“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.” Colossians 3:16
Music has always been an important part of the worship of the church. Its place in the worship of the early church after the apostles comes out in the earliest description that we have of a Christian worship service. Speaking of the Christians, a contemporary observer wrote, they are accustomed to come together on a fixed day, before dawn, and to speak with themselves mutually in a song to Christ, as it were to God. This dates from the reign of the Emperor Trajan, who ruled Rome from A.D. 98 to 117.
Nothing needs to be said to those familiar with the Old Testament about the place of music in Old Testament worship.
The book of Revelation teaches that the congregation of the redeemed will sing in the new world: “And they sung as it were a new song before the throne. . . ” (Rev. 14:3).
Colossians 3:16 makes clear that music is to have a vital place in the worship of the church now, on earth. The reference is to the congregation of saints and their gatherings for worship. Verse 15 has reminded us that we are called to the peace of God ‘in one body.’ This body, this church, has its life; and it is vital that the Word of Christ dwell richly in the body.’ “You” is plural in the Greek, not singular—the reference is to all the members as they make up the congregation. “In you” means ‘among you.’ In keeping with this reference to the church, the apostle speaks of our teaching and admonishing each other. The singing, therefore, is the united singing of all the members, from their hearts (note again the plural), as a church. The Holy Spirit teaches and exhorts us as to music in the church.
WHAT WE ARE TO SING
It might seem that the text, as well as the similar scripture in Ephesians 5:19, overthrows one of our cherished positions, as Protestant Reformed Churches, regarding music in the church, namely, that only Psalms be sung, to the exclusion of hymns. Does not the apostle mention Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Our position is expressed in Article 69 of the Church Order of Dordt: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the sermon shall be sung.” Our stand today is the historic, traditional Reformed position—that of Calvin; of the Synod of Dordt; and of the Reformed churches generally, until recently, when the Reformed churches have been amusing themselves by abandoning the Reformed tradition wholesale. The exceptions to the Psalms mentioned in Article 69 (some of which are quite unknown to most of us) find their place there through curious, historical circumstances: the popular Dutch songbook of the time of the Synod of Dordt contained also these hymns; rather than to disturb the people, Dordt made allowance for these hymns. But the spirit and principle of Article 69 is: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung.” Period!
This stand on Psalm-singing does not depend only on a few New Testament texts about singing, the interpretation of which is disputed; but it is based also on an important Biblical truth about the worship of God. namely, that we may not worship God as we see fit (“will-worship”), but only in the manner which He prescribes in His Word. This is called “the regulative principle of worship.” It is laid down in the Second Commandment of the Law, as the Heidelberg Catechism explains in Q. 96: “What doth God require in the second commandment? That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word. ” Apart now from the “hymn question,” this regulative principle of worship—obedience to the Second Commandment!—is well-nigh lost sight of in Reformed churches today. The ruling question for worship is not, “Does God command this particular aspect of worship in the Scriptures?” But the controlling question is, do we think that this would be a nice liturgical innovation? Does this or that move us emotionally (for a month or two)? Will this be popular to draw our unspiritual young people to the evening service? Altogether apart from the preaching of false doctrine, or the absence of preaching, as becomes more and more common in the second service, blasphemy is regularly done in the worship of the churches; and strange fire is offered up to the Holy Father on the altar of the worship of the church.
God will be worshipped as He prescribes in His Word, and no otherwise. This extends to our music. The music with which we praise God at church must be His Word. Just as we preach His Word and pray His Word, so are we to sing His Word. Now God has given the Church one, inspired songbook: the Psalms.
But even if the issue of exclusive Psalms-singing versus the singing of hymns also were to be decided on the basis of Colossians 3:16 alone, the churches would sing only the Psalms. “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are not three different kinds of songs: the inspired Psalms of David; uninspired hymns based on the New Testament; and uninspired spiritual songs treating of various religious themes. Rather, they are all the inspired Psalms of the Old Testament. The inspired Psalms are of two different kinds: hymns and spiritual songs. “Hymns” are the Psalms that explicitly praise God, e.g., Psalm 150 (“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! In His temple God be praised”). “Spiritual songs” are the Psalms which deal with other aspects of the believer’s life and experience, e.g., repentance (Psalm 51: “God be merciful to me”) and the duty to obey God’s Law (Psalm 1 19: “How I love Thy law, O Lord!”)
The proof of this, namely, that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” in Colossians 3:16 are all Psalms, is immediately plain to all: the church of Paul’s day, specifically, the congregation at Colossi, Asia Minor, had no other songs than the Psalms! She had no “hymns” in the sense in which we are accustomed to speak of hymns today, referring to such songs as “Glory be to the Father,” or “Rock of Ages.” Besides, the meaning of the Greek word, “hymn,” is ‘song of praise to God.’ Elsewhere in the New Testament, the word, “hymn,” is clearly used to refer to a Psalm which consists of the praise of God. Such an instance is Matthew 26: 30: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went into the mount of Olives.” The reference is certainly to the Psalms; undoubtedly, the reference is to Psalms 113-118, the “Great Hallel” (Song of Praise to Jehovah), which the Israelites customarily sang on the occasion of the Passover. In addition, in the Greek Old Testament used by the apostles, the Septuagint, the Psalms were exactly labelled, “Psalms and Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.”
When we sing the Psalms, the Word of Christ is dwelling among us, in our music. The Word of Christ is the Word about Christ—His Godhead; His humiliation; His redemption; His salvation; His glory. It is also the Word that Christ Himself speaks. This Word, and this Word only, is to dwell in the church, for she is the body of which He is the Head.
The Psalms are this Word of Christ. They are inspired; they are part of the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament that was “breathed forth of God” (Il Tim. 3:16). The Holy Spirit spoke them; David and the other writers were only instruments (Acts 1:16). Remember, they are the inspired Word of Christ, expressly for the purpose of being the songs of the Church.
Also, they are about Christ. All of the Psalms are “Messianic.” This is Jesus’ own analysis of them in Luke 24:44: ..all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me.” This is questioned by some. The alleged lack of references in the Psalms to Christ and His saving works is one of the main reasons why some suppose that we should also have hymns in our songbooks of worship. They find The Psalter deficient especially for the Christian holidays. Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. This is a mistake. We may take Christmas, recently celebrated, as an example. Leaving aside the question, whether these seasonal celebrations are in order (certainly, they are not required by the Scriptures, as is the keeping of the Lord’s Day), and leaving aside also the question, whether our celebration (even our concern for a week or two with peace and joy!) is the Godly, spiritual celebration that it ought to be, we may truthfully assert that the Psalms are rich with the gospel of the Coming of the Christ—His Coming from God; His Coming as man; His Coming in lowliness; His Coming for the redemption of sinners; and the like. We may assert further that many of the popular Christmas hymns not only lack the solid, Biblical truth about the birth of Christ that characterizes The Psalter, but also are empty and even frivolous. “Silent Night, Holy Night” (which I would not classify as frivolous, or empty) certainly cannot stand comparison with numbers 3 and 4 in The Psalter (based on Psalm 2), or with number 243 (based on Psalm 89).
It is exactly the worth of the Psalms that they are Christ’s own Word about Himself. They are not a religious man’s words about man’s religious feelings, problems, and aspirations; but they are Christ’s Word about Christ. Since Christ is the revelation of Jehovah God, the Psalms are God-centered and God-glorifying. Just for this reason, they do justice to the hopes and fears, the struggles and victories, the sins and salvation, the shame and glory of the man, or woman, of God. There is a depth, a profundity, a reality about the Psalms that is commonly missing from even the better hymns. This, not only when the Psalms are talking about Jehovah, but also when they are talking about man. As you sing them, you say to yourself, “Yes, this is my sin: this is my fear and doubt; this is my feeling, this is my only salvation; this is my hope;” and the like. For the Psalms know man in relationship to God, whether in covenant friendship or in covenant-violating rebellion; and this is really man.
Today, there is a noticeable conversion to the singing of the Psalms by those whose tradition was not that of Psalms-singing or whose tradition has moved away from the singing of Psalms. They recognize the unique worth of the Psalms in the singing of the church, as well as the weakening of the church by many hymns. The Biblical Educator of January, 1980 points to the worth of the Psalms:
“The reason Christian kids so often go for ‘rock’ music is that their musical taste is completely unformed. The violence in today’s music is but the reverse side of the sentimental, goopy, syrupy, popular music of a previous generation. ‘Champagne music’ leads to ‘marijuana music.’ Too many gospel songs are nothing but sentimental goop, and children brought up on these are starved for music with some real meat in it. They find such ‘strong’ music in ‘rock.’ It would be better if they had been brought up on strong Christian music, such as the psalms.”
Writing in The Banner of Truth, October, 1982, J. R. de Witt states:
“ I have an idea that the superficiality of much evangelical Christianity in our day may be traceable to a long neglect of the Psalter as an instrument in public praise. When one lives with the Psalms, those wonderful worship poems of Scripture, with all their marvelous variegation. displaying as they do the whole range of the emotions, aspirations, and wrestlings of faith, tend to become formative for one’s experience of spiritual reality. On the other hand, when one turns from the Psalms to merely human expressions of religious sentiment, one immediately runs the danger of descending to another level of religious feeling, a level not nearly so much shaped by the Word of God itself.”
We ought to appreciate our heritage. We ought to know and understand it, first of all: but, then, we should appreciate it. We should not be embarrassed by our liturgy, particularly, singing Psalms at church; we should not grumble about it. We should be thankful for it and exploit it. We carry on a long and honorable tradition; we represent the historic Reformed position, here. But above all, our heritage and worship are Biblical. Next: our singing.