Spirituality Information

Sing Psalms, Let Joy Resound: A Case For Exclusive Psalmody


Ephesians 4:4-6 indicates that Christians ought to practice one single faith. It reads: "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all."

The apostolic notion of one, uniform faith clearly does NOT envision the smorgasbord of various worship practices -- from the faithful to the absurd and goofy -- that dots today's religious landscape in the name of Christendom. The apostles did not lay down different worship patterns at the various churches they established, as is obvious from such statement as: "If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice - nor do the churches of God" (1 Cor. 11:16). Likewise, God has told Moses, "See to it that you make everything according to the pattern shown you on the mount." Just so, after correcting many deviations from the God-given pattern, Paul the apostle told the Corinthians "The rest I will set in order when I come" (1 Cor. 11:34).

Moreover, those who care to look into it will find that the phrase "set in order" represents a technical liturgical term found three times at the end of Exodus as a summary for the refrain, "just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so they did." Exodus uses the phrase "set in order" specifically of those symbols clearly regarding the Church -- the table of showbread (representing the Lord's Supper), the lampstands or candlesticks (representing the churches themselves in Revelation 1-3) and the altar (representing the prayers and praise of the saints in the New Testament).

This order does not refer to "order in general" where orderliness sits opposed to chaotic worship, as many have falsely supposed. Rather, it has in mind the priestly order assigned to care for the worship of God to see that it proceeds precisely as God has commanded, without deviation or exception. In the New Testament, this means the priestly order of Melchizedek. Hence the saying of Paul, "Follow me as I follow Christ." The context tells us here that Paul was making a liturgical point, meaning "Following the apostlic pattern as we have delivered to you the teachings of Christ." The apostolic duty requires Paul to perform the liturgy of the churches just as Christ -- the head of the Church as High Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek -- dictated by his words and deeds.

The now-heated question of just which songs Christians may properly sing in their worship services often bears the title, "the exclusive psalmody debate." Those who favor the exclusive singing of the biblical book of Psalms -- which group would include this author -- have a great many persons up in arms over the "strictness" of it all. And so the debate rages on. We believe, and wish to argue the point that the relevant passages from Ephesians 5, and especially from Colossians 3 (below) form the linchpin of the debate. Here, those who urge that we sing all manner of man-made songs falter and stumble. And, here, the Bible rules out their position, as we will now proceed to demonstrate.

Ephesians 5:18-20 reads, "And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ ..."

Colossians 3:15-17 (King James Version) reads: "And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful. 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. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him."

Now we wish to focus special attention on the Colossian passage, asking just WHAT are these "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs"? EP advocates like us maintain that this forms a tri-fold reference to the Bible's psalter, using the three most common titles for them in the version of the Old Testament most often quoted by the apostles. If you open to the book of Psalms, and read the superscripts just above them (which introduce each Psalm), you will note that they often read this way: "A psalm of David, a hymn," or "A Psalm of David, a song."

Thus, just as Jesus commonly used triads to refer to one thing only -- as when "ask...seek...knock" refers to prayer, so Paul used "psalms, hymns and songs" to refer to those songs which his audience knew by those titles from the Septuagint. But we do not advocate this as some likely but unproven hypothesis. Let us proceed on then to the proof of it.

When judging the meaning of any one passage, those surrounding it immediately have first priority in aiding our understanding. As we say, "local context is king." And, interestingly, the book of Colossians yields a local parallel to the triadic passage in question just two chapters earlier. Our focus now turns to this text.

Colossians 1:27-28 "To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus ...." This text highlights some stark parallels with Colossians 3:15-17, just two chapters later. First, we learn that "the riches of glory" is "Christ in you, the hope of glory" -- which is a mystery among the Gentiles.

Paul was revealing this mystery -- salvation to the Gentiles -- that Christ might indwell them, bringing to them the hope that they too would be raised to life in glory at the resurrection. Paul calls this, "Christ [dwelling] in you, the hope of [future] glory." Paul thus refers to the gospel of Christ (the mystery he preaches), as "preaching" which activity he then subdivides into two participles connected by "and" -- "teaching and warning."

So "teaching and warning" means "preach the Gospel of Christ" in chapter 1. Now, when we come to chapter 3, we find the EXACT SAME pair.

The sentence in question reads from chapter 3: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." Now the translators of most versions of the Bible have unfortunately missed this parallel. Yet, "teaching and warning" in chapter one displays the exact word pair in Greek as that found in chapter 3, "didaskountai kai nethetountai." [say "DID ASK OON TYE KYE NEH THET OON TYE"]

This either means "teaching and warning," or else "teaching and admonishing." But whichever one chooses, it should appear identically BOTH in chapter 1 AND in chapter 3, as it does in Koine Greek. So here is the obvious parallel:

[CH 1.] "preach Christ" [Christ who is dwelling in you] = teaching and warning [every man] in all wisdom [CH 3] "Let the word of Christ dwell in you" = teaching and warning [one another] in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Thus, the phrase "in all wisdom" in chapter one matches the trifold expression, "in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" found in chapter 3. Now this wisdom is the wisdom of the gospel -- the word of Christ. The text says so plainly. Moreover, chapter 2 (v. 3) begins by saying that "all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Him [Christ]."

The parallel is unmistakable. Paul has called upon the Colossians to sing the divine wisdom, the Word of Christ, by singing "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." This can refer to nothing else but the canonical psalter, using the titles over the psalms which appear in the Septuagint, the most commonly used version of the Older Testament employed among the Christian communities and among the Diaspora Jews. Now a few further points remain. If one denies the parallel above, then Paul has refered to 3 things rather than just one.

It then remains incumbent upon the naysayer to show just exactly WHAT the three are, how each differs from each other, and how each can be named by the apostle "the word of Christ." To my knowledge no one has even attempted this. It is not sufficent to say "these three are not what exclusive psalmody advocates say." One must also show EXEGETICALLY and precisely what Paul meant by these three terms, if not the canonical psalms. Remember, whatever these are, all Christians have a command from God to sing them. So we must know what they mean.

Next, one should note that, when the apostles preach the gospel, the word of Christ, throughout the book of Acts, they most often quote from the book of Psalms when they quote the Bible. By their actions, they virtually equate the two. This shows that the parallel I have drawn out from the text, between Colossians 1 and 3 -- between preaching Christ and singing the psalms (the word of Christ) -- is native to Paul's mindset. Finally, note that the Ephesian parallel to Colossians 3 links singing the Psalms with "being filled with the Spirit." This link makes much better sense in understanding the triad to refer to the Psalms, since God identifies Himself with His written Word throughout the Bible.

Thus, since the Spirit of God inspired the written Word of God, to be filled with (or to let dwell in you richly) the word of Christ (Psalms) is also to be filled with the Spirit who inspired that Word. The idea that this triad somehow names man-made songs leaves us with the unanswered question: "How does being filled with the words of mere men" in any way lead to being "filled with the Spirit"? This seems like an oxymoron, especially given the Bible's teaching on what comes from the hearts of men (depravity).

What then? When Christians gather together, they ought to shun the singing of anything other than what God has given us. Only what God produces is good enough for God. And Christians must offer Him only the very best. Sing psalms, let joy resound. For they that worship Him must worship in Spirit and IN TRUTH.

Carson Day has written approximately 1.3 gazillion articles and essays, many with very insightful, if alternative, viewpoints. He presently writes for Ophir Gold Corporation, and specialized in the history of ideas in college. He has been quoted in the past as saying "What box?" and remains at large despite the best efforts of the civil authorities.

You can visit the Ophir Gold Corporation blogsites at http://scriberight.blogspot.com (Writing With Power), http://ophirgoldcorp.blogspot.com (OGC's Free Web Traffic), or http://ophirgold.blogspot.com (Church and State 101)


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