Worship: The singing of Psalms with grace in the heart

The following arguments are premised upon the belief that the Scriptures alone are our source of information about the worship of God, and that the Scriptures alone are our guide in what ought to characterise our praise of him.

The Psalms (150 scripture songs) are manifestly a portion of God’s word and they are intended for use by God’s people in their sung praise of Him.  Old and New Testament practice confirms this view.

There is no evidence in either the Old or New Testament that uninspired hymns or songs were used in the public worship of God. There is no indication in the New Testament that new, uninspired songs are to be composed for use in public worship.  While some Corinthians were encouraged to bring a psalm, no one was encouraged to compose a song for use in the pubic praise of God; not in 1 Corinthians 14 nor anywhere else in the New Testament.

Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 indicate that Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs are to be sung when God’s people meet (speaking to one another by them).  This practice is encouraged so that they ‘might be filled with the Spirit’ and that ‘the word of God might dwell in [them] richly in all wisdom’.  It might be objected that Psalms are only one of three categories of songs mentioned in these two verses, but I think that there is more than sufficient reason to believe that only the Psalms are meant (see 1. below), or, at least, only songs that are given to us in the Word of God (see 2. below).

  1. These three words (Psalms, Hymns and Songs) are all used to indicate the 150 Psalms of the Bible. Note the titles of the Psalms. The descriptor, ‘Psalm’, is used at the head of Ps.3-6; 8-9; 12-13 15, 19-24, 29-31, 38-41, 47-51, 62-68, 73-77, 79-80, 82-85, 87-88, 92-98, 100-101, 108-110); for ‘Hymn’ see Ps.5, 54-55, 61 and 72 (Ps. 72 refers to all of David’s psalms as ‘hymns’ or sung prayers); for ‘Song’ see Ps.18, 30, 46-47, 48, 66-68, 75-76, 83, 87-88, 92, 108 and 120-134. The Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX) was the Bible version used throughout the Christian world in the first century AD. The LXX added several titles to the Psalms, which our Hebrew text left untitled. The early Christians would have recognised ‘psalms, hymns and songs’ as referring to these titles of the Psalms. Matthew 26:30 uses the word ‘hymn’ to refer to paschal Psalms, which were given no titles in the Hebrew OT. From these facts it may be argued that Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 refer exclusively to the Psalms of the Old Testament.
  2. Even if the three words do not refer exclusively to the 150 Psalms, they are each referred to as ‘spiritual’ (pneumatikais).  The fact that this adjective is feminine (ostensibly referring only to odais, songs) is no barrier to this idea. It is in fact a strong confirmation of it.  The adjective, spiritual, is used in such a way as to indicate that it refers to each of the three words.  Now, the adjective pneumatikos is used to refer to a person or thing that is the particular work of the Holy Spirit, and ‘spiritual’ for this reason. For example, the things of the Spirit of God are not received by the natural man, for they are foolishness to him, but the spiritual man (the one who is so by virtue of the infallible work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration) is now able to discern and receive what the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual (1 Corinthians 2:12-16).
  3. The Psalms are the most obvious source of Scripture Songs. There are very few examples of any others (Ex. 15, Habakkuk 3, Rev. 4:11, 5:9-10 & 12, 11:17-18 (maybe), and Rev. 15:3-4).  Mary might have sung the words in Luke 2:46-55 (as might Zacharias and Simeon their significant comments in Luke), but we are not told this.  Even if they had, these are not examples of congregational singing.

The scriptures are now complete. No new revelations of the Spirit are to be expected, and so no songs other than Scripture songs can now fall into the category of ‘spiritual’ songs.

Some advantages of Psalm singing:

  • It is a way to get to know a large portion of God’s word (the book of Psalms), a portion of the Bible that Martin Luther called the Bible in miniature.
  • It avoids unnecessary subjectivism in worship. Very few of the ‘I’s in the Psalms refer to us, but rather to the Lord’s anointed, or the Christ. Further, Psalm singing is a public, group proclamation of the word of God. This gives, I think, a helpful and sensible reading to women prophesying in 1 Corinthians 11:5. The whole congregation is prophesying (making God’s will known) by means of the Psalms. I Corinthians 14 also refers to the whole congregation prophesying (referring, I believe to their Psalm singing) with a powerful effect upon visitors.
  • It avoids unscriptural teaching. Of course, as with any other portion of scripture, we need to understand the word. In this way, singing Psalms also becomes a teaching opportunity.
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Worship: l Timothy 2 On Public Prayer

The content of this chapter, and much of this letter, is not aimed at Timothy’s personal devotions or private worship, but the public gatherings of God’s people, and other matters related to the organisation of the church.

 This Paul makes clear in Chapter 3 of this letter. In 3:14, Paul says, ‘ These things I write … so that you might know how to conduct (yourself) in the house of God, which is the church of the living God.’

 So, first at all, Paul urges the church to pray for all sorts of people. Here he means that Timothy, or some other appropriate person,  is to lead the congregation in prayer. One person will say the prayer aloud,  and the gathered people will prayer along in their hearts and minds. This is the sort of practice implied by Paul in his discussion of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. E.g., How can anyone other than the speaker say ‘Amen’ if the prayer is spoken in an unknown language? The point here is that all the congregation will be praying, but they will be praying the same things, as they are led by the one who leads the prayer. Why this is an important distinction will,  I hope, become clear a little later.

 In praying for the king (at that time, for Nero) and those with eminent positions in society, there seems to be at least two motivations. The first is so that the church might do its quiet and peaceful work of spreading the message of Jesus Christ. The aim is that they might live in all Godliness and modesty, undisturbed by the authorities. Paul knew by personal experience the trouble that can come to Christians and to churches if those is authority want to prevent the spread of the gospel. In Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus and almost in Corinth, Paul had trouble with authorities who gave attention to unfounded complaints against him or the Christians in those areas.

But in praying for authorities, we are not only to seek the good of the Church. Paul’s intention seems to be that these eminent people might come to faith themselves. This is the force of the statement that God ‘desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ I don’t believe that Paul is speaking about every single human being saved,  since it is clear from the words of Jesus that not everyone will be saved. But Paul says it is God’s desire that all sorts of people be saved – Jew, Greek, rich, poor, slave, free, male, female, young and old. This includes those who have been causing trouble for Paul and the church.

 This is why Paul makes a point of stating again the basis upon which anyone becomes a Christian. It is the work of Jesus. His saving work is applied to sinful people on the basis of God’s gracious choice. Therefore, when we pray for our leaders and for those with influence, we are not to pray with angry words asking for their fall. Christians are to pray without dissension, without bitterness, knowing that God desires all sorts of people to come to the knowledge of the truth — even those who might now be our enemies. Remember how Paul started out (as an enemy of the church), and what he became because of God’s mercy in Christ. This perhaps is why he explicitly refers to his own situation as a preacher of the Gospel as he urges Timothy to lead his congregation in prayer for the king, for those in authority and for all sorts of other people.

 One last point. Paul says we are to be led in prayer for all people (anthropoi), meaning for all human beings without distinction. Even our Lord Jesus is referred to as the human being (anthropos) who acts as mediator for anthropoi. But when Paul refers to those who in everyplace are to lead in prayer, Paul uses a different word (andres), which refers to adult males. It seems that, in the public gatherings of the church,  men — not women, not children — are to lead in prayer, to speak the words which the rest of the Congregation are to pray and say ‘Amen’ to. This clear verbal indication is supported by Paul’s direct statement that women are to learn in silence and are not to teach or exercise authority over a man in the public gatherings of the Church. Why? Paul’s reason is not drawn from the culture of his day, as he draws this principle from the very beginning of humanity. He simply says that there are circumstances where female leadership is not appropriate.

Whose Worship is it?

I belong to a church that makes a public statement about what worship is. It does this by means of a document called the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).

Ministers and Elders of our church each make vows saying that they agree with that document and promise to assert, maintain and  defend its propositions. They own it as a profession of their faith. The WFC begins with an extensive chapter on the Word of God. There it says that the Bible is God’s complete and alone verbal revelation to his human creatures. The Bible alone is authoritative and normative for God’s people in faith and practice. The Bible alone tells us how we must be saved and how we should respond to that salvation. God himself is the one who teaches us, by his word and Holy Spirit.

In addition to the vow to assert, maintain and defend the teaching of the WFC, ministers and elders of my church are asked whether they hold to the form of purity of worship as practised by this church. They must answer yes to be admitted to the office of teaching or ruling elder. They are free to say ‘no’ if they do not hold to it, but they would have to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in a different Christian Church if they did say ‘no’. Now, it seems to me that the promise is not simply to fall into line with whatever churches are presently doing, that is, to do whatever churches at large do for worship, but rather it is another deliberate reference to what the church publicly states to be its idea of purity of worship in the WCF.

In short, public worship (doing church) is what God has said it is to be in his word.

If this is not true in the minds of other christians, it ought at least be true for ministers and elders of my church.

The confession says this: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scriptures.” WCF 21:1

This is a statement about the content of worship. Incidental matters like time, place, building design, seating comfort, and the tunes used for singing are to be decided by the local group using common sense (WCF 1:6), but the content of worship is to be received from the statements of the Bible. In short, what is prescribed (written down in the Bible) is to be done, but what is not prescribed is not to be done in public worship.

Now the WCF gives us some guidance regarding this matter. It states that the ordinary parts of public worship are: “[Prayer (WCF 21:4) and] the reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching and conscionable [intelligent; conscientious] hearing of the word, … singing of psalms with grace in the heart, [and] the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ.” (WCF 21:5)

This is a recognition that worship is God’s thing. He has given it to us for our benefit. Bible worship directs us to our God and his great salvation as revealed in his word. By it the Holy Spirit draws people to trust the Lord Jesus Christ and serve our Creator and saviour. I hope to say of few more things about the Bible and matters of worship in days to come.