Worship Music Beyond Only the Psalms


Worship Music Beyond Only the Psalms

by Bob Burridge ©2013

A question asked recently in our Thursday discussion time was about the exclusive use of Psalms in worship.

Should we only sing the inspired Psalms in worship?

Some background might help. In reaction against worship music that promoted Roman Catholic doctrine, many early Reformers sang only the Psalms. At Geneva Calvin’s followers produced the Anglo-Genevan Psalter for use by the English speaking churches.

In time, other hymns were written, translated, and edited to satisfy the concerns of the Reformed churches for biblical accuracy in the lyrics beyond only the Psalms. Some continued to sing the Psalms exclusively. They believed that only those inspired songs should be used in worship. That difference of opinion continues today.

In 1946-1947 an Orthodox Presbyterian Church study committee defended the inclusion of songs beyond only the Psalms. A minority report (by Dr. John Murray) defended exclusive Psalm singing. Exclusive Psalmody is permitted in that denomination, in the Presbyterian Church in America, and in a few other Reformed groups, but it’s not required.


I suggest 7 principles that question the exclusive Psalmody view.

First it should be made clear that the singing of the Psalms is very important and is often neglected in churches today. Those who don’t sing them exclusively should strive to use them more than many do. The following points should be taken in the limited sense of showing that good Biblical hymns are proper and helpful for convocational worship (the times when the Elders call the church together for worship as a congregation).

1. There is no direct prescription in the Bible that tells us to use only the Psalms as worship song lyrics.

2. The expression of God’s truth and praise in worship is not limited to the inspired words of Scripture. Pastors are not limited to only using inspired words in their sermons. Historic creeds do not just quote inspired verses. The same scholarship should go into hymn writing. All worship music should be based upon the inspired Scriptures just as a sermon, creed, or confession of faith should be. Worship songs can be like biblical sermons or confessions set to music.

Sadly, many human-composed songs for worship are designed primarily for emotional stimulation aside from the response of the redeemed to God’s truths and promises. These base their appeal upon sentimentality rather than upon the revealed glories of God and his amazing grace. Some of these poorly written hymn lyrics could be consistently sung by heretical churches or non-christian religions since they do not focus upon the God made known in the Bible.

3. The Psalms only present Christ in figures, not in fulfillment. They do not include the full revelation of the Gospel. Post-Apostolic Era hymns include worship in the fulfillment of the promises in Christ.

4. New Testament Scriptures are also infallibly inspired as are the other portions of the Old Testament. These other texts often underlie the lyrics of good hymns. To limit worship lyrics to only the Psalms neglects the beautiful expressions of truth and promise God has placed in other books of his inspired word.

5. Translations of the Psalms into English are not infallibly inspired. They are often very non-literal, not unlike many hymns which are based upon God’s word while not directly using the same wording or sentence structures. To be fully “infallibly inspired” the Psalms should be sung in the original Hebrew text. To fit the meter of music and English grammar the Psalms must be modified. The translations and metrical arrangements are as much the work of uninspired humans as are many good songs for worship which are based upon other portions of the Bible.

6. Not all Psalms were written for the occasion of convocational worship. Some were written in other very specific historic situations, yet they appear in Psalter publications. While it is good to use any portion of God’s word in worship providing it is placed in the proper context of redemptive history, it raises questions about the implied principle that the Psalms were all directly prescribed by God to be used in convocational worship. That was not the original use of every Psalm. By example, Bible passages from other books of Scripture could likewise be used by congregations gathered to worship God.

7. Worship songs in Scripture are not limited to the Psalms. There are several New Testament examples of non-Psalm songs used in the context of acceptable worship.

Mary responded to God’s promised blessing with the Magnificat which is recorded in Luke 1:46-55. Zechariah responded with his Benedictus in Luke 1:68-79. The Angels presented the Gloria in Excelsis in Luke 2:14. Simeon responded to God’s revealed blessing in the Nunc Dimittis of Luke 2:29-32. The “new song” sung in worship in heaven as recorded in Revelation 5:8-14 (:9), 14:1-5 (:3) was not directly quoted from the Psalms. [The names of the New Testament songs cited are taken from the first words in the Latin translations.]

We don’t know if there was a musical element in these New Testament examples of outpourings of worship, and they are not presented in congregational settings. The same is true of several of the Psalms of the Old Testament. Yet the New Testament lyrics are offered as worship and recorded as examples for us in our worship of God.


The Scriptures clearly teach that song
is a proper element of convocational worship.

A “song” is primarily lyrics. The words are set to a melody. The arrangement of syllables and accents produce a meter or rhythm. To present them musically requires some type of musical arrangement which may be a blend of voices or the use of musical instruments. In our era harmonies are often added to supplement the melody.

The Hebrew words for “song” in Scripture were words already in use before the “inspired” songs were written. It was evidently an already accepted literary form. The instruments were also ones that existed at that time. Today we can only make educated guesses about the sounds and tuning of those instruments.

God instituted song in worship in the time of King David. The occasion was the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. (1 Chronicles 15 and 16). To correct Israel’s past disobedience in the treatment of the Ark, they brought it back to Jerusalem in a manner prescribed by God and therefore pleasing to him.

1 Chronicles 15:16, And the children of the Levites bore the ark of God on their shoulders, by its poles, as Moses had commanded according to the word of the LORD. Then David spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy.

Those presenting the music before the people were all in the Priestly family of Levi. They were not there to entertain the people, or to merely heighten their sense of emotional enrichment. On this occasion they were to express Israel’s joy toward God in the blessing of the returned ark.

The musicians acted within the authority given them to represent the people before God, and God before the people. The Levites lead the music, David and the people were involved too.

1 Chronicles 15:27-28, David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who bore the ark, the singers, and Chenaniah the music master with the singers. David also wore a linen ephod. Thus all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the LORD with shouting and with the sound of the horn, with trumpets and with cymbals, making music with stringed instruments and harps.

Upon the arrival of the ark in Jerusalem, sacrifices were made, David pronounced a blessing upon the people, food was distributed, and some of the Levites were appointed to lead the people in thankful praise to God. One of the elements was the use of song. The lyrics of the song in 1 Chronicles 16:8-36 are the same as those in Psalms 96, 105, and 106.

1 Chronicles 16:5-6, Asaph the chief, and next to him Zechariah, then Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, and Obed-Edom: Jeiel with stringed instruments and harps, but Asaph made music with cymbals; Benaiah and Jahaziel the priests regularly blew the trumpets before the ark of the covenant of God.

The use of song in worship continued as a regular practice in Israel after that occasion.

1 Chronicles 16:37, So he left Asaph and his brothers there before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister before the ark regularly, as every day’s work required;

The use of songs as a part of worship continued in the New Testament. Jesus and his disciples sang a song before they departed from the Passover at his Last Supper. It’s mentioned on special occasions where individuals responded to God’s work as he revealed it to them as the program of covenantal redemption unfolded. Nothing is said about changing the use of song in worship after the Jewish era. We can infer that worship services in the early church continued to include congregational singing about God’s revealed truth and promises.

Songs in worship have a specific purpose. The object toward which all worship is directed is God. His glory is the prime objective.

No parts of worship should be directed just toward the people for mood setting, or to make it appealing to unbelievers. To advertise performances to attract people to attend for personal pleasure or entertainment violates the basic purpose of biblical worship.

The various themes of worship in Scripture set the boundaries limiting what all songs in worship should include. Our songs declare the nature of God, his attributes, his mercies, his judgments, and his works. Songs may also express our response to God’s revealed glory by our humble thankfulness, joy, praise, faith, and repentance.

The musical elements of worship songs aren’t preserved in Scripture. We don’t have inspired examples of melody, chord structure, or tempo. The meter of some Psalms and other biblical songs show us little of how the musical elements would have sounded. Some instruments were used and various groups of voices appear to have combined in some ways. How these compare with the use of instruments and arrangements in our modern cultures remains an uncertain issue.

Who does the singing? Few argue against the joining of the congregation in singing. There is some controversy today about who should lead songs in worship. This relates to the whole matter of leadership in the regular worship services of the church. It appears that this is the duty of Ordained Elders as representative mediators between the people and God, and as overseers of understanding the content of what God has revealed and what he has prescribed for his worship.

(Bible quotations are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
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