R.J. George, “Is the Use of Uninspired Songs in the Worship of God Authorized?”

(1844-1911)

Lecture XVIII
Is the Use of Uninspired Songs in the Worship of God Authorized?

“The Book of Psalms, which are of divine inspiration, is well adapted to the state of the Church, and of every member, in all ages and circumstances; and these psalms, to the exclusion of all imitations, and uninspired compositions, are to be used in social worship.” — R. P. Testimony, Chap. XXIV, Sec. 8.

To show that the position of the Church as thus formulated is Scriptural, is the matter now before us.

I. That Which Is Not Commanded in the Worship of God Is Forbidden.

This proposition is fundamental to all discussions as to how God is to be worshiped. We have already proved it by:

1. Didactic statements of Scripture.

2. Striking Scripture examples.

3. The teachings of the Reformed Churches.

4. The Westminster Standards.

(See Lecture XV, I, 1, 2, 3, 4; Lecture XVII, I, 1.)

The churches holding to the Westminster Standards which have departed from this rule, seek to justify themselves by the Confession of Faith, Chap. I, Sec. 6, which contains this language:

“There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the Church common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”

In opposition to such interpretations, let it be observed:

1. This does not speak of the worship of God, but of “some circumstances concerning” that worship;

2. That it does not speak of all the circumstances, but only such as are “common to human actions and societies,” which hymn-singing is not;

3. Such an interpretation contradicts the explicit language of the Confession of Faith where it treats specifically of religious worship, Chap. XXI, Sec. 1.

4. For a full interpretation of this clause, see Lecture XVII, III, 5; and XVII, I, 1, (1).

The constant effort to use this paragraph of the Confession of Faith to justify the introduction of human inventions into the worship of God calls for this second reference to it, but shows a surprising paucity of arguments. Truly, “The bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it; and the covering narrower than that a man can wrap himself in it.”

II. The Psalms Were Given by Inspiration, and Were Appointed to Be Used in the Worship of God in All Ages.

This proposition is not new, and never has been denied by any branch of the Christian Church. The psalms have been thrust aside practically and denied a place in many church hymnals, and when included in a collection are seldom used in worship; yet the divine warrant for their use has not been called in question by devout and intelligent Christians.

1. The psalms were given by inspiration.

This is distinctly affirmed in Scripture. 2 Sam. 23:1, 2: “David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said, The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and His word was in my tongue.” This claim is confirmed by the inspired writers of the New Testament. Acts 1:16: “Men and brethren, this Scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus.” Acts 4:25: “Lord, Thou art God, . . . who by the mouth of Thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things?” Heb. 3:7: The writer quotes from Ps. 95:7, and ascribes the words to the Holy Ghost, “Wherefore, Today, if ye will hear His voice.” When therefore, men speak against the psalms as being cruel, vindictive, and unfit for Christian worship, they are speaking against the Holy Ghost, and are perilously near to the commission of that sin “which hath no forgiveness, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”

2. Objections to the doctrine that the psalms are inspired.

(1) The psalms were not all written by David. How, then, do we know that the other writers were inspired?

Answer:

A. The psalms were collected into a book, those of other writers intermingled with the psalms of David.

B. This Book of Psalms is quoted as of divine authority.

Luke 20:42: “And David himself saith in the Book of Psalms.” This is Christ’s endorsement. Acts 1:20: “It is written in the Book of Psalms.” This is Peter’s endorsement. Acts 13:33: “As it is also written in the second psalms.” This is Paul’s endorsement.

C. This Book of Psalms is recognized by the whole Christian Church as an inspired book.

It always has held its place in the canon of Scripture.

(2) It is objected that the metrical version is not inspired.

Answer:

A. The metrical version is inspired in the same sense that the prose translation is inspired.

The enemies of an inspired psalmody, in their eagerness to cast odium on the psalm-book, frequently refer to it as “Old Rouse.” Dr. John W. Bain, in a little volume entitled, God’s Songs and the Singer, says: “It is often said that we contend for the exclusive use of Rouse’s version. It is perhaps scarcely worth while to deny this assertion. No amount of denial or any other evidence seems to make any impression on those who assert it. If anyone will take the trouble to examine the History of the Westminster Assembly, issued by the Presbyterian Board of Publication, which should be good authority on this subject, he will find that the version we use was in the hands of a committee of that assembly for two years and much pains taken in revising it. It was then sent to Parliament and then over to the Scottish General Assembly. It was nearly five years in the hands of two able committees of that assembly, and the Presbyteries of that Church, undergoing a most searching examination and revision; and was, in 1649, adopted as the assembly’s version, translated and diligently compared with the original text, and former translations, more plain, smooth, and agreeable to the text than any heretofore.”

Those who speak in contempt of this as “Old Rouse,” reveal their ignorance of its history and their disposition to be unpleasant at the same time. On the other hand, it is folly for the advocates of the exclusive use of an inspired psalmody to treat the matter of a change of versions of the psalms as though it involved the question of the use of uninspired songs in worship. What our Church contends for, is the exclusive use of the psalms of the Bible in the best version obtainable. When she has that, she has an inspired psalmody.

3. These psalms were appointed by God to be used in His worship.

2 Chron. 29:30: “Moreover, Hezekiah the king, and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer.” 1 Chron. 16:9: “Sing unto Him: sing psalms unto Him.” Ps. 95:2: “Make a joyful noise unto Him with psalms.” James 5:13: “Is any merry? let him sing psalms.” Eph. 5:19: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” Col. 3:16: “Teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Whatever differences of view there may be as to the “hymns and spiritual songs” spoken of in the last two passages, all agree that the word “psalms” means the psalms of the Bible. So that we have the divine warrant and command both in the Old Testament and in the New for the use of the inspired psalms in praise to God; and just as explicitly in the New Testament as in the Old.

III. The Scriptures Contain No Warrant for the Introduction of Uninspired Compositions in the Worship of God.

So far as the Old Testament is concerned this seems to be universally conceded. But there are passages in the New Testament which have been confidently relied upon as containing such authority.

1. The “hymn” which Christ and the apostles sang at the last supper consisted of psalms.

“And when they had sung an hymn they went out into the Mount of Olives.” — Matt. 26:30.

(1) The margin reads, Psalm. “When they had sung a psalm.”

(2) The Biblical authorities generally agree that this was the Great Hallel, composed of Psalms 113-118.

A. Albert Barnes, after referring to the Jewish custom of using these psalms on such occasions, adds: “There can be no doubt that our Saviour and the apostles used the same psalms in the observance of the passion.”

B. Adam Clarke says: “As to the hymn itself, we know from the universal consent of Jewish antiquity that it was composed of Psalms 113-118.”

C. Lange translates it: “And when they had sung the hymn of praise,” and adds, “the second part of the Hallel, Psalms 115-118.”

D. Bengel says: “They either sang, or recited, Psalms 113, 114, 115, 118, 136, in which the mystery of redemption is nobly expressed.”

You will find the same view in Lightfoot, Alford, Meyer, Jacobus, Gill, and a multitude of others. Whoever appeals to this passage as supplying a warrant for modern hymn-singing evinces complete vacuity of the same subject.

This is the only instance in which we have account of our Saviour singing; and in this case He set the seal of His approval upon the songs which He Himself had provided for His people, by inspiration of His Spirit. If we wish to follow closely in the footsteps of our Lord, we must sing psalms exclusively. Jesus did.

2. The passages, Colossians 3:16, and Ephesians 5:19, which speak of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” contain no warrant for the use of uninspired songs.

Colossians 3:16: “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.” This is the crucial text on this subject. Those who favor the use of hymns interpret this passage as including in the matter of praise uninspired compositions. I believe that it contains a distinct command for the continued use of the Old Testament Psalter in the New Testament Church.

(1) All authorities agree that the Scripture psalms are included.

This is a very important concession, because it shows that those who have excluded the psalms have done so in the face of repeated commands in the New Testament to continue their use. It also sweeps away at one stroke the oft repeated objection that the psalms are not suitable for use in the Christian dispensation.

(2) The three names, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” are all found in the titles to the psalms, in the Hebrew and in the Greek Septuagint.

The Hebrew words are Mizmor, Tehilla, and Shir; the Greek words Psalmos, Humnos, and Ode; and the English words, Psalm, Hymn, Song. The word Psalmos occurs sixty-nine times; the word Humnos six times; and another word, Alleluia, of the same meaning, twenty times; the word Odais, singular Ode, occurs thirty-four times. With the fact before us that these three words are all found in the titles to the psalms; and that they occur many times; and that they were found in the Septuagint in use among the Greek Christians to whom Paul wrote these two Epistles, Ephesians and Colossians; and that all are agreed that Psalmois refers to the psalms of the Bible, is it not most unreasonable to insist that the other two words Humnois and Odais mean uninspired songs?

That the “songs” are the songs of inspiration is placed beyond all doubt by the qualifying word, “spiritual;” and grammatically it applies equally to the psalms and hymns as well as to the songs, i.e., psalms, hymns, and songs spiritual.

Thayer, in his Greek lexicon of the New Testament, referring to this passage and the similar one, Eph. 5:19, defines the word “spiritual” as “divinely inspired and so redolent of the Holy Spirit.”

Albert Barnes, in his commentary on 1 Cor. 10:3: “And did all eat the same spiritual meat,” says: “The word spiritual is evidently used to denote that which is given by the Spirit of God; that which was the result of His miraculous gift; that which was not produced in the ordinary way.” Again, “The word spiritual must be used in the sense of supernatural, or that which is immediately given by God.” Hence, “spiritual songs” are songs produced in a supernatural manner, those given immediately by the Spirit of God.

This view is sustained by many of the ablest and most scholarly divines the Church has produced, including Owen, Calvin, Beza, McKnight, Bloomfield, Horne, Durham, Bengel.

(3) The psalms are, in a preeminent sense, “the Word of Christ.”

“Let the Word of Christ dwell in you in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another.” This is the condition of being able to “teach and admonish.”

A. Christ by His Spirit is the author of them.

This was proved above, II, 1.

B. In many of the psalms Christ is the speaker.

Ps. 2:7: “I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto Me, Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee.” Ps. 40:7: “Then said I, Lo, I come; in the volume of the book, it is written of Me.” Ps. 22:1: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Such psalms as these are the word of Christ in as real a sense as the sermon on the mount is His word.

C. Christ is the subject of many of them.

a. The inspired writers frequently quote from the psalms and apply the language to Christ.

E.g., Acts 4:25, 26; Eph. 4:8-10; Heb. 1:5-12.

b. Christ quotes from the psalms and applies them to Himself.

E.g., Matt. 21:42; Matt. 22:43, 44; Luke 24:44, “In the psalms concerning Me.”

(4) No other book in the Bible reveals Christ with more fullness than does the Book of Psalms.

Note some particulars:

1. His Divinity.

Ps. 45:6: “Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever.” Compare with Heb. 1:8. Ps. 110:1: “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at My right hand.” Compare with Matt. 22:42-45.

2. His eternal Sonship.

Ps. 2:7: “I will declare the decree.” Compare with Heb. 1:5.

3. His incarnation.

Ps. 8:5. Compare with Heb. 2:9. Ps. 40:7. Compare with Heb. 10:5-7.

4. His mediatorial offices.

a. Prophetical.

Pss. 40:9, 10; 22:22. Compare with Heb. 2:12.

b. Priesthood.

Ps. 110:4. Compare with Heb. 7:17.

c. Kingly office.

Ps. 45:6. Compare with Heb. 1:8. Ps. 110:1. Compare with Matt. 22:42-45; Heb. 1:13; particularly, Ps. 22:28; Ps. 72, throughout.

5. His betrayal.

Ps. 41:9. Compare with John 13:18.

6. His agony in the garden.

Ps. 22:1. Compare with Heb. 5:7.

7. His trial.

Ps. 35:11. Compare with Matt. 26:59, 60.

8. His rejection.

Ps. 22:6. Compare with Matt. 27:21-23; Luke 23:18-23. Ps. 118:22. Compare with Matt. 21:42; Acts 4:11, 12.

9. His crucifixion.

Ps. 22; Ps. 69. Compare with Gospel accounts.

10. His burial and resurrection.

Ps. 16:8-11. Compare with Acts 2:25-31.

11. His ascension.

Ps. 47:5. Compare with Acts 1, 2; 1 Thess. 4:16. Ps. 68:18. Compare with Eph. 4:8-10. Ps. 24:7-10. Compare with Rev. 5:6-14.

12. His second coming.

Pss. 50:3; 98:6-9. Compare with Matt. 24:31; 1 Cor. 15:52.

This is sufficient to show that these psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, are replete with Christ, and it could well be said of them, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly.”

(5) Uninspired songs could not be placed on a level with the psalms of inspiration as a rule for teaching and admonishing.

A. It is agreed that the psalms are inspired.

B. If the “hymns” and “spiritual songs” are uninspired, then Paul places the writings of men on a level with the Word of God as a rule for teaching and admonishing.

This is wholly incredible.

(6) The inspired psalms alone are adapted to be the vehicles of grace to the heart, and of praise to the Lord. “Singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

A. Because of their outward form and style.

Speaking of the Hebrew poetry, Dr. Albert Barnes says: “Their poetry of a religious kind, also, is all of a high order. There is none that can be placed on the same level with much that is found in the hymn books of most denominations of Christians: very good, very pious, very sentimental, very much adapted to such as is supposed to excite feelings of devotion: but withal so flat, so weak, so unpoetic, that it would not in a volume of a mere poetry be admitted to a third or fourth rank, if indeed it would find a place at all.” — Preface to Barnes’ Commentary on Psalms.

John Milton says: “Not in the argument alone, but in the very critical art of composition, they may easily be made to appear, over all kinds of lyric poetry, incomparable.”

Edward Irving, in his Introduction to Horne on the Psalms, says: “If we consider the manner or style of the book, and draw it into comparison with the lyrical productions of cultivated and classical nations, it may well be said that, as the heavens are high above the earth, so are the Songs of Zion above the noblest strains which have been sung in our land.” And after drawing contrasts between these and the songs of other nations, he concludes thus: “We challenge anything to be produced from the literature of all ages and countries worthy to be compared with what we find in the English version of the Book of Psalms.”

B. Because of their eminently devotional character: “To the Lord.”

Out of a great mass of testimony to the preeminence of the psalms as a book of devotion, I select just one of recent date, that of the Hon. Wm. E. Gladstone. After describing the separation of the Jewish people from the other nations of the world, he proceeds: “In the inner sanctuary that provided for the most capable human souls was reared the strong spiritual life which appears to have developed itself preeminently in the depth, richness, tenderness, and comprehensiveness of the psalms.

“To the work they have accomplished there is no parallel upon earth. For the present I will put aside all details and am content to stand on this fact, that a compilation which began at the latest with a shepherd of Palestine, three thousand years ago, has been the prime and paramount manual of devotion from that day to this: first for the Hebrew race, both in its isolation, and after it was brought, by the translation of its sacred books, into relations with the Gentile world; and then for all the Christian races in all their diverities of character and circumstance.

“Further, that there is now, if possible, less chance than ever of the displacement of those marvelous compositions from their supremacy in the worship of the Christian Church. And beyond all doubt it may be said that their function has not been one of ritual pomp and outward power alone. They have dwelt in the Christian heart, and at the very center of the heart, and wherever the pursuits of the inner life have been largely concerned and cultivated, there, in the same proportion, the psalms have towered over every other vehicle of devotion.”

There is a fitness in such a tribute from such a man as Gladstone. If you cannot feel it, you cannot be taught to do so. But if you can, by any stretch of your powers, imagine a man of any depth uttering such an appreciation of any collection of hymns, then you ought to thank God for your powers of imagination.

C. Because they are objective, rather than subjective: “To the Lord.”

The grace is subjective; “in your hearts.” The praise is objective: “to the Lord.” This is one of the marked characteristics by which the psalms are distinguished from the hymns. The hymns are self-centered, the psalms are God-centered. Professor Taylor Lewis of the Union Theological Seminary writes clearly on this point in an article entitled, The Old Scotch Psalmody:

“Another feature is its clear objectiveness, or the striking contrast it presents to that extreme subjectiveness which makes much of our most modern hymnology so feeble because so vague. The former has ever some glorious outward object or idea, drawing the soul to itself. The other is characterized by a wholly subjective rapture, or by a continual moaning, or a continual self-questioning about inward frames and feelings. Take for a few examples the hymns beginning, ‘I love to steal away;’ ‘Far from the world, O Lord, I flee;’ ‘I am weary of straying, O fain would I rest;’ ‘There is an hour of calm repose.’ Very sweet and soothing are such hymns, at times. They may be channels, too, of grace; but how different from those more churchly strains which the Scriptures give us: How different, too, from any conception we can form of the hymns that Paul and Silas most probably sang at midnight in the jail at Philippi.” — The Bible Psalmody, pp. 20-23.

I conclude, therefore, from the above reasoning, that this passage which has always been relied on by the advocates of hymn-singing as containing a warrant for these practices, has no such meaning.

The titles, “psalms, and hymns, and songs,” belong to the inspired psalter; and, as qualified by the word “spiritual,” are not true of any other: I conclude that the psalms are “the Word of Christ,” and uninspired songs are not His word: that the psalms are a true standard for “teaching and admonishing” and the uninspired songs are not such a standard, and therefore could not be placed on a level with the psalms by the apostle; and that the psalms are adapted to be the vehicles of grace to the heart and of praise to the Lord, as uninspired songs are not. The passage furnishes no warrant for the use of uninspired songs in worship, but is an explicit apostolic injunction that, in the praise service of the New Testament Church, the divinely authorized psalmody should be continued.

Making melody in your hearts: Some of you will live to speak inspiring words on this text. All of you will sing the psalms in the spirit of praise, and by God’s grace will lead a flock of His people to make a loud noise joyfully every Sabbath day. But you will do it only as you feel yourselves grounded in the biblical truths that demand a pure praise service.

It would be a pleasant thing to be able to devote a lecture to this more attractive side of the subject, this singing with grace: but I am now concerned for your understanding of the basis of pure worship, sure as I am that only so can you attain to spirituality in praise; and sure, too, as I am, that, in purity of worship, a high plane of spiritual life will be reached.

We must hold all the truth committed to us on this point, and with unswerving fidelity. The time has come when our Church must strengthen her stakes on the question of psalmody, a question on which we now stand almost alone among God’s people.

But on the use of the psalms I have little fear of the defection of the Covenanter Church. You will find, as you go out to minister from her pulpits, that a wonderful love for the psalms exists in the pews, and you will do well to respect this wherever you find it.

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