top of page



Psalms or Hymns in Public Worship




Copyright 2002 © The Free Presbyterian MagazineThis article originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.






Rev. H M Cartwright




Rev I H Murray has written a booklet entitled Should the Psalter be the only Hymnal of the Church? which is published by the Banner of Truth Trust. He affirms that “for congregational praise there clearly needs to be a book or books for common use” and enquires as to “whether or not Christians and churches are left to form their own judgement on the material they use for this purpose, or whether there is a principle which requires them to use one book alone, namely the book of Psalms (that is, the Psalter in metrical form)”. The conclusion he endeavours to uphold is that “Scripture does not command any one manual of praise for the exclusive use of the Church. The regulative principle controls what shall or shall not be parts of worship: it is sung praise that is authorized as a part, not the very words of which that part has to be made up.”




The argument for hymns in public worship. Mr. Murray surprisingly denies that there is “proof in Scripture that God appoint the one-hundred and fifty psalms of David for the public worship of the Old Testament Church”. He maintains that even “if it could be proved that the Psalter alone was the authorized praise of the Old Testament Church, it would still be another proposition altogether to establish that it must remain the sole manual for the New.” He affirms that “nowhere in Scripture is the idea presented that praise spoken has to be restricted to Bible words, words appointed by the Holy Spirit; why then should praise sung be different?” He claims that the Book of Psalms “could be called a Book of Prayers as well as a Book of Praises. In that respect there is nothing comparable to it elsewhere in Scripture, yet no one holds that the prayers of the Church must ever be restricted to the inspired words that God has given us.”




He believes that “it can be argued from the New Testament not simply that the case for hymns is left open, but that there is good reason for believing that the praise of the Church was not intended to be left precisely where it was in the former dispensation”. Since “the coming of Christ and His finished work ensured a great advance in light and privilege for the people of God”, he asks if it is “credible that the language of Christian praise must ever be confined to the words of an age of far less light and privilege”. He agrees with Isaac Watts that “there are many hundreds of verses in that book which a Christian cannot properly assume without putting a very different meaning upon them” and alleges that “it is difficult, and at times impossible, to make the language of David and Asaph the most appropriate expression of Christian experience.”




The major defects of Mr. Murray’s “scriptural” argument. While he professes to justify his position from Scripture, his arguments consist largely of unsubstantiated deductions from “the greater light” of the New Testament dispensation together with conjecture as to the meaning of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. Hugh Martin said in the 1872 Free Church Assembly that “the question is not whether the dispensation under which we now live is better and brighter than that which preceded it, but whether, under this better and brighter dispensation, there is any security for better and brighter hymns than the Psalms of David, and whether there is a promise given to any man, or any body of men, of a richer unction of the Spirit – and not a richer unction only, but a specifically inspiring action of the Spirit – for the purpose of composing hymns for the public worship of God in the Church than was given to him of whom it is written that in his blessed swan song he spoke as follows: ‘David, the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said, The Spirit spake by me, and His word was in my tongue’. Is there any modern hymnologist in circumstances to say that? … The question is not whether we are to rise above the Old Testament dispensation, but whether we are, by the help of uninspired hymnologists, to arise above the Spirit and Word of God in the mouth of David … the man who was raised up on high.’”




John Kennedy, in the same Assembly, asked: “What view of God’s character is not unfolded in the Psalms? What aspect of his providence is not presented in them? What special dealing with His Church, individually or collectively, is not celebrated? What phase of spiritual feeling, from the deepest groan of agony and hopelessness to the highest ecstasy of triumphant joy is not expressed? And have we not in the psalms the grand facts of redemption in the historic form?” Referring to those who thought that hymns were needed for appropriate response to the “further light” of the New Testament, he said: “Have you further light? If so, bring it to the Psalms, and use it as a help to sing them with the understanding; and, the more you do so, I venture to assure you that you will meet with depths which you cannot sound and heights of attainment in faith and feeling which you are weak to climb.”




Anyone studying the commentators on the Ephesian and Colossian passages will notice that those who find in them uninspired hymns and scripture songs other than the Psalms use such words as “seem”, “might” and “may” as they present their conjectural interpretations, whereas there is no doubt that the Book of Psalms includes each category of praise described there. Paul’s original readers, with their Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, knew that well. Apart from these misused texts, Mr. Murray presents no scriptural warrant for uninspired materials of praise.




Historical defects. In his use of history, Mr. Murray practically ignores the fundamental distinction between Lutheran and Reformed principles regulating worship, particularly as illustrated in the early days of the Scottish Reformation. He does not take account of the difference between, on the one hand, the established and authorized practice of the Reformed Churches, which they considered warranted by the Word and, on the other, the inconsistent practice tolerated through time in some of them. He ignores the fact that the movement for hymns in the nineteenth-century Free Church of Scotland was parallel to the rapidly accelerating degeneracy of that denomination and principally promoted by some who were also prominent in the disestablishment and union movements and in the accommodation of higher-critical and anti-Confessional trends.




Selective quotations. In his use of quotations Mr. Murray is unfairly selective. For example, to support his claim that Thomas Manton’s use of Psalms was due to preference rather than principle, he quotes two sentences from Manton to the effect that other songs were not forbidden, based on a claim made by Tertullian that in early times hymns were sung as well as Scripture Psalms. But he does not refer to the extensive comment of Manton in the same context supporting his assertion that “Scripture Psalms not only may be sung, but are fittest to be used in the Church, as being indited by an infallible and unerring Spirit, and are of a more diffusive and unlimited concernment than private dictates of any particular person or spirit in the Church. It is impossible any should be of such a large heart as the penmen of the Word, to whom God vouchsafed such a public, high and infallible conduct; and therefore their excellent composures and addresses to God being recorded and consigned to the use of the Church for ever, it seemeth a wonderful arrogance and presumption to any to pretend to make better, or that their private and rash effusions will be more edifying.”




When Mr. Murray claims to know “no prominent orthodox commentator” who takes the view that Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 refer solely to different sections of the Book of Psalms, he obviously discounts Manton, who wrote: “If the practice of the apostles may be interpreted by their instructions, the case will be clear. In Col 3:16 and Eph 5:19, Paul biddeth us ‘speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’. Now these words (which are the known division of David’s Psalms, and expressly answering to the Hebrew words Shurim, Tehillim, and Mizmorim, by which his Psalms are distinguished and entitled), being so precisely used by the Apostle in both places, do plainly point us to the Book of Psalms.”[1] When he names Eadie, Hodge, Lenski and Hendriksen as examples of the prominent orthodox commentators who take his view of these verses, he ignores not only Thomas Manton, but also John Owen, John Brown of Haddington, Hugh Martin and John Murray, to name only some of those promoted by the Banner of Truth Trust as orthodox commentators and who take the view that these verses restrict sung praise in public worship to inspired materials.




Discounting of contrary arguments. In his references to the debates in the Free Church General Assembly between 1866 and 1872 – the pro-hymn arguments of which he largely reproduces and endorses in his booklet – he discounts the arguments put forward in opposition to the introduction of hymns. He ignores completely the contributions of such men as Hugh Martin, James Begg and Robert Elder. From a lengthy speech by John Kennedy he selects a brief remark where Kennedy distinguishes between a private use of hymns and the exclusive use of Biblical Psalms in public worship and alleges Kennedy and those who took his view could not answer questions regarding a scriptural warrant for this distinctions. He then makes the astonishing assertion that “it would appear that the inability of exclusive-psalm-singers to answer such questions contributed largely to the outcome of the debate in the Free Church of Scotland in 1872 which led to the provision of a full hymn book”. Mr. Murray knows that answers were given, whether or not he accepts them, by each of the men named above, to these and other questions submitted by the advocates of hymns but that, for reasons which had nothing to do with the debate, its outcome was certain before it began.




Unwarranted assessments. Mr. Murray introduces notes into his discussion which are somewhat offensive and prejudicial. He gives the impression that those who contend for exclusive psalmody think complacently that only they are engaged in pure worship. However, in contending for pure worship as to the form, we are not oblivious to the fact that worship defective in form may be real, although displeasing to God in so far as it is not according to his mind, and that worship which is pure in form may be defective in other respects. Grace must be sought to worship both in Spirit and in truth. Mr. Murray, no doubt unintentionally, is rather immodestly condescending and judgemental when he “acknowledges that a few of the finest Christians he has known have been exclusive psalm singers: their lives and testimonies rose above the limitations of the language of their customary praise. That such is commonly the case in psalm-singing congregations is, however, as open to doubt today as it was in the time of Isaac Watts. In such congregations it is not normal for assurance of salvation to have the prominence which it ought to have, and the language of prayer can too easily become the language used ‘before faith came’ (Gal 3:23).” Such an assessment has no foundation in either historical or contemporary fact. To attribute the state of which he complains to exclusive use of the language of divinely-inspired Psalms in praise approaches to being a slur, not on men, but on the truth itself.




An outline argument for Psalms only. Regrettably, in this brief article it is not possible to review Mr. Murray’s booklet more thoroughly or do other than outline the argument in favour of using Psalms only in public worship. That the case for hymns rests upon assumptions and conjecture, and not on clear warrant from Scripture, is itself an argument for the use of Psalms only. Our starting point is the truth that Christ is the Head of the Church. For our knowledge of His will we depend on His Word. When He reveals His will on any matter, conformity to it is our duty and privilege. God has revealed Himself in His glory as the object of worship. That He should be worshipped by the Church is not an edict of men but an ordinance of God.




James Begg in The Use of Organs claims that “the worship of God is the most sacred thing with which His creatures have to do. It is more sacred than the government of the Church, more sacred even than Christian doctrine, for these are, in a sense, merely instrumental in bringing us into proper relations to God; and if it is true in anything whatsoever that God’s will must be the only rule, it is especially true of His own worship.” This doctrine is derived originally from the clear teaching of the Old Testament that God is jealous that He be worshipped, not only in the spirit of devotion, but also in the manner revealed by Himself. The Westminster divines drew this conclusion not just from the general indications of God’s will in His Word but from what they saw to be the tenor of the Second Commandment (see, for instance, Shorter Catechism, 50 and 51). This has not been affected by the movement from Sinai to Sion, or from Old Testament to New Testament (see Heb 12:28, 29 and compare the reiteration of Isaiah 29:13, 14 in Matthew 15:7-9; see also Jn 4:24; Col 2:20-23; 1 Pet 2:15). “If ye love Me, keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15) is a principle which prevails in every area of life. It is operative when a sinner seeks to draw near to God in worship.




When it comes to the matter of praise, the general principles brought out in these scriptures must be viewed in the light of biblical facts. Sung praise is a prescribed part of the public worship of God – for example, “according to the commandment of David, and of Gad the king’s seer, and Nathan the prophet” (2 Chr 29:25). Scripture authorizes men to preach the gospel and instructs persons to pray in terms which require that in these exercises they act in accordance with the Word and in dependence upon the Spirit, but not by divine inspiration or according to a prescribed form. Those who hear the preaching or the praying are to try the spirits and they can inwardly approve or dissent. But as all in a congregation are to sing praise, there must be previously agreed materials of praise and reason for satisfaction that what is to be sung has divine authority.




The Book of Psalms is the only scripturally authorized hymn book, as we see, for example, from 2 Chronicles 29:30 and from the use made of it by the Old Testament saints, by our Lord and by the Apostles. The oneness of the Church in Old and New Testament times, the completeness of the Psalms as regards doctrine and experience, and the divine provision of a book which adequately expresses the praises of God’s people in all ages, indicate its permanent place in the Church. It speaks the language of fulfillment as well as prediction, as Hugh Martin illustrated in 1872 by reference to Psalms 21:4; 40:6, 9; 68:18; 69:9, 20; 80:17; and 110:4. The divine provision of the Psalm Book secures the truthfulness of the praise and the liberty of the people from impositions by men. It expresses and promotes the unity of the Church. It also helps to form godly character and experience in those who enter into its doctrines and sentiments.




God did not include all the inspired songs of Scripture in the Book He provided, and so we have no authority to add even other portions of Scripture to what God has given as a complete book of praises. It was not supplanted or supplemented in New Testament times by divine appointment or inspiration. It cannot be supplemented by human hymns without displacing the divine. God has given a book of praise, and the biblical exhortations with respect to the subject matter of praise refer to that book. In the New Testament we are exhorted to sing Psalms and we have the example of Christ and the Apostles (for example, Matt 26:30; 1 Cor 14:15, 26; Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16; Jas 5:13). Uninspired hymns are unknown in the New Testament. It is not without significance that none were used in the Churches of the Calvinistic Reformation.




We believe that the Westminster divines and our Scottish Reformers, in identifying the Psalms as the only authorized materials of the public praise of the Church, were acting in accordance with the biblical regulative principle summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.” (21:1). There is scriptural authority only for singing Psalms in the worship of the Church. That is why the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is committed to exclusive psalmody. Having appreciated the work of Rev I H Murray and the Banner of Truth Trust in publishing sound literature, we regret the appearance of this booklet under these auspices.














[1] Manton, Works, vol 4, p 443.



bottom of page