“What sort of God must He be who commands His people to sing joyfully to Him from the heart?” That was the thought that struck me one day during one of our worship services. He is no evil or austere God who commands His people to sing with joy and grace in their hearts for all of His divine perfections and saving benefits. He is a God who loves to communicate His joy to the hearts of His people in order that they will overflow with joy in singing praises back to Him. The constant testimony of the Scriptures is that God has redeemed His people in order to receive praises from them. The Psalmist explained that the holy God of Jacob is “enthroned on the praises” of His people (Ps. 22:3).
God has given us an inspired song book in the canon in order to assist us in singing His praises. In that song book, the word praise appears no less than 137 times. 32 of those 137 times the word praise is explicitly linked to singing (e.g. Psalm 7:17; 9:2, 11; 18:49; 21:13; 30:4; 30:11-12; 47:6, 7; 57:9; 59:17; 61:8; 66:2; 66:4; 68:4; 68:32; 71:22; 71:23; 71:8; 84:4; 92:1; 95:1; 98:4; 98:5; 104:33; 105:2; 108:3; 135:3; 138:1; 146:2; 147:1 and 149:1).
The Psalms teach us why we are to sing praise to God. The Lord commands His people to sing praise to God for His infinite perfections. We find this to be so in Psalm 145:3 where the Psalmist declares, “Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised. His greatness is unsearchable.” This includes His power (Ps. 21:13), protection (Ps. 5:11; 59:17; 63:7), sovereignty (Ps. 9:11; 47:7), righteousness (Ps. 51:14; 67:4), steadfast love (Ps. 59:17), glory (Ps. 66:2), redemption (Ps. 71:23) and goodness (Ps. 13:6; 135:3).
The people of God are also to sing praise to God in order to thank Him for all of His benefits. We do not simply praise God for who He is; we praise God for all that He has done for us as our Creator and Redeemer. Throughout the Bible we are met with the truth that the redeemed sing God’s praises in order to thank Him for what He has done for them. This truth constantly resurfaces in the Psalms (Ps. 7:17; 9:1; 26:7; 28:7; 30:4; 30:12; 33:2; 44:8; 50:14; 50:23; 54:6; 57:9; 69:30; 75:1; 79:13; 86:12; 92:1; 95:2; 97:12; 100:4; 105:1;
The Psalms also instruct us in how we are to sing to God. We are to singing joyfully (Ps. 63:5; 95:1, 2; 98:1, 4, 6; 100:1). We are to sing loudly (Ps. 33:3; 26:7; 47:1; 150:5); we are to sing skillfully (Ps. 33:3) and we are to sing collectively (Ps. 26:12; 89:5; 107:32; 149:1). We are to have our minds, hearts and souls engaged when we gather together with the saints to sing praise to our God.
However, since the time of the Reformation, there has been no small debate over what the redeemed are to sing to God in corporate worship. A significant number of pastors and theologians have concluded that the redeemed are only to sing the Psalms in the gathered assembly. This position has been termed exclusive psalmody. One feels the weight of such an argument if it is given its due consideration. God tells us how He is to be worshiped. We are never left to our own imagination or desires to determine how we worship Him. Couple that truth to the fact that He has preserved an inspired song book from which His people may sing to Him and you have a powerful argument for exclusive psalmody. However, a close examination of Scripture reveals that there are more than just Psalms included in the canon; and, that while we should most certainly be committed to inclusive psalm singing in our churches, there is a progressive development of the revelation of God that is to make its way into the praises we sing to Him.
In his excellent article, “Exclusive Psalmody or New Covenant Hymnody,” Lee Irons surveys the many canonical songs that we find both in the Old and the New Testament. He writes:
“There are many other hymns included in the canon of Scripture that, for whatever reason, were not added to the book of Psalms. It is profitable to make this clear by giving some examples:
The Song of Moses and Miriam (Exod. 15)
Spring up, O well! (Num. 21:17-18)
The Mosaic Song of Witness (Deut. 31:19-32:44)
The Song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5)
The statutes of the Law were sung (Ps. 119:54)
The Song of the Vineyard (Isa. 5:1-7)
An Eschatological Song (Isa. 26-27)
The Prayer of Habakkuk “on shigionoth” (Hab. 3).”
“What about the inspired hymns recorded in the NT? Although we cannot be sure, it seems reasonable to assume that the presence of these hymns in the NT canon indicates that they were sung in the worship services of the apostolic church. Again, it will be useful simply to list some of these hymns:
Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79)
The Angelic Doxology (Luke 2:14)
Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:28-32)
A Pauline Christological hymn (Col. 1:15-20)
The Carmen Christi (Phil. 2:5-11)
A New Song (Rev. 5:9-10; 14:3)
The Song of Moses and of the Lamb (Rev. 15:3-4)
The Hallelujah chorus (Rev. 19:5-7)
Charismatic hymnody (1 Cor. 14:15, 26).”
Based on a survey of canonical songs that exist outside of the Psalter, Irons concludes the following:
“Exclusive psalmody assumes that the Book of Praises is the God-ordained hymnal for use by the covenant community in worship. Thus, the very existence of the Psalter is interpreted as an implicit command by God to sing only those hymns found therein. For God’s people to go outside that hymnal — even if they restrict themselves to canonical texts beyond the Psalter — is to reject God’s implicit command. But this assumption cannot be correct if God commanded his people to sing other hymns (e.g., Deut. 32), and if the apostolic church did as a matter of fact sing other hymns besides the 150 Psalms, as 1 Cor. 14:26 indicates that they did, and as the presence of new songs in the NT suggests.”
All of this, of course, brings us to Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19-20. In both of these places, the Apostle Paul charges the church to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” to the Lord. Proponents of exclusive psalmody will often suggest that those three words stand for the various types of songs in the Psalter. A consideration of the immediate context–coupled with our understanding of the progress of revelation in the history of redemption–demands that we draw a different conclusion. Minimally, we must conclude that God has given us other canonical songs to sing to Him–songs that explicitly reveal the mediatorial glory and excellency of Christ. Maximally, it means that we are to compose new songs that capture the full redemptive-historical glory of Christ. I had a professor in seminary who said, “If we do not sing the name of Jesus explicitly we are robbing Him of mediatorial glory.” That is the essence of what Paul seems to be teaching in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 4.
Again, Irons notes:
“Why would Paul say that we must ‘teach and admonish one another with all wisdom in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,’ if he simply wanted to urge us to sing the canonical Psalms? Do we need “all wisdom” to select say, Psalm 100 this Sunday, but Psalm 72 the following Sunday? That doesn’t seem to be what Paul has in view. It seems more likely that “all wisdom” is needed to choose the proper words for teaching and admonishing one another in song.
This interpretation is further supported by the topic sentence of the entire verse: ‘Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach, etc.’ The Word of Christ is the mystery Paul has been proclaiming in the epistle up to that point: the good news that we have been made complete in Christ by virtue of being united with him in his death/circumcision and resurrection. The book of Colossians as a whole focuses on the believers’ need to be built up in this mystery and to grow into the fullness of life in Christ. Now, it is true that the Psalms speak of Christ (Luke 24:44). But surely Paul does not mean, “Let the Psalms’ message about Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another by singing the Psalms.” Rather, Paul is exhorting the Colossians to let the mystery, which has been kept hidden from previous generations but is now disclosed to the saints (Col. 1:26), dwell in them richly so that, through the songs that result from such reflection, they may teach and admonish one another in all the implications of that mystery. If that is Paul’s intent, then the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of Col. 3:16 cannot refer to the canonical Psalms.
Thus, Col. 3:16 commands us to let that Word of Christ dwell in us richly, so that as we meditate upon its message, we may be able, with all wisdom, to teach and admonish one another by composing New Covenant psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”
We should long to sing the full redemptive-historical praises of Christ–not simply the rich truths of the Psalms. However, whether one concludes that we should only sing Psalms, only sing canonical songs or embrace the rich repository of Trinitarian and Christological hymns, we should never lose sight of the fact that our God commands us to sing joyful and loud praises to Him in gathered worship on the Lord’s Day. It is our duty and our privilege to do so.