The belief in Exclusive Psalmody (EP) can be a highly emotive issue on both sides, understandably so, because this is dealing with how we are to worship God. There is a place for passionate debate and defence but all too often in my experience the heat and rhetoric can be ramped up to sinful levels, of which I myself stand shamefully guilty.
I have come from a position of growing up EP, then rebelling against that for some time, to then God through His word and people taking me back to my senses again!
I write these posts humbly and fully affirming that there are brothers and sisters whom I love dearly and respect greatly who disagree with me on this issue. To quote a favourite phrase from one of these brothers “I am but a pigmy throwing stones at a giant”
This will not be an academic defence, I will be simply offering a few reasons why I personally hold to EP, and hopefully along the way offer answers to some of the most common objections.
Think more an introduction to my position, rather than a full-blown defence!
I hope to follow this later with more detailed posts on particular issues.
So what is Exclusive Psalmody?
Quite simply it means the belief that the church, in public worship, should only sing the inspired words of God as He has given us in the Book of Psalms.
And therefore not sing uninspired man-made hymns.
It does not mean that we hate hymns, this may be hard to believe but I even have three (yes three!) whole Spotify playlists dedicated to various hymn selections.
Why does this issue actually matter?
When we come to worship God in Song we are lifting up our voices and singing to the God of all the Universe, time, and reality itself.
We are praising the one who made and sustains all that exists.
We are worshipping the God who is eternal, unchangeable, perfect, holy etc.
We are worshipping our God who has made a way of salvation.
We are worshipping a God that saves us from eternal Hell and gives us new life and the promise of an eternity spent with Him.
So, bearing that (and an eternity of further reasons) in mind the issue of how we worship Him is vitally important.
- The Psalms are the inspired words of God
When we read the words of the Bible we acknowledge that we are reading the very true, unchanging, sufficient, inerrant, living words of God. When we read Scripture God is speaking definitively to us through it.
The Holy Spirit inspired David and others to compose and compile a collection of poetry and song that covered the whole breadth of not only God’s dealing with us but also dealing with the reality of living as fallen people in a fallen world.
Every time we read and sing from the Psalms we can know for certain that the actual words we sing are pleasing to God.
I can almost hear the words forming in your mind so let me answer the objection here – yes, God looks at the heart. I agree totally that a Hymn can be sung with a heart full of love to your Saviour, and a Psalm can be sung with a dead spirit and an unloving heart.
But the truth remains unaltered that when we sing the Psalms we are singing words that are inspired, they have come from God Himself.
When we sing the Psalms we have the glorious opportunity of singing His own chosen inspired words back to Him.
That alone should just fill us with wonder and praise!
There are many wonderful hymns, all the old favourites, some new ones are great (particularly enjoying CityAlight and New Scottish Hymns currently).
But for how true, moving, faithfully written, and Scriptural these hymns are, they are not and can never be the inspired words of God.
I can’t help but feel that when we chose a hymn over a Psalm that we are going for the second best option.
No matter how incredible, truthful, and beautiful a hymn can be, by their very nature as man-written words, they can never triumph over the actual Words of our God.
As far as I’m concerned I can make an incredible pan of soup, but when compared to the soup my mum makes it is clear which one is actually perfect and which is a lovingly crafted attempt, but altogether man-made work.
Not quite claiming my mothers’ cooking as divine, but you get the analogy I’m going for here.
A lovingly written, deeply experiential, Biblically correct hymn still suffers from all the shortcomings that are just not present in the words of God.
To sing both Psalms and hymns in corporate worship is to either exalt or lower them to places where they do not deserve to be. They are not equals.
When it comes to worshipping God we cannot afford to go with second best.
“No one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him… We shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory”
– John Clavin– John Clavin
2- Scriptural Evidence
First to make the obvious but crucial point that the Book of Psalms tells us to praise God in singing Psalms and making music (but that’s another blog…)
The book itself mandates our singing of it
The Book of Psalms is poetry, but it was never to be considered as just poetry. It was written to be sung by the people of God.
The Psalms deal with issues and topics that even the bravest hymn writer would (rightfully !) approach with no little trepidation.
It is no mere coincidence that the most quoted OT Book in the NT is the Book of Psalms, with ~90 quotes going back to the Psalms.
I hope to take a whole post to look at the common objection “But the Psalms don’t sing about Jesus?”
But what I will say now is that this is simply not true, the Psalms wonderfully describe our Saviour, in all His earthly humility, suffering, death, and resurrection.
Below is just a small example of the way we can clearly see the experience of our Saviour in the Psalms:
“ My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.” -Psalm 22:1-2
“Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.” – Psalm 69: 1-3
“ Deliver me from sinking in the mire;
let me be delivered from my enemies and from the deep waters.
Let not the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up, or the pit close its mouth over me.” – Psalm 69: 14-15
“For dogs encompass me;
a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet” – Psalm 22: 16
“All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
even the one who could not keep himself alive.
Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;
they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn,
that he has done it.” –Psalm 22: 29-31
“For God will save Zion and build up the cities of Judah,
and people shall dwell there and possess it;
the offspring of his servants shall inherit it,
and those who love his name shall dwell in it.” – Psalm 69 : 35 -36
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” – Psalm 118 : 17
Given that we actually take the time to read and understand the Psalms, the reality of the truth they share about Jesus becomes beautifully clear. We see an incredible depth of reality to His Kingship, Lordship over creation and us etc.
When we look to the New Testament do we suddenly see the Church using a new set of worship songs? Do we see them at any point being told to now make up their own songs of praise?
Come with me to the upper room, they are about to leave and what do they to finish the Passover Supper?
“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” – Matthew 26:30
Now have I just shot myself in the foot here by quoting this scripture? What did Jesus and the disciples sing as they concluded the meal?
Well, scripture doesn’t tell us and we have to acknowledge that fact.
But what we do know is that almost every Jew (both then and now) celebrating the Passover sings through the so-called Hallel Psalms, Psalms 113-118.
It is very unlikely that this group of Jewish men were going to suddenly reinvent the wheel. It makes even more sense when we think properly about what the last Hallel Pslam is, it is, of course, Psalm 118.
It is no stretch to say that as Jesus and His disciples left to the Mount of Olives they more than likely left singing the words of Psalm 118:
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
The Lord has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.
Lord, save us!
Lord, grant us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
From the house of the Lord we bless you.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will praise you;
you are my God, and I will exalt you.
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Back at my home Church when the Lords Supper is served we still sing these verses for this very reason, a poignant reminder of the work of our Saviour.
But what about the fact that it calls it a hymn?
Here we see shown the fact that Scripture uses various terms to describe the Psalms. They sang a ὕμνος literally a song of praise, a religious ode, nothing that implies it was some new piece of worship penned for the occasion.
In fact, what do we see when the later the Apostles and early church worship, what do they quote, what do they use to praise God?
They use the Psalms.
Paul and Silas in prison sing ὕμνος, again there is no reason to think these men would sing anything other than the Psalms they had been singing their whole life!
It could be said this is an argument from silence, I would argue this case.
To think that these Jewish disciples would have sung anything other than the God-given Psalms they had always known (which were now even more incredibly displayed in the coming of Jesus) is an argument from presumption.
Again in Acts 4:23-26 what do we see?
We see the Apostles clearly and freely expressing their praise by means of the Psalms.
What about Ephesians 5:19:
”…addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…”
What I will say in passing is that even before my EP days, when I was anything but EP, I was warned to not quote that passage in defence of Hymns as it really doesn’t prove anything at all, and essentially it really only helps strengthen the EP viewpoint. See here for a good explanation.
This was only a brief spattering of Biblical evidence that the Church and the early church more than likely used Psalms in their worship.
I don’t deny that early hymns existed and were used/sung/quoted by the believers, even used as teaching tools- I would think it strange if they didn’t!
But I see no biblical evidence that anything other than Gods inspired word was used in the public praise and worship of God.
3 – Church History
The truth is that the case from Church History is extensive. I do not claim that appeal to history is in any way the strongest argument, but ~1800 years worth of evidence of many of my brothers and sisters promoting and singing Psalms certainly helps to make it a historically secure position.
Psalm singing was the common default position for much of theology Church of Christ throughout History. Of course there were exceptions, but a vast vast number of Christians have been singing the Psalms in collective worship for a very long time. It is only a relatively recent thing (historically and culturally speaking) that the use of Hymns has overtaken that of Psalms (again we’ll visit this in a later post, and it may well surprise you!)
Psalm singing historically has been the main practice of the wider Church.
Tertullian & Jerome writing in the first century wrote about how the singing of Psalms were crucial elements to the Church’s worship.
“Many who know not a letter can say David’s Psalms by heart.”
Athanasius wrote an incredible letter on the Psalm, see it here, part of which says:
But we must not omit to explain the reason why words of this kind should be not merely said, but rendered with melody and song; for there are actually some simple folk among us who, though they believe the words to be inspired, yet think the reason for singing them is just to make them more pleasing to the ear! This is by no means so; Holy Scripture is not designed to tickle the aesthetic palate, and it is rather for the soul’s own profit that the Psalms are sung.
Even more important to note is that several major Church councils emphasized the important place of the Psalms (again they are not authoritative Scripturally, but go to prove the high place the singing of Psalms had to the early church).
The Council of Laodicea in 381 prohibited the use of uninspired songs in the Church’s worship:
“No psalms composed by private individuals nor any uncanonical books may be read in the church, but only the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments.”
The same point again confirmed by the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Council of Braga (561) etc.
Basil the Great stated:
“He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age or even those who are youthful in disposition might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul. For, never has any one of the many indifferent persons gone away easily holding in mind either an apostolic or prophetic message, but they do chant the words of the psalms even in the home, and they spread them around in the market place, and if perchance someone becomes exceedingly wrathful, when he begins to be soothed by the psalm, he departs with the wrath of his soul immediately lulled to sleep by means of the melody.”
Calvin in the Genva Psalm book Preface:
What is there now to do? It is to have songs not only honest, but also holy, which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him. Moreover, that which St. Augustine has said is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God except that which he has received from him. Therefore, when we have looked thoroughly, and searched here and there, we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him. And moreover, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory. Wherefore Chrysostom exhorts, as well as the men, the women and the little children to accustom themselves to singing them, in order that this may be a sort of meditation to associate themselves with the company of the angels.
Always wanting to be careful in appealing to History, but the evidence of Psalm singing in the early Church is clear, so much so that early gathering of Christian leaders warned against using man-made worship material.
This is only an introductory post, but even at this early stage, I would argue it is clear just how precious and important it is to sing the Psalms.
My friends, I am not an expert, so don’t just take my poor argumentation for a reason to not be EP. Look into the arguments for yourself – you may be surprised just how strong the case actually is, I was, and it transformed my whole view on worship!
Whatever you may say to point 2 and 3. It is in my first point I would place the most weight.
Why chose to use something made by man when our God has given us something He Himself has written and carefully crafted?