Psalmody and a “New Song”

One of the more common objections to exclusive psalmody is that since scripture speaks of singing a new song we are permitted (if not required) to write new songs in every generation.This argument dates back to the 17th century and has been used frequently ever since. [1]

 There are 9 new song references in the scriptures, 6 of which are found in the Psalms alone: Psalms 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9 & 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9 & 14:3.

1) In every reference the command or the description is that of a “new song,” (singular) not new songs (plural). This is significant in that new songs (plural) would refer to an ongoing collection of songs to be written whereas “new song” (singular) would refer to a particular song with its own particular elements and requirements.

2) This is supported by the command that accompanies these descriptions. The new song is to be sung, not composed. The new song must then be provided by God Himself: that is an inspired source other than the singer or singers who are called to praise God.[2]

3) This is demonstrated in the Psalms, where the phrase “new song” is primarily placed at the beginning (not the end) of the Psalm suggesting that the Psalm is, in fact, the content of the new song.

4) In Psalm 144:9 (where this is not the case) David says “I will sing a new song” (emphasis mine). Of course this does not necessarily rule out others from joining in, but the context indicates that the following statement is a personal one: “the one who gives salvation to kings, who delivers David his servant” (emphasis mine). In any case there is no command here to compose a new song. David by the inspiration of the Spirit is the composer; we are the choir.

5) We see this clearly in Psalm 40:3 which reads “He has put a new song in my mouth.” In this verse David, who was the “sweet Psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1), acknowledges that the new song has been given to him by God. This could not more clearly refer to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

6) In Isaiah 42:10, the prophet borrows the idea of a new song from the Psalms and applies it to a new people, namely to the Gentiles (“from the ends of the earth” cf. vs. 6 where Israel will be a light to the Gentiles). This could either mean that, with the inclusion of the Gentiles new songs would have to be written to celebrate the creation of a “new man” (Ephesians 2:15), or the ‘old’ songs would take on new meaning by being sung by the Gentile converts. It would seem the latter is the case since in Psalm 96 the Psalmist speaks of singing to the Lord a new song in vs. 1 and then calls upon the nations in vs. 7ff. to join him in his praise of God.

7) In fact the singing of Psalms (as a canonical book) is more suitable to the new covenant church than it ever was to the old. The Psalms prolepticaly anticipate the day when Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem.[3] So the language of Israel’s faith as applied to the Gentiles becomes a “new song” i.e. new in meaning without being newly written. In fact it is impossible that a “new song” could only refer to a new situation (i.e. the necessity of songs to be written as the Gentiles were incorporated into Israel) since Israel was commanded to sing a new song before the inclusion of the Gentiles.

Moreover, the missionary zeal of the Psalmist is especially suited for our day and age as throughout this majestic book the nations are not only called to bow before the God of Israel[4] but were also promised as one day joining God’s people in worship.[5] Though this had not yet occurred at the time the Psalms were collected as a book, as believers sing the Psalms today we see these rich and precious promises being fulfilled before our very eyes (see Romans 15:8-12).

8) This understanding of new song meaning an old song sung with new meaning is reinforced by Luke 24:44-45: “How must the words of Psalm 2, or 22, or 45, or 110, or 118 have sounded like new songs to those who had been accustomed to singing them in the shadows of unrevealed realities! The effect of the light of the Gospel upon the remnant of Israel redeemed by His grace was to cause them to sing “as it were, a new song” (Revelation 14:3) unto the Lord – not “new” in substance or content, but “new” in richness of meaning and fullness of glory to the God and Savior of men! Seen in this light, the song of the redeemed, which was “as it were, a new song,” and which could only be learned by them, shows us the wonderful way in which the Psalms come alive with meaning in the full light of Christ’s redemption to those whose eyes are opened to see their testimony concerning Jesus.”[6]

9) In Revelation (5:9 & 14:3) a “new song” is sung in the heavenly realm where the saints are ‘contributing’ to the prophetic whole of the book. It is not a new song in terms of being written by someone for a particular occasion (as with an uninspired hymn). Rightly then G.I. Williamson has noted: “To learn a new song, taught by the Lord, is very different from writing a new song of our own.”[7] Furthermore the song in Revelation 14:3 cannot even be learned except by the redeemed of God. That the church is a mixed multitude here below reinforces that this song cannot be an example of new compositions in the militant church for we are not all redeemed in the here and now.

10) The new Jerusalem descends from above; it is heavenly in origin and God’s creation (Revelation 21:2). Likewise the new song does not originate with man but with God.[8]

11) Furthermore there are many examples of new things in scripture, none of which require that something entirely new or fresh be made or recognized, but only that which was old be renewed or restored to its former glory. 

There is a “new commandment” John 13:34; a “new covenant” 2 Corinthians 3:6-7; Hebrews 8:8; we are a “new creation” 2 Corinthians 5:17 and a “new man” Ephesians 2:15 and there is a “new heavens and earth” 2 Peter 3:13. In each of these instances we do not have something entirely new but the old or previously existing commandment, covenant, character and creation renewed, revived and reclaimed. For example, R.L. Dabney argues from John 13:34 that Christ’s new commandment “was only ‘the old command renewed,’ only a re-enactment with an additional motive: Christ’s love for us.”[9]

12) Note that, in all of these instances, they originate with God, not with man. We should expect that a new song, then, would also be of divine origin.

-Daniel Kok © 2017

1. “It was Benjamin Keach, and not Isaac Watts as is commonly thought, who was the first Puritan to write hymns of human composition. The first hymns of Watts were published in 1694, while those of Keach had appeared thirty years earlier. Commenting on the phrase ‘a new song’ found in the Psalms and in Rev. 14:3, Keach writes, ‘A new song,’ signifies a new song which praises God for new benefits received from him… This shows other spiritual songs may be sung besides David’s psalms in gospel days.’” [quoting Benjamin Keach “The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship” page 129] John Price, Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and the Worship of God, a Theological, Historical and Psychological Study, Avinger, Texas: Simpson Publications, 2005, pages 118-119.
This is consistent with the composition of the song in scripture which is inspired of God. As Michael Bushell argues, “they [commands to sing a new song] do not constitute a warrant for us to produce uninspired worship song any more than they did for the Old Testament saints.” Bushell, Michael. Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody (Third edition). Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, 1999, page 95.
3. Vos, Johannes G. “Ashamed of the Tents of Shem?: The Semitic Roots of Christian Worship.” The Blue Banner. Faith Presbyterian Reformed Church. PDF article.

See, for example, Psalm 67.
Psalms 22:27-31, 72:11 & 86:9.
6. Comin, Douglas. Worship from Genesis to Revelation. Unpublished manuscript. 

7. Williamson, G.I. “The Singing of Psalms in the Worship of God.” Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics. Ed Welsh. Web. January 23, 2016.

Bushell, page 96.
Dabney, R.L. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985, page 357.