In the life of the sincere child of God singing is a necessary engagement. The true child of God must sing. Not only because God demands such of him but also because it is the desire of his heart to do so. For the sincere Christian realizes that he has been saved by sovereign grace, and in the measure that he does, his heart must need’s express itself in singing of unfathomable wisdom and boundless love. He cannot help but sing. However also in his singing it is his calling and desire to do all to the glory of God. For that reason any subject dealing with the content of his songs and the manner in which they must be sung is of interest to him and is proper and significant.
However that may be said of this subject in particular. For, firstly, it speaks not merely of his singing in general but specifically of his Singing in divine worship. And it is exactly there in Divine worship that singing is dear to him. There as nowhere else in communion with the saints he gives expression to the joy and sorrow of his heart in song. But it is also there that his singing has tremendous influence. Many a false doctrine has taken root and has been nourished by means of songs sung in public worship. We do well to always remember this, but especially now when we deal with a subject such as this. And, secondly, the subject speaks of hymn singing in these cherished and influential services. This adds to its significance and timeliness. For hymns are being introduced in all other churches and it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain Psalters. Hence quite naturally the timely and weighty question arises: Can we as churches not sing hymns in public worship? Is it wrong in this respect to follow the crowd?
In answer to this we would say first of all that the singing of hymns in public worship as such is not to be condemned, provided the hymns sung are truly sound. There have been some in the past and there are still a few today who maintain that hymn singing in public worship is always wrong and to be condemned and that for the simple reason that they are hymns and not psalms. And it often happens in a discussion on this subject that the main question seems to be whether or not hymns may be sung. However to our mind we have no problem there at all. Scripture nowhere demands of us that in our singing we confine ourselves to the Psalms nor does it forbid us to sing hymns. Rather it does the very opposite. For we read in, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” And again in , “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” From these verses it is evident that rather than to limit us in our singing to the Psalms God even encourages us to sing hymns in addition to these. This was also seen and understood by the Church in the past. Therefore it allowed the Song of Mary, Zacharias and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer to be sung in divine worship and gave them a place in the Psalm book and Psalter. Hence the question is not at all whether we may sing hymns. Scripture plainly teaches us that we may and this the Church has always realized.
This does not mean of course that we may sing any and all hymns in our public worship. There are many hymns which cannot stand the test of Scripture, in fact, that is true of most hymns today. To sing such hymns is of course always wrong, not only when they are sung in public worship, but also when they are sung at home or in school. And against this growing evil we should be ever on guard regardless where it may occur, for it is God-dishonoring and a detriment to the spiritual welfare of the church. But that hymns may be sung in public worship applies only to those hymns which are thoroughly sound. And with that we mean that as to content they must be Scriptural throughout. They may not give expression to an untruth, nor to half of the truth, or even to the whole truth and then in a vague and indefinite way so that they allow a two-fold interpretation, as do so many of the hymns in our day. Instead they must express the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and that very plainly and definitely, so that they leave the impression with no one that God is gracious but not righteous, merciful but not just. Such hymns are truly sound, and that they may be sung in public worship should be doubted by no one.
Yet even so we are strongly opposed to hymn singing in public worship. We could never recommend the singing of hymns in our Protestant Reformed Churches. For, firstly, it would be very difficult to obtain suitable hymns. In spite of the many hymns today there are but few that are doctrinally sound. And to make hymns is not everyone’s task. How difficult it is to make proper hymns is evident from the labor of the Church in the past. Throughout all the years she has succeeded in making only a few good hymns. To make suitable hymns is therefore an extremely difficult task. But you say, are we not the purest church in the world today? Do we not clearly understand the truth? May we therefore not hope to be more successful? Yes, but to make spiritual hymns suitable to be sung in public service takes more than a good understanding of the truth. According to Scripture it takes men who are filled with the Holy Spirit. Before we set out to make hymns which are to be sung in public service, probably from week to week and from year to year, it certainly behooves us to think twice, and maybe even more often.
But secondly, even though it were possible to obtain suitable hymns it would still be dangerous to sing them in public worship. For history simply proves that whenever the church commences to sing hymns the Psalms are relegated to the background. After they have a few hymns they want more, and after they have more they want a still greater number, till finally the hymns take the place of the Psalms entirely. Hymn singing is the deathblow to the singing of the Psalms, which were sung with joy and delight by many in the past and are still dear to the hearts of many today. Moreover, thus we would be setting a dangerous precedent for our churches in the future. By introducing hymns we leave the impression that our singing in public worship is a small matter, that new songs may be introduced and old ones replaced whenever we desire, and that the church has the necessary talents to compose new songs at any time. And the result will be, that should the greater element in our churches in the future apostatize, which may God graciously forbid, it would be quite easy for that element to gain the upper hand and introduce the songs which we today condemn. Hence we do better to maintain that which we have and introduce nothing new, in order that we may thus leave the impression that when we enter upon the plane of our singing in public worship we tread upon holy ground where it behooves us to take the shoes from our feet.
However, thirdly, to introduce hymns is also altogether unnecessary. Were it necessary, then it would be our duty to do so, even though it be difficult and dangerous. Thus it is with our confessions. To make confessions is also difficult and in a sense a very dangerous task. Yet the church is in need of them, and therefore we make them in spite Of the difficulty and danger. But so it is not with Our songs for public worship. These God has provided us in the Psalms. And in these Psalms we have a book of adequate songs which are sufficient for any and all occasions. True, they often speak the language of the Old Dispensation. But that is even the case with the book of Revelation and the epistle to the Hebrews. When understood correctly they provide us with songs for every occasion, whether it be one of joy or of sorrow, even though it be Christmas or Easter. And on all occasions and in every circumstance they allow us to give full expression to all that dwells in our hearts, whether it be sorrow or joy, hope or love. Hence, the Psalms are adequate. We are not in need of hymns.
For that reason we would say in the fourth place that, in general, the clamor for hymns is a sign of the times. If the Psalms are truly adequate then either of two things must be true, those who clamor for hymns are not fully acquainted with and do not understand the Psalms, or they do understand them but are enemies of their contents. The former is the case with some, but I am convinced the latter with the majority. That this is true is again evident from history. During periods of decline and spiritual lethargy the Psalms were always relegated to the background while hymns came more prominently to the fore. The reason for this is plain. When the church loses its vitality it becomes superficial. In such times of spiritual lethargy the church goes after the form, the esthetic, the beautiful, that which is pleasing to the ear of a church which is in spiritual decline. In such times it cannot sing the Psalms for the simple reason that they condemn the church. For Psalms always emphasize God’s holiness and righteousness, His justice and majesty. But hymns on the other hand always emphasize God’s love, mercy and grace.
Therefore, in conclusion, with a view to our present Psalter I would say, let us hold fast that which we have in order that no man take our crown. Then in the measure that we understand its songs and walk in the light we will have no need for hymns.