Is the Use of
Uninspired Songs in the Worship of God Authorized?
Rev. Professor R. J. George, D.D., Alleghany, PA,
"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" (Col.
When there are differences in belief among Christians
on any subject, it is always helpful to inquire how far they agree, and
thus ascertain the exact point at which opinions begin to diverge. In
regard to the songs to be employed in the praise of God, there are
several points of general agreement.
It is agreed that the Psalms were given by divine
inspiration, and are the very Word of God. "David, the son of Jesse,
said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God
of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel said, the spirit of the
Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue" (II Sam 23:1-2).
"Men and brethren, this Scripture must needs have been fulfilled,
which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning
Judas which was guide to them that took Jesus" (Acts 1:16). (See
also Acts 4:25; Heb. 3:7; etc.) Men should be careful how they speak
against the Book of Psalms. The Holy Ghost is its author. This is
the first point of agreement.
It is agreed that these inspired Psalms were
appointed by God to be used in His worship. "Sing unto Him; sing
psalms unto Him" (I Chron. 16:9). "Moreover Hezekiah the king, and
the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the lord with
the words of David and of Asaph the seer" (II Chron. 29:30). "Let us
come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise
unto Him with psalms" (Ps. 95:2). Bible expositors and church
historians alike agree that the inspired Psalms were exclusively
used in the worship of the Old Testament. God appointed them to be
used and no one but God can change the appointment. This is the
second point of agreement.
It is agreed that so far as the record goes our
Lord Jesus Christ used the Psalms exclusively in worship. Only on
one occasion is our Lord referred to as singing. This was in
connection with the observance of the Passover. It is said, "And
when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives"
(Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). Biblical scholars are not misled by the
use of the word "hymn" in our translation of this verse. The
original simply states the fact that they sang the praises to God.
In the margin it reads, "When they had sung a psalm." It is a
well-known fact that the Jews were accustomed to sing at the
Passover the great Hallel which consisted of Psalm 113 to 118
inclusive. Certainly our Lord and His apostles did not depart from
this usage. Strange indeed it would have been if the Lord Jesus, who
always exalted and honoured the Holy Spirit, had put aside the
sacred songs which He had indited for this very purpose. But He did
not. Those who would follow closely in the footsteps of Jesus should
sing Psalms. Jesus did. This is the third point of agreement.
It is agreed that we have express authority for
the use of the Old Testament Psalms in the New Testament church.
"Let the word of God 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 unto the Lord" (Col. 3:16).
Whatever differences of view there may be as to the "hymns and
spiritual songs," all agree that the "psalms" here spoken of are the
inspired Psalms of Scripture. The passage therefore contains an
express warrant for the continued use of the Psalter in the New
Testament church. This is not denied by any one. This is the fourth
point of agreement.
It is not affirmed that there are no opinions
contrary to one or another of these four points, held by individuals,
but that there is a general agreement among all classes of evangelical
Christians on these points.
We have now reached the exact point of divergence.
While all agree that the "psalms" referred to in Colossians 3:16 are the
Bible Psalms, there are many who maintain that the "hymns and spiritual
songs" are mere human compositions; and that the New Testament church is
hereby authorized and instructed to add to her book of praises the
writings of uninspired men. This is the crucial text on this subject. If
this text contains a clear warrant for the use of uninspired hymns,
other passages may lend it support; but if that warrant is not found
here, it is not found anywhere. The advocates of hymn-singing will admit
the truth of this statement.
It is now undertaken to show that not only does this
passage not authorize the use of uninspired songs in worship, but that
it enjoins the exclusive use of the Psalms of the Bible.
First. No warrant can be found for the use of
uninspired songs, in the words, "hymns and spiritual songs." At first
view these words seem to be conclusive in favour of the advocate of
hymn-singing. In the Greek text it is "psalmois,
humnois, odais pneumatikais," "psalms, hymns, songs
spiritual." Now these three Greek names are all found in the titles to
the Psalms in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was in
use among the people to whom Paul wrote this epistle. They occur many
times in the titles to the various Psalms. The word "psalmois,"
about sixty-nine times, the word "humois" six times, and another
word "alleluia," which has precisely the same import, about
twenty times, and the word "odais," mostly in the singular form,
"ode," thirty-four times. With the fact before us that these
three words are all actually found many times in the titles to the
inspired Psalms—and when we all agree that the word "psalmois"
does refer to inspired songs—is it not most unreasonable to insist that
"humnois" and "odais" mean uninspired songs. As if to
remove all possible doubt the word "spiritual" is used to qualify the
words. Thayer in his Lexicon of the New Testament, referring to this
passage and the similar one, Ephesians 5:19 defines the word "spiritual"
as "divinely inspired and so redolent of the Holy Spirit."
Albert Barnes in his commentary on I Corinthians
10:3, "And did all eat of the same spiritual meat, and drink of the same
spiritual drink," says, "The word spiritual is evidently used to denote
that which is given by the Spirit, by God; that which was the result of
His miraculous gift; that which was not produced in the ordinary way,"
Again, "The word ‘spiritual’ must be used in the sense of supernatural
or that which is immediately given by God." Hence "spiritual songs" are
songs produced in a supernatural manner, those given immediately by the
Spirit of God. It is just as if it read, "Teaching and admonishing one
another in psalms and hymns and songs given by the Holy Spirit." What
songs are these? The sweet psalmist of Israel answers, "The Spirit of
the Lord spake by me and his word was in my tongue." These very names,
therefore, which have been relied upon as furnishing a warrant for the
use of uninspired, we find to be well known titles for Psalms of the
Bible, and that as qualified by the word "spiritual" they cannot be used
to designate uninspired songs, but furnish a warrant for the exclusive
use of the songs of the Spirit.
Second. The Psalms are in an eminent sense
"the word of Christ." "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all
wisdom. This is the condition of being able to "teach and admonish." How
are the Psalms "the word of Christ?"
Christ by His Spirit is the author of them. This
has been fully shown above.
Christ is the speaker in many of them. For
instance, "I will declare the decree, the Lord said unto me, Thou
art my Son; this day have I begotten thee" (Psalm 2:7). "Then said
I, Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me" (Psalm
40:7). "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1).
Such Psalms as these are the Word of Christ in the same sense that
the Sermon on the Mount is His Word. He and no one else is the
speaker in them.
Christ alone is the subject of many of them. The
most ignorant and senseless objection ever made to the Psalms is the
charge that they are "Christless." The truth is that no book in the
bible reveals Christ with such fulness as is done in the book of
Psalms, not excepting the Gospel of John or the Epistle to the
What may we learn from this wonderful book?
His divinity. Psalm 45:6, "Thy throne, O God, is
forever and ever." In Hebrews 1:8, this is quoted as the address of
the Father to the Son, "But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O
God, is for ever and ever." Psalm 110:1, "The Lord said unto my
Lord, Sit thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy
footstool." In Matthew 22:42-45, this is quoted by our Lord to prove
His eternal Sonship. Psalm 2:7, "I will declare
the decree, the Lord said into me, Thou art my Son; this day have I
begotten thee." In Hebrews 1:5, this is quoted as the address of the
Father to the Christ. See also Psalm 2:7 compared with Acts 13:33.
His incarnation. Psalm 8:5, "For thou hast made
Him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned Him with glory
and honour." In Hebrews 2:7 this is quoted and in verse 9 is applied
to the incarnation. "But we see Jesus who was made a little lower
than the angels for the suffering of death crowned with glory and
honour; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every
man." Psalm 40:7, "Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the
book it is written of me." In Hebrews 10:7, we read "The said I, Lo,
I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy
will, O God." And in Hebrews 10:5, "Wherefore when he cometh into
the world, He saith Sacrifice and offering thou woudest not, but a
body hast thou prepared me:" The incarnation and its purpose, being
introduced by the words, "Wherefore when he cometh into the world,
He saith …"
His mediatorial offices.
His prophetical office. Psalm 40:9-10, "I
have preached righteousness in the great congregation; lo, I
have not refrained my lips, O Lord, thou knowest. I have not hid
thy righteousness within my heart; I have declared thy
faithfulness and thy salvation; I have not concealed thy loving
kindness and thy truth from the great congregation." What a
matchless description of the prophetical office! Hebrews 10:5-7
shows conclusively the speaker as Christ. See also Psalm 22:22
compared with Hebrews 2:12.
His priestly office. Psalm 110:4, "The Lord
has sworn and will not repent. Thou art a priest forever after
the order of Melchizedek." In Hebrews 7:17-21, this is quoted to
prove the superiority of the priesthood of Christ, as it is
said, "By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better
His kingly office. Psalm 45:6, Thy throne, O
God, is forever and ever; the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right
sceptre." In Hebrews 1:8 this is quoted as the address of the
Father to the Son. Psalm 110:1, The Lord said unto my Lord, sit
thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool."
In Matthew 22:44-45, our Lord referred this directly to Himself,
and in Hebrews 1:13, it is quoted to prove the exaltation of
Jesus above the angels. See also Psalms 2 and 72 throughout and
His betrayal. Psalm 41:9, "Yea, mine own familiar
friend in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up
his heel against me." In John 13:18, Jesus says, "But that the
scripture may be fulfilled. He that eateth bread with me hath lifted
up his heal against me."
His agony in the garden. Psalm 22:2, "O my God, I
cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not and in the night season and
am not silent. But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises
of Israel." Also verses 11 and 19, compare with these: Matthew
26:36-44, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:41-44 and Hebrews 5:7.
His trial. Psalm 35:11, "False witnesses did rise
up; they laid to my charge things that I knew not." In Matt.
26:59-60, we read, "Now the chief priests and elders and all the
council sought false witness against Jesus to put Him to death, but
found none; yea though many false witnesses came yet found they
none. At the last came two false witness."
His rejection. Psalm 22:6, "but I am a worm, and
no man; a reproach of men and despised by the people." Compare with
this Matthew 27:21-23 and Luke 23:18-23: "And they cried out all at
once, saying, Away with this man and release unto us Barabbas: (who
for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast
into prison.) Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake
again to them. But they cried, saying, Crucify Him, crucify Him."
Psalm 118:22, " The stone which the builders refused is become the
headstone of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous
in our eyes." In Matthew 21:42, our Lord quotes these very words
against the Jews for their rejection of Him. And the Apostle Peter
in Acts 4:11, says, "This is the stone which is set at nought of you
builders which is become the head of the corner."
His crucifixion. Psalms 22 and 69 describe the
scenes of the crucifixion with a minuteness almost equal to that of
the four gospels. The mockery, the shaking of the head and parting
the garments, the casting lots on the vesture, the thirst, the
vinegar and the gall, the pierced hands and feet, the cry of the
forsaken, the committing of His Spirit to God. Psalm 22 opens with
the cry, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," and the
closing words have been rendered, "It is finished."
His burial and resurrection. Psalm 16:9-11,
Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoiceth; my flesh also
shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither
wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt show me
the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right
hand there are pleasures for evermore." Peter, the apostle, after
quoting these words, says, "Men and brethren, let me freely speak
unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried,
and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore, being a
prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of
the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up
Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the
resurrection of Christ that his soul was not left in hell, neither
his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof
we are witnesses" (Acts 2:29-32).
His ascension. Psalm 47:5, "God is gone up with a
shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet." In Acts 1:11, it is
said, "This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall
so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." And in I
Thessalonians 4:16, the manner of his second coming is thus
described: "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a
shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God."
This is the very terms of the Psalm. Psalm 68:18: "Thou hast
ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive; thou hast
received gifts for men, yea for the rebellious also that the Lord
God might dwell among them." In Ephesians 4:8, 11, the Apostle Paul
quotes these verses to prove the ascension of our Lord, and his
ascension gifts to His church: "Wherefore he saith, When he ascended
up on high he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men ... And
he gave some apostles and some prophets ..." See also Psalm 24:7-10
as compared with Revelation 5:6-14.
His second coming. Psalm 50:3-6, "Our God shall
come and shall not keep silence. A fire shall devour before him, and
it shall be very tempestuous round about him. He shall call to the
heavens from above and to the earth that he may judge his people.
Gather my saints together unto me, those that have made a covenant
with me by sacrifice. And the heavens shall declare his
righteousness, for God is judge himself."
Concerning the same event Christ says, "And then
shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven; and then shall the
tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in
the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his
angles with a great sound of a trumpet and they shall gather together
his elect from the four winds from one end of heaven to the other"
Well said Jesus, "It is written in the Psalms
concerning me." "The sufferings of Christ and the glory that should
follow," are here unfolded, and these Psalms and hymns and spiritual
songs are replete with Christ. If any one will examine and compare these
passages he will readily believe that when Paul wrote, "Let the word of
Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom," it was as if He said,
"Memorize the Psalms."
Third. Uninspired songs cannot be placed on a
level with the songs of inspiration as the rule for "teaching and
admonishing." All agree that the "Psalms" of the text are the inspired
Psalms, the very Word of God. "Teaching" refers to doctrine, what we are
to believe. "Admonishing" refers to practice, how we are to live. It is
not conceivable that Paul would place the writings of uninspired men on
a level with the Psalms of the Bible as a standard of doctrine and
practice. "The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the word of
God, the only rule of faith and manners."
Uninspired hymns abound in errors. Dr. Henry Cook of
Belfast, says, " I never yet found a compilation of hymns that I could
pronounce free from serious errors." In 1838 the Presbyterian General
assembly, appointed a committee to revise their hymnbook. In their
report they say, "On a critical examination we found many hymns
deficient in literary merit, some incorrect in doctrine, and many
altogether unsuitable for the sanctuary." What an indictment to bring
against the book which their own church had substituted for God’s book
of praises! Does anyone suppose that Paul referred to such "hymns and
spiritual songs" as these, and places them on a level with the Psalms of
the Bible for teaching and admonition?
Fourth. The inspired Psalms alone are adapted
to be the vehicles of grace to the heart and of the praise to the Lord.
"Singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Here are two things:
the awakening of gracious affections in the heart, and the uplifting of
the soul to God.
Two characteristics of the inspired Psalms mark their
adaptation to this two-fold purpose, viz., their devotional spirit, and
their objective nature.
1. The Psalms are devotional. The Psalter is in a
pre-eminent sense the devotional book of the bible. All Christians
recognize this in their personal devotional reading. It occupies a large
place in the services of liturgical churches. Ambrose says: "Although
all divine scripture breathes the grace of God, yet sweet beyond all
others is the book of Psalms." It is sometimes objected that the Psalms
are not adapted to awaken gracious affections in revivals. Such a view
is entirely mistaken.
Think for a moment of the contents of the book: its
views of God: its views of man; its views of law; its views of sin; its
views of Christ; its views of repentance; its view of pardon; its views
of covenant relationship; its view of the new live; its views of
judgment; its views of heaven; its views of hell. What is there that is
needed for revival that it does not contain? And what book is more
likely to be honoured by the Holy Spirit than his own Book? As Dr. J. W.
Bain has said, "They will be found suitable for any revival that comes
down; those revivals that are ‘gotten up’ may need something less
The fact is that the greatest revivals of religion
the world has ever seen have been connected with the exclusive use of
the Psalms. They were used exclusively in the great revivals in the days
of Hezekiah, Josiah, Ezra and Nehemiah. The same was true in the revival
at Pentecost when three thousand were converted in one day. The period
of the Reformation was a grand revival period, and it was a glorious
revival of Psalm-singing.
The Calvinistic Reformers used them exclusively. All
France was thrilled with their music in the days of the Huguenots. They,
alone, were used in the Scottish church on that wonderful day at the
Kirk of Shotts when under Livingstone, five hundred were converted by
one sermon. In the times of Robert McCheyne, when they continued their
meetings until near midnight, they made the seasons of the night glad
singing the songs of Zion.
President Edwards bears this testimony as to their
use in the great Northampton revival in New England in his days. "One of
the most observable features of the work was the singular delight which
all the awakened appeared to take in singing Psalms. In houses, in the
fields, in the woods, alone and together, they spake forth the praises
of their King; and even little children and aged persons who had never
before learned to sing, came to sing praises with solemnity and
2. The Psalms are objective. In this regard the
inspired songs are in striking contrast with human compositions. Hymns
are Subjective. Men write about themselves, their states and experiences
their high resolves. They are introspective. They are self-centred. But
the Psalms are objective. They are God-centred. The soul looks outward
and upward. They lead the soul reverently to adore God in the beauty of
holiness and devoutly to bow before His throne as the hearer of prayer.
This is true devotion. "Worship God." It appears that the Psalms of the
Bible are eminently adapted to be the vehicles of grace to the heart,
and praise to the Lord. "Singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord."
We conclude, therefore, that this passage which has
always been relied upon by the advocates of hymn-singing as containing a
warrant for their practices has no such meaning. The titles "psalms and
hymns and spiritual songs," belong to the inspired Psalms, and as
qualified by the word "spiritual" are not true of any other. The Psalms
are "the word of Christ;" uninspired songs are not His Word; the Psalms
are a true standard for "teaching and admonishing;" uninspired songs are
not; the Psalms are adapted to be the vehicles of grace to the heart and
of praise to the Lord; uninspired songs are not. The passage furnishes
no warrant for the use of uninspired songs in worship, but is an
explicit apostolic injunction that in the praise service of the New
Testament church the divinely authorized psalmody should be continued.
We cannot close without an earnest appeal to the
Christian heart on behalf of two things.
The restoration of God’s own Psalter to a place
in the hymnals of all the churches. A movement in this direction
should have the hearty co-operation of every Christian. Its
rejection has been in disregard of the divine appointment, and of
the example of our blessed Lord, and of the apostolic authority
contained in this passage. It should be restored to its place by the
united voice of all Christendom and the joyous acclaim of all
Christians. It would be the bringing back of the ark of God.
When the Psalter is restored to its place in the
hymnals of the churches it should be used exclusively in the worship
of God. A place may be found for the use of uninspired songs, but
not in worship. God must be served with His own. "But cursed be the
deceiver, which hath in his flock a male, and voweth and sacrificeth
unto the Lord a corrupt thing; for I am a great king, said the Lord
of hosts, and my name is dreadful among the heathen" (Mal. 1:14).
Rev. W. D. Ralston in his "Talks on Psalmody,"
related the following story; "As I trudged homeward I stopped at an
uncle’s and spent the night there. In the evening I brought out my
hymnbook and had some singing with my cousins. After I laid it down, my
uncle took it up, put on his glasses, and spent some time in looking
through it. He was a firm believer in the exclusive use of the Psalms,
and my book was the hymnbook of another denomination. It gave the hymns,
and the music, with the names of the composers of each as far as known.
Uncle read a hymn and naming the author, said, ‘I know nothing of him.’
He read another, and said, ‘I have read about the author of this one. He
was a Roman Catholic priest,’ he read another and said, ‘I have often
read of this author. He was a good man and an earnest Christian
minister.’ He then said: ‘Now, John, if I were going to use one of these
hymns in the worship of God to-night, which do you think I had best
choose, the one about whose author I know nothing, the one by the Roman
Catholic priest, or the one by the earnest Christian minister.’ I
replied, ‘ The one by the minister.’ ‘True,’ said he, ‘we should select
the one written by the best man; and I see by looking through your book
that it contains many hymns written by good men; but if I should find in
it one composed by God Himself, would it not be better to sing that one
than one composed by any good man?" I replied, ‘It surely would.’ After
a little, he said, ‘I have now carefully looked through your book, and I
do not find one hymn in it marked ‘composed by God;’ but I have here a
little hymnbook and God by His Holy Spirit has composed every hymn in
it; for Peter says, ‘Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy
Ghost.’ As he spoke he handed me one of our Psalm books and the manner
in which he presented his argument made an impression upon my mind that
I never forgot."
How conclusive the argument is. We ought to serve God
with the best. God’s own book is the best. When Ingersoll (an American
agnostic) said that he "could write a better book than the Bible,"
Christians were shocked and denounced him as an "infidel blasphemer."
How then can we say that we can write a better book of praises than
God’s Psalter? If it be true that hymn books are better than the Psalm
book, it marks the highest achievement of the race; for then man has
transcended God in His own field. If it be not true, then the displacing
of God-made Psalter, by the man-made hymn books, in God’s worship, is an
act of most daring presumption.
At a meeting of minister of various denominations in
an eastern city had been read on church hymnology. General discussion
followed the reading. An advocate of the exclusive use of the inspired
Psalms employed the following illustration with great effect. "If I had
an important message to send to one living in the upper districts of the
city I might summon a messenger boy and say to him: ‘Can you carry this
message for me to such a person living in such a part of the city?’ And
the boy would answer doubtfully: ‘I think I can. It is true that I have
never been in that part of the city, I was born near here. I have heard
of the person to whom you wish to send the message, but I am not
acquainted with him; but I think I can find him. I am willing to try.’
My message is a very important one, and while satisfied of the good
intentions of this boy, I am not quite assured of his ability to fulfil
the trust. So I call up another boy and ask him the same question. At
once his face glows with intelligence as he answers, ‘Oh yes, I can
carry your message directly to his home. I know all about that part of
the city. I was born there. I came from there. In fact your friend sent
me down here to find you and bear up any message you might desire to
send to him.’ It would not be difficult to decide which of these
messengers I should employ. This is an allegory. If I had a message of
praise to send up to God and I employed a hymn to carry it, I would feel
uncertain about it; it might reach Him and it might not. But if I
employed a Psalm to carry it, I know that it would ascend to heaven. The
Psalm was born there. It came from God to me; and indeed God sent it to
me to bear any message of praise I might wish to send up to him."