The Hymn Matter (continued)

Obviously the texts of Ephesians 5:18, 19 and Colossians 3:16cannot be used as a Scriptural basis for the introduction of hymns in the worship of the church. One reason for this is that the term “hymn” in these passages does not have the same meaning as is commonly given to that word today. Rev. F. Frazer stresses the point that a correct understanding of these passages necessitates “that the words in them be taken in the sense obviously intended by the writer.” What this meaning is he attempts to show in the following article. We quote:

“Controversies within the church have produced, for W, a sharp differentiation between ‘Psalms’ and ‘Hymns,’ ‘Psalms’ being the accepted name for the God-inspired songs of praise collected in one book of Scripture, while ‘Hymns’ has become the common designation of human compositions for singing in worship. But, so far as the records show, no such difference was attached to these words in the original apostolic church, and this for the simple reason that, at that time, there were no uninspired songs used, or to be used, in the worship of the true God. Repeated assumptions and assertions to the contrary have never been substantiated.

“The Christian church had but recently emerged from the confines of the Jewish Synagogue, where only the Scripture Psalms were used in the praise service. No others were available for the praise service of the church. Note that Paul does not tell his readers tomake Psalms, Hymns or Songs, but to sing them to God, and talk of them to men, thus taking it for granted that these things were already at hand; things, indeed, which he regarded as of the greatest importance for Christians. And, while special gifts of the Spirit were promised to meet the needs of the church (e.g., Eph. 4:7-16), none were promised for the making of songs of praise to God, nor for ‘singing the gospel’ to men.

“We know well that the preaching, teaching, and writing of Paul, preserved for us, is based on the Old Testament Scriptures; his constant appeal is to their very words.

“In the providence of God, these Scriptures, originally written in Hebrew, were translated into Greek before the coming of Christ. This Greek version, called the Septuagint (often denoted by the abbreviation ‘LXX’) was available wherever there were Greek-speaking Jews, and they were in all the important centers of the Mediterranean world. It was the only version available in the days of Christ and the apostles. Christ put the stamp of His approval on it by quoting from it. The original Hebrew, of course, remained as the standard, but outside of Palestine, there were few who could understand it.

“Paul wrote to the Greek-speaking Ephesians and Colossians in Greek. He assumed that they had this LXX version at hand, for he quotes frequently from it, and makes many references to it without taking the trouble to state his source. He assumed that his readers would recognize the words he used. In particular, without mentioning his quotations from other books, there are at least twelve quotations from, and direct references to, the Book of Psalms in Ephesians; at least three in Colossians. How do we know this? By the words he used. For instance, inEphesians 4:26, his Greek for ‘Be ye angry, and sin not’ is found word for word in the LXX version of Psalm 4:4, a comparatively unusual, but very striking, rendering of the Hebrew.

“Now when we examine the LXX, still used by the Greek Orthodox Church, we find these three words, ‘psalms,’ ‘hymns,’ ‘songs.’ We find them, generally, in place of three Hebrew words, mizmore (a psalm),t’hillah (a praise), shir (a song) without any hard and fast distinctions being observed.

“The Greek ‘psalm,’ while it usually stands for ‘migmor,’ also stands for ‘shir’ and for ‘t’hillah.’ Indeed, the Hebrew title for the whole book is ‘T’hillim’ (Praises), but the Greek title is ‘Psalms.’

“The Greek ‘hymn’ is used for ‘t’hillah’ and also for ‘shir.’ ‘Psalm’ and ‘hymn’ are both Greek words which we have taken bodily into our language. Yet ‘hymn’ is nowhere used in our English version of the Old Testament, although it is used in the LXX at least sixteen times, and the verb ‘hymneo’ (meaning ‘to sing hymns’) at least thirteen times; in every instance obviously meaning the songs given of God, synonymous with ‘psalms’ and ‘sing psalms.’ The plural ‘hymns’ is frequently used to designate these songs in general, without discriminating. For example, at the end of Psalm 72 we read, ‘The hymns of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.’ In Psalm 100:4 we find ‘Enter . . . into his courts with hymns.’ The Hebrew reading of I Chron. 16:8 is identical with that of Psalm 105:2; but the LXX translates the first, ‘Sing to him, sing hymns to him’; the second, ‘Sing to him, sing psalms to him.’ In II Chron. 29:30 we read that the Levites were commanded ‘to sing hymns to the Lord in the words of David and Asaph, the prophet; and they sang hymns with gladness.’

“Many individual Psalms have headings of their own. Some are marked ‘Psalm’; some ‘Song.’ Some have both titles, ‘A Psalm, a Song’; ‘A Psalm of a Song’; ‘A Song of a Psalm.’ Psalm 65 has both ‘Psalm’ and ‘Song’ in its title, and its first line is, ‘To thee, O God in Zion, a hymn is befitting.’ The heading of Psalm 76 reads, ‘For the Precentor in hymns, a Psalm of Asaph, a Song with reference to the Assyrian.’

“The Greek word for ‘song’ (ode), occurs, for the most part, in place of ‘shir,’ but also for ‘mizmor.’ InPsalm 137:3 we read, ‘There those who took us captive demanded of us words of songs; And those who carried us away (demanded of us) a hymn, saying, Sing for us from the Song of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Here the ‘songs of Zion’ meant, to a Hebrew, ‘the song of the Lord,’ i.e., ‘the song of Jehovah’ as written in the book of Psalms. But note that either a ‘song’ or a ‘hymn’ was to be selected at random from these Psalms.

“These examples, a few among many, are sufficient to show that each of the three words in question was applied to the 150 Psalms. They were applied to the 150 Psalms individually, without discriminating between them. Yet, as anyone can see, these three words, ‘psalms, hymns, songs’ are distinctly, etymologically different. Such free interchange of different names for the same thing is permissible only if it does not affect the writer’s meaning and the reader’s understanding. Therefore, such usage in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures is conclusive proof that there was, at the time of writing, no doubt in anyone’s mind as to the exact reference of these words.

“That they were applied to the 150 Psalms only follows from the fact that no others are mentioned in the entire record as having been used in the temple, synagogue or apostolic church worship of God. If there were any others, what became of them? Where is any proof that others existed, or were so used?

“But, what is the use of so many names for the same thing? Why pile up words? Well, it usually takes more than one word even to begin to define a thing of such dimensions and importance as the praise of the infinite, eternal and gracious God. Why is the law of God so often described by a group of three terms, such as ‘testimonies, statutes and judgments’ (Deut. 4:45)? Why are prayers called ‘supplications, intercessions, thanksgivings’ ‘(I Tim. 2:1)? ‘Psalms, hymns, songs’ reveal the different aspects which our praise to God should have, according to the mind of His Spirit.”

To sing with and as the apostolic church is to maintain a distinctiveness we cannot afford to lose! God has given to His church the beautiful doctrines of His Word. Upon these, the doctrines of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus the cornerstone, the church is built. To these doctrines we are dedicated in confession and preaching and therein we are identified with the Apostolic Church, distinct from others who corrupt the Word of God. Now God has likewise given to His church a beautiful “Book of Songs.” He did not give one “Book of Songs” to His Old Dispensation church and then tell His New Dispensation Church to go and make their own songs on the basis of His Word to them but He gave one Book of Songs to His church of all ages. The prophets and saints of old sang them. The apostles and church of their day sang them. The Reformers sang them and the fathers of the Reformation put into the articles of the Church Order: “Only the 150 Psalms of David . . . .” The apostles commanded the church to sing them. Nowhere did they even suggest substitutions, additions, etc. Remember how Israel of old was dissatisfied with the bread the Lord provided for them in the wilderness? They said, “Our soul loatheth this light bread.” Remember how God was wroth with them? These things were written for our learning and example. We must not be wiser than God or think that we can improve upon the songs He has provided. We must learn to understand and appreciate the profound spiritual values of the songs of praise He has given to us. If we persist in our clamor for “meat” and thereby reject the “bread of song” He has provided, He will give us the “meat” we crave to our own detriment. History unmistakably attests to this.

Rev. Frazer concludes his article commenting on the word “spiritual” in connection with “spiritual songs.” He first points out various usages of this term in Scripture. Then he writes: “Excluding one doubtful case and the two verses now before us, there are fifteen places in which he uses this word as indicating, not merely the spiritual nature of the thing (as distinct from the physical or carnal), but, clearly and emphatically, that it exists in dynamic connection with the Holy Spirit of God as author or source, therefore as derived from, or given by, the Spirit.” Then the author concludes: “Therefore; the ‘songs’ here specified are ‘spiritual,’ not because they express spiritual thoughts and aspirations, but because they are inspired and given by the Holy Spirit. It goes without saying that the same defining word is to be understood with ‘psalms’ and with ‘hymns,’ for ‘songs’ includes them both.

“Thus all mere human compositions are excluded.” The question of hymnology for our churches is not to be determined by majority preference. Because one over half may desire a thing does not make that thing desirable or right. Neither may this question be resolved on a proud basis that since other churches have gone wrong with this thing, we will introduce it to show that it can be done right. The determining voice in the matter is that of GOD Himself so that we may move onward as churches, singing His praise, with His favor. Let us be sure of this and then we ask:

1) Has the original overture, with its grounds, shown that God directs His church in this way or that this innovation is the product of human wants?

2) Has anything been brought forth from the Word to show that the Lord or His apostles, even indirectly, suggests that the church should be engaged in the work of adding to the songs of praise provided in Scripture?

3) Why did not the Holy Spirit inspire a man or men to write a bundle of New Testament songs as He did in providing the church with the Psalms?

4) What is lacking in the book of songs containing prayers, confessions, praise, supplications, thanksgivings, ascriptions of all the Divine virtues as well as descriptions of His marvelous works?

—G.v.d.B.