What is God’s will...?

Q.: What is God’s will regarding the singing of other songs or hymns during the Sunday worship services? Why do we in the NRC only use the Psalters?

A.: The Bible makes abundant references to the use and place of music within the worship services. I assume the reader is familiar with the extensive musical and vocal liturgy of the Old Testament worship services. In the N. T. we find the reference to the place and use of music particularly in Eph. 5: 19, "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Compare with Col. 3:16).

This text is sometimes quoted to defend the legitimacy of using hymns besides the psalms since the Word of God itself mentions it. The distinctive meaning of the various words, "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," is not certain. Psalms primarily pointed to "a striking or twitching with the fingers on musical instruments" and later more specifically came to denote "a sacred song sung to the musical accompaniment." The word hymn means "a song of praise addressed to God." This word is also found in Matt. 26:30 referring to Jesus singing before they went out in night. This "hymn singing" of Jesus was actually part of the Jewish Passover ceremony. The Jews would sing the "Hallel Psalms" at this occasion (which consisted of Ps. 113 -118). Lastly, the word song is always used in the N. T. (as well as in the Greek translation of the O. T.) in praise of God or Christ. Since it is a generic word, the apostle adds the adjective spiritual. When we trace the use of this word in the book of Revelations (5:9 & 14:3) you will observe that indeed the theme is the praise of God or Christ. Matthew Poole, as well as the Dutch marginal notes, adds that the spiritual songs didn’t only include praise but also doctrinal, prophetical, and historical teachings.

When I compare this text to the book of Psalms and search whether these various nuances in intent and content are found among the sacred and inspired songs, then I must conclude that the various components of this N. T. command are fully satisfied. There are the songs of praises to God and Christ, songs of prophetical meaning for all times, as well as songs which worship God by way of historical review of all His great deeds.

However, honesty forces me to admit that it would be difficult to defend from this text that the use of spiritual songs and hymns of praise are absolutely forbidden. Throughout the ages many of God’s children and servants blessed with poetic talents have composed beautiful songs. Such songs can be and often are used with great edification. What beautiful lessons are captured in the moving song of McCheyne, Jehovah Tsidkenu or what precious instruction in Cowper’s song God Moves in a Mysterious Way! What encouragement can one glean from Luther’s A Mighty Fortress! How impressive are the thoughts in John Newton’s song Amazing Grace. No, I cannot be of such opinion that I find the singing of such songs unscriptural or objectionable.

Looking around in the various like-minded denominations, one may also get confused. Our Strict Baptist brothers have composed a "Gadsby’s Hymnal" which they use in their worship services. On the other hand, godly men and women in the Free Presbyterian Churches of Scotland will not use any other song than the original Geneva Psalms which are one of the most faithful renderings of the Biblical songs into the English. Likewise is our practice to use exclusively our Psalter during the worship services.

Yet I am convinced that our argument to maintain our practice of only singing Psalters within our worship services is good. It may be mainly historical. A former Roman senator once said, "He who only knows his own generation remains forever a child." In other words, we must learn from history in order to avoid mistakes. When we trace the results of the introduction of uninspired hymns into churches, it often has led (sometimes generations later!) to the introduction of doctrinal error. Why is that happening? I think that is related to two issues.

First, the issue of "Where do we draw the line? Which hymns are acceptable and which are not?" New hymns are proposed to be introduced which may be objectionable at first but eventually find acceptance. Such discussion and struggles are avoided when we stick as closely to the metric versions of the Psalms which we sing in our worship services.

Secondly, when we depart a "little bit from the truth" today it will be "large departure" in the future. In the second commandment the LORD commands us not to worship Him through graven images. If we make a graven image (also mentally or in song) of Him, this sinful misrepresentation will show itself in the "third and fourth generation." Therefore, slight departures in songs today may bring about an entire misrepresentation of the doctrines of Scripture several generations later.

The safest and wisest course for us with an eye on our future generations is to stay with the practice to limit ourselves exclusively to the Psalms in our worship services. In anticipation of your question whether you may use them privately in the family circle, I would counsel that you do so only occasionally and limited. Our family is the nursing ground of our churches, by the grace of God. If we make our children more familiar with the hymns than the Psalters at home, we create confusion in them. I like to give the same counsel to our schools. Let’s seek to instill the precious truths embodied in the Psalters into the minds of our youth.