Psalmody and the “Rest of Scripture”

Another stock objection to exclusive psalmody is that it ignores most of the canon of the Bible as its source material. That is, the exclusive psalmodist (EP) exhausts one book of the Bible but neglects to use the other portions of scripture and, as a result, ends up with an ‘abridged’ hymnbook. 

In response to this argument, let us consider the following points:

1) That there is no rule that can be cited from scripture as to how this should be done indicates the weakness of this argument. What, after all, is meant (precisely) by using the “rest of the scripture”? Would this entail writing asong from select portions of every book? Putting a song together from a select number of verses?

2) More essentially it would have to be demonstrated from scripture that, in order to satisfy its own teaching regarding the element of singing in worship that one is required to use every portion of scripture for worship song. Furthermore, in absence of a clear statement to sing anything in addition to the Psalms, the singing of Psalms already satisfies the requirements of Regulative Principle of Worship (i.e. to limit worship to that which God has required in scripture itself).

3) As we have already noted (Psalmody and other Songs in Scripture) the book of Psalms is its own genre: i.e. the only book in the Bible which is named “the book of praises.” As such, the EP is naturally inclined to use it as the sole song book in scripture because it is the only song book in scripture.

4) Not all of the “rest of scripture” is, practically speaking, readymade for singing. Note, for example, how most hymnbooks (if not all) take little or nothing from the OT genealogies specifically or the historical books generally. However, the Psalms emphasize the importance of this history and have already put it to song by way of inspired summaries: e.g. Psalm 78, 99, 107, 132 etc. 

5) It is also not reasonable to make hymns out of the entire Bible for the simple truth that it would become (or be replaced by) a hymnbook. Indeed no one purposes or has even tried to make a song out of every passage of scripture and it simply cannot be done without confusing the Word of God with a songbook. In the main, scriptures as a whole are meant to be read; the Psalms in particular are meant to be sung.

6) It is all well and good to say that hymns when added to the Psalms are superior to Psalms only because they utilize more of scripture, but how can this be true when no one hymnbook in fact ever uses all of the scripture as its material for its songs? Furthermore it should not be overlooked that though there is one Psalm book, there are many hymnbooks (many which are now defunct or have been passed over). Not one hymnbook has ever achieved this distinction.

7) Modern hymns by advent (and current practice) have jettisoned much of the scripture’s teaching on certain attributes of God, such as His justice, righteousness, as well as expressions of His wrath and punishment.[1] On the contrary, the Psalms contain these truths along with clear statements of God’s love, mercy and forebearance. 

8) Throughout the centuries many Christian authors have noted that the Psalms are not merely another book of scripture but a compendium of scripture itself. The church father Athanasius wrote: “under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.”[2] Martin Luther called the Psalms “a little Bible.” And John Calvin was ‘accustomed’ “to call this book ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul;’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”[3]

9) As an addendum to Calvin’s point, the Psalms are not just songs about people, places and things but contain many expressions of emotions that, though frequent throughout scripture, are rarely implemented in modern hymns such as sadness, anger, confusion, and anguish. Indeed, man’s hymnbooks are mostly void of such natural & godly expressions.

See also Singing Our Sadness

10) It might be objected further that a hymnbook can take advantage of NT material that was not available at the time the Psalms were compiled. First of all, it should be noted that the Psalms take advantage of teaching us from the Old Testament which, as we have already seen, many hymns ignore. Second, the essential NT material is already anticipated and clearly proclaimed in the Psalms.[4] Third, the Psalms were compiled in a time when revelation was ongoing but as revelation ceased the Psalms became the canonical hymnal for the NT church.[5]

11) Furthermore, it is misleading, as some have argued, that the gospel of the NT is either not present or muted in the Psalms thus arguing for the necessity of writing hymns. First of all, there are many gospel passages in the Psalms: e.g. Psalms 32:1-2 (cf. Romans 4:6-8); 51; 103:1-5,11-13; 130:3-4). Second of all, we miss the main point of sung praise when we insist on seeing the gospel in every song we sing:[6]

“The singing of the gospel, helpful though it may be in its place, is not of the nature of praise, for the gospel is addressed to man, not to God. In seeking to make an impression upon men the singing of the gospel may be usurping the place of that which is due unto God. That which terminates on ourselves or others may be a means of grace, but only that which terminates on God is praise… praise is the expressing unto God that which is His due. Let Him not be robbed of it.”[7]

12) In a sense, the Psalms are the rest of scripture since, unlike any other book in the Bible they were: a) written by a variety of authors b) written over many centuries & c) contain many of the OT church’s experiences and history which are normative for the church today (see Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:6 & 2 Timothy 3:15-17). Thus the Christian can be assured that when he sings God’s songbook, he is singing all that which God intended for him to sing.

-Daniel Kok © 2017

1Isaac Watts, one of the fathers of modern hymnody, wrote: “there are many hundred Verses in that Book which a Christian cannot properly assume in singing without a considerable Alteration of the Words, or at least without putting a very different Meaning upon them, from what David had when he wrote them.” Watts, Isaac. “A Short Essay Toward the Improvement of Psalmody.” Bible Hub. Online Parallel Bible Project. Web. 09, January, 2016. Note, however, as J.G. Vos argued, that: “Evil is not abstract, but concrete; it is identified with particular persons. To destroy the evil, the persons must be dealt with by God’s mighty power and righteous judgment. Isaac Watts said he would make David talk like a Christian. He denatured the Psalms, and he sophisticated them. Watts quite failed to appreciate the real beauty and glory of the Psalter.” Vos, Johannnes G., Ashamed of the Tents of Shem?, op. cit.
2. 
Athanasius. “The Life Of Antony And The Letter To Marcellinus.” Athanasius.com. Web. January 16, 2016.
3. 
Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume IV. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998.
4. 
Luke 24:44.
5. 
This is asserted in light of the fact that no addendum or substitution to the Psalms was introduced in the New Testament.
6.
Which, ironically, would not be true of our hymnbooks should we write a song based on every passage of scripture or even every NT passage. Much of the NT contains exhortations and commands which are not, in the narrow sense, part of the gospel.
7.
Ross, John M., “The Idea of Worship” in The Psalms in Worship (1907). Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992, page 16.