Ten Reasons Why
We Sing The Psalms Exclusively

1.  It is commanded of God that we sing the psalms. It is divinely commanded in the inspired words of the apostle Paul: “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” (Col 3:16 cf. Eph 5:19). We believe that Paul is referring to the Spirit-inspired psalms not only because there were no 18th century hymns or 20th century songs during those days, but because the original readers of the letter would, no doubt, understand that Paul is referring to the psalms since the three terms occurs repeatedly in the titles of the Greek translation (Septuagint) of the psalms which the apostles preached from. In sixty-seven of the titles, the word “psalm” occurs; in six, the word “hymn” is used; while in thirty-five, “song” appears. But even more conclusively, the Septuagint of Psalm 67 and 76 use all three terms in their title! The title of Psalm 67 reads “Εἰς τὸ τέλος, ἐν ὕμνοις· ψαλμὸς ᾠδῆς.

It may be translated literally, “Unto the end, in hymns, a psalm and a song.” The title of Psalm 76 likewise reads: “Εἰς τὸ τέλος, ἐν ὕμνοις· ψαλμὸς τῷ Ασαφ, ᾠδὴ πρὸς τὸν Ἀσσύριον.” Literally translated it reads: “Unto the end, in hymns, a psalm for Asaph; a song for the Assyrian.” Even without a knowledge of Greek, it is not difficult to see that the three terms are the same used by the apostle Paul in Colossians 3:16 (“ψαλμοῖς ὕμνοις ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς”; cf. Eph 5:19). The different endings of the words reflect the difference cases in which they are used. Paul adds that these psalms, hymns and songs are “spiritual” (πνευματικαῖς) simply because they are Spirit-inspired or Spirit-given (e.g. Rom 1:11). It is clear that Paul is commanding the singing of inspired psalms.

2.  We are not commanded to sing anything else in worship except the psalms. While it may be argued that in Old Testament days, before the psalter was finalised, some other (inspired) songs might have been used, we have neither command nor indication that God’s people should continue to sing them. While it may be argued that in Revelation some of the songs sung are not from the psalms, there is neither command nor indication that God intends for the Church to sing those songs in worship. By contrast, apart from Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, we have a couple more instructions to sing the psalms. In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul says: “When ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” We do not believe that by “psalm” Paul means anything other than the Psalms of David for those are the only songs that the congregation could sing together with whoever is moved to precent it. Paul could easily have used “hymn” or “songs” if he meant any other kinds of songs. But in any case, if supposing, Paul is not referring to the psalms, then he must be referring to directly inspired songs being sung solo! This is a far cry from the uninspired songs that those who would not sing the psalms are arguing for. Similarly, we have no reason to think that James could be referring to anything other than the Psalms of David when he says: “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (Jas 5:13).

3.  The Lord Jesus and his disciples sang the psalms, no doubt, exclusively. Almost every commentator will agree that the “hymns” that the Lord Jesus sang with his disciples at the Last Supper (see Mt 26:30; Mar 14:26) was from the part of the Psalter which the Jews call the Egyptian Hallel (Ps 113-118). Adam Clarke, not a psalm-singer, says in his commentary on Matthew 26:30 says, “As to the hymn itself, we know, from the universal consent of Jewish antiquity, that it was composed of Psalm 113:1-9, Psalms 114:1-8, 115, 116, Ps 117:1-2, and 118.” The Dispensational Bible Knowledge Commentary remarks on Mark 14:26 that “The Hallel (praise) Psalms were sung or chanted antiphonally in connection with the Passover — the first two (Pss 113-114) before the meal, the remaining four (Pss 115-118) after it to conclude the evening observance. Such verses as Ps 118:6-7, Ps 118:17-18, Ps 118:22-24 gain added significance on Jesus’ lips just before His suffering and death.”

4.  We have no assurance that God is pleased to receive uninspired songs in worship. Speaking to the Samaritan woman, the Lord Jesus says: “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. 24 God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (Jn 4:23-24). The word “must” (δεῖ) means “it is necessary.” It must not be interpreted as “it is better” or “it is preferable.” And we have no doubt that the Lord is not talking about sincerity of worship, but about worship in and through the Holy Spirit and worship according  to God’s objective truth as it is in Jesus. At the very least, worship must be according to the manner that God has appointed for He says in the context of worship: “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Dt 12:32) and the apostle John says: “He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn 2:4). Moreover, since the Lord Jesus says: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6), we know that worship in accordance to God’s truth is worship through Christ. Only by singing the psalms with joy and understanding can we have any assurance that our worship is in Spirit and in truth.

5.  The Book of Psalms is the only divine collection of inspired songs available to us. There are other inspired songs in the Scripture, but they are neither collected in an inspired hymn book as the psalms are, nor presented in such a way as to make it clear that they are intended for the church to sing rather than to read. We think of the song of Miriam in Exodus 15:1-20. This is obviously intended to be read as part of the Exodus account rather than sung at worship services. The same is true of the prayer of Habakkuk (Hab 3:1-19). If it were intended for God’s people to sing congregationally today, shouldn’t it be collected together with the psalms?  As for New Testament songs, we do not think there are any recorded in the Gospels or the epistles. That a paragraph appears to be poetic (eg. Phil 2:5-11; 1 Tim 3:16) does not imply that it is a song. The so-called songs recorded in the Gospels are not really songs since they were “said” (ἔπω, Lk 1:46; λέγω, Lk 1:67, 2:13) rather than sung. There is no indication in Scripture that Mary or Zacharias burst out singing Bollywood style. As for the songs recorded in Revelation, there is no indication that they are appointed for the church on earth to sing. Revelation 5:9-14 is sung by the beasts and the elders (see v. 8, 11)! Revelation 14:3 cannot be learned by anyone except the 144,000! The Song of Moses and of the Lamb (Rev 15:3-4) is sung by glorified saints with the accompaniment of harps! Besides, the content of this song is found everywhere in the psalms (eg. Psalm 85; 99; 100; 145; etc).

6.  There is no warrant in Scripture for the church to write uninspired songs. All the songs indicated as “new songs” in the Scriptures are inspired songs. And besides, the call to “sing a new song” (cf. Ps 33:3; 40:3; 96:1, 98:1, etc) does not imply a command to write a new song, for invariably, the content of the “new song” to be sung is given in the following verses! The same is true of the records of singing “new songs” in Revelation (Rev 4:9; 14:3). It is doubtful that the Holy Spirit intends for us to understand the “new” in “new songs” as expressing the newness of their composition. Rather the “new” is to be understood in terms of the newness of the situation depicted or the newness of the new order in the case of Revelation. New Testament believers singing the psalms that are self-introduced as new songs must sing them with renewed gratitude that they are enjoying the blessing indicated in the psalm with a clarity that is confirmed in a “new and living way” (Heb 10:20) in Christ.

7.  The psalms are intensely and pervasively Christological. Although we do not sing the name of Jesus in the psalms, we believe that every psalm is about Christ. We believe this is the case for five reasons: (1) There are clearly Messianic due to their content and their use in the New Testament and are therefore recognised as such by most commentators. We think of Psalms 2, 16, 22, 45, 72, 110, 118. (2) There are psalms which do not appear to be Messianic but is taken to be so in the New Testament. We think of Psalm 8 (cf. v. 4-5 with Heb 2:5-9), Psalm 19 (cf. v. 4 with Rom 10:17-18) and Psalm 102 (cf. v. 25-28 with Heb 1:10-12). (3) There are psalms, which were clearly written upon particular occasions in David’s life, which are also clearly Messianic. Think of Psalm 18 (see title; cf. v. 49 with Rom 15:8-9); or Psalm 41 (cf. v. 9 with Jn 13:18). (4) The Imprecatory psalms are also Messianic. We think of Psalm 69 which is one of the most quoted psalms in the New Testament (cf. v. 4 with Jn 15:25; v. 9 with Jn 2:17, Rom 15:3, Col 3:16; v. 21 with Mt 27:34; v. 23-25 with Mt 27:34). (5) Even penitential psalms can be interpreted Messianically. We think of Psalm 40 (cf. v. 6-8 with Heb 10:5-7) and Psalm 69 which are clearly appealed to as Christological in the New Testament. In these psalms are penitential statements such as: “For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me” (Ps 40:12); and “O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee” (Ps 69:5). Surely it is unreasonable to say that these could not be taken as the words of Christ in the first person when the New Testament appears to take the whole psalm as Christological. If these two psalms are Christological, then those two statements and a host of others may be owned by Christ. If that is the case, what is there to stop us from believing that Christ could take Psalm 51 upon himself seeing that He has taken our curse upon Himself?

8.  The psalms are the only songs which we can have confidence that Christ will sing with us as our Worshipper-in-Chief. Although Christ has ascended to heaven, it is clear from Hebrews 2:12 that we are to think of our worship as being led and mediated by Christ. He says: “I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Heb 2:12; cf. Psalm 22:22). It is only when we think of Christ worshipping with us and leading us in worship that we can make sense of psalms such as Psalm 24 where we are given to sing: “Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully” (Ps 24:3-4). Who but Christ has clean hands and a pure heart? Who but Christ is qualified to bring us through the gates of heaven whether in worship or in person on the day of our glory? (see Ps 24:7-10; Eph 2:6, 4:8, etc). It is no wonder then that many of the Psalms have Christ speaking or singing in the first person (eg. Pss 22, 69, 102, etc). Indeed a case may be made that in most of the psalms the first person singular pronoun is most meaningfully understood as Christ rather than as David or as whoever sings the psalm (think of Psalms 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 11, etc). This is in sharp contrast with almost all the uninspired songs that have been written for Christian worship. None of them has Christ in the first person! Why? No doubt, because they are written with a very different idea in regard to worship that totally misses the mediatorial role of Christ.

9.  The psalms are the only truly ecumenical worship songs across space and time. These are the only songs that both the Old and New Covenant Saints might sing. If we believe in the unity of the Old and New Covenants and that they are different administrations of the Covenant of Grace, then we would surely want to sing what our fathers in the faith also sang. We can sing them with the more complete knowledge that was lacking in the hearts of our fathers in the faith for God has “provided some better things for us, that they without us should not be made perfect” (Heb 11:40). Furthermore, the Psalms are the only songs that all Christian denominations and cultures should be able to sing without quibble, they are, after all, songs appointed by Christ our King for us to use in worship. Psalms then, are meant to promote true Christian unity, even a unity that Christ prayed for (Jn 17:22). Uninspired songs on the other hand have through the ages, from Gnostic times to the present shallow evangelicalism, been used to promote denominational distinctives including heretical ones. If the Church of Christ were to be truly united in Christ, we must begin to sing the Psalms exclusively.

10.      The Psalter is the only hymnbook that does not contain theological errors or is imbalanced in any direction. As mentioned uninspired hymnody has been the vehicle to promote errors. A few examples which are typically found in modern hymn books suffice. Think of how the all-time favourite Love Divine, by Charles Wesley is used to promote a form of Wesleyan perfectionism by teaching us to expect to be “perfectly restored” before we take our place in heaven. Think of how another favourite is And Can It be That I Should Gain? teaches an Arminian doctrine of universal atonement as well as promote a form of kenosis theory in which Christ during his incarnation had none of His divine attributes but love. Could this be why John Wesley insisted that “one who was sanctified by the blood of Christ may nevertheless go to hell” (Works 10.297). If Christ did not die as the God-Man, it follows that His atonement would be inefficacious. Or consider the “Reformation Sunday” favourite: Faith of our Father by Frederick W. Faber. The shocking fact is that Frederick Faber was a Protestant who apostatised to Roman Catholicism. And not only that, but he made it his life’s mission to write hymns that promote the history and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Faith of our Father was written after his apostasy. He wrote it to remind his fellow Catholics of their leaders who were martyred during the reign of King Henry VIII in the early days of the establishment of the Anglican Church in England. It was always Faber’s hope that someday England would be brought back to the papal fold. This hymn first appear in 1849 in the author’s collection, Jesus and Mary; or Catholic Hymns for Singing and Reading. One of the original stanzas from the hymn which is omitted in Protestant hymnals reads:

Faith of our fathers! Mary’s prayers

    Shall win our country

    back to thee;

And through the truth that

    comes from God,

    England shall then indeed be free.

Faith of our fathers, holy faith!

    We would be true to

    Thee till death.

How ironical that Protestants should sing this hymn, and to sing it on “Reformation Sunday”! It is no wonder that Protestants are no longer protesting. If we can use the words of an apostate in the worship of God, there is no more reason for protesting.

What a different effect the faithful and joyful singing of the psalms should produce in the church? For the Psalm alone reveal the heart and mind of Christ without the filter of fallible human agents. The Psalms alone promotes Christ-likeness and the unity that comes with it (Phil 2:2). The Psalms alone are balanced and infallible.

In Summary

There are perhaps a few more reasons why we sing the Psalms exclusively in worship, but here are ten reasons in brief: (1) It is commanded of God that we sing the psalms; (2) We are not commanded to sing anything else in worship except the psalms; (3) The Lord Jesus and His disciples sang the psalms, no doubt, exclusively; (4) We have no assurance that God is pleased to receive uninspired songs in worship; (5) The Book of Psalms is the only divine collection of inspired songs available to us; (6) There is no warrant in Scripture for the church to write uninspired songs; (7) The Psalms are intensely and pervasively Christological; (8) The psalms are the only songs which we can have confidence that Christ will sing with us as our Worshipper-in-Chief; (9) The psalms are the only truly ecumenical worship songs across space and time; and (10) The Psalter is the only hymnbook that does not contain theological errors or is imbalanced in any direction.

When we consider all these, we cannot help but agree with John Calvin that “. . . 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.” This is the chief reason why we not sing uninspired songs in worship. The Psalter is more than sufficient. Let us continue sing the psalms exclusively in worship and pray that many other churches may begin to do so. But let us also pray that we and our children may, more and more understand and love what we sing for the glory of Christ our King. Amen.

—JJ Lim.