Speaking the Truth in Love

Music in the Psalms

The New Testament scriptures pertaining to music in worship command the church to sing. For instance, Paul urges the church at Ephesus to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph. 5:19). The Colossians receive similar instructions: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). Such passages give the church no authority for adding instrumental music to public worship.

But don’t Paul’s references to the book of Psalms justify the use of instrumental music in church? The psalms do indeed promote instrumental music in Old Testament worship. The last psalm, for example, invites temple worshipers to praise the Lord “with trumpet sound,” “with lute and harp,” “with timbrel and dance,” “with strings and pipe,” “with sounding cymbals,” “with loud crashing cymbals” (Ps. 150:3-5). But does Paul expect the Ephesians and Colossians to use the book of Psalms in church worship indiscriminately?

Suppose that an unbeliever is making his first church visit. He comes in, nervously takes a seat, and then hears the following words (cited directly from the Psalms) sent up to heaven in beautiful four-part harmony:

O Lord, fight against those who fight against me,
I hate them with perfect hatred,
I count them my enemies.
O God, break the teeth in their mouths,
Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime,
Let death come upon them,
Let them go away in terror to their graves.
The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance,
He will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.

Since hymnals never include imprecatory psalms set to music, the unsuspecting visitor is safe from the shock of hearing such a song in church worship. Do we believe that logical explanations justify the presence of imprecations in the Psalms? Yes, but we avoid singing anything that appears to deny the meaning of the cross—the overflowing love of Christ for even his enemies.

Church hymnals never include songs advocating animal sacrifice either. This is because “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (Heb. 10:4). Jesus “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:26). And yet, the following words (again direct quotations from the Psalms) could be set to music:

I will come into thy house with burnt offerings,
I will offer to thee burnt offerings of fatlings,
With the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats.

While singing the psalmists’ imprecations would reflect poor judgment, commending animal sacrifice in worship would be absolutely wrong. Promoting devotion to the temple altar denies the central truth of the Gospel: Jesus, and Jesus alone, is our atonement. We “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood” (Rom. 3:24-25).

The instrumental music of Old Testament worship belonged to the sacrificial system. When King David brought the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem, Israel celebrated with “loud music on harps and lyres” and “burnt offerings and peace offerings before God” (1 Chron. 15:28-16:1). The book of Psalms itself acknowledged that instrumental music accompanied animal sacrifice. “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy,” the psalmist said, “and I will praise thee with the lyre, O God, my God” (Ps. 43:4).

Did Paul urge the singing of “psalms” because every line of the inspired poetry was appropriate for the church? No. Was he commending the instrumental music that belonged to the temple’s elaborate sacrificial system? No. He commended the use of the Psalms because the book was a rich resource of devotional material perfectly suited for Christian worship.

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