From Jubal's Children (unpublished) by Abigail J. Fox

Chapter Eleven: Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat

Music in the Public Worship of God

"I have no quarrel with Dr. Watts, or any living or dead versifier. I would not wish all their poems burnt. My concern is to see Christian congregations shut out divinely inspired psalms, and take in Dr. Watts’s flights of fancy; as if the words of a poet were better than the words of a prophet, or as if the wit of a man was to be preferred to the wisdom of God. When the church is met together in one place, the Lord God has made a provision for their songs of praise - a large collection, and great variety - and why should not these be used in the church according to God’s express appointment? I speak not of private people, or of private singing, but of the church in its public service. Why should the provision which God has made be so far despised, as to become quite out of use? Why should Dr. Watts, or any hymn-maker, not only take the precedence of the Holy Ghost, but also thrust him entirely out of the church? Insomuch that the rhymes of a man are now magnified above the word of God, even to the annihilating of it in many congregations. If this be right, men and brethren, judge ye." {from An Essay on Psalmody by William Romaine, Chapter Six}

Discussion today of music in the public worship of God often ends as quickly as debates on mainstream culture: with the conclusion that there should be few boundaries in place for either words or music and each individual must decide according to his conscience. So John Frame writes:

"... unless it can be shown to be inappropriate for worship, everyone’s music should be heard: old people’s and young people’s music; European, African American, and other ethnic music; complex music and simple music. This is how we defer to one another - serve one another - in the body of Jesus Christ." {Contemporary Worship Music: A Biblical Defence by John M. Frame, Chapter 2 - A Theology of Worship: Some Basics (p.25)}

And this act of service seems attractive in the light of the previous chapter. But we have to decide to whom we owe deference. We are indisputedly commanded to look for another’s good and in honour to prefer one another {Romans 12.10}. And in Romans 14 the Apostle exhorts us to be delicate in terms of conscience, that we should follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another {v.19}. This has been presented as an argument for allowing any music into the public worship of God.

Barry Liesch, writing on passages such as Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8.7-8, comments:

"How could these verses relate to musical style? If we substituted “musical style” for “meat” in the above passage, the following loose paraphrase could result: Listen to any musical style in the marketplace without raising questions of conscience. But if someone regards a music style as unclean, then for him it is unclean. When he listens to it, he feels guilty." {The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church by Barry Liesch, Chapter 13: Resolving Tensions over Musical Style - Paul (p.190)}

The Apostle Paul was not “tolerant” in today’s jargon, as Romans 1.24-32 makes patently clear. We are not commanded that we should do “what feels right” when there is clear Scriptural precept telling us what is right. To place God’s worship first and his Word above personal preference is not disunity - it is in fact the primary means of drawing Christians together for it is only the loving service of Christ that unites Christians.

And yet many worthy men have disagreed hugely about what the Scriptures actually command and the issue of music in the public worship of God usually settles on two questions: what words are suitable? what music is suitable?

The most obvious verses to study are Ephesians 5.18-19:

"And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;"

And Colossians 3.16:

"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."

Patrick Kavanaugh presents a current interpretation of these verses:

"Paul’s term psalms obviously refers to the singing of the various psalms from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Greek word hymnis simply means “a song written in praise or honour of God.” It could have been composed by King David or by a local songwriter. Most of the millions of Christian songs today could fit into this very broad category. 

Paul’s spiritual songs have provoked much speculation, often bordering on musical and theological lunacy. There is nothing extramystical or magical about his terms, which are sometimes translated as “odes” or “canticles”. Perhaps in contrasting the term hymns with the term odes, Paul used the second term to cover the improvised songs (possibly combined with ecstatic tongues) that were an integral part of the worship service. It may also refer to the phrase “sing with my spirit” that he used in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 14:15)." {The Music of Angels by Patrick Kavanaugh, Chapter 1: The Origins of Sacred Music (p.10)} - Note that to quote “sing with my spirit” is a highly interpretative rendering of the Greek text, which is most naturally translated as “sing with the Spirit”, making us look to the Holy Spirit of God rather than to ourselves.

The prevalence of such an interpretation today should not lead us to assume that it has always been viewed thus. And yet tradition weighs lightly in the scales of principle. Our understanding of psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs must come from the Word of God. (My capitalisation of Spiritual is used to denote that the authorship of the songs (or indeed the psalms, hymns and songs, as Spiritual could be applied to all three) belongs to the Holy Spirit.)

What might those who first heard the letters of the Apostle Paul have understood by psalmoshumnos and odee?

According to John Murray and William Young in Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God (submitted to the 14th General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church), psalmos appears 94 times in the Greek Scriptures, 87 of which are in the Old Testament. Of these 87, 78 are in the Book of Psalms, and 67 of those are in the titles of the Psalms themselves! That leaves just 7 appearances in the New Testament. So when the Apostle Paul wrote psalmos, it is to the Book of Psalms he was most obviously referring - especially to the titles of Psalms.

Humnos appears 19 times in the Greek Scriptures, 17 of which are in the Old Testament. Of these 17, 13 are in the Book of Psalms and 6 of those are in the titles of Psalms.

Odee appears 86 times in the Greek Scriptures, 80 of which are in the Old Testament. 45 of those are in the Book of Psalms, 36 being in the titles of Psalms.

So psalmos, humnos and odee are all words used predominantly in the Book of Psalms and with great frequency as titles to individual Psalms.

If I told someone to bring some chorales, fugues and organ music along to a rehearsal, they would probably bring the works of J. S. Bach or one of his contemporaries. When the Apostle Paul wrote psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs, to what could he be referring except to precious words found in the Book of Psalms? For us to state that the Apostle Paul was not referring to the Book of Psalms by using their common titles is quite a proposition. If indeed the Apostle wanted Christians to write their own songs for use in worship, then it was an unusually (and uncharacteristically) obtuse way of giving such an instruction.

And yet men have argued in favour of singing the compositions of men in the public worship of God, with bold reasons which require answers.

1. Good men sing the songs of men, therefore the songs of men are valid.

Augustus M. Toplady wrote:

"Some worthy persons have been of opinion (and what absurdity is there for which some well-meaning people have not contended?) that it is ‘unlawful to sing human compositions in the house of God.’ But, by the same rule, it must be equally unlawful to preach or publicly to pray, except in the very words of Scripture. Not to observe that many of the best and greatest men that ever lived have both in ancient and modern times been hymn-writers; and that there is the strongest reason to believe that the best Christians in all ages have been hymn-singers. Moreover, the singing of hymns is an ordinance to which God has repeatedly set the seal of his own presence and power; and which he deigns eminently to bless at this very day. It has proved a converting ordinance to some of his people; a recovering ordinance to others; a comforting ordinance to them all; and one of the divinest mediums of communion with God which his gracious benignity has vouchsafed to his Church below." {Augustus Montague Toplady - A Debtor to Mercy Alone, by George M. Ella, Chapter 6: The Sweet Melody of Praise (p.158-159)}

The fact that the songs of men are not used in the public worship of God does not mean that they cannot be written, sung or enjoyed at other times. The church has been blessed with great wordsmiths and poets, whose songs we are free to enjoy in our homes, in private, for our personal benefit. So the worth and usefulness of these songs is not in question - only whether they are permitted in the public worship of God.

However, let’s place the songs of men besides the Book of Psalms, written by the Holy Spirit of God who knows our hearts. Let’s compare the wisdom of an earnest human song-writer with that of his Wise Creator. Who would like to go first? Who could argue that his songs give more glory to God than God’s own Holy Word?

If we must place the standard of what we sing at the example of the greatest of men then surely we should follow the example of the Apostles:

There is no evidence that hymns were sung in church services in Apostolic days, and no evidence that hymns were then in existence. Further, there is no evidence that even one hymn received sanction by the Church in the early Christian centuries. There is unassailable proof that in later centuries Church councils forbad the use of hymns in worship, and that the prohibition remained in force for many centuries. The Council of Laodicea, about 360 A.D., prohibited the use of hymns in worship and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 confirmed that decree. {Psalms Only: Objections Answered by M. C. Ramsay, The testimony of history (p.23)}

Tradition is not a good enough reason to sing only from the Book of Psalms but it seems that it is also not an indisputable reason to include the songs of men.

2. The Book of Psalms does not show Christ except in the “shadows”.

John Frame writes:

Are the Psalms adequate for New Testament Christian worship? Certainly we cannot criticise their theology, since they are divinely inspired. And the Psalms do testify of Christ, as the New Testament shows in its use of the Psalter. But the Psalms present Christ in the “shadows” (Col. 2:17), in terms of the incomplete revelation of the Old Testament period (Heb. 1:1-3). Indeed, to limit one’s praise to the Psalms is to praise God without the name of Jesus on one’s lips. {Worship in Spirit and Truth by John M. Frame, Chapter 11: Music in Worship: Some Controversies (p.125)}

It is difficult, very difficult to comprehend how the Book of Psalms could contain “incomplete” revelations when so many Psalms can only be understood in the light of Christ’s coming to earth (as references to Psalms such as 2, 22, 69, 110 in the New Testament make incredibly clear). In fact, we could go so far as to wonder how much the children of Israel saw of the coming Lord in the Book of Psalms and how much was in “shadow” for them. The revelation of Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the whole New Testament casts such light upon the Book of Psalms that anything still in shadow is because our eye-sight is clouded, not because of any deficiency in the Book of Psalms.

It is not only the agony of our Lord and certain aspects of his life which - through New Testament quotations - directly connect Jesus to the Book of Psalms. For instance, there is nothing symbolic about the Book of Psalms’ proclamations on the imputation of righteousness:

I will go in the strength of the Lord GOD: I will make mention of thy righteousness, even of thine only. {Psalms 71.16}

And there is nothing theoretical about the Psalmist’s understanding of faith:

In God is my salvation and my glory: the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God. Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us. {Psalms 62.7-8}

Obedience from the heart, loving faith, was required in the Old Testament just as it is in the New. That is why we sing:

I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving. This also shall please the LORD better than an ox or bullock that hath horns and hoofs. {Psalm 69.30-31}

In Psalm 118.22 we read, The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner (which is quoted in Mark 12.10 and echoed strongly in Ephesians 2.20 with reference to Jesus Christ). Note, the Psalmist did not write “will become” but “is become”. So sure was the coming of our Lord!

Jesus is in the Psalms:

These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. {Luke 24.44}

Firstly, because Jesus Christ is truly God and where we praise the Godhead in unity we adore each person in the Godhead.

Secondly, because every psalm, hymn and Spritual song glorifies Jesus Christ. Who else could be the “blessed man” of Psalm 1? Who else is the King in Psalm 21? Who else is the Shepherd in Psalm 23? Who else is the “Groom” in Psalm 45? Who else would mediate for the penitent sinner in Psalm 51? We sing of Christ as God - our refuge, our strength, our sanctuary, and we sing of the suffering and sorrow and triumph of the man who puts his trust in God. Our Saviour was that man for our sakes. When we read of loneliness, revilement, persecution - for the Book of Psalms paints no Romantic picture of Christianity - we must recognise that Jesus Christ suffered this and more for us.

Thirdly, Jesus knew the Psalms and loved them. So we can sing the Psalms with an eye to learning more about Christ, we can sing the Psalms wondering how they would have supported our Saviour and told him of what was to come, and we can sing the Psalms for our own comfort and joy.

3. The Psalms are not sufficient for the modern experience of Christians.

Paul Westermeyer writes:

"Translating the Psalms was not enough. Watts wanted newly composed hymns as well and supported them by five arguments. First, since content, not form, is important, let us have hymns “suited to the present case and experience of Christians.” Second, the “ends and designs” of singing at worship are to express to God “what sense and apprehensions we have of his essential glories.” That goal can “never be sufficiently attained by confining ourselves to David’s psalms” or paraphrases of words from the Bible. Third, Ephesians 5:19-20 and Colossians 3:16-17, contrary to Zwingli, command us to sing and give thanks in Christ’s name. Praying, preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are expressed in language suited to the gospel. Why not our song as well? Fourth, the book of Psalms does not cover the “almost ... infinite number of occasions for praise and thanksgiving” in the life of the Christian. Finally, worship includes preaching, prayer, and song. Ministers are to acquire the gifts of preaching and praying. Why then, asked Watts, should not Christians cultivate the capacity to compose spiritual songs as well? Many Christians today would probably regard Watts’s logic as self- evident. {Te Deum - The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer, Chapter 13: English Hymns (p.203-204)}

I wonder what is so “modern” about Christians today and what experiences we face which previous generations did not?

Perhaps Barry Liesch can tell us, because he has outlined a pattern to raise the standard of song-writing for worship today:

"Psalms run the whole stylistic and emotional gamut. Some psalms are short, others long. Some are historical and didactic, others intensely personal. Some provide words of challenge, others the wail of defeat. Some are structurally complex (the acrostic or the symmetrical pattern, for example); others, straightforward and repetitious. There are psalms of adoration, confession, petition, lament, thanksgiving, and proclamation. A commitment to richness of expression is implied in the compilation of the Psalms. Does your approach to church music embody this kind of breadth? If we took all of the music lyrics you use at your church and made a book out of them, would they have the variety found in the Psalms?" {The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church by Barry Liesch, Chapter 2: Teaching, the Spirit, and our Congregational Songs (p.42)}

Of course, the bottom line is that the Psalms have to be adequate for “New Testament Christian worship”, they have to be “suited to the present case and experience of Christians”. For even if we believe that humnos and odee mean the songs of men, the word psalmos is always understood as the Book of Psalms. We cannot place the songs of men in the public worship of God by arguing against the Book of Psalms, for God’s Word is there by right. It is the validity of men’s songs that must be proved.

Within the context of the Apostle Paul’s letters, it is hard to refute that he is referring to the Book of Psalms. He tells us: "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and Spiritual songs", and how better than by singing the word of Christ? Likewise he says "be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs", and how can we without the words of the Holy Spirit?

William Romaine was a renowned expert in Hebrew as well as a minister of the Gospel. His explanations of the distinctions attached to the Hebrew words of psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs are very beautiful:

thehilim (psalmos in the Greek) “signifies the brisk motion of light, shining and putting its splendour upon an object ... Such are the Psalms. They are rays of light ... intended to manifest the glory of the person, and to show forth the praises of the work of God- Jesus: for light, in its various uses in nature, is the appointed emblem of the Lord Christ.”

zemer [humnos in the Greek] “as a verb, it signifies to cut and prune trees, as a noun, it is a branch cut off and pruned, and by way of eminence, the branch, the man whose name is the branch, who was known and distinguished by this title in the scripture. He was the eternal God, and he was in the fulness of time to be made flesh, and to be cut off, but not for himself.”

SHeR [odee in the Greek] “signifies rule and government, and is used for any principality among men. Hence it is very properly spoken of him whose kingdom ruleth over all.” {An Essay on Psalmody by William Romaine, Chapter Two}

In recognising that the titles of the psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs of Scripture are closely connected with the person of Jesus Christ, William Romaine demonstrates the continuing value of the Book of Psalms in our lives and in our worship of God. He also opens the door to a richness and complexity of meaning in the Book of Psalms that all too often escapes our notice.

It is a strange irony that the people who prefer the songs of men in public worship insist on setting the Book of Psalms to one side, but when people want to bring musical instruments into worship they argue from the Book of Psalms and the Old Testament!

Patrick Kavanaugh writes:

"If you were a drummer or a piper during the centuries of chant, you had better have left your instrument at the church door. It may seem strange to us now, but all instruments were outlawed in church services. Even as late as 1160, when some churches were permitting occasional instruments, Aelred, abbot of Rievaulx, clamoured against this: “Whence hath the Church so many organs and musical instruments? To what purpose, I pray you, is that terrible blowing of bellows, expressing rather the cracks of thunder, than the sweetness of a voice?" How, you may ask, did church leaders justify this practice, which was in direct conflict with so many biblical references to instruments, such as Psalm 150? They would reply with numerous allergorical explanations: “The ‘organ’ is our body,” or “Our tongue is the ‘psaltery’ of the Lord.” Clement of Alexandria (circa 150-215) went so far as to interpret the “harp of ten strings” (Ps. 33:2) as simply a symbol for the Ten Commandments. These explanations may sound like double-talk to modern readers, but at that time, they served their purpose well." {The Music of Angels by Patrick Kavanaugh, Chapter 2: Chant (p.22-23)}

There is no command in the New Testament to use instruments in the public worship of God and there is no example. Musical instruments had a place in the Old Testament in the worship of the temple. The question before us is whether the use of instruments was carried over or abandoned. John Girardeau made a very helpful observation about the use of music in the Old Testament:

"... why did not David, who was one of the principal authors of the Psalms, introduce at an earlier period than he did instrumental music into the tabernacle worship? The reply is, that he was not divinely commanded to do it. Why did not Moses, who was an accomplished psalmist, and who heard the thrilling sound of timbrels in the great rejoicing over the discomfited host of Pharaoh on the shore of the Red Sea, incorporate this kind of music as an accompaniment of singing into that worship? The answer is, Because he had no divine warrant for such a measure." {Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church by John L. Girardeau, Chapter II: Argument from the Old Testament (p.75)}

We must desire the same divine warrant if we are to use instruments in the public worship of God. So is there such a warrant in the Holy Scriptures?

Barry Liesch, a man who believes in a broad use of music in worship, writes:

"By focusing too narrowly on only the Gospels and Epistles for the last authoritative word on worship style, we can draw misleading conclusions. Rather, the whole of the Bible as well as extra-biblical evidence should be consulted. We need to see the larger context." {The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church by Barry Liesch, Chapter 13: Resolving Tensions over Musical Style - Paul (p.200)}

It is an odd theological position to take - to ignore the books you cannot use to support your case - but even the Book of Revelation does not present an example for us to employ instruments in worshipping God, for as Girardeau observed of those in glory: “They neither marry nor are given in marriage, but it would scarcely be legitimate for us to argue from their example to what our practice should be.” {Instrumental Music in the Public Worship of the Church by John L. Girardeau, Chapter VI: Arguments in Favour of Instrumental Music Considered (p.185)}

Paul Westermeyer wants to place instruments in public worship but admits that “already in the New Testament one can see evidence of a view that regarded vocal music as superior to instrumental music. Werner points out that this view characterised the Pharisees and was reflected by Paul in his thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians where he disparaged the noisy gong and the clanging cymbal.”

Shall we indulge in pick-and-mix Pauline theology? Westermeyer goes on to say:

In the period following the New Testament, instrumental music was not only regarded as inferior to vocal music, however. It was banned. As Hannick indicates, this move was not all that revolutionary in practice, for instruments were not used in the synagogue, and with the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. they obviously disappeared there too. But the vehemence of the objections in the early church is startling. After the high regard for instruments in the Old Testament and the gracious nature of the New Testament - which, in spite of what may be seen as disparaging remarks by Paul in I Corinthians 13, never seems hostile toward instruments - the force of the language that follows the New Testament is striking. {Te Deum - The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer, Chapter 5: With One Voice (p.67)}

In fact, as Kavanaugh stated, for about 1200 years there was no instrumental music in the public worship of God. It is possible of course that this was tradition and that tradition was wrong. But in the absence of any New Testament evidence the burden of proof to use instruments in public worship today rests entirely on demonstrating that although the Temple was destroyed, musical instruments were somehow “spared”.

Supposing that we allow such an argument to stand - would it give us the style of musical performance so prevalent in many services today? Alfred Edersheim wrote:

"Properly speaking, the real service of praise in the Temple was only with the voice. This is often laid down as a principle by the Rabbis. What instrumental music there was, served only to accompany and sustain the song. Accordingly, none other than Levites might act as choristers, while other distinguished Israelites were allowed to take part in the instrumental music. The blasts of the trumpets, blown by priests only, formed - at least in the second Temple - no part of the instrumental music of the service, but were intended for quite different purposes." {The Temple - Its Ministry and Services as they were at the time of Christ by Alfred Edersheim, Chapter 3: Temple Order, Revenues and Music (p.76)}

If musical instruments were to be maintained in the public worship of God they would be the only aspect of the Temple order to survive, and that would require special dispensation, of which there is none. Even those who admit instruments into public worship find them problematic and their use not necessarily beneficial. Liesch says:

"The problem has become more acute because the new worship confers an enlarged role to music expression. Only time will tell if the enlarged role accorded worship leaders will ultimately benefit the church." {The New Worship: Straight Talk on Music and the Church by Barry Liesch, Chapter 16: Why Seminaries Should Teach Worship (p.231)}

If the arguments of Scripture are not sufficiently compelling, then there is no sense in offering the pragmatic observations that those who play woodwind instruments cannot sing (which is commanded), that to play an instrument well requires such concentration that the players will not be listening to the words and thereby can hardly be worshipping God, let alone the danger of music becoming a performance.

Out of deference to each other we can put on concerts six nights and week and play every shade of song written by man to praise his Maker. But for one day let everyone rest, even the musicians.

This portrait of music in the public worship of God as Psalmody without instruments is not the most attractive prospect to draw in the ambitious composers and arrangers which have flocked to the church for career’s sake throughout the history of music. (Some people want a great display of music in order to draw non-Christians into church, but Christ is the brightest light and the Gospel is the only flame to illuminate the path to salvation.) But consider the composer’s challenge:

  • to write a melody which people from all walks of life will be able to sing easily and yet which shows due reverence to God,

  • to write a melody which is apt to match the text of the Psalm and yet contains enough repeated phrases that reading musical score at sight is not a vital skill for the untrained,

  • to write a melody which is strong enough without the support of instrumental harmony and plants in the memory.

It is much easier to have an orchestra and compose grandiose themes than to serve a purpose so tightly that the composer does not draw attention to himself! The object of his composition is to facilitate the public worship of God, the highest purpose and one to which we cannot run headlong without due care and consideration.

The singing of the Book of Psalms has been facilitated by metrical versions, which make it possible to use very common hymn tunes for many of the songs. These have been produced in a variety of editions, some more successfully than others. Other versions are individual settings of each Psalm to an unique metre and melody. There is still work to be done, in producing a fluent translation of the psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs which respects the poetry of the text while making the meaning as clear as possible.

William Romaine wrote in his excellent Essay on Psalmody:

If the psalm be proper for this purpose, the tune should not defeat it. This was much studied in the primitive church. They had great simplicity in their psalm singing, which we are told was corrupted by the heretics. Complaint is made particularly of Arius, that he perverted singing into an entertainment. He had a taste for music, and he composed several light frothy tunes, by which he sought to please trifling people, who with him neither loved the God, nor the praises of the God of the Christians. Herein he succeeded. His music was admired, and did a great deal of hurt. Let us take warning from hence. As far as we can let our praises of God be sung with such music as will solemnise our hearts, and keep them in tune to make melody unto the Lord. {An Essay on Psalmody by William Romaine, Chapter Six}