Looking at songs in the Old and New Testament and their relationship to the regulative principle of worship, this article argues that the church has no option but to sing only psalms in a worship service, and that this is biblical.

Source: Witness, 2011. 7 pages.

Psalms Only – Tradition Or Scripture

On Friday the 19th November 2010 the Free Church of Scotland at its plenary Assembly voted by a majority of 98 to 84 to change its position on worship to allow the use of uninspired materials of praise and musical accompaniment in the public worship of God. In the past, to safeguard the exclusive use of the Biblical Psalter with no musical accompaniment, a statement was read out at ordination and induction services so that the candidate and congregation both understood what was being promised. That statement reads as follows:

It is my duty to explain to you, and also to the congregation here present, with reference to that part of the question which will be put to you as to “Purity of Worship as presently practised in this Church” ... it is the present practice of the Free Church to avoid the use in public worship of uninspired materials of praise as also of instrumental music.

After this a series of questions is put to the man to be ordained including the following:

‘Do you sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith ... to be founded upon the Word of God; and do you acknowledge the same as the confession of your faith; and will you firmly and constantly adhere thereto, and to the utmost of your power assert, maintain, and defend the same, and the purity of worship as presently practised in this Church?

‘Do you promise ... that you shall follow no divisive courses from the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of this Church?’

All those to be ordained then sign the Formula. If they are being ordained to the ministry they have already signed this statement when they were licensed by a Presbytery. The statement reads:

‘I, __________, do hereby declare, that I do sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith, approven by former General Assemblies of this Church to be the truths of God; and I do own the same as the confession of my faith; as likewise I do own the purity of worship presently authorized and practised in the Free Church of Scotland...’.

I draw all this to your attention because on the 19th November 2010, 98 office bearers broke these promises. They publicly lost integrity, declared themselves vow breakers and by a monstrous act of ecclesiastical tyranny changed the position of the Free Church on worship even though they had sworn not to undermine, nor prejudice directly or indirectly, nor follow any divisive course from the defined purity of worship.

A summary of the debates was posted online on the Free Church website. As these are read one of the most discouraging things is that those on both sides of the discussion resorted to pragmatic arguments to support their position. Men pressed their concern of losing people, particularly young people from the Church, as to why the Church should be open to this change. Thanks should be given to God that a Scriptural argument was brought forward for exclusive Psalm-singing by some members of the Assembly, but one is left with the conclusion that it was because this Scriptural argument was not taught from pulpits that the position of the Free Church on worship came to be thought of as a cultural thing, a tradition that pertained to that denomination but was not Scripturally binding. As a result, when moves were made to change the position of the denomination, they were unable to be resisted.

Exclusive Psalm-singing is not just a Free Church tradition. If it is it can be abandoned today. Exclusive Psalmody is Scriptural and to avoid ending up in the position our separated brethren have found themselves in, ministers in the Free Church (Continuing) need to take seriously their vows to assert, maintain and defend this position as Biblical, otherwise we too will end up losing it.

1. The Regulative Principle of Worship🔗

 The Regulative Principle of worship is a principle based on the sufficiency of Scripture which teaches that everything we do in the worship of God must have positive warrant in His Word. Every part of worship must be expressly commanded by God or be clearly deducible from Scripture. It is not enough to say God has not forbidden it, therefore it is allowed. Worship is never merely allowed by God; it is always required, and if He does not require it, we should not give it. An example of this is found in Leviticus 10:1-3 when Nadab and Abihu were killed by God for offering ‘strange fire’ before Him. They used something God had not authorised and when God explains their error in v 1, ‘which he commanded them not’, He means they did something He never told them to do.

This is seen again in Jeremiah 7:31 when God is condemning the idolatry of His people: ‘And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart. God is teaching us in such places that it is His prerogative alone to appoint what should be given to Him as worship. When we apply this to the singing of praise in worship we should ask first, Why do we sing? Because God commands us. Then, What will we sing? Again we will sing only what God tells us to sing. If we sing Psalms it is because God tells us to and if we want to include any other songs in the worship of God we must show that God commands us to do this or else we are in breach of His Law.

2. Song in the Old Testament🔗

Looking for an answer to our question, What shall we sing? We turn first to the Old Testament for a brief overview of our subject in the church of that time. What we find is that the church in the Old Testament always used songs inspired by the Spirit of God in worship. For ease we will divide the history into three periods.

  1. From Moses to David🔗

The first example of the church singing praise to God is found in Exodus 15:1 when Israel sang praise to God on the shores of the Red Sea: ‘Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea’. This song is attributed to Moses and the second to Miriam in v 21: ‘And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea’. In this period Moses also authored the oldest recorded Psalm in our Bibles, Psalm 90, ‘A Prayer of Moses the man of God’ which was likely used in connection with Tabernacle worship in the wilderness. In addition Deuteronomy 32 is another song of Moses, and Deborah is found singing praise to God after leading Israel to victory over Sisera: ‘Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying, Praise ye the Lord for the avenging of Israel...’ (Judg.5:1-2).

What should be noted about all these songs is that each one was given directly by God through the Spirit of prophecy. Moses was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament period and we are distinctly told Miriam was a prophetess (Ex.15:20) as was Deborah (Judg.4:4).

  1. From David to Babylonian exile🔗

In this period Israel settled in the land of Canaan and worship was centralised at Jerusalem, first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. At this time song became more prominent in worship. Before David died he established the pattern for Temple worship having received it from God (1 Chron.28:12-13, 19). He appointed singers: the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun (1 Chron. 25:1-7) and after his death Solomon implemented this God-given pattern when he built the Temple (2 Chron. 6). Later, after a long period of declension, Hezekiah would bring Israel back to this pattern in his reforms (2 Chron. 29:25-30).

The question for us is what did these singers sing? It is clear they sang David’s compositions which make up about half the Biblical Psalter. Many of his titles were evidently written for public worship and so addressed ‘To the chief musician’. Furthermore they sang some of their own compositions. We find Psalms written by Asaph and Heman e.g. Psalms 50 and 88. Yet all these compositions were given by inspiration of the Spirit of God. David was the ‘sweet psalmist of Israel’ by whom the Spirit of God spoke (2 Sam. 23:1-3) and 1 Chronicles 25:5 tells us Heman was ‘the king’s seer in the words of God, to lift up the horn’. 2 Chronicles 35:15 says the same of Jeduthun, ‘Jeduthun, the king’s seer’. From this we conclude that only inspired songs were authorised by God for the worship of the Old Testament church.

  1. From restoration to Christ🔗

In 586 BC the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. When the Jews returned from their captivity a programme to rebuild the walls and Temple was completed in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the worship of God in this second Temple conformed to the divine pattern given to David (Neh. 12:24, 45-46). It was around this time the Biblical Psalter took its final form, and historians tell us that for the next 400 years only the 150 songs of this Psalter were used in the public worship of God. The main significance of this is found in a recognition that this period of 400 years corresponded to a time when there was no prophet in Israel and no revelation from God between Malachi and John the Baptist. It is no coincidence that no new songs were introduced into worship at this time because there was no one with the gift of inspiration to compose them.

What we have learned then from our review of song in worship in the Old Testament is that God gave songs to His Old Testament church. He provided what they should sing, and all the songs used in worship were given by the Spirit of God. Each one was accurate, inerrant, authoritative and revelatory which is something that simply cannot be said of any hymn of mere human composition whether it be by Watts, Cowper, Wesley or Newton. We must carry this conclusion over into our study of the singing of praise in the New Testament.

3. Song in the New Testament🔗

The New Testament church did not just drop out of thin air; it grew out of the church in the Old Testament as the promise given to Abraham was fulfilled, that all nations would be blessed in his seed (Gen. 12:3). Many things were set to change in worship. Christ and His Apostles revealed these things to the church, e.g. Jerusalem and the Temple would no longer be central (Jn. 4:21-24), and animal sacrifices were abolished together with the Priesthood (Heb. 5-10). However, the New Testament church still inherited its principle of worship from the Old and upon this, the inclusion of uninspired songs in worship would have required a drastic change of which we would expect to be informed.

So does the New Testament now command (not merely allow) the church to sing something other than inspired materials of praise in the worship of God? The text most often offered as warrant for the introduction of uninspired materials of praise is Ephesians 5:19 and its parallel reference in Colossians 3:16. A study of this verse will sufficiently answer our question. We will open up the text and develop the argument under six main headings.

  1. The Context of the Passage🔗

Paul is writing to a congregation of Greek-speaking Christians some of whom may have been Jewish converts while most were likely Gentiles. At the time of writing, the only Scripture available to them was a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint (LXX) because the New Testament was not completed nor had the existing books been gathered together. So when Paul wrote to the Colossians to ‘Let the Word of Christ’ dwell in them richly, ‘teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ (Col 3:16), it was predominantly to this Greek Old Testament he was referring. His original audience did not have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John etc. and this must be borne in mind when we interpret the terms used for song in his exhortation in both places.

  1. The Terms in the Verse🔗

The Greek words used by Paul are psalmos meaning psalm; humnos meaning hymn; and ode meaning song. A common mistake made in interpreting these words is to take what these words have come to mean in the 21st century and impose these meanings on the text. Then a psalm may be one of the compositions in the Biblical Psalter; a hymn might be something written by Isaac Watts; a song is then linked with something lighter perhaps a chorus. Then having imposed this understanding of the words on the text, the conclusion is made that songs other than the inspired songs of the Biblical Psalter are commanded for worship today.

This approach tells the text what it means rather than allowing the text to tell us what it means. It is a gross mishandling of Scripture which must always be interpreted in its original context before it is applied to our contemporary situation. When we do this and interpret the verse in harmony with the rest of Scripture we discover that Paul’s exhortation warrants the introduction of no new or uninspired songs but in fact casts us back to the Book of Psalms as our manual of praise. This is confirmed when we examine the titles of those 150 Psalms.

  1. The Titles of the Psalms🔗

If you were in Ephesus when Paul’s letter arrived, and you had a Bible in your church, it was a Septuagint. As you browsed through the Book of Psalms three terms would keep appearing in the titles and you would be quite familiar with them psalmos, humnos and ode. In 67 Psalms the word psalmos is found e.g. Psalm 23; in 6 titles the word humnos appears e.g. Psalm 8; in another 35 Psalms ode is in the title e.g. Psalm 45. Furthermore, in 12 Psalms the words psalmos (psalm) and ode (song) are found together in the title e.g. Psalm 65, and in 2 titles psalmos (psalm) appears with humnos (hymn) e.g. Psalm 6. If you had studied the title of Psalm 76 all three terms are found in the Septuagint title, ‘For the end, among the hymns, a psalm for Asaph; a song for the Assyrian’. The Ephesian Christian would know that one Psalm could be a psalm and a song, or even a psalm and a song and a hymn together. All three terms were found in the titles of the Psalms and even in the title of one composition in the Book of Psalms. Paul exhorted them in biblical terms they were familiar with.

  1. The Text of the Psalms🔗

The words Paul uses are not only employed in the Psalm titles but are also scattered throughout the text of the Septuagint (LXX) Psalms. Many examples could be given but for our purpose three will suffice.

  1. Psalm 100:4 in our English Bible reads ‘enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise’ but in the text of the LXX ‘praise’ is translated ‘hymns’. This amounts to an Old Testament exhortation to the whole earth to praise or hymn to God and of course we have seen that the Old Testament Church used only inspired ‘hymns’ in the worship of God.
  2. We noted that the title to Psalm 65 contained the word humnos (hymn) and ode (song) in the title. Verse 1 in our Bibles says, ‘Praise waiteth for thee in Zion’, but the Ephesian Christian reading in his LXX would read ‘Hymns wait for thee in Zion’. So in the title and the first verse taken together we have psalms, hymns and songs referred to, just like the exhortation in Ephesians 5:19.
  3. Psalm 72:20 concludes in our Bibles with the words, ‘The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended’. Whatever the meaning of this phrase in relation to the book of Psalms, the LXX translation refers to these prayers or psalms of David as ‘The hymns of David the son of Jesse are ended’.

So it is clear from the titles and the text of the Psalms that the words psalmos, humnos and ode are interchangeable and are used to refer to the same thing. A psalm can be a hymn or a song or all three. Each term is not used to define one composition as necessarily excluding the other and so there is no need to interpret the words of Paul in Ephesians 5:19 as referring to separate categories of songs distinct from the Psalms of the Biblical Psalter. Indeed the evidence is that Paul was referring to these very Psalms.

  1. The Multiplicity of Terms🔗

Someone might still object, ‘But why does Paul employ three terms in Ephesians 5:19, if what you are saying is that all three refer to the Book of Psalms? Is that not a bit redundant, a bit like saying Psalms, Psalms and Psalms?’

In answer to this objection we have already seen that the Psalms themselves do this, e.g. the title of Psalm 76, Psalm 65 in the title and v 1. In addition to this we should also note how frequently in Scripture God employs a three-fold statement to refer to the same thing, a Biblical triplet of terms. So laws can be ‘commandments, statutes and laws’ (Gen. 26:5), miracles can be ‘Miracles, wonders and signs’ (Acts 2:22), and prayers can be ‘Prayers, supplications and intercessions’ (1 Tim. 2:1). So why should it be thought a strange thing that God should use three terms in the one verse to refer to His divinely inspired book of Psalms?

  1. The Qualifying Word🔗

The third term in our English Bible ‘song’ is qualified by the adjective ‘spiritual’ i.e. ‘spiritual songs’. When this word is used in the New Testament it usually means produced by the Holy Spirit e.g. spiritual gifts like tongues or prophecy. If that is the meaning of the word in Ephesians 5:19, then the statement would mean songs produced or directly inspired by the Holy Spirit which would be entirely consistent with God’s requirement in the Old Testament of using only inspired materials of praise in public worship.

The word order in the Greek original is interesting too. In our English translation the adjective ‘spiritual’ modifies only the last of the three nouns i.e. ‘spiritual songs’. However a literal reading of the Greek would be ‘Psalms, hymns and songs spiritual’ where ‘spiritual’ comes at the end and may modify all three nouns. Consider the example in English ‘There were black cats and dogs’. What colour are the dogs? Does the adjective ‘black’ describe them or does the sentence mean ‘There were black cats and there were dogs as well’? It is ambiguous and can mean either, and the point is so is the Greek in Eph 5:19. It is possible, if not probable, that the word ‘spiritual’ is used by Paul in relation to all three terms, ‘Spiritual psalms, spiritual hymns and spiritual songs’.

Evaluating the Evidence🔗

So weighing the evidence from these six points, Ephesians 5:19, which has so often been used to defend the introduction of uninspired songs into worship, in fact gives no warrant for this whatsoever. Indeed, it confirms the principle found throughout Scripture that we are to sing songs inspired by the Spirit of God, and specifically casts us back on the Biblical Psalter. If you were among the saints in Ephesus, familiar only with the Septuagint Old Testament, and seeing that the church of that period only used inspired songs in worship, then hearing these terms found in the text and titles of the Psalms, would you think Paul was giving licence to compose and use new songs in worship in the New Testament? Add to this the example of Christ and His Apostles who did not introduce any new songs into the worship of the church though they had the gift of inspiration to do so, but instead used the hymnbook God had already given to the Church.

Men look to the Word of God in vain for a warrant to introduce uninspired hymns into the worship of God. The best warrant that can be produced is a question. Why would God confine His people in the New Testament to an Old Testament book of praise when Jesus has come and we have more light? We can understand the question, but it remains a question and our questions are no basis for intruding anything into the worship of God without His command.

4. Application🔗

We have considered a number of arguments that establish that Exclusive Psalmody is Scriptural and not merely a tradition of a church that can be set aside. There are many more arguments that could be brought forward but we wish now to make some practical application under three headings.

  1. A violation of this Biblical Principle is Sin🔗

To the majority of the professing church this sounds crazy. Even to those who hold to Exclusive Psalmody there is great discomfort with a statement like this. Does it mean that it is the worst sin in the world? No. Does it mean God cannot and will not bless churches who don’t take this position? Again the answer is no. All churches are riddled with sin and God blesses us in spite of our defects not because of them. Does it mean that those churches who adhere to Exclusive Psalmody are guaranteed blessing? Of course not. Churches that hold this view can have many other things wrong with them; chief among them, pride that they take this position!

Nevertheless, if the regulative principle is based on the 2nd Commandment, how can we intrude anything unwarranted into the worship of God and it not be a violation of God’s law? And what is a violation of God’s law if it is not sin? If Exclusive Psalmody is merely a tradition then there is no sin in surrendering it; indeed it would be sinful to bind men to it. If it is Scriptural, and it is, then to surrender it is sin. When it is treated as if it is only a Free Church tradition, the impression is given that sin does not come into the question.

  1. The Position of our Church on this issue must never change🔗

One anticipates the reaction to a statement like this. What about the principle of Reformed and always reforming? That principle stands of course but it has often been used as a cloak to cover up many abuses men are determined to bring into the church by the back door. The impression is made that all is up for grabs when all is not up for grabs. The only reforming that is to be done is that which agrees with Scripture. If a practice is to be abandoned it must be shown to be at variance with Scripture, and that is not the case here.

Certainly some things can change. The translation from which we sing may change. The tunes we use can change. We can sing standing or sitting. These are all variables but the constant inviolable principle is that God has prescribed only the inspired Psalms of the Biblical Psalter for the public praise of His church. There is no warrant now nor ever for the introduction of anything else and therefore the position of our Church on this issue must never change. Why do we do what we do? Because it is Biblical, not merely traditional.

  1. Pragmatic arguments must be resisted by Biblical teaching and confidence in God🔗

There is a fear present in some in Psalm-singing Churches that we will lose people to places with a more ‘modern’ worship style if we do not change. The fear is not altogether unfounded because over time we have lost some of our people to such churches. On the other hand it is thought that by removing the obstacle of exclusive Psalm-singing or relaxing the principle, we will not only keep those people, but attract others as well. Arguments of this kind can be read in the narrative of proceedings in the Free Church debate on the issue. One member confirmed his own belief that the sufficiency of Scripture implied the sufficiency of the Psalms for public praise but then asked, ‘What am I going to say to our young people – we’re educating them in the theology of the reformed faith, but they drift away to other churches. I want to keep them!’ (Alex Macdonald’s) amendment in opening up honesty is a means to that end. We need to fill our pulpits and take more people – but we need to keep our people!’ He then commended the proposed change in worship to the house. R Scott Clark wrote some insightful articles in the wake of the Free Church decision, exposing this kind of logic for what it is. In one of these ‘If we don’t do X the young people will leave’, he refers to the report of a Marine Corps Colonel during the Vietnam war who said: ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it’. Clark says the ‘analogy to this approach is the argument, “We have to change X in order to keep our young people”’. Then he comments ‘This sort of pious pragmatism can be found as early as the high Medieval period. Doubtless Christians have always been tempted to say, “If we don’t make our worship more interesting we will lose our young people”. This has been the argument of innovators and pragmatists for a long time but history confirms it does not work’.

If we want to keep our young people from running off to other places with more modern worship styles the answer is simple. Teach them this truth, don’t throw it away! People frequently want change in the area of worship because they think of it in pragmatic and traditional terms. In the case of Psalmody they are left hankering for change because they have not grasped the principle outlined in this article; they have not embraced the Psalms as God’s provision for His people in all ages and spend more time wanting something else rather than growing to love the Psalms. Clark again comments, ‘Maybe the problem of retaining young people has nothing to do with how exciting or contemporary or hip our worship services are? Maybe it has to do with the way we are (or are not) catechizing our children? Maybe we should try being more consistent with our confession and not less?’

The last thing the church should be doing is bowing to the pressure of what this man or woman or young person might do. In doing this we make man our God and throw away our Biblical heritage, and where will it end? Instead we need to do what is right and have confidence in God. If our children do go off it is a reflection on the poor instruction given them by parents and pastors on the principles of Biblical worship rather than any deficiency in Biblical worship itself. However, should they in mercy return, what will they return to? To a Church that has capitulated on one point after another and abandoned its heritage piece by piece? Clark tellingly concludes, ‘Young people ... need us to be the grown ups. They are counting on us to be steadfast, to be reliable, to be there. What if the prodigal son returns home only to find a brothel?’

  1. The Principle Applies Everywhere🔗

The idea has long been alive in the Free Church, and still exists in our own branch of it, that we sing only Psalms in our Church, but if you happen to be elsewhere where this principle is not held then you join in with that worship because it would offend your brethren and you would be guilty of disunity. There is a lot that could be said about this and many inconsistencies pointed out. Is God only concerned about this principle in Free Church congregations? Is He not God everywhere? Does not His Word bind our conscience and command our obedience in all places? Is the danger of offending a brother greater than offending God? Should that brother be offended that you are seeking to be consistent with Scripture and live with a conscience void of offence before God?

If those who say they are convinced that Exclusive Psalmody is Scriptural, when visiting another congregation who sing uninspired materials of praise, abandon their principles they act as if their position is really only a tradition. The people we tell of our Exclusive Psalmody position then see us give it up before their eyes and wonder at this strange Biblical principle that can be so easily set to the side. They are not likely to be convinced of its rightness when we give the impression that it is really just a tradition that holds in our own congregations. Then our children watch on as we give up exclusive Psalm-singing, and all our attempts to teach them of its rightness ring very hollow. This compromise over many generations has produced confusion not only in the minds of members but also ministers and it has certainly contributed to the abandonment of Exclusive Psalmody in the Free Church. If we are not consistent on this point we can be sure it will contribute to the same demise of Exclusive Psalmody over time in the Free Church (Continuing).


In conclusion, Exclusive Psalm-singing is Scriptural. It should be taught from our pulpits and in our homes, and encouraged in our publications. We should never compromise on ‘The singing of Psalms with grace in the heart’ and offering praise to God with only the inspired songs of the Biblical Psalter.

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