Rev. Kleyn is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2006, p. 471.
The element of worship that we now consider in this series of articles is congregational singing.
The Scriptures make plain that this is a required part of worship. Especially two New Testament texts point this out. The first is Ephesians 5:19, which admonishes the church as follows: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” The other text isColossians 3:16, which says much the same thing. Singing is not an element of worship that we may include or exclude as we please. God commands us to sing. All who gather in worship, including the children and youth, should therefore participate in worshiping God by means of singing.
It is interesting to note that singing is the one part of our worship that we will continue to do in heaven. The other elements of worship will not be present in glory in the same way that we have them now, for they will no longer be necessary. But the glorified church will still sing. We will sing “as it were a new song before the throne” (Rev. 14:3). We will “sing the song of Moses…, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvelous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints” (Rev. 15:3). The church in heaven will forever sing praises to God. That being the case, it certainly underscores the importance and blessedness of singing in the church’s worship here on earth.
We must understand clearly that singing is worship. An understanding of this is important so that our singing is done “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
That singing is worship means, first of all, that the purpose of congregational singing is that God be praised. The main focus in singing is not the worshipers. The important thing is not that we are moved and that we feel good through singing a certain song. Not man, but God must be the focus. Not our feelings, but the praise of God is what matters. It is this that we must have before our minds when we sing. Our focus must be on God.
That singing is worship means, in the second place, that all our music and words must be appropriate for the worship of God. We may not have music and words simply because we like them or are moved by them. Some take that approach in choosing their songs for worship. As a result, churches today have singing that does not belong in the worship of God. We must see to it that our choice of music and words is God-centered and God-honoring, so that God is glorified and praised.
It is for this reason that we should use and be committed to using the Psalms in worship, and not hymns.
That does not mean that all hymns are to be condemned. There are good ones. They are good, not because of the melody or because they have been around for a long time, but because they are biblical. They are good because they are God-centered, and not (as many tend to be) man-centered. While it is not wrong for the people of God to sing such hymns, in our public worship of God we ought to sing only the Psalms.
One of the reasons why the Psalms should be used in our public worship of God is that God has given them to us for that very purpose. God included them in the Scriptures so that the church could use them to worship Him. The Old Testament church used the Psalms in this way—so ought we. God has given us a song book of 150 Psalms. Those Psalms cover all of the Christian experiences, as well as all aspects of the work of Christ. In our Protestant Reformed Churches we have over 400 versifications of the Psalms in thePsalter we use. There is no need, therefore, to look for and use other songs.
A more important reason for using the Psalms in public worship is that they are inspired. That is not true of hymns, for they are written by men. That is why many hymns are man-centered, focusing on man’s experiences, man’s works, man’s feelings, man’s importance, and so on. And because they are written by men, it is also possible for them to contain errors. In fact, many of them do. As a result, many hymns have been instrumental, in the history of the church, in bringing (singing) heresy into the church.
The Psalms, however, are part of the inspired Scriptures. They were written by the same Author who wrote the rest of the Bible, namely, the Holy Spirit. They are God-centered in their content, emphasizing the sovereignty of God in all things, especially in His work of saving His church in and through the Lord Jesus Christ.
By singing the Psalms we heed the regulative principle of worship. This principle is set forth in the second commandment of God’s law. It is the rule that we are to worship God only as He prescribes in His Word. Just as we preach His Word and pray His Word, so also are we to sing His Word. When we sing the Psalms, we are singing the Word of God.
Some raise an objection to this on the basis of the texts we quoted earlier (Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16). They claim that these texts give approval for singing man-made hymns and songs in worship. They interpret them in that way, stating that “psalms” refers to the 150 Psalms in the Bible, “hymns” refers to uninspired songs, and “songs” refers to versifications of other texts of Scripture.
The proper way to understand these texts, however, is that all three words refer to the 150 Psalms. It is obvious and undisputed that “psalms” does so. But the same is true of “hymns” and “songs.” The word “hymn” means “song of praise to God.” “Hymns” refers explicitly, therefore, to the Psalms among the 150 that focus upon praising God, such as Psalms 95- 100, 113-118, and 145-150. The word “songs” refers to those Psalms that describe the history and the experiences of the people of God. This is demonstrated by the fact that this word is used in the title of various Psalms (e.g., Psalms 67, 68, 75, 76, 83). In addition to this, the word “songs” is preceded by the adjective “spiritual,” pointing out that these are songs “of the Spirit.” They are songs that are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and therefore songs that are found in the Scriptures.
Colossians 3:16 also states that the “word of Christ” must dwell in the church. The Psalms are this Word of Christ, for they are part of the inspired Scriptures. They are the Word spoken by Christ, inspired by Him through His Spirit. They are also the Word spoken about Christ, for they are Messianic. In them Christ speaks about Himself.
Clearly these texts are to be understood as teaching the church to sing the 150 Psalms in worship.
An important point with regard to singing in worship is that it must be “congregational” singing. Every member of the church should participate in the singing in worship. One does not participate in this part of worship simply by listening to others sing. Each member should be actively involved in speaking to God through congregational singing.
Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 make this clear. First of all, these letters are addressed to the congregations in Ephesus and Colosse as a whole. In addition to this, the words “you” and “your” are plural, thus referring to all the members as they make up the congregation. The whole church was admonished to sing, and not just part of it. Also, the admonitions specify that we are to sing “to the Lord.” This precludes some in the congregation being up front and singing to fellow church members rather than to the Lord.
In many churches today, the worshipers are becoming mere spectators. There is perhaps a little singing in which all participate, but quite often special music is on the foreground. Instead of singing, the congregation is called upon to listen to soloists, singing groups, and choirs. Congregational singing is replaced by musical performances by a few.
This is a serious error in worship. It denies the priesthood of all believers—that all are filled with the Spirit, that all are prophets, priests, and kings, and that all are able to sing to God. Believers are being robbed of an important part of worship. As a result, the worship of God is impoverished.
May we be warned in this regard. May it be impressed upon our minds that singing in worship must be the singing of the whole church, and not just of a part of it. There may be other opportunities to hear choirs and other musical presentations, but these do not belong in worship. In worship, God’s people are not simply spectators, but active participants in singing. They sing as a body. The congregation unitedly lifts up its voice in praise to God. “Sing to the Lord, sing His praise, all ye peoples” (Psalm 96, Psalter #259). “With all His people I will raise my voice and of His glory sing” (Psalm 111, Psalter #304).
Crucially important with regard to congregational singing is that we sing from the heart. We can so easily sing just the words, especially if we know the Psalter number and the tune by heart. Another danger is to pay attention to the tune to the exclusion of the words, doing so because we enjoy the tune or our particular part of it. Or we can be tempted to sing simply in order to be heard by others—hoping that those sitting in front of or around us notice our “beautiful” voices.
Only singing from the heart is pleasing to our God. God is angered by a people that draw near to Him with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him (Matt. 15:7, 8). God requires heart-worship, also when we sing.
A congregation should sing well. It is good that they do. It is good that when they sing they do so harmoniously. But that is not the main thing. The most important thing is that we sing to God from our hearts. Then God is praised by and pleased with our singing.
And in the way of our singing from the heart, God will also bless us through our singing. Through the work of the Spirit the words that we sing will mean something to us. Our singing will serve, not only to praise our God, but also to comfort and bless our souls. May God grant this when, as a worshiping church, we sincerely sing His praises.