The Regulative Principle and Exclusive Psalmody without Instrumentation by Joe Harper.
For those who profess themselves to be servants of the Lord Jesus Christ, there is perhaps no act of service more important than worshipping the true and living God. This truth is beyond disputation. If Christians proclaim that Jesus Christ is indeed their God, then it is evident how important it is that they worship him as God. God’s worship is imperative because the Lord God is worthy to be praised at all times. Every aspect of who God is, demonstrates that he is truly the almighty God. For those who have beheld the truth of God, the only response that can be given is to humbly give reverence and praise to him in worship. The essence of who God is demands worship from his followers.
Everything that God has done, does, and will do, proclaims the glory of his own name. God was the one who created the heavens, the earth, and all that is in them, by speaking them into being out of nothing. God extended mercy to a sinful Adam and Eve after their fall in the garden. God did not cast them off forever but instead in his goodness made coverings for them to cover their shame. God was the one who showed his divine justice by judging the sinful world with the great flood. God preserved his faithful servant Noah through his ministry to a wicked world and spared him and his family from the great flood. God revealed his faithfulness to his servant Abraham by granting him and his wife a child when they were well past the age of childbearing. God put his power on display before a proud pharaoh and the mighty kingdom of Egypt. Through his wonders, God humbled the greatest empire in the world and brought his people out of bondage and into the sweet promise of freedom. God made the Israelites a mighty nation and was faithful to them through many trials and difficulties. God showed his love for his people by sending his own son into this fallen world to live as a man and suffer all the hardships that accompany a life upon the earth. Christ humbled himself and took the form of a man in order to save his people. He who knew no sin fully felt the temptations of sin but never succumbed to them. He suffered in this world and learned sympathy for mortal men. Christ by his life, death, and resurrection, accomplished the final victory over sin, the devil, and even death. He is now seated at the right hand of the father in triumph. The entire progression of history reveals God’s greatness which leads to the praise of his name.
True worship of God starts with a correct understanding of who God is and how we ought to approach him. God’s glory is infinite and we as men cannot fathom the true extent of his glory. Whatever mere understanding of his glory that God grants unto us reminds us that we are but dust before him and that we are nothing before the Lord. The God that we as Christians serve today is the same God who told Moses to remove his sandals at the burning bush due to the fact that he stood on holy ground (Exo. 3:5). He is the same God who hid Moses in the cleft of a rock, and passed by, only allowing Moses to see his back side representing the truth that Moses could only see a portion of his glory (Exo. 33:22-23). Moses could not withstand beholding the full weight of God’s glory. Understanding the truth about God makes it abundantly clear that true worship must be conducted with the utmost reverence. There should be a holy fear that governs our every action as worshippers. Our goal in worship is not to please ourselves but is to humbly serve our God and king. The Puritan, Stephen Charnock put it well when he said,
“When we believe that we ought to be satisfied rather than God glorified; we set God below ourselves, imagine that he should submit his own honour to our advantage. We make ourselves more glorious than God, as though we were not made for him, but he hath a being only for us; this is to have a very low esteem of the majesty of God. Whatsoever any man aims at in worship above the glory of God, that he forms as an idol to himself instead of God, and sets up a golden image. God counts not this as a worship.”[i]
However, sadly we are living in an age where the pure worship of God has been scoffed at, cast off, and replaced by forms of worship that are designed more to appeal to the carnal whims of men in their flesh instead of obeying the dictates of God. We are living in times where the professing Christian Church has been overrun by will worship (Col. 2:22-23) where man and not God is the object of the supposed worship. The commandments of God have been traded in for the traditions of men. Instead of reverence and a sincere desire to please God, the Churches have been infested with a form of man worship where everyone does what is right in their own eyes in regards to worship. The proof of this is found in Churches across the land where the services resemble an entertainment event such as a musical concert more than they resemble historic Christian worship. This amounts to nothing more than idolatry and false worship.
God alone is the one who determines what is proper for worship and what is not. He does not allow his people to bring anything before him in worship but except what he explicitly directs. God gives specific requirements in regards to how he ought to be worshipped by his people. God demands sincerity from his people when they worship him but the claim of sincerity is not enough to amount to true worship. True sincerity in the heart will ultimately lead to obedience to God’s commands (Jn. 14:21). Historically, the Christian Church has had an understanding of the principle that is to guide true worship. This has been known as the regulative principle. The regulative principle states that God is to be worshipped only by what he has commanded. Nothing is to be added or subtracted from what God has commanded for worship. A good definition of the regulative principle is found in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. The confession reads,
“The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all; is just, good and does good to all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart and all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God, is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imagination and devices of men, nor the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.” (1689 LBC: Ch. 22: Par. 1)[ii]
The confession clearly states that God is not to be worshipped according imaginations and devices of men. In other words, God’s worship is prescriptive and not suggestive. Instead, God must be worshipped only as he has told us to do so in his word. This has been the understanding of how God should be worshipped by his most faithful servants all throughout history. This is not to say that there haven’t been those in history who have opposed this principle. Just as will worship prevails in our times, so has it been prevalent in all ages. The contrasting principle to the regulative principle has been called normative principle. The normative principle states that we may bring anything into worship as long as God has not expressly forbidden it. In other words, there is freedom to worship God as we please apart from his prohibitions.
The foundation for the regulative principle is the teaching of the word of God. The teaching of the regulative principle is found throughout the Scriptures. The doctrine that is the foundation for the regulative principle is the sufficiency of the Scriptures. The question must be put forward, If God’s word is sufficient to completely inform us how to worship him, then how can we worship God in any other manner than what he has told us to do in his word? To claim that we can add or subtract from God’s commands in worship amounts to a denial of the sufficiency of the Scriptures, or in other words a denial of Sola Scriptura. This is why the Reformed branch of Protestantism has always affirmed the regulative principle. The sufficiency of the Scriptures is also seen all throughout the Scriptures. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reads,
16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
17 That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
(2 Tim. 3:16-17).
The text demonstrates how the Scriptures furnishes the man of God for all good works. They truly are profitable for all manners relating to doctrine, teaching and living the Christian life. These same ideas are expressed in Psalm 19:7-10.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
The law of God is perfect. God’s statutes and commandments in his word are pure and right. They convert the soul and instruct in the ways of righteousness. God’s word is to be desired more than gold and honey because it is sufficient for the living of a life pleasing to God. In addition, to the sufficiency of the Scriptures affirming the regulative principle of worship, specific verses of scripture plainly state it. Two notable examples are Deuteronomy 4:2 and Deuteronomy 12:32. These verses read,
2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.
32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
These verses say explicitly that we must obey God’s commandments as they are given without adding or subtracting from them. This is the very teaching of the regulative principle. Nothing could be plainer than this truth. The greatest reason why we must take the regulative principle seriously is because God takes it seriously. God’s worship is no trifling affair. It something that must be conducted in light of the God to whom it is offered. God takes the regulative principle so seriously that he has even struck men down for failing to uphold it. This is seen in Leviticus 10. Nadab and Abihu brought elements into God’s worship other than what he had commanded. Their sinful negligence of God’s commands led them to pay a severe price. They paid for their failure to heed God’s stipulations with the loss of their lives. Leviticus 10:1-2 gives the account.
1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.
2 And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. (Lev. 10:1-2)
Nadab and Abihu were the sons of Aaron, the high priest. As part of the priesthood, they were responsible for the conducting the prescribed elements divine worship. In this instance, they brought fire from a place other than where God had commanded them to bring it. They had brought strange fire before the Lord. This was an instance where something had been added to God’s worship other than what he had commanded. After Nadab and Abihu had done this, God devoured them and took their lives. This account in the Scriptures demonstrates the seriousness of the regulative principle of worship. This has literally been a life and death affair in history. Now God is a merciful God. He does not strike men dead every time the regulative principle is broken. However, God is unchanging. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The same God that was so displeased by the strange fire brought forth by Nadab and Abihu is the same God whom we serve today. God is no less dishonored by false worship today than he was in the days of Nadab and Abihu.
Now that the Regulative Principle has been proven from the Scriptures, the logical question is how do we then in light of this truth worship God? I will now explain the nature of the New Covenant and the elements of New Covenant worship. I will then proceed to explain the doctrine of exclusive psalmody without instrumentation. It should be stated that there have been many fine servants of the Lord who have not perfectly upheld all elements of the regulative principle. This is because we as men are fallible. We know only in part (1 Cor. 13:9) and we know nothing as we ought to know (1 Cor. 8:2). Some of God’s greatest servants for example have affirmed the use of man-made hymns or have affirmed infant baptism despite the fact that these elements are not prescribed in the New Testament. It should be noted that just because a servant of God is in error on one or a few points does not mean he is not a true believer or that he is not truly serving the Lord. Sometimes men are truly striving to honor God according to his word but despite the good and sincere intentions of their hearts, their understanding of Scripture is limited due to the fact that God has not opened their eyes to see the truth fully. Despite all that has been said about the seriousness of the regulative principle, we must be gracious in regards to certain differences in understanding of the regulative principle. This does not change the fact that by the grace of God, we must do everything we can to obey God in all matters.
New Covenant Worship
In order to understand proper Christian worship, we must first understand the fact that the Old Covenant has passed away and has given way to the New Covenant. The Old Covenant lasted for thousands of years since its original inception before it came to an end in the first century with Christ’s establishment of the New Covenant. The coming of the New Covenant had been prophesied long before its actual arrival. The Old Covenant was never intended to be a permanent covenant but was always meant to give way to the new. This is seen in Hebrews 8:7-13.
7 For if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.
8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:
9 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more.
13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.
Hebrews shows us that the Old Covenant has vanished away. The reason why the Old Covenant being replaced by the New Covenant is significant for Christian worship is because the various elements that were a part of Old Covenant worship have passed away along with the covenant that they were a part of. The worship of the Old Covenant had many elements such as the temple, the Levitical priesthood, the sacrificial system, the instruments, the choirs which contributed to the worship of the Lord. Many of these elements typologically pointed forward to greater realities in the New Covenant. The temple pointed forward the new covenant temple of Christ’s body. The Levitical priesthood pointed forward to the Christian priesthood of all believers in Christ. The sacrifices pointed forward to the perfect sacrifice of Christ. This typology reveals that these elements of Old Testament worship were not intended to endure forever but were meant to pass away with the coming of the New Covenant.
The New Covenant is a covenant of an entirely different nature from the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was a covenant where not everyone who was a part of it was true child of God. The Old Covenant was a mixed covenant composed of those who were only a part of Abraham’s physical seed and also those who were a part of his spiritual seed. Not all of Israel was truly Israel (Rom. 9:4-6). In other words, amongst the Israelites there were true believers and those who were not truly saved. The New Covenant has always been a covenant that is different in this regard from the Old Covenant. God said that all members of this covenant would know him personally, would have his law written on their hearts, would have their iniquities be covered, and their sins remembered no more. This is seen in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
31 Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:
32 Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord:
33 But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the Lord, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.
34 And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
The text in Jeremiah states all members of the New Covenant were those who had by the grace of God had come to truly know the Lord. The members of the New Covenant are those who have been born again from their state of spiritual deadness, been joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit, professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repented of their sins, and have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. These realities of the New Covenant grant us great insight into the true nature of New Testament worship.
New Covenant worship is a spiritual affair conducted by those who have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The nature of the Old Covenant meant that this was often not the case for the worship of the Old Testament. New Covenant worship is different because it is done in both spirit and truth. The worship of the New Testament is more than the fulfilling of the outward elements prescribed for its transaction. New Covenant worship is the adoration of the divine spirit who is God through the working of the spirit of God who indwells his worshippers. Jesus described this to the woman at the well in John chapter 4.
21 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.
22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.
23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.
24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
In this portion of Scripture, the woman at the well was asking Christ about where true worship was supposed to take place. The woman had perceived that Jesus was a prophet and that she could therefore profit from his wisdom. The woman was a Samaritan whose people had worshipped at their mountain in Samaria. In contrast, the Jews worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus responded to her by telling her of the coming time when neither of these places would be required place of worship. Jesus was telling her of the time when true worship would not be tied to any location at all but would take place anywhere his children worshipped in spirit and truth. Christ informed her of the true nature of worship which is inherently spiritual. Christ was speaking to the woman about the coming of the New Covenant. The great characteristics of those who are members of the New Covenant and the requirements of those who worship God are one and the same. The indwelling of the spirit of God is a promise to those who are members of the covenant and also a requirement for true worship. Ezekiel 36 shows this,
26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.
27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them.
We see how God gives a new spirit to his children and puts his spirit within them. This verse is describing the promises of those who are a part of the New Covenant. This verse is describing the same promises that were stated in Jeremiah 31. Christ was describing these same truths to the woman at the well. The coming of the New Covenant meant the entire nature of worship would change in comparison to the worship of the Old Covenant. Christ even alluded to the passing away of the temple and the elements of temple worship when he said that Jerusalem would no longer be the place of worship.
Once one understands the nature of worship that Christ was describing to the Samaritan woman then two facts become evident. The first fact is that if New Covenant worship is spiritual then it will look drastically different from the Old Covenant that was filled with types and shadows pointing forward to their respective greater realities. This means practically that New Testament worship is according to the eyes of those who observe it, a much simpler form of worship than Old Testament worship was. The shadows have given way to the substance. The second fact is that since we are worshipping under a New Covenant, we must derive our worship exclusively from the commands given to believers under the New Covenant. We are not to go back and bring the old elements that have passed away under the Old Covenant into New Covenant worship. This means practically that we must look to the books of the New Testament for the elements of worship under the New Covenant.
Now that the principle of the regulative principle has been laid out and the nature of New Covenant worship has been described, we can now proceed to describing the elements of worship under the New Testament. The main ordinances for worship are prayer (1 Cor. 14:16-17), the public reading of the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4:13), preaching and hearing of the word of God (2 Tim. 4:2), congregational singing (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19), and the ordinances of Baptism (Matt. 28:19), and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-27). What is easily from this list is that every element of worship is directly commanded to be performed in the New Testament. What is commanded for worship under the New Covenant is evident from a simple and straight forward reading of the New Testament. Much more could be said on each of the elements but this description will suffice at this time. I will now proceed to lay out the doctrine of exclusive psalmody without instrumentation.
Exclusive Psalmody without Instrumentation
There is no area of God’s worship where the flagrant violations of the regulative principle are seen more regularly than in the area of singing praises to God. Today’s evangelical churches have transformed the singing into an elaborate performance, with the use of their many different musical instruments, trained musicians, and highly popular “worship” songs. The Christian music industry has grown exponentially in recent times, and has had a powerful influence on the evangelical Church. Most of that influence has been highly detrimental to the Church. Even in the “reformed” churches that pride themselves on their more “conservative” worship, the regulative principle is still not followed. They may say we don’t follow the “performance mentality” of the other evangelical churches but regardless they do not follow the regulative principle. Elements that have not been commanded have still been introduced into worship.
The truth is that manmade worship songs, musical instruments, choirs, and musical performances are all practices that have no warrant in the New Testament. God has commanded his servants to sing only the divinely written songs of the Hebrew Psalter without the use of instruments. This position is known as exclusive psalmody without instrumentation. This was once a widely held position amongst reformed churches but this is no longer the case. In the seventeenth century, manmade hymns began to be used amongst many congregations. The practice grew over the centuries until it became the norm. The use of instruments was universally opposed amongst reformed churches through the nineteenth century until their use became common in the twentieth century. Today, the standards have fallen so dramatically that many people upon hearing the biblical position of exclusive psalmody with the use of instruments, they will often respond that they have never even heard of that theological viewpoint. Many Churches today will not even sing any Psalms at all in their services.
As has been said previously, God’s worship under the New Testament is a simple affair in comparison to the elaborate worship of the Old Testament. The many elements that were a part of temple worship have passed away. This truth especially applies to the many elements surrounding the singing in God’s worship under the New Covenant. As will be demonstrated, under the New Covenant, God has commanded us to sing only the Hebrew psalms without the use of instruments. The singing in the temple of Solomon would have been a beautiful sight to beheld. The Levitical priests would have been gathered in their assigned roles. Specially designated singers were assembled to lift up their praises to God. Different instruments were employed including the harps, cymbals, psalteries, and trumpets (2 Chron. 5:12-13). The sacrifices were performed, the instruments were played, the songs were lifted up into towards heaven. All of these different aspects of worship had been specially commanded by God. Nothing was random, accidental, or outside God’s design. God’s commands were so specific that he had even commanded the specific instruments that were supposed to be used for worship (2 Chron. 29:25-26). As beautiful as the various components of the Temple worship were, God never intended for them to be permanent. Instead, these parts of worship (including instruments) passed away with the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. The Levitical priesthood, temple, sacrifices, special singers, and instruments have all vanished away.
Much more could be said about the use of instruments. One final point must be made. An honest reading of the New Testament shows that there is not a single mention of the use of instruments. There is no command for the use of instruments in New Testament worship. Since there is no command, this means that they are forbidden to be introduced into worship. This brings us to the issue of what songs we ought to sing in worship. In the Temple worship of the Old Testament, the matter of which songs that were sung was just as intentionally chosen as which instruments were used. Once again, everything was done according to divine command. In the Temple only specific songs that had been written under inspiration of the Holy Spirit were used for worship. God has chosen to be pleased with singing specific songs that have been divinely written by God through his servants. Today these songs are found in the Scriptures in the book of Psalms. We have a “hymnal” right in the center of our Bibles which God has given to his Church to be used for his worship. Today, we find that these are the exact same songs that God has commanded us to sing in the New Testament.
The two main verses that speak to the issue of what the Church ought to sing in worship are Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. These verses read,
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Col. 3:16)
19 Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. (Eph. 5:19)
These two verses instruct us that we are to sing psalms, hymns, and, spiritual songs. A correct understanding of what are the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs will inform us what we are to sing in the Church. At first glance, it may seem that the verses are telling us to sing the Old Testament psalms, humanly written hymns, and other spiritual songs (psalms, hymns, spiritual songs). Generally speaking, this is the interpretation that has become common in the modern Church. This interpretation stems from a failure to understand the context of what Paul was writing to the Churches at Ephesus and Colossae. Today, the word hymn is almost always used in the churches to refer to hymns of human composition. This verbiage is so common that it is easy to read this understanding into our reading of Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19. However, this is not what Paul meant when he wrote the word hymn in these verses.
The terms psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are in fact referring to the titles of the Psalter. The Psalms are an amazing collection of songs that were written over a period of thousands of years. The earliest psalm that we have is the 90th psalm written by Moses. The latest psalms (such as psalm 137) were written following the Babylonian Captivity. We find that there is within this divinely authored catalogue of songs an amazing range of songs in regards to the types of songs, authorship, and subject matter. Most of the psalms were written by David, which is why they are often referred to as the psalms of David. However, there are other prominent authors of the psalms such as Moses, Asaph, Heman, Ethan the Ezrahite, Solomon, and the sons of Korah. This variety helps explains why different titles are used for the different psalms. The Hebrew words that are used as the titles of the Psalter is Mizmor, Tehillah, and Shir. These same words are found in the Greek Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) translated as psalmos, humnos, and odes which in English means psalms, hymns, and songs. This context gives explanation to what Paul meant when he commanded the churches to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
This interpretation of Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 was once much more commonly held than it is now. It was once the majority interpretation amongst reformed scholars. It was even common amongst theologians who believed that the regulative principle called for the use of man-made hymns to interpret these verses this way. They would argue for hymns from other portions of Scripture. The preface to the Scottish Psalter provides insight into the commonly held interpretations of these verses in the days of the Puritans.
“The twenty-six Puritan signatories of the Preface to the 1673 London edition of the Scottish Metrical Psalter:
“… to us David’s Psalms seem plainly intended by those terms of ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,’ which the apostle useth (Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16)” (the signatories include John Owen, Thomas Manton, Matthew Poole, Thomas Watson, Thomas Vincent and William Jenkyn).”[iii]
Theologians such as Owen, Manton and Poole all understood that psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs was referring to the Old Testament psalms. Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 are not commanding us to use our own “hymns” but are commanding us to sing the Psalms. The reason for this command is that God demands that only songs written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit specifically for corporate worship. When we sing the Psalms only in worship, we are singing songs that are theologically perfect that contain no doctrinal or practical errors. It must be recognized that many man-made hymns are excellent summaries of biblical truth and have been written by godly men knowledgeable in the Scriptures. However, just as there are also many hymns that contain errors within them and can lead God’s people away from biblical truth. Ultimately, the question is not whether these hymns are theologically good or bad, but whether God has commanded us to sing them.
There are other reasons to believe that Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 is referring to the Hebrew psalms. Another clue is found in the word spiritual songs. This word means songs of the spirit or in other words songs written by the Holy Spirit. We know that the word psalms is referring to songs that were written by the Holy Spirit. We now find that the term spiritual songs is also referring to songs written by the Holy Spirit. This is significant because we now see that the first and last words of these three words psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is speaking of divinely written songs. Some have tried to claim that spiritual songs is only speaking about songs that are “spiritual in their content” but this is not the case. John Gill’s comments on Ephesians 5:19 are particularly helpful here.
“By psalms are meant the Psalms of David, and others which compose the book that goes by that name, for other psalms there are none; and by "hymns" we are to understand, not such as are made by good men, without the inspiration of the Spirit of God; since they are placed between psalms and spiritual songs, made by men inspired by the Holy Ghost; and are put upon a level with them, and to be sung along with them, to the edification of churches; but these are only another name for the Book of Psalms, the running title of which may as well be the Book of Hymns, as it is rendered by Ainsworth; and the psalm which our Lord sung with his disciples after the supper, is called an hymn; and so are the psalms in general called hymns, by Philo the Jew; and songs and hymns by Josephus; and (twxbvwtw twryv) [Hebrew transliteration], "songs and praises", or "hymns", in the Talmud: and by "spiritual songs" are meant the same Psalms of David, Asaph and the titles of many of them are songs, and sometimes a psalm and song, and song and psalm, a song of degrees; together with all other Scriptural songs, written by inspired men; and which are called "spiritual", because they are indited by the Spirit of God, consist of spiritual matter, and are designed for spiritual edification; and are opposed to all profane, loose, and wanton songs: these three words answer to (Myryv Mylht) (Myrwmzm) [Hebrew Transliteration] the several titles of David's Psalms; from whence it seems to be the intention of the apostle, that these should be sting in Gospel churches; for so he explains speaking to themselves in them, in the next clause”[iv]
Gill understood that it would be illogical for Paul to be commanding the writings of hymns in between two separate references to songs written by the Spirit. This further reinforces the argument that psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs is speaking about the divinely written Hebrew Psalter.
Now that the meaning of Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19 has been seen, we can move to the rest of the New Testament. Just as it was shown that there is no mention of instruments anywhere in the New Testament, it is also true that there is no mention of human hymns being sung in corporate worship anywhere in the New Testament. Some relevant verses will be examined. We do find accounts of singing in the Gospels. The word hymn is found in both Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26.
30 And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives. (Matt. 26:30)
26 And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives. (Mk. 14:26)
Both of these verses are describing the same account in their respective gospels. The setting for these verses is Christ and his disciples gathering together to celebrate the Passover which they did prior to Jesus being arrested and crucified. A historical understanding of the how the Passover was celebrated gives insight into what Christ and the disciples were singing. It almost certain that they were singing the Hallel (Psalms 113-118) since this was the practice of the Jews during the Passover. In Acts 16:25 we read of Paul and Barnabas singing praises to God.
25 And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.
The words sang praises in the Greek can be understood as having hymned or sang hymns. Paul and Barnabas were likely singing the hymns of the Psalter but it is not certain what they sang. The main point is that this verse is describing what these men sang in prison and is not in reference to corporate worship. In 1st Corinthians 14:15 and 14:25 we have two references to singing in the Church.
15 What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.
26 How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
The full context of this chapter is Paul instructing the Corinthian Church on the proper use of spiritual gifts in the assembly. Paul is telling the Corinthians the proper and improper use of miraculous gifts such as prophecy and tongues in the services. Paul informs the Corinthians that everything is to be done in an orderly fashion which will be unto the edification of all the worshippers. He also teaches them that everything is to be done with the understanding. In other words, the gift of tongues for example is not to be used without someone to interpret the meaning of what is spoken. This gives context to 1 Corinthians 14:15. Paul says that prayer in the spirit should be made with the understanding. He also says that singing should be made with the understanding. The epistle of 1st Corinthians seems to indicate that while the miraculous sign gifts were active in the Church certain Christians were given “spiritual songs” by God to be sung in the Churches. This is evident from the teaching of 1 Corinthians 14. When these spiritual gifts were active in the Church, there was an appointed time in the services when these gifts were supposed to be used in a manner that was orderly and edifying. This also gives context to what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 14:26 where some have a tongue, revelation, or psalm, etc. The relevant point that can be observed from these verses is that they are referring to spiritual songs given by God and not songs of human composition. These same types of songs are no longer found in the Church due to the fact that the miraculous sign gifts have passed away after the founding of the Church and the closing of God’s revelation with the completion of the canon of Scripture.
Another reference to singing psalms is found in James 5:13. This passage needs little examination since it is clearly speaking about the psalms of the Old Testament. The final relevant verses on singing are the passages that speak about the singing of new songs found in the Bible. There are musical references found throughout Revelation but the two passages that talk about singing “new songs.” These verses are Revelation 5:9 and Revelation 14:3.
9 And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation. (Rev. 5:9)
3 And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. (Rev. 14:3)
These passages are relevant to the issue of exclusive psalmody because they alongside the other “new song” passages have been used to justify the creation of human hymns for public worship. In order to understand the correct context of use of the expression singing a new song, we must recognize that this expression is also used in the Old Testament. There are six psalms that speak of singing a new song. These are Psalms 33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, and 149:1.
3 Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise. (Psalm 33:3)
3 And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:3)
1 O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth. (Psalm 96:1)
1 O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory. (Psalm 98:1)
9 I will sing a new song unto thee, O God: upon a psaltery and an instrument of ten strings will I sing praises unto thee. (Psalm 144:9)
1 Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints. (Psalm 149:1)
We see that this term singing a new song is used multiple times in the Old Testament and particularly the Psalms themselves. In most of these instances the term singing a new song is used very early in each of the Psalms where it is mentioned. This context reveals that the psalms themselves are the new songs that are being sung. What we see is that the singing of new songs is not making any mention to songs being written apart from the inspiration of the Holy Spirit but are referring to new songs being given by God to his people. We also find the term singing of new songs in Isaiah 42:10.
10 Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea, and all that is therein; the isles, and the inhabitants thereof. (Isa. 42:10)
The mention to singing of a new song is similar to the verses mentioned in the psalms. A few observations can be made. First, this is a statement made by God that is in the context of his praise going to the ends of the earth. The context of this passage is not a specific command being made about worship. Second, this prophetic statement was made during the ministry of Isaiah which came before the closing of the Psalter and the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. This means that divinely written songs were still being given to God’s people at this time. Finally, the verse speaks of singing a new song and not new songs. The singing of a new song is in the singular and not the plural. This was also true of the verses in the psalms that speak of singing a new song. All of these observations show that these verses are not commands to write songs of human composition for use in worship.
This brings us back to the verses in revelation 5:9 and 14:3. From what we’ve seen in the Old Testament verses that speak of singing a new song, we have a greater clarity for what to make of the verses in revelation. The first thing to recognize is that the context of these two verses in revelation is that they are passages that are speaking of the saints singing in heaven amid the greater context of revelation being a prophecy of the things that will come to pass. These verses are not speaking of the worship of the saints on the earth in the Church Age. The second observation is that since the other mentioning’s of singing a new song in the Old Testament passages was speaking to songs given by God through the Holy Spirit, it would be difficult if not impossible to feasibly state that these two passages in Revelation are meant as commands to write new songs of human composition. The final point is that these are not imperative passages but are visions describing the worship of the saints. We must understand that the songs of the Psalter that were sung under the Old Covenant have been truly made new due to the fact that the coming of Christ has given us a fresh understanding of their true meaning. Now that Christ has come, we can look and see perfectly how Christ has fulfilled the many parts of the psalms that speak about him. In this sense the psalms are now “new songs”. All of this shows us that the verses that describe singing a new song are not meant as warrants to write hymns of human composition.
Now that we’ve examined the testimony of the New Testament, we’ve seen that there is no divine warrant to sing man-made hymns or use instruments in worship. There are many objections that could be addressed and answered but I will limit myself to a few brief comments. Perhaps a more exhaustive refutation may be written in the future if needed. First, some have claimed that certain passages in the New Testament are “hymnic fragments” or were used as sung as hymns in the times of the Apostles. The answer is that there is nothing in the actual text of any of these verses that explicitly says they were used as hymns in worship. Second, some have claimed that singing the psalms in meter (as they are usually sung by exclusive psalmists), translated into the vernacular languages is not actually singing the psalms at all. The ridiculousness of this claim is self-evident. The said argument is equivalent to saying that our English bible translations are not the actual word of God. Although, God has preserved his words in the original languages, faithful bible translations do not merely contain the word of God but are the word of God. So too, it is fallacious to claim that faithful translations of the psalms in the psalter are not the actual songs when sung. Finally, some have countered the doctrine of exclusive psalmody based on the claim that we are not singing the name of Jesus. This can be countered with two rebuttals. The fact is that study of the psalms shows that they are intensely Christological. Christ is found from one end of the psalms to the other. In fact, the theology of Christ is found in far greater depth in the psalter which was written by God than many of the songs commonly sung in the churches. Second, this entire line of objection based on not singing the name of Jesus is wrong. If God has commanded us to sing certain songs such as the songs of the Psalter and they do not contain the name of Jesus then it is not for us to question whether this invalidates God’s commands. The entire premise of the question is based on the judgement of man and not the commands of God. On this point, we must remember the teaching of the regulative principle. We must sing only what God commands and we should not question what we have been commanded to do by God.
The Church is in great need of reformation in the area of God’s worship and particularly in the area of the singing of praises to God. Now is the hour where men need to stand on the testimony of God’s word even if this means being in the minority. Let us stand and be counted. It is often God’s will to use a few men with strong convictions to bring change to his Church. May God grant us reformation in regard to divine worship!
[i] The Works of Stephen Charnock, Vol. 1 [ii] 1689 London Baptist Confession: Chapter 22, Paragraph 1 [iii] Preface to the Scottish Psalter [iv] An Exposition of the Old and New Testaments by John Gill. Commentary on Ephesians 5:19