The Interceders Encourager No. 57 - Contemporary Christian Music (4) Singing only the Psalms, Music at the Dedication of the Temple and in Heaven.
A. Singing only the Psalms
There are some churches who sing only the Psalms, in the belief that only Scripture should be sung. Everything else they call uninspired. But this position is very clearly contradicted in the Bible itself.
1. In Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, we are told to sing and teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, not just psalms.
2. In the gospels, after the Last Supper, we read, "When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the mount of Olives." Notice it was a hymn not a psalm.
3. At Phillipi, when Paul and Silas were in prison, we read that "at midnight they were praying and singing hymns to God." Again, we notice that it was hymns not psalms.
4. The Psalms themselves say, "Sing to the Lord a new song," (Ps. 98:1, also in Ps. 33:3, Ps. 40:3, Ps. 96:1, Ps. 144:9, Ps. 149:1 and Is. 42:10), so God must always be ready and willing to give us new songs.
5. This is reinforced by Isaiah 43:19-21, where God says, "Behold I am doing a new thing…I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself, that they may declare my praise." God always lives in the present, and He is always doing new things; so He expects us to go on declaring his praise for all the new things He is doing, which means new songs.
6. This is further reinforced and illustrated by the fact that at times of revival and spiritual vitality and growth, the Holy Spirit has caused new hymns and songs to be written. We see this in the Early Church by the references in Colossians and Ephesians already given. We see this at the time of the Reformation. We see it with the Moravians in Bohemia, where the most wonderful Scriptural hymns were written; and we see it, above all, in the 18th century awakening in Britain, in the writings of William Williams, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and many others. The fact that during every time when the Holy Spirit has been most active, He has inspired people to write many new songs and hymns, confirms that God wants us to use new hymns and songs as well as the old ones.
7. There are passages in the psalms that are definitely sub Christian. Passages such as Psalm 58: 6-10, where the psalmist says: "Break their teeth in their mouths, O God…Let them be like a snail which melts away as it goes, like the stillborn child of a woman, let them not see the sun…The righteous will be glad when he is avenged. He shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked." Or Psalm 69:22-25, where the psalmist says, "Let their table become a snare before them. Let it become their retribution and a trap. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and make their loins shake continually. Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your fierce
anger overtake them…. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be listed with the righteous. Or Psalm 109: 6-20, where the psalmist says of his enemies, "May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars. May they be driven from their ruined homes….May no one extend kindness to him, or take pity on his fatherless children. ….May the sin of his mother never be blotted out. May their sins always remain before the Lord; that He may cut off the memory of them from the earth." Or Psalm 137: 8-9, where the psalmist says: O daughter of Babylon,…happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us. Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."
We know now, having seen the full revelation of God in Christ, with Jesus being the suffering Servant, willing to accept the contradiction of sinners against himself , forgiving His enemies, and laying down His life for them; that such sentiments as these in the psalms are unworthy of our God, and should not be sung by the followers of the Prince of Peace, who has told us to love our enemies and leave judgment to God; and who desires that no one should perish, but that all should come to repentance. Therefore everything we sing should have got way beyond the sentiments expressed in these and other psalms.
8. In addition, there is a further very important point to make in connection with these and similar verses. To claim that all these and similar words from the pre Christian psalms are "inspired," but that the finest verses of Christian hymn writers such as Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts or Nicolaus Zinzendorf or Gerhard Tersteegen or William Williams, were not inspired or were uninspired, (even though they all wrote at a time of great Holy Spirit outpourings), to me is verging on committing the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit. If they were not inspired by the Holy Spirit of wisdom, of illumination, of grace, then nobody has been inspired, which, obviously is not true, as we are living in the post Pentecostal period of the Holy Spirit, which the psalmists were not. Furthermore, we who are not living in a period of revival and awakening are not in a position to criticise such sublime writings as these hymns, which have blessed and benefitted thousands of people down the centuries.
In saying this, I am not seeking to supplant the Scriptures. I am not advocating the need of further revelation. Every doctrine and every hymn and song has to be tested by the truth once for all delivered to the saints, i.e. the Christian revelation in the New Testament. The Son of God Himself tested the Old Testament and had to correct it. Pre-eminent among these was His teaching: "It was said, 'you shall love your neighbour, but hate your enemy,' but I say to you: love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you," (Mt.5:43-44), the very opposite of what the psalmists were saying in the passages I quoted. Everything in the Bible has to be tested by His fuller and greater revelation, and much in the psalms fails the test. Therefore the psalms should not be treated as if they were the gospel, and be the only things sung by Christians, but should be tested. Where they pass the test, they can be sung, along with all the great Christian hymns and songs that have been inspired by the Holy Spirit, and are part of our Christian heritage.
9. The psalms, by reason of the fact that they were all written before the Christian dispensation, cannot give expression to the uniqueness of the supreme revelation of God
through His Son, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews points out in the most sublime way, (Heb. 1:1-4). They cannot describe His incarnation, His baptism, His earthly life, His teaching, His prayer life, His sacrificial death for our salvation, His atoning reconciliation of God and man, His victory over death, his giving of the Holy Spirit to all believers, His bringing together of Jew and Gentile, His fulfilment of hundreds of prophecies, etc. We need Christian hymns and songs to give expression to these and all other aspects of the glory, the name, the priesthood, the kingdom and the reign of the Lord Jesus Christ. The psalms are very helpful, but in comparison with the New Testament, they are vastly deficient. Why should the Church deprive its own people of being able to sing the praises of their Redeeming Lord, of extolling His glory, His greatness and the wonder of the life changing gospel that He brought to earth? How tragic that the Church should be deprived of singing any of the beautiful hymns that have been written in celebration of our Saviour's birth; nor to sing any of the incredibly moving hymns that stir our hearts as we concentrate our hearts on the passion of our Lord, and seek to identify with His crucifixion; nor to sing any of the joyful, triumphant hymns relating to the resurrection and ascension of our Lord; nor any of the majestic hymns that speak of the glory of the Lord in heaven and the work He is doing now; nor, above all, any of the hymns written to enable us to understand and apply the outworking of these truths in our lives.
There is a huge contradiction involved here. To affirm that God, having come to earth in the person of His Son, having humbled Himself and become a man, having suffered and died as the perfect sacrifice to end the sacrificial system, having risen from the dead and destroyed the power of death, having told His followers to tell everybody about Him and His kingdom, to say that repentance and forgiveness of sins in His name should be proclaimed to all peoples, having inspired the apostles to declare that there was no other name given under heaven by which people could be saved, and that every knee would bow down before the Lord Jesus Christ and that every tongue in the whole universe would declare that Jesus is Lord; would then say to His people, 'You must not sing about any of this, you must not praise me for this. Your singing must be as if I had never come, as if I had never suffered and died, as if the sacrificial system had never been cancelled, as if the resurrection had never occurred and victory over death had never been achieved, as if the Holy Spirit had never been poured out on believers, as if all believers had never been made priests, as if Jesus Christ was not in heaven, pleading for you with the nail prints in His hands and feet!!! The whole idea is nonsensical and the height of ingratitude to God.
Moreover, it is illogical in view of our praise in heaven. There we shall sing, (Revelation 5:9-10), a song of redemption and deliverance. By His blood, the Lamb has redeemed people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and made them kings and priests to God; concepts way beyond the thinking of the psalmists. I am well aware that there we will sing of our redeemer in a fuller and more glorious way, but it will be more glorious than here on earth, not a sudden switch. God does not seal our mouths here and tell us not to sing of His grace.
I, therefore, maintain that the correct Christian position with regard to singing only the psalms should be that such a practice is unscriptural and incomplete for Christians, and that where psalms are sung as part of fully rounded Christian praise of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, that only those parts of the psalms should be sung that pass the test of Christian orthodoxy, according to "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints."
B. The Dedication of the Temple
We have seen that the Early church, the Reformers and most churches for a long time afterward, rejected musical instruments to accompany their singing, on the basis that a) worship under the Old Covenant was pre Christian and childish, and b) that the New Testament speaks only of singing, and does not mention the use of any instrumental accompaniment.
However, that first argument, that the musical accompaniment of the Old Testament was childish and pre Christian, needs to be more closely examined.
a) The psalms tell us, over thirteen times, to worship with instruments. If these instructions are rejected on the basis of being Old Covenant and childish, then all the teaching in the psalms should be rejected as being childish, which, obviously cannot be right, as the New Testament teaches that "whatever things were written in former days were written for our instruction,"(Rom. 15:4), and "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness;" (2Tim. 3:16), therefore the instructions in the psalms are to be followed, if they do not go against Christian teaching.
b) If using musical instruments is childish and not spiritual, then how could David, who was a man after God's own heart, and who knew the Spirit of God, invent musical instruments and get the singers and the musicians to make music together, especially when the ark was brought into Jerusalem? This would have been going against God's will. If that had been so, then God would have sent Nathan or another prophet to go to David and tell him so. But He didn't do so. In fact we know the opposite, that it was pleasing to the Lord, for, as we shall see later, when the musicians playing David's instruments, along with the singers, praised the Lord at the dedication of the temple, God showed His approval.
Moreover, when Hezekiah followed David's example, and had musical instruments made, as David had specified, we read that he stationed the Levites in the Lord's temple with cymbals, harps and lyres, according to the command of David, Gad and Nathan. "For the command was from the Lord through His prophets, (2Chron. 29:25-26). So we know that David was not going against God's will in making instruments and using them for the praise of God, but was actually carrying it out!
The same applies to Nehemiah, when he sought out the Levites to sing and play cymbals and stringed instruments and harps, the musical instruments prescribed by David, at the dedication of the wall round Jerusalem, (Neh. 12:27-36).
In addition, there are three special passages in the Bible which could be said to alter the whole picture. The first one is the record of the dedication of the temple. At the dedication, we are told that the Levitical singers sang praises to the Lord with their musical instruments, cymbals, harps and lyres; and that when the song was raised with trumpets, cymbals and other musical instruments in praise to God, that the glory of God filled the temple, so that the priests could not stand to minister, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God. (2Chron. 5:11-14)
Nowhere else in the whole of scripture does God show His approval of singing with musical instruments in such an outstanding way, so this needs to be taken very seriously. It could be said that what happened on that occasion was so special and so supernatural that it trumps all the arguments used against the use of musical instruments with singing, especially as the argument from silence in the New Testament is a weak one, as all arguments from silence are weak.
In defence of unaccompanied singing, it could be argued that God was showing His approval of the building of the temple, not of the singing. Now it is true that God was pleased with the temple being built according to the pattern of the tabernacle given to Moses, but if that had been the main or the sole reason for His approval, the sending of the glory would have been right at the beginning of the dedication, after the ark with the holy utensils had been installed. But the approval did not come then. It came only after all the priests had sanctified themselves, after all the Levitical singers had dressed themselves in fine linen clothes, as God had commanded Moses, and were standing there with their musical instruments, having been specially prepared under the direction of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun, after the hundred and twenty priests who were trumpeters were in position, and when the song was raised with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments in praise to the Lord, singing: "For He is good, for His steadfast love endures for ever;" only then was the house of the Lord filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God."
What does this tell us? There are many things involved here, so we cannot say that it tells us that God approves of all singing with any kind of musical accompaniment, especially when we remember that all the instruments then were natural and acoustic. Nothing was electronic and nothing was amplified, even though there would have been thousands of worshippers present, so that needs to be noted. But we can say that it is teaching us about obedience. It is telling us that when we have done all that God commands us to do, when we, who are all priests to God, have taken trouble to present ourselves in the best way before him, and have then offered our very best worship to him, possibly with instruments made at His command, centring our thoughts and our words on Him, that that pleases Him, and we can expect His approval and His presence.
This is backed up by the fact that after Solomon had knelt down before God, spread out his hands towards heaven, prayed to God with reverence and respect, acknowledged God's greatness, sought God's forgiveness, pleaded God's faithfulness and claimed God's promises, that his prayer was immediately answered, and God sent fire down from heaven which burnt up the offerings and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord again filled the temple, so the priests could not enter the house of the Lord because the glory of the Lord had filled it. (2Chron. 7:1-2)
He had asked that God should arise and go to His resting place, for his priests to be clothed with salvation and for His saints to rejoice in his goodness. He had pleaded with God not to turn away His face from his anointed one, and to remember His steadfast love. (6: 41-7:3)
This shows that what God is concerned about, above everything else, is humility, obedience and sacrifice; doing everything in the very best way for Him, with honesty and reality and
prayer that is centred on Him, stands on His promises and pleads those promises in faith. These are the prayers that He answers.
Matthew Henry pointed out that when we pray and praise in the same way, with total dedication, obedience and faith, God can then send down "the fire of the Holy Spirit to
burn up our lusts and corruptions, and kindling in our souls a holy fire of pious and devout affections, always to be kept burning on the altar of our hearts." Our praise, like our gifts, has to be offered from obedient hearts, (Mt. 5: 23-24)Only then, could it be said, will God be enthroned on the praises of His people, (Ps. 22:3).
We also need to notice how the great congregation responded to the sending of the fire on the sacrifice and the glory of the Lord in the temple, "They bowed their faces to the ground and worshipped, thus expressing their awful dread of the divine majesty, their submission to the divine authority and the sense they had of their unworthiness to come into God's presence." (Matthew Henry) Just as they had done when God's presence and power came down before Solomon's prayer, so now they sang, "For He is good, and His mercy endures forever." This is how we are to worship God.
When we are obedient to Him and truly seek Him, He can come down in power, His holy presence will humble us and will create real praise from contrite hearts.
C. Worship in Heaven
The other two passages that need to be noted and looked at carefully, as they have a bearing on the form that our praise should take, are both in the Book of Revelation.
a) In Rev. 5:8, we read that after the Lamb had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty four elders fell down before Him, each one holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense; and they sang a new song saying, "You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain and have redeemed us to God by Your blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God."
The inference is that they played the harps to accompany their singing, otherwise there would be no point in holding the harps. They are not a decoration. They are there to be played. What is done in heaven must be right on earth. "Let your will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven." Therefore we can say that this justifies using harps with our singing.
b) Then in Rev.15:1-8, we read that the writer saw another great and awe inspiring sign in heaven: seven angels, along with those who had won the victory over all the evil forces, standing on a sea of glass with harps from God. They sang the song of Moses and the Song of the Lamb.
Again, the inference is that they played the harps and sang. Robert Earle in his commentary says, "These harpists sing and play," while Albert Barnes in his commentary says, "Harps are to be employed in His praise."
If you will permit another personal recollection, I remember going to a service where the musical accompaniment was just a harp. Although the congregation was quite large, the accompaniment was sufficient and very good. . Before that time, I had
not realized that the harp, played as an accompaniment under the hands of an experienced player, could sound so beautiful and so suitable.
In this event portrayed before us, we should specially note that, just as at the dedication of the temple, after the song was sung, in which they acknowledged the greatness of God, singing, "Who would not fear and glorify Your name, for You alone are holy, and all people will come and worship You," the heavenly sanctuary, (the equivalent of the Holy of Holies in the Temple), was opened, and out of the sanctuary came seven angels, dressed in clean bright or white linen, (the emblems of holiness), with golden sashes round their chests. Then the sanctuary was filled with smoke, from the glory of God and from His power, and no one could enter the sanctuary, just as on Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:18), and as at the dedication of the temple that we have noted, and as with Isaiah when he was called, (Is.6:1-4).
So here we have seen two further confirmations of God openly showing His approval of singing with some instruments, but only when it is coupled with the right attitudes and full obedience to Him.
We should also note the prophecy in Isaiah 4:2-6. In this passage we are told that it is "when the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Jerusalem, and cleansed the bloodguilt from the heart of Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning, that He will then create a cloud of smoke by day and a glowing flame of fire by night over the entire site of Mount Zion, and over its assemblies. For the glory will be a canopy over all, and it will be a shade by day from the heat and a refuge and shelter from the storm and rain."
All these Biblical references to the Lord responding to the obedience of His people, and showing his approval by revealing His glory, link in with the experience of R.B. Jones at Amlwch in Anglesey in 1905, when, as he was preaching on Isaiah 6, the whole
congregation came under such strong conviction of sin, that they felt almost crushed with despair. Then as the preacher spoke on the Lord taking away sin, the Spirit brought to them
such relief and gratitude that they all sprang to their feet "with unutterable and exalted joy." The holy presence of God so filled the place, and the power of God was so great, especially in the pulpit, where the light of God was shining, that R.B. had to withdraw, like the priests at the dedication of the temple.
If R.B. Jones, one of the holiest men that this country has known, was forced to withdraw from God's presence, how would we fare? We need to humble ourselves before Him, and cry out, as the praying men of Barvas in Lewis did in 1949, "Are my hands clean? Is my heart pure? This was the plea that brought the power of God down, and changed the spiritual atmosphere of the whole island.
It also links in with the testimony of Daniel Williams, a convert of the awakening and the founder of the Apostolic movement in Wales, who stated that "the manifestation of the Holy Spirit was beyond human management. Men and women were mowed down by the axe of God like a forest. Ministers could not stay to minister when the cloud of glory came down on the tabernacle, just as it had with Moses. The fire descended, burning its way into the hearts of men and women with sanctity and glory. There was weeping for mercy and an ecstasy of joy. So great was the visitation in Penygroes and the district that whole nights were spent in the church buildings. In some places, the glory rested for over two years."
This is how God worked in the past and how He wants to work in our lives today. He never changes (Mal.3:6). He is waiting for our full obedience and cooperation. Let us seek God's best and nothing less.
In conclusion, we all need to ask ourselves some basic questions:
1. In the light of what we have seen regarding the singing during the first centuries of the Church's history and of singing since the reformation right through until late in the 19th century, should Christian singing be accompanied by musical instruments?
2. If, in spite of the evidence to the contrary, we still think it is right to use musical instruments, and if, as Adam Clarke said, "musical instruments are a substitute for the life and power of religion, and where they prevail most, there is the least of the power of Christianity," how are we going to deal with that problem?
3. If we still think it is right to use musical instruments, which instruments should we use that are pleasing to the Lord? How can we show that we are not copying the rebellious world with the instruments we use and the way they are played?
4. If musical instruments are acceptable, how should they be played? Is the accompaniment at the right volume level, so that the voices always predominate over the instruments?
5. Does the tune always predominate over the beat?
6. Is the rhythm provided by the instruments or the voices, and not by the percussion?
7. Is our music completely different from the world's music?
8. Are there times when we sing unaccompanied?
9. Is the music in our praise helping or hindering our hearts and minds and spirits and bodies to be in the right condition for God to act?
10. Is our worship truly a sacrifice of praise from obedient hearts and lives?
11. Are there times in our worship when we are still and silent before Him, so we know He is God?
12. When people come in to our worship services, before the service starts, do they spend the time praying for the Holy Spirit to come down upon us and have His way in our lives?
13. Do our praise times enable us to be absolutely honest with God, opening ourselves up to His searching gaze?
14. How can we know God's approval on our worship meetings? How can we see the Shekinah glory of God filling the place where we worship, so that we cannot stand, but have to withdraw or fall on our faces before Him, and let God take over?
"If you go to a service and sing praise and feel happy with the music, but it doesn't change you; that is not worship. Real worship is when you surrender yourself to God, for Him to have His way in your life, so that you live a more holy life." (Zac Poonen)
"The weakness of so many modern Christians is that they feel too much at home in the world. In their effort to achieve easy adjustment to unregenerate society they have lost their pilgrim character and become an essential part of the very moral order against which they are sent to protest. The world recognizes them and accepts them for what they are." (A.W. Tozer)
"The chief danger of the church today is that it is trying to get on the same side as the world, instead of turning the world upside down. Our Master expects us to accomplish results, even if they bring opposition and conflict. Anything is better than compromise, apathy and paralysis. God give to us an intense cry for the old-time power of the gospel of the Holy Ghost!" (A.B Simpson)
"Only when we are captured by an overwhelming sense of awe and reverence in the presence of God, will we begin to worship God in spirit and in truth." (Alistair Begg)