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Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. *reprinted from Beacon Lights, Feb., March, and April, 1983.

“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.”

Colossians 3:16

Music has always been an important part of the worship of the church. Its place in the worship of the early church after the apostles comes out in the earliest description that we have of a Christian worship service. Speaking of the Christians, a contemporary observer wrote, “they are accustomed to come together on a fixed day, before dawn, and to speak with themselves mutually in a song to Christ, as it were to God.” This dates from the reign of the Emperor Trajan, who ruled Rome from A.D. 98 to 117.

Nothing needs to be said to those familiar with the Old Testament about the place of music in Old Testament worship.

The book of Revelation teaches that the congregation of the redeemed will sing in the new world: “And they sung as it were a new song before the throne…” (Rev. 14:3).

Colossians 3:16 makes clear that music is to have a vital place in the worship of the church now, on earth. The reference is to the congregation of saints and their gatherings for worship. Verse 15 has reminded us that we are called to the peace of God “in one body.” This body, this church, has its life, and it is vital that the Word of Christ dwell richly in the body. “You” is plural in the Greek, not singular – the reference is to all the members as they make up the congregation. “In you” means “among you.” In keeping with this reference to the church, the apostle speaks of our teaching and admonishing each other. The singing, therefore, is the united singing of all the members, from their hearts (note again the plural) as a church. The Holy Spirit teaches and exhorts us as to music in the church.

What We Are to Sing

It might seem that the text, as well as the similar Scripture in Ephesians 5:19, overthrows one of our cherished positions as Protestant Reformed Churches regarding music in the church, namely, that only Psalms be sung, to the exclusion of hymns. Does not the apostle mention Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? Our position is expressed in Article 69 of the Church Order of Dordt: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, and Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the sermon shall be sung.” Our stand today is the historic, traditional Reformed position—that of Calvin; of the Synod of Dordt; and of the Reformed churches generally, until recently, when the Reformed churches have been amusing themselves by abandoning the Reformed tradition wholesale. The exceptions to the Psalms mentioned in Article 69 (some of which are quite unknown to most of us) find their place there through curious, historical circumstances: the popular Dutch songbook of the time of the Synod of Dordt contained also these hymns; rather than to disturb the people, Dordt made allowance for these hymns; But the spirit and principle of Article 69 is: “In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David shall be sung.” Period!

This stand on Psalm-singing does not depend only on a few New Testament texts about singing, the interpretation of which. is disputed; but it is based also on an important biblical truth about the worship of God, namely, that we may not worship God as we see fit (“will-worship”), but only in the manner which He prescribes in His Word. This is called “the regulative principle of worship.” It is laid down in the second commandment of the Law, as the Heidelberg Catechism explains in Q. 96: “What doth God require in the second commandment? That we in no wise represent God by images, nor worship him in any other way than he has commanded in his word.” Apart now from the “hymn question,” this regulative principle of worship—obedience to the second commandment!—is well-nigh lost sight of in Reformed churches today. The ruling question for worship is not, “Does God command this particular aspect of worship in the Scriptures?” But the controlling question is, “Do we think that this would be a nice liturgical innovation? Does this or that move us emotionally (for a month or two)? Will this be popular to draw our unspiritual young people to the evening service?” Altogether apart from, the preaching of false doctrine, or the absence of preaching, as becomes more and more common in the second service, blasphemy is regularly done in the worship of the churches. Strange fire is offered up to the Holy Father on the altar of the worship of the church.

God will be worshiped as He prescribes in His Word, and no otherwise. This extends to our music. The music with which we praise God at church must be His Word. Just as we preach His Word and pray His Word, so are we to sing His Word. Now God has given the church one, inspired songbook the Psalms.

But even if the issue of exclusive Psalm-singing versus the singing also of hymns were to be decided on the basis of Colossians 3:16 alone, the churches would sing only the Psalms. “Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are not three different kinds of songs: the inspired Psalms of David; uninspired hymns based on the New Testament; and uninspired spiritual songs treating of various religious themes. Rather, they are all the inspired Psalms of the Old Testament. The inspired Psalms are of two different kinds: hymns and spiritual songs. “Hymns” are the Psalms that explicitly praise God, e.g., Psalm 150(“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! In His temple God be praised”). “Spiritual songs” are the Psalms which deal with other aspects of the believer’s life and experience, e.g., repentance (Psalm 51: “God be merciful to me”) and the duty to obey God’s Law (Psalm 119: “How I love Thy law, O Lord!”).

The proof of this, namely, that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” in Colossians 3:16 are all Psalms, is immediately plain to all the church of Paul’s day, specifically the congregation at Colosse, Asia Minor, had no other songs than the Psalms! She had no “hymns” in the sense in which we are accustomed to speak of hymns today, referring to such songs as “Glory be to the Father,” or “Rock of Ages.” Besides, the meaning of the Greek word “hymn” is “song of praise to God.” Elsewhere in the New Testament, the word “hymn” is clearly used to refer to a Psalm which consists of the praise of God. Such an instance isMatthew 26:30: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went into the Mount of Olives.” The reference is certainly to the Psalms; undoubtedly the reference is to Psalms 113-118, the “Great Hallel” (Song of Praise to Jehovah), which the Israelites customarily sang on the occasion of the Passover. In addition, in the Greek Old Testament used by the apostles, the Septuagint, the Psalms were exactly labeled, “Psalms and Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.”

When we sing the Psalms, the Word of Christ is dwelling among us in our music. The Word of Christ is the Word about Christ—His Godhead; His humiliation; His redemption; His salvation; His glory. It is also the Word that Christ Himself speaks. This Word, and this Word only, is to dwell in the church, for she is the body of which He is the Head.

The Psalms are this Word of Christ. They are inspired; they are part of the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament that was “breathed forth of God” (II Tim. 3:16). The Holy Spirit spoke them; David and the other writers were only instruments (Acts 1:16). Remember, they are the inspired Word of Christ, expressly for the purpose of being the songs of the church.

Also, they are about Christ. All of the Psalms are “Messianic.” This is Jesus’ own analysis of them inLuke 24:44. “… all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.” This is questioned by some. The alleged lack of references in the Psalms to Christ and His saving works is one of the main reasons why some suppose that we should also have hymns in our song books of worship. They find The Psalter deficient especially for the Christian holidays, Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. This is a mistake.

We may take Christmas as an example. We may truthfully assert that the Psalms are rich with the gospel of the Coming of the Christ—His Coming from God; His Coming as man; His Coming in lowliness; His Coming for the redemption of sinners; and the like. We may assert further that many of the popular Christmas hymns not only lack the solid, biblical truth about the birth of Christ that characterizes The Psalter, but also are empty and even frivolous. “Silent Night, Holy Night” (which I would not classify as frivolous, or empty) certainly cannot stand comparison with numbers 3 and 4 in The Psalter(based on Psalm 2), or with number 243 (based on Psalm 89).

It is exactly the worth of the Psalms that they are Christ’s own Word about Himself. They are not a religious man’s words about man’s religious feelings, problems, and aspirations, but they are Christ’s Word about Christ. Since Christ is the revelation of Jehovah God, the Psalms are God-centered and God-glorifying. Just for this reason they do justice to the hopes and fears, the struggles and victories, the sins and salvation, the shame and glory of the man, or woman, of God. There is a depth, a profundity, a reality about the Psalms that is commonly missing from even the better hymns. This, not only when the Psalms are talking about Jehovah, but also when they are talking about man. As you sing them, you say to yourself, “Yes, this is my sin; this is my fear and doubt; this is my feeling; this is my only salvation; thisis my hope,” and the like. For the Psalms know man in relationship to God, whether in covenant friendship or in covenant-violating rebellion, and this is really man.

Today there is a noticeable conversion to the singing of the Psalms by those whose tradition was not that of Psalms-singing or whose tradition has moved away from the singing of Psalms. They recognize the unique worth of the Psalms in the singing of the church, as well as the weakening of the church by many hymns. The Biblical Educator of January, 1980 points to the worth of the Psalms:

The reason Christian kids so often go for “rock” music is that their musical taste is completely unformed. The violence in today’s music is but the reverse side of the sentimental, goopy, syrupy, popular music of a previous generation. “Champagne music” leads to “marijuana music.” Too many gospel songs are nothing but sentimental goop, and children brought up on these are starved for music with some real meat in it. They find such “strong” music in “rock.” It would be better if they had been brought up on strong Christian music, such as the psalms.

Writing in The Banner of Truth, October, 1982, J.R. deWitt states:

I have an idea that the-superficiality of much evangelical Christianity in our day may be traceable to a long neglect of the Psalter as an instrument in public praise. When one lives with the Psalms, those wonderful worship poems of Scripture, with all their marvelous variegation, displaying as they do the whole range of the emotions, aspirations, and wrestlings of faith, tend to become formative for one’s experience of spiritual reality. On the other hand, when one turns from the Psalms to merely human expressions of religious sentiment, one immediately runs the danger of descending to another level of religious felling, a level not nearly so much shaped by the Word of God itself.

We ought to appreciate our heritage. We ought to know and understand it, first of all, but then we should appreciate it. We should not be embarrassed by our liturgy, particularly our singing Psalms at church; we should not grumble about it. We should be thankful for it and exploit it. We carry on a long and honorable tradition; we represent the historic Reformed position here. But above all, our heritage and worship are biblical.

Our Singing

“Singing,” the Holy Spirit says, with reference to our teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. The body of Christ is to be a singing body in her assemblies for worship. The gift of song has unique power, not only to move the people of God but also to serve as the vehicle to express most fervently our love, thanks, and praise to God our Savior. Accordingly, singing has a vital place in the worship of the congregation. God wills congregational singing.

Our exclusion of choirs and soloists (“special music”) from the worship services is based on the revealed will of God that in His worship the congregation—all the members as one body—is to sing His praise. It is not His will that most of the congregation be entertained, or even edified, by a few, but that the whole church praise Him in song. Inevitably, choirs and special numbers in the services not only infringe on the preaching, but also weaken congregational singing. The musical power and beauty of a church is not a large and excellent church-choir, but good congregational singing.

Like the exclusive singing of Psalms in the worship services, the excluding of choirs and special music from the service for divine worship is the historic, traditional Reformed stand. John Calvin banned choirs from the Reformed, biblically-based worship. He was disgusted with the entertainment that cluttered up the services of Roman Catholicism:

Similarly in these days, in the popedom, the organs are piping on one side, and there is chanting in four parts on the other side, and there is such a lot of foolery, that the simple people are ravished by it, but never a whit edified (Sermons on Ephesians).

We should not hang our heads in shame when visitors to our services exclaim in amazement, “You have nochoir!” We have every right spiritedly to defend this exclusion of a choir and to point to our emphasis on congregational singing as Reformed and biblical.

A contemporary Presbyterian student of liturgy (the form of worship) has noted that the introduction of choirs tends to “suppress congregational participation”:

Even in churches with no tendency to sacerdotalism, the use of robed choirs in chancels (the part of the church building containing seats for the clergy and the choir—DJE) tends to approximate the worship service to a concert of sacred music, and works against congregational worship. Perhaps the most unfortunate legacy of the Anglo-Catholic movement to the Reformed churches generally has been this epidemic of chancels and theatrical choirs (James Hastings Nichols, Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition).

The call to sing is not limited to the worship services, but extends to other areas of the life of the saints. We do well to sing at our society meetings for the study of Holy Scripture. We should sing more often than we do when we come together for Christian fellowship—our Sunday evening visits. We ought to sing in our homes, as part of our family-worship. Parents must teach their children the Psalms and the great, good hymns of the New Testament church in this way. Our Christian schools, likewise, must be full of music, especially the praise of God in song. We owe our schools a great debt that they teach The Psalter to our children. They may also teach them good hymns, although even in the schools the Psalms should have pride of place. We certainly must not have bad hymns in the schools, i.e., hymns that are doctrinally erroneous and spiritually misleading, much less “gospel-rock” and the like corruption.

Singing is to be part of our personal life. “Is any merry?” asks James; “let him sing psalms” (Jam. 5:13). In your home, as you travel, on the job (if permitted), it should not be an unheard-of thing, that you break out in song—not turn the radio on, but yourself sing; not sing the latest “hit-song,” but sing Psalms. If now some young person sneers at this, or raises his eyes heavenward in exasperation at such piety, let him ask himself whether he has any of the merriment of eternal life, worked in his heart by the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ the Lord, at all!

As part of the broader life of a congregation than its services for divine worship, a choral society (or choir) has its rightful, valuable place. Those specially gifted musically can exercise their gift. The rest of the saints can be edified by the singing of the choral society. That God forbids this as part of the worship service does not imply that there is no place for this at all. We are not always singing ourselves; there are times when we take pleasure in listening to the singing of others.

What better way is there to spend an hour or so a week than singing, with a view to giving an edifying, pleasing program for others! What more worthwhile, enjoyable way to spend an evening once in awhile than hearing a good program of music! It is especially beneficial that the young people participate in the choral society. We warn them against bad music. Sharp and frequent as our warning is, it is not sharp and frequent enough. The temptation is strong. The bad music is rotten. They are still listening to it. But with the warning, we should give them opportunity and encouragement to fill the strong need for music with good music. The choirs and bands at school and the choral society of the church do this.

Let there be music in the church!