Rev. J.R. Mackay. From the Free Presbyterian Magazine, May 1896.
Subtitles are not the author’s
FREE Presbyterians are by no means the only body of Christians who adhere strictly, in their service of praise, to an Inspired Psalmody. Reformed Presbyterians and Original Seceders in this country, as well as several other larger sections of the Church of Christ in America and the Colonies, use Psalms only. Still, in proportion to the number of professing Christians, who, the world throughout, use uninspired hymns, those who adhere to Psalms only are comparatively few. They seem overwhelmed by the vast majority who hold what are considered less narrow views; and the Church, which in the face of this fact, makes exclusive adherence to Psalms a condition of office within its borders, must have very weighty reasons indeed for so firm and distinctive a restriction.
In these few jottings I propose to do little more than weigh the arguments more generally heard in favour of hymns, and consider briefly some of the objections usually raised against the Book of Psalms as a manual of praise.
The Psalms are considered inadequate and insufficient, and their detractors must have “an addition” in the form of uninspired hymns. Well, to begin with, the burden of proof rests with them. For the singing in public worship of any composition not inspired of the Holy Ghost was very rare indeed during the first centuries of the Christian era; and was practically unknown in this country from the Reformation to the reign of Moderatism.
What then are the arguments most frequently heard in favour of hymnologies?
Argument #1:The word “Hymn” appears in the New Testament
One is based on the fact that the word “hymn” or “hymns” occurs once or twice in the New Testament. In Mark 14:26, we read—“ And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives,” and again in Eph 5:19, as well as in Col 3:16, mention is made of “psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.” This, it is argued, conclusively proves that the New Testament Scriptures warrant the use of uninspired hymns. This argument, to say the least of it, is very superficial. For everyone who has any real acquaintance with the subject will allow that the hymn referred to in Mark 14:26 must have been some passage of Psalms 113-118 — the Hallelujah part of which was wont [accustomed] to be sung at the celebration of the Passover. If then, the word hymn in the Gospel according to Mark certainly means a psalm, is it not more than likely, without any proof to the contrary, that by the use of the same word in Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 no more is intended than a division of the collection of inspired writings which, while consisting separately of psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, are known collectively by the name of the Book of Psalms?
But, in addition to this, the context in Col 3:16 furnishes abundant proof that the word “ hymns ” can have no reference to uninspired writings. For, are we not told to sing psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs in order that the “Word of Christ” may dwell in us richly? The “Word of Christ” can mean only the words which the Father gave Him. And how can that “Word of Christ” dwell in us richly by singing hymns, if by hymns, we are to understand the uninspired writings of men? Who so daring as to assert that hymns, in the usual acceptation of the term, are the Word of Christ, the words which the Father gave Him? But that the words which the Father gave Him may and do dwell in us richly through the singing of Psalms will, we trust, appear as we proceed to expand our subject.
Argument #2: Hymns honour Christ more than the Psalms
Another argument with which many are carried away is this- It is maintained that a Church which uses hymns instead of psalms confers greater honour upon Christ, for hymns, being more modem, [and] plainer [have] more unmistakeable reference made in them to the great facts of the Christian religion. Now, the desire to confer honour upon Christ is in itself praiseworthy, and by no means lightly to be esteemed. But it will be admitted that if, in our adoration of God and of His Anointed, we are not regulated by the Scriptures of truth, and if, in our worship, we are guided merely by the conceptions of our own minds, we are likely to be carried to some dangerous extremes. Christ has already been honoured and glorified. For “His obedience unto death God hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The Father hath put a crown of glory and honour on His head. And that crown of glory and honour, which was the joy set before Him, and on account of which He endured the Cross, is, so to say, curiously wrought and woven, and by the Spirit of inspiration, is brought forth before the Church’s gaze in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. “When He had by Himself purged our sins,” it is written, “He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high, being made so much better than the angels, as He hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” God, even His God, gave Him this name or crown. And how? Unto the Son He saith, “Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten Thee.” This is from the 2nd Psalm.
I will be to him a Father, and He shall be to me a Son; ”
words which are most properly referred to the 89th Psalm.
And let all the angels of God worship him.”
Whence are these words? From the 97th Psalm.
Confounded be all they that serve graven images, that boast themselves of idols: worship him all ye gods. Zion heard and was glad…”
But yet again (for we are contemplating how the crown, on account of which Christ is now exceeding glad, was woven):
Unto the Son, he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom. Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity; therefore God, even Thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.”
This is from the 45th Psalm.
Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands. They shall perish; but thou remainest, and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed, but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail;”
this too [is] from the Book of Psalms, viz., from the 102nd.
Last of all:
Sit on my right hand until I make thine enemies thy foot-stool,”
words which are taken from the 110th Psalm.
Thus does the Spirit, who searcheth all things, even the deep things of God, teach us to think of Christ exalted, blessed for ever, and even now made exceeding glad. If then the language of the Book of Psalms suits the noonday of Christ’s exaltation, is that book not sufficient for the singing of His praise on earth? And if it gives expression to the joy with which His own heart was glad, is it inadequate to convey the praises of His people when they rejoice with a joy unspeakable and full of glory?
Surely we are warranted then to conclude that the psalms, which can answer to the light and spirituality of heaven itself, ought to meet all the requirements of the Church in this world; and that in proportion as the Church is spiritual, and has the mind of Christ, so will she estimate the value of the Book of Psalms for her service of praise.
Argument #3:The Psalms are Insufficient in Scope
It is sometimes said that there is not a sufficient wealth of material in the Book of Psalms, and that therefore additions must be made to it in the form of hymns not inspired of the Holy Ghost. But what will be the subject of our song when we can no longer use the Psalms? We have already, we think, given proof of the wealth of praise we have in the Book of Psalms touching the Person of the King.
Shall we sing of His incarnation? Psalm 40 —
Sacrifice and offering thou didst not desire; mine ears hast thou opened, burnt offering and sin offering hast thou not required. Then, said I, lo, I come. In the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will O my God.”
Shall we sing of the sufferings of Christ, that death of His, by which abolishing death, He entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us? Psalm 22 —
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me, why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? . . . I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, it is melted in the midst of my bowels. . . . They pierced my hands and my feet. . . They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture. . . . Save me from the lion’s mouth; for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.”
Shall we sing of the resurrection of Christ? Psalm 16–
My flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.”
Shall we sing of the ascension of Christ? Psalm 68–
Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive, thou hast received gifts for men, yea, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them.”
Shall we sing of the reception of Christ in heaven, a subject altogether too mysterious for the Church on earth, had not the Holy Spirit traced her way? Psalm 24–
Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, 0 ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of Hosts, he is the King of glory.”
Shall we not sing of the blessedness of Christ, as He is exalted, and at the right hand of the Majesty on high? Yet how could we have dared to venture upon a subject so heavenly, if we were not guided by the Spirit that searcheth all things, even the deep things of God? Psalm 21–
The King shall joy in thy strength, O LORD; and in thy salvation how greatly shall He rejoice! Thou hast given him his heart’s desire, and hast not withholden the request of his lips. Selah. For thou preventest him with the blessings of goodness: thou settest a crown of pure gold on His head. He asked life of thee, and thou gavest it him, even length of days for ever and ever. His glory is great in thy salvation: honour and majesty hast thou laid upon him. For thou hast made him most blessed for ever: thou hast made him exceeding glad with thy countenance.”
Last of all, shall we sing of the blessed hope of the glorious appearing of the great God, and our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us? How could we do so more appropriately than these words (Psalm 50):
Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: … Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”
Or yet again, Psalm 102–
Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth . . . all of them shall wax old as a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.”
But I can here only touch upon a great subject. Have we not here the very marrow of Christianity, the finest of the wheat, and of honey from the Rock our fill? And must not those churches be strangely led astray who, to the spiritual impoverishment of their members, direct them to other matters, which, in comparison with these psalms, is only as chaff to the wheat, or as dross to the most fine gold?
Argument #4: Hymns can look back on Christ’s humiliation and resurrection whereas Psalms only looked forward
But it is asked, shall we always sing prophecies, and never sing of the fulfilment of these prophecies? The words of the apostle Peter serve as our answer. “It was revealed unto the prophets that not unto themselves, but unto us, they did minister in their office” and if, for example, the Holy Spirit called upon the prophet David to minister unto the New Testament Church by writing of the sufferings of Christ in the 22nd Psalm, what ingratitude are we guilty of, if, notwithstanding all this care and kindness, we fail to appreciate either? And even upon the point of grammatical construction, the Psalms are much better suited to the circumstances of the New Testament Church than to those of the Old. Consider Psalm 21, where, in the verses already quoted, a past tense is used. It is the same with Psalm 68:18, and these are only examples.
But for our part, we find it hard to understand how the conditions of true, spiritual, and heavenly praise can at all be fulfilled in the case of those who, in their service of song, use hymns not inspired of the Holy Ghost. How is heavenly praise possible for the Church on earth? “I will declare Thy name unto My brethren, in the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee.” It is because the Father’s name is, by the Son, declared to the Church, that the Church, being in the Spirit, is moved to sing the praises of the Father and of the Son. But even such praises are acceptable in heaven only as they are presented by the Mediator of the New Covenant; and therefore, does Christ graciously promise: “In the midst of the congregation will I sing praise unto Thee,” thereby becoming, as Calvin beautifully says, “the Church’s Chief Leader of praise.” But it is not all or every kind of praise of which Christ is the Chief Leader. And, as the Church ought to be anxious to have the presence of the Mediator, knowing assuredly that no praise is presented in heaven, save such as is offered by Him, so ought she to be anxious that the matter of her song should be according to the mind of Christ. Consider, in this most important respect, the safety of the Church using psalms which are inspired of the Holy Ghost, and which contain the words which the Father gave the Son. Take, for example, Psalm 102:25-27:
Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed:
But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end.”
Now what have we here? We have the authority of an apostle for saying that these are words which the Father gave the Son; and the Son, by His Spirit, has given them to the Church, that the Church, being in the Spirit, may thereby sing the praises of the Father and the Son, and she, in her turn, concludes that were she to wander as far as east is distant from the west, nothing so appropriate, nothing so sweet, nothing in which the beauty of Jehovah shines out more gloriously, could be heard or seen by her. And over and above this, seeing that, in the matter of her song, the Son is declaring the Father’s name to His brethren, in order “that the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me might be in them and I in them,” she has a holy confidence that the Mediator, who filleth all things, is Himself present, and is the Leader of her song.
To conclude, is it not rather remarkable that those churches which have begun with only a partial use of hymns in their service of song, have ere long almost all fallen into the habit of using hymns with little exception? Various solutions of this phenomenon might be offered, but to us, it appears that the reason of it is to be found in this: that the Holy Spirit has been grieved because of their rejection of what He had Himself provided, and for that reason has given them over to the lust of their own hearts.
Let us then not suffer ourselves, nor generations yet unborn, to be robbed of such a goodly heritage. “There is no fear,” is the remark heard from many. If by that, is intended that, if uninspired hymns take the place of psalms in our midst, our loss should not be great, we have already shown that that is not the case. If, on the other hand, it is meant, that even should the Church, as a whole, sanction the use of uninspired hymns, congregations that are opposed to the use of them are quite safe, the past history of the Church proves that that is a vain delusion.