” God inhabits the praises derived from his own mouth. Jesus sang the Psalms – after all they were his own songs. We sing with him, about him and to him in the Psalms. In the early centuries of the church, the Psalms were the only hymnbook, with presbyters required to memorize all 150 Psalms. The Psalms unite the church throughout the world. Churches in China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Germany, Mexico and everywhere else should be undivided in the sung praise they offer to God in worship through their respective languages – just as they are united in reading and preaching the whole Bible. The Psalms also unify the church throughout history. Those in the 21st century are still singing the same inspired praise employed throughout the Bible and all ages of the church.
The Psalms function as vital to the life of the individual believer. God provides songs for times of sorrow, joy, fear, triumph, trust, hope, repentance and every other part of Christian experience. The Psalms shape and mold us. Whatever our condition, God puts his song in our mouth to express ourselves to him in worship, thereby impressing his will and Word on our hearts and minds.
God defines the content of praise that he desires and calls us to treasure this revelation of himself. Let God be God in his own prescribed worship. The Psalms should be sung habitually by believers and by the church whenever it gathers. The spiritual exercise of affectionately meditating on God’s inspired songs “day and night” will yield a bountiful harvest. “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” (Ps. 1:3).
For a sermon by the author on the same topic see: The Singing of Psalms (September 11, 2013)