The Sufficiency of the Psalter – Thomas Ford (1598–1674)

From The Singing of Psalms, Sermon 1

Thomas Ford was a member of the Westminster Assembly.  In his first sermon on the sufficiency of the Psalter for Christian worship, he addresses the following:

1. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are none other but the Psalms of the Bible.

2. Ordinary composers (e.g., today’s composers) cannot compose songs of the Spirit.

3. While Christians are given liberty to use their own words in prayer, that same liberty is not given for singing.

4. God gave his Church a psalm book.

All of this is in accord with the Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.5 which limits corporate singing in worship to the psalms. 

I come in the second place to shew what we must sing; and this also is in the text “Speaking to yourselves in psalms,” &c [Eph 5:19]. We must sing nothing but spiritual songs to the Lord. But what these psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are is another question.

The greatest difference I find amongst interpreters is the difference between these, it being a matter of some difficulty to distinguish them so as to determine precisely what are psalms, what hymns, and what spiritual songs.

Many and various conceits of men I meet with, which I shall not trouble you withal, being the most of them very groundless. I know nothing more probable than this, viz. that psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, do answer to mizmorim, tehillim, and shirim, which are the Hebrew names of David’s psalms. All the psalms together are called tehillim, i.e. praises, or songs of praise. Mizmor and shir are in the titles of many psalms, sometimes one, and sometimes the other, and sometimes both joined together, as they know well who can read the original. Now the apostle calling them by the same names by which the Greek translation (which the New Testament so much follows) renders the Hebrew, is an argument that he means no other than David’s psalms. Besides, whenever the New Testament quotes the psalms, it means those of David, and so the apostle speaks as taking it for granted that they to whom he wrote knew what psalms he meant. Sure l am that David’s psalms are spiritual songs, if ever there were any spiritual songs in the world.

Yea, but some will object that the apostle means not David’s psalms, but such spiritual songs as shall be upon occasion composed by some officer or member of the church, for as in the primitive times there were some who had a gift of psalms, so now also there are that have, if not the same, yet the like gift, and such new songs they grant may be sung, but not any other.

In answer to this I say first that in the primitive churches some had a psalm or spiritual song dictated and inspired by the Holy Ghost, though I dare not determine anything peremptorily concerning their manner of singing those psalms in the church.

Nay, If any have the same gift now, they may do well to shew and use it for the benefit and edification of themselves and others. But I suppose no sober man will now pretend to any such extraordinary gift, which ceased in the church long since, as the gift of tongues, and other effects of the Spirit extraordinary.

If any shall pretend to such an extraordinary spirit, I desire to know of them how others shall sing with them? for if they sing only their sudden raptures, ’tis impossible others should join, because their meditations will differ, and so will their metre too, and such singing will be nothing but a sacrifice of fools, and the confusion at Babel.

If it be said, Not so, but one to sing in the spirit, and the rest to say Amen. I say (as before) no man now hath such a spirit as some had then. There are indeed some that pretend much to the Spirit in these days, who if they would be pleased to shew their raptures in singing, as they do many times in speaking, no question there would be as good rhythm in the one as there is reason in the other. If we must not sing but what’s indited by an extraordinary Spirit, and no man have such a spirit, it will follow that there must be no singing at all, and then how do Christians fulfil this law of Christ, commanding them to speak to one another in psalms, &c, which I have formerly proved to be a duty as such as redeeming the time, walking circumspectly, &c. I believe that they who had a psalm in the church of Corinth, had it by an extraordinary gift. How that psalm was sung I cannot say, but this is clear and certain, that David’s psalms, which were ordinarily used in the temple, though they were composed, yet they were not sung by an extraordinary spirit. For when the Levites, Christ and his disciples, Paul and Silas sung, those psalms must be such as were well known beforehand to the companies that sang them, else how would they sing together?

But here I meet with an objection that must be answered before I proceed, and ’tis this, viz. that Christ and his disciples did not sing, but only gave thanks, and that the original word imports no more, but as it were saying grace after meat.

We deny not but the original notes praise, but let all that understand the original speak whether it doth not signify to praise with singing. Hymns are the praises of God with a song. If it be praise, and not the praise of God, ’tis not a hymn; if it be the praise of God, and not with a song, neither is it a hymn, which must have these three in it, viz. praise, the praising of God, and that with a song or in singing.  Without question the original signifies to praise, whether God or men in songs.

But what need we go any further than my text, the word here put in the middle between psalms and songs sufficiently shews what manner of praising God that was. Besides the constant vote of all the learned that Christ did sing after his last supper, according to the custom of the Jews, whose practice it was after the cup of salvation or thanksgiving to sing some of David’s psalms, which solemn hymn they call to this day the Great Hallelujah.

That Christ prayed and praised God otherwise than in singing, we grant. But that he also sang, is clear, and if he had sung a new song composed on the sudden, probably one of the evangelists would have recorded that song, as well as John hath set down our Saviour’s praise, John 17. So Paul and Silas, Acts 16:25, prayed and sung praises aloud, so as the prisoners heard them, which argues more than probably, a more than ordinary lifting up of their voices. But if we yield that neither Christ nor his disciples did sing, nor Paul and Silas, yet my text with Col. 3:16 & James 5:13 do clearly evince that Christians must sing, which is the thing we plead for.

But I return to answer the former objection concerning singing of psalms composed by an ordinary and common gift, as God in his providence gives occasion. And to this I say that I am not so much against composing, as imposing; when men set up their own new songs, and shut out David’s psalms. Suppose it lawful for men of spiritual minds to indite a psalm, and then commend it to others, and sing it; yet it will not follow that therefore we must not sing the psalms of David.

But here again ’tis objected that we conceive prayers, and therefore may as well conceive psalms too, for praising God upon occasion.

I will not say it is unlawful to conceive and compose a psalm on occasion. But I say again there is no reason that our conceived psalms should shut out David’s; and I desire it may be considered, First, that a man may conceive a prayer on the sudden, and put ıt up to God, so as others may join with him. But a man cannot so conceive and sing a psalm, it being impossible at once to contrive the matter and metre, and be devout too.

But here it will be replied that such a conceiving of psalms is not intended, but that someone first compose, and bring a spiritual song, and then commend it to be sung by others.

But why should any man prefer his composures before David’s psalms? Is it because they are more excellent?

No, it will be said, we do not compare with David. Only our composed psalms are more suitable to the present occasions of God’s people; we conceive prayers as occasion is offered; and so we would have psalms conceived, and composed too.

1. God himself hath made and given us a psalm-book, but I know of no such prayer-book that he hath left us.

2. There can be no composure’s of men that will suit the occasions, necessities, afflictions, or affections of God’s people, as the psalms of David, concerning which we may say what the Jews said of manna, they have a taste and relish according to everyone’s palate. Let it once be granted that we must sing psalms, I’ll warrant you David’s psalms shall carry it; there being no art or spirit of man now that can come near that of David. What though they were penned upon occasion, and according to the necessities of God’s people then? So were the other scriptures, and yet they concern us as much now as they did the people of God then. Besides, we read that in Hezekiah’s time the Levites were to praise God with the words of David, 2 Chron. 29:30, which shews that the psalms were for the use of God’s people in after ages upon all occasions. And I would fain know what occasions God’s people now, or at any time, either have, or can have, which David’s psalms may not suit with as well, and better than any songs composed by an ordinary gift. What glorious things are spoken of Christ, his kingdom, and the great work of redemption by him? Who can admire and adore the infinite excellencies of God in better phrases and forms then the Spirit hath declared to us in David’s psalms? If we would cheer our spirits, or compose them for hearing or other duties, what more heavenly meditations? If we would commend and magnify the power, wisdom, and goodness of God in any mercy, how can we do it better than in the words of David? It would become these that quarrel at our singing of David’s psalms, to give us better in the room of them, or else to consider how they fulfil the law of Christ, when they sing neither those, nor any other.

And whereas occasional composure are so much cried up by many, I ask them what poor souls shall do that cannot compose psalms, neither have any to do it for them? Certainly it is a duty (as hath been proved) that lies upon all God’s people, and to whom shall many of them go for a psalm, if not to David? They that pen psalms better, or at least fitter (as they think) do it for their particular respective congregations. In the meantime, what shall others do, unless the same men will undertake to furnish all the churches of God in the land, and the world too, with a better psalm-book than that of David? If it be said that some officer or member in every congregation may do as much upon occasion, I answer, perhaps not; nay without all peradventure the gift will not be found at all, or in any tolerable measure amongst many Christians, and then when they meet and would be merry in the Lord, poor souls, they shall have never a psalm to sing as James requires, James 5:13. Nor shall we upon this account have very much singing in private families, of which there are thousands in England that will not yield one who can indite to compose a psalm fit for the occasions of God’s people. Therefore, if these men will not give us another psalm book instead of David’s, we shall have little singing in congregations, and less in private families; but I shall argue this no further, only I add, that ’tis not enough for them to say that David’s psalms must give place to their new songs, especially since the former can plead prescription for so many ages, but they must prove it, and that strongly too, that we must not sing David’s psalms.

For the accommodation of David’s psalms to the present particular occasions of Gods people, I shall speak more hereafter: all I shall say for present is this, that if we cannot accommodate them, or any passages in them, the fault is our own. There are many I fear, who cannot accommodate many passages in David’s psalms, as when he professes his zeal for God, love to God, his word and ordinances, and ways of worship, his integrity, humility, heavenly-mindedness, &c. But that’s because they have not such a heart as was in David; and it may be their consciences cannot well brook such a word of admonition and conviction as they meet withal in many places and passages of David’s psalms.

But if we sing David’s psalms, let us sing them in David’s tunes, and not in such metre as men have devised [some say]

This reasoning will prove as well that we shall not read David’s psalms; for may not a man as well say, why should we read them in any language but that wherein they were written? And so farewell singing and reading psalms too, and if you say but as much of all the other parts of scripture, farewell all preaching of gifted men, for they will have never a text nor Bible left them. But if we think ourselves bound to read the psalms in our own tongue, why may we not as well sing them in our own tunes? If you say there is a necessity of reading, I grant it, and say, there is a necessity of singing them also; there being as express precepts in scripture for the one, as for the other. When any man shall give us good reason against reading in our own tongue, we will give over singing psalms in our own tunes; till then, we believe there is the like necessity of the one and the other, or else we are come to a good pass indeed, that we must neither sing nor say. My answer then is in a word this, that there being a necessity of singing as well as of reading, we may do the one in our own tunes, as well as the other in our own tongue.

There is yet one objection more against singing of David’s psalms, which was not thought on at the preaching of these sermons, and it is this:

[Some say:] As the Scripture commands us to pray, but prescribes us no set forms of prayer, which we are bound to use, and no other; so, when it commands us to sing psalms, it doth but leaves us to our liberty; for if we are not tied to a form in praying, why should we be tied up to any form in singing? I dare not say (as some do) that all forms of prayer are forbidden by the second commandment; nor yet that they wholly stint and quench the Spirit.

But to let that pass, I answer:

1. The apostle hath prescribed us what to sing, viz. psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, which are the express titles of David’s psalms, as was shewed before.

2. There is a difference in this, that the Lord did not prescribe unto his people set forms of prayer, as he prescribed set forms of psalms, 2 Chron. 29:30. They were to sing in the words of David and Asaph, but we read not that they were to pray in any such set form. God gave them a psalm-book, but not a prayer-book, as was said before.

3. When the psalms of David and Asaph were ordinarily sung in the temple, dare any man say that the Spirit either in the Levites or others, was stinted or quenched? And why should it be stinted now, more than it was then? Since we have the same forms which God himself appointed, why may we not expect the same enlargement of heart as the people of God had then?

4. We must sing in a form or not at all, as I shewed formerly, though we may very well pray without it. Since therefore we must have a form, why should we not prefer such as God hath appointed before any other?