Psalmody and Other Songs in Scripture

Another common argument against exclusive psalmody concerns the existence of songs in scripture outside the Psalter (e.g. Song of Moses, Song of Hezekiah, songs in Revelation etc.). If we are to sing only the Psalms, then why did God allow for these other songs to be composed, sung and subsequently recorded in the Bible? Does not their very presence in scripture teach us that we need more than the Psalms to praise God with song?

1) We must remember that the Psalms are not just a random collection of songs but part of a finished, canonical work. As such they cannot be added to by men, even with material within the canon of scripture itself. That is to say, the book of Psalms will always be the book of Psalms (i.e. 150 inspired individual works compiled in one volume).

2) Connected to this thought is that the Psalms, as a collection, are a unique genre in scripture: “If we care about genre—and we should—then we have to grapple with the question: if God gave us a book of praise songs, who are we to add to them? [ed. Michael] Bushell points to exclusive Psalmody as the logical consequence of sola scriptura. Why? First because of the importance of the genre of Book of Psalms within the scope of the canonized Bible.”[1] Thus this songbook in scripture is the songbook in scripture.

3) The oldest psalm is that of Moses (Psalm 90) and the latest is likely Psalm 137 (which has been dated to the 6th century Babylonian exile). So even though the Psalms do not incorporate so called New Testament songs, they do extend over many ages of church history (note even those which, like our time, did not have the benefit of a temple and priestly ministry i.e. after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians). It appears then that some songs written during the time in which the Psalms of scripture were being written and subsequently compiled were not included.

For example, Solomon wrote a total of 1005 songs (1 Kings 4:32), yet only two has his name associated with it (Psalm 72&127 – or perhaps none if we read the inscriptions as “for Solomon”). This demonstrates the peculiarity of the canonical psalms i.e. those chosen have good (divine) reason to be in the Psalter whereas others are left out in God’s wisdom. 

Furthermore, there are two Psalms that are repeated, virtually word for word (Psalm 14 compared with Psalm 53). Though one may wonder why the Holy Spirit chose to use two, nearly identical Psalms in one book, it is not hard to discover why. These psalms deal with the essential issue of total depravity, or man’s inability to come to Christ apart from the drawing of the Spirit (particularly as we see  in Paul’s use of Psalm 53 in Romans 3). This, of course, is not an attractive or desirable doctrine yet one we desperately need to hear as well as to have repeated in our ears. Though one more Psalm about the Exodus, or God’s promises to David could have been written, it was this subject that the Spirit desired us to understand and know.

4) This, of course, underscores the notion that God knows best what content His praise is to consist of. The Psalms are not, after all, a mere collection of Israel’s ‘top ten favourites’ but the only perfect book of praise. “God knows what balance we need in our theology and instruction, and has provided that balance in the Psalter. The Psalms contain a much greater variety of theological material than all the merely human compositions. God gave to the entire Church throughout much of its history what it needs to sing. We must remember that God doesn’t need us to worship him as we want to. He wants us to worship him as we need to. We want to worship him with our own offerings. We need to worship him with the compositions that he has given us.”[2]

5) Whatever one believes about the limitations or purpose of the Psalms, the scripture everywhere makes it plain that not all truth is included in its pages (e.g. John 20:23). Therefore it would be consistent with the nature of biblical truth that not every song (i.e. inspired) that could have been included was included in the song book of scripture.

6) At the same time, there is considerable overlap between the Psalms and these other songs in scripture. One finds similar themes, wordings and the like that, should these songs be included in the corpus of songs that the church sings from, would not add anything substantial that is not already present in the book of Psalms.[3]

Thus to suggest that the Psalms are inadequate due to the existence of similar songs scattered throughout the scriptures is like suggesting the inadequacy of my wife’s cooking for our family because so many other women in the church make similar dishes. Certainly I am free to imbibe of their food when I am outside of the home, but whenever I am home my wife’s cooking suffices.

7) The very presence of these other songs in scripture, in fact, works against the hymnodist’s presuppositions since every one of them is inspired. Surely if these non-psalmodic songs were an indication of the need for an expanded song book, it would only argue for the inclusion of those songs in the church’s singing and nothing more.[4] Thus in the scenario where such songs were adopted for use in the church, the EP would see this as a distinct improvement on the current situation when they are used in place of man’s uninspired words.

Furthermore, it would only prove an inconsistency in the exclusive psalmodist’s conviction, not an actual contradiction. At most he may have to modify his practice but he does not need to undermine his own basic conviction regarding the use of inspired songs in worship by adding more inspired songs to his song book. Thus the exclusive psalmodist’s insistence on inspiration as the standard for sung praise of God stands.

8) Some, however, are of the opinion that the Hezekiah’s song (as recorded in Isaiah 38) is proof that uninspired songs were sung in the temple alongside the biblical Psalms. Besides being as assumption, let us carefully note the usual pattern in divine worship which Hezekiah follows:

“In biblical worship, it is the king who leads the congregation into worship, and it is the king’s own songs that the congregation sings with him. This principle is seen in the royal oversight of the hymn workshops of 1 Chronicles 25. It is also seen in the pattern of worship described throughout the Scripture (page 43)…. Hezekiah wrote this song (in Isaiah 38) to celebrate God’s healing from an illness. The king was near death, apparently because of sin. But he cried out for mercy, and God forgave his sins and restored his health. Hezekiah composed this praise and took it to the temple for all Israel to sing with him (vs. 20). Why would God’s mercy to deliver the king from death become the basis for all Israel to praise? From Adam to Jesus, Scripture shows us that God’s dealings with the head of his people is a mark of his disposition toward all the people. Hezekiah’s testimony about God’s mercy on him became the basis for the whole congregation to praise with him.”[5]

9) It should be clear that some of these songs are clearly for a particular time and place and were not intended to be used in public worship. For example, “[t]he “second Song of Moses” (Deuteronomy 32) was not given, even in its original context, as a worship song, but as a song of warning to the children of Israel. It was not given to be “sung to the Lord” but as stated in Deuteronomy 31:19-22 as a witness of the Lord speaking to His people, against them. It is clear from the Lord’s stated use of this song that it was never intended by Him to be a song “vertically oriented” that is, going up to Him as an offering of the lips (Hebrews 13.15) but a song of witness and warning from Him to His people.”[6]

The so called songs of Zacharias, Mary & Simeon (in Luke 1&2) are, in fact, prophetic sayings more than they are sung praise and clearly for particular times and people (see Luke 1:47,76 & 2:26) which, though significant for our redemption (as they pertain to the incarnation and salvation of the Lord Jesus), do not necessarily imply that they be used in the corporate worship of God’s people. In fact, we see no evidence in scripture that they were intended to be used in corporate worship.

Also consider the case of the songs of Revelation: “1. These songs are all inspired by the Spirit of God… Therefore these inspired songs can afford no ground whatever for the use of uninspired compositions in the worship of God. 2. They are sung almost exclusively by angels and glorified saints. 3. They are sung in heaven. Hence, they do not pertain to this world.”[7]

10) There is a natural, redemptive historical development that is revealed in the Psalms which demonstrates their application to the age of the New Testament church. That is to say, it is apparent that God intended that the Psalms would become our one and only hymnbook: “The particular collection of 150 Psalms preserved in the canon was prepared in the post-exilic period, when there was no longer a king in Jerusalem. Arguably, the edition of the Psalter contained in the Bible is a selection of Psalms, specifically chosen and compiled for the expected Messiah.[8]

11) This is all the more striking that when we come to the New Testament era we not only see the adoption of the Psalms without alteration but also no indication that anything was composed or adopted as a replacement or amendment of the existing song book. This indicates that the Psalms were meant to function as the church’s ‘hymnal’ until the Lord’s return. 

-Daniel Kok © 2017

1Butterfield, Rosaria. Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Mobi edition). Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant Publications, 2002.
2Hughes, James R. In Spirit and Truth: Worship as God Requires (Understanding and Applying the Regulative Principle of Worship), 2009. PDF e-book, page 68.
3This also emphasises the uniqueness of the content of biblical song as a type that is rarely, if ever, reflected in uninspired hymns. See also the Uniqueness of the Psalms.
4. It certainly would not justify the glut of hymns that typically ‘crowd out’ the psalms of scripture in most song books.
Lefebvre, Michael. Singing the Songs of Jesus. Rosshire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2010, page 49.
6Ruddell, Todd. Comment on article: “Question #17: What about the other “songs” in the Bible? Is it ok to sing other inspired portions of Scripture?” Exclusive Psalmody (blog). Mark Koller, August 16, 2011 (7:06 a.m.). Web. January 23, 2016.
7. Moorhead, W.G.  “The Psalms in the New Testament Church” in The Psalms in Worship (1907), Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992, page 117.
8. Lefebreve, page 53, f. 28.