We propose in this article to discuss the matter of congregational singing as it forms an important part of the worship service. Our purpose is not, however, to discuss at length the whole question of Psalm-singing vs. the use of hymns. Our churches are committed to Psalm-singing in the worship services, and we hope and pray that this will continue to remain the case as long as there are Protestant Reformed Churches upon the earth.
Without going into the so-called hymn question, there are a number of other questions which are worth discussing in connection with the singing of the congregation.
Throughout the Scriptures there is evidence of the fact that singing must form a part of the worship of God. Singing is not one of those elements of worship which can be either excluded or included in the worship services at will. Singing does not lie in the area of liberty. We are enjoined by Scripture to worship God through song. To exclude this element of worship would be in direct violation of Scripture and would be an act of disobedience.
We need not bring into this article all the Scriptural proof for this assertion. It is sufficient to remember that the Psalms themselves were written, for the most part, to be used in the temple for purposes of worship. It has been argued that this can hardly be adduced as proof that the congregation is commanded to worship God through song, because of the fact that the Psalms were prepared for the use of “singers” in the temple services, and that the congregation of the nation of Israel did not itself participate in the singing. While this may be true, it must not be forgotten that the church in the Old Testament was, after all, living in the dispensation of types and shadows, and that the Spirit of Christ had not yet been poured out upon the church. The saints in the Old Testament did not yet function in the office of prophet, priest, and king. For this reason, all the saints in the Old Testament could not possibly take the active part in worship that is taken by the New Testament saints. Now the Spirit has indeed come from Christ to dwell in the church. All God’s people are prophets, priests, and kings. And this is also expressed in the worship of the congregation.
But there is other proof. The two well-known passages in Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians are proof of this. In Ephesians 5:18, 19 we read, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” And in Colossians 3:16 we read, “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.”
It is evident especially from the passage in Colossians that the Scriptures refer to singing in the fellowship of the saints, for the text speaks of “teaching and admonishing one another” by means of singing.
Even the church in glory is pictured as singing in a mighty choir the song of Moses and the Lamb (Rev. 15:3); and the 144,000 are described as singing a new song before the throne which no man could learn but the redeemed (Rev. 14:3). When the Scriptures describe the life of the church in glory as singing together in praise to God, it follows that singing ought also to be a part of the worship of the church on earth.
That singing should be a part of the worship of the church ought not to surprise us. Music in itself is a wonderful gift of God which can, in a unique way, be used for the purpose of praise to God. While I know very little about music, it is obvious to anyone who has any feeling at all for music, that it can be used in God’s service in a unique way, a way different from any other means of praising God. This is perhaps true because music, more than any other method of expression, appeals to and expresses the deepest emotions of the heart. Music is an intensely emotional mode of expression. This is not to say that it does not involve the mind and the will as well—i.e., if it is music pleasing in the sight of God. But the fact remains that by means of music our emotions are stirred in a way in which nothing else can move us. And music can be a means of expressing the deepest emotions of our hearts in a way nothing else can accomplish.
It is just because music is such a wonderful gift of God that is can be so horribly abused as it is in the world. The general rule is that the greater the gift which God gives, the greater can be its debasement also. And because of the power which music has in our emotional life, the more dangerous to our spiritual well-being is the corrupt and depraved music of the wicked.
Add to the music the poetry of lyrics, the poems of the Psalms—the very Word of God, and there is scarcely a more beautiful and profound way to express our heart’s thoughts, desires, longings, fears, and emotions than through the instrumentality of music.
The Psalms are eminently suited for this. The Psalms express all the truths of the Christian faith as found throughout the Scriptures. There is not one doctrine in all God’s Word which is not expressed in the Bible’s Psalter. Thus the Psalms can be used for confession of the truth in song. The Psalms also are thoroughly God-centered. This is, in my judgment, one of the chief differences between the Psalms and most free hymns. Most hymns tend to be at best wrongly Christ-centered, and at worst man-centered. But this is not true of the Psalms which begin and end with God. They are ideally suited, therefore, for praise and adoration. Further, the Psalms are, more than any other book in the Bible, a spiritual biography of the Christian in all his life in the world, in his battles and struggles, in his grief and joy, in his longings and desires, in his temptations and victories. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no single experience in the life of the Christian which is not described in the Psalms.
That this is true is because, fundamentally, Christ is singing in the Psalms. Some of the Psalms are explicitly Messianic, as, e.g., Psalm 22, Psalm 2, etc. But all the Psalms refer implicitly to Christ in all His work as our Mediator. And because Christ was singing in the Psalms, the Psalms were written under the inspiration of the Spirit of Christ. This is why the believer finds in the Psalms a reflection of his own entire life as a child of God. He belongs to Christ and is part of Christ’s body. Christ, as it were, sings through Him by the Spirit Whom Christ has given to the Church. In what better way then, can the child of God worship than by singing the Psalms? With them he can confess his faith; he can pray; he can express all that lies within his heart as he pours out his soul before his God; he can lift up his voice in praise and adoration to the God of His salvation Who alone is worthy of all praise and glory. Anyone of God’s people will testify that, the older he becomes, the more precious become the Psalms to him.
Because singing forms such an important part of the worship service, the singing must also be congregational singing. It has become increasingly common to introduce into the worship services choirs and soloists. This is to be abhorred. The worship services are not the place for demonstrations of singing skills and the particular musical abilities of gifted musicians. There is certainly a place for this in the organic life of the church, and we have plenty of opportunities to hear choirs, soloists, quartettes, trios, and other musical groups in the many programs that are rendered in various programs. But in the worship services, the congregation joins together to lift up her voice to God in communal worship. This should not be taken away from the saints, and to the extent that it is, the worship service is impoverished.
There is something about this congregational singing which is a unique expression of the communion of saints. This will, of course, be perfectly realized in glory. In a perfect choir, there is a perfect harmony of parts (sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses) of differences in qualities of voices, of timbre, of resonance, etc. As this wide variety of different voices is blended together in one glorious harmony, there is a beautiful picture of the organism of the body of Christ in which are such a large and wide variety of saints, but in which there is a perfect unity of the one body of Christ—made one by the Spirit of Christ Who dwells in all the members. But the basic unity is the unity of one faith, one hope, one calling. And this unity comes to expression as the saints together join their voices in one song of praise to God. The congregation is very close when together they sing.
There are a few other ideas which we wish to discuss in connection with congregational singing, but these will have to wait for a later article.