Considering Context Leads To Singing Psalms In New Testament Praise And Worship

contextContext inevitably colors how we understand texts. It shapes our assumptions about what about what is possible and plausible. I see this in Patristics (the study of the early Christian church). As a confessional Reformed Christian with connections to Reformed orthodoxy, as an heir to their theology, piety, and practice it’s easier for me to see some themes and notes in Patristic literature than it might be for others. E.g., when most interpreters of Ignatius of Antioch (d. early 2nd century) seem to assume that his vision of church polity must have been monepiscopal (i.e., a hierarchy organized around a single bishop) it’s easier for me to see him talking about a plurality of offices and officers. Where some interpreters see Prosper of Aquitaine (d. c. 460) moving away from Augustine’s high doctrine of predestination later in his career, I see him embracing something like what we call the free or well meant offer of the gospel. Because most interpreters of Justin and Irenaeus are probably only vaguely aware of federal or covenant theology they are not categories that come immediately to mind when interpreting their reading of redemptive history but they do when I read them. When Tertullian wrote that he intended to contest the ground of his opponent’s argument I do not see that as fideism (the refusal to make reasonable arguments), as some do, but rather as a sort of presuppositional approach. I think my context helps me interpret Anselm for similar reasons. “Fides quaerens intellectum” (faith seeking understanding) is not only classic Augustinianism but it also makes perfect sense to a Van Tillian.

Context also affects what we think biblical texts might be saying. Most of us, even in confessional Reformed congregations, do not sing Psalms or any other portion of God’s Word during public worship very often. Yesterday morning pastor Stephen Donovan was preaching through James 5. Verse 13 says, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing a psalm.” That’s not translation that most people are seeing. The Authorized Version (1611) had “let him sing psalms” but the ESV and NASB have “sing praises.” The NRSV has “sing praise.” The 1559 Geneva Bible has “sing.” Each of these is a reasonable translation but in our context to translate “sing praise(s)” suggests in the minds of most readers songs by Graham Kendrick more than songs by King David. When James wrote those words, however, those Jewish Christians were emerging from the synagogue. That background is signaled in a different ways. E.g., in James 2:19 he wrote, “You believe that God is one….” That was a reference to that part of the liturgy in which they confessed Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Since we do not regularly confess the Shema (“Hear….”) we might miss that but they would not have missed it. When James exhorted those Christians to “sing” they would have thought of that collection of songs of praise given to believers by the Holy Spirit though David and others. The Jews had been singing those songs for a 1,000 years by the time James wrote those words. That millennium of experience would have shaped their expectations, their frame of reference, and their assumptions about what it means to “sing praise” to God. Further, the Greek text says “ψάλλω” (Psallo). You can see the connection between “Psallo and Psalm. The first is the verb and the second refers to the song that was sung. The collection of Psalms, which we often describe as the “book of Psalms” is actually composed of 5 books, each of which is marked by its own doxologies(s) at the end. As the Psalter was mediated to the New Testament church (via the Septuagint) there were 4 classes of songs: Psalms, hymns, [spiritual] songs, and wisdom. Those categories should seem familiar since they are the categories that Paul invokes in Colossians 3:16:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom (σοφίᾳ), singing psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Again, context makes all the difference. When we hear “hymns” we probably think of songs from the 18th and 19th centuries that have come to be regarded as “traditional” and were, in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries added to Reformed songbooks. Of course, the Reformed originally translated the Psalms in the languages of the people and sang principally Psalms and other parts of God’s Word (e.g., Lord’s Prayer, the Decalogue, the Nunc Dimittis, and Beza compiled “canticles” from the New Testament for use in Geneva, though it is not clear that it was ever used) for use in public worship. Most of the Reformed churches sang only God’s Word for 200 years.

Those are the songs that God gave to his people. They were given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit and preserved for us as the canon (rule) and the holy, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. Songs written by uninspired writers, however much we find them personally inspiring, are not God’s Word. They are a part of God’s general providence but so are songs by the Rolling Stones. Non-canonical hymns have no intrinsic authority and relatively little as compared to God’s Word. Further, we know that God’s people sang the psalms in the early church: “When you come together, each one has a psalm (ψαλμὸν)….” This noun is frequently translated into English with “hymn.” That choice, of course, leads most readers/hearers to think of “How Great Thou Art” more than Psalm 23.

With this background we should perhaps think differently when we read Paul quoting or alluding to 2 Sam 22:50 (a song of David) or Psalm 18:49: ” Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing (ψαλῶ) to your name.” When David sang about singing, he was singing a psalm. When Paul quoted David, he was quoting  a psalm. Given that original setting we should read that language as it was originally intended. In this light perhaps we should reconsider how we understand 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing (ψαλῶ) with [s]pirit and I will sing with the mind.” When he wrote “sing” we should not assume a priori that he must have been thinking of new songs. Certainly we have no warrant to think that he was implying the use of uninspired songs. When Paul says “singing” (ψάλλοντες) in Ephesians 5:19, since it is used in the context of the categories taken from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (LXX) from the Psalter (see above) we should think of this participle in that context.

Context matters. Most of us read Scripture in English translation. Most of these are faithful translations but translators must make choices and those choices are colored by context. That seems clearly evident in the case of 1 Corinthians 14:26, where a transliteration of the Greek noun psalm produces markedly different results in the mind of the English reader. Further, because Reformed worship was revolutionized in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Reformed and Presbyterian Christians no longer sing Psalms  in public or private worship. That revolution has produced a new context in which Scripture is read, heard, interpreted, and applied. If we are are to read Scripture well and apply it skillfully we should remind ourselves that our context is not final, that Scripture was written in a different context, and we must remember to seek to read Scripture in its original context as we seek to apply it to ours. In this case, as we do this, it leads us to think that not only were the canonical Psalms more prominent in the biblical context but also that they should be in ours as well.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Or in other words, Scripture interprets Scripture.

    In addition to the examples noted above, how many times have you heard “But the Bible tells us to sing a “new song”? Well, yes it does. Predominantly in the Psalms (33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1) along with Is. 42:10 and Rev. 5:9, 14:3.

    Or “Sing Praise”? Eight of twelve instances are directly from the Book of Praises, i.e. the Psalter and Heb. 2:12 is a quote of Ps. 22:22. Second Chronicles 23:13 and 29:30 refer to singing the words of David or the choirs he instituted to sing psalms while Jdg. 5:3 from Debra and Barak’s victory song is the lone non psalm.

    Which just goes to show, maybe the modern P&R church doesn’t know its bible as well as it thinks it does and consequently a lot of things escape its notice.

    We all know the rock band with drums and guitar and the overhead projector praise choruses at the megachurches are bad juju, but maybe things aren’t so copacetic closer to home, ya think?

    Nah, it’s those pentecostalromancatholicbaptistarminians.
    It’s never us.

  2. Thank you for this post.

    I am preaching on Psalm 13 this week in morning worship and David ends that psalm with:

    “My heart shall rejoice in Your salvation. I will ‘ψαλῶ’ to the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me.”

    This will definitely make it into the application part of that verse.

    • Hi Benjamin (and Scott),
      I should point out that “psalo” does not mean “to sing a psalm”, as any reputable lexicon will remind you. This is a basic linguistic fallacy like the one that makes preachers compare “dunamis” and “dynamite”. It means to sing praises or, more generally to play a musical instrument (for example 1 Sam 16:16-17). And I hope you are not preaching from the Septuagint but from the Hebrew, which would deliver you instantly from this mistake. “psalo” typically translates zamar, which certainly does not mean “to sing a psalm” but rather “to play an instrument, to sing to the Lord”. So, of course, unaccompanied psalmody is, strictly speaking, a contradiction in terms.

      What is more, David could scarcely be saying “I will sing a Psalm” in 2 Sam 22. Not only does the Hebrew not mean that, but the psalter could hardly have existed in any recognizably canonical form at this point, prior to the building of the temple. Some of what we now call psalms (which the Hebrew calls “tehillim”, praises) were written to be sure, but until you had a place to sing them (the temple), it’s hard to see how you have a complete and authorized collection. An of course that collection remained open all the way down until after the exile, as God added new songs to those that had evident divine warrant. During the growth of the psalter, it’s not clear to me what “exclusive psalmody” would actually mean – certainly something very different from what it means now.

      • Hi Iain,

        I don’t think I’m committing an etymological fallacy. I’m not inferring the meaning by adding up the letters or from it’s English cognates. I’m noting that when David said “sing” it was in the context of a Psalm. That might seem obvious but sometimes the obvious is important. He wasn’t writing a Psalm saying “sing something other than a psalm.”

        The etymological fallacy would be to conclude (as some have done) that “Καὶ ὑμνήσαντες” in Matt 26:30 (Mark 14:26) = “when they had sung a hymn” (ESV). Ditto for Acts 16:25, where the ESV translates ὕμνουν as “they sang hymns.” No, what we know from the participle and context is that they sang. From other places we know what they sang and they weren’t non-canonical hymns.

        I’m not arguing here for exclusive psalmody (why is that every time a Reformed person writes about the history and virtues of Psalmody he has to aver, “but I’m not arguing for exclusive psalmody as if it were a crime?). As I keep saying (as I argued in RRC, I’m arguing that God’s Word is sufficient for worship, that we don’t need uninspired texts in worship. I agree with Mr Murray, Beza, and others that we should sing songs from across the canon of Scripture.

        Further, I’m encouraging people not to assume that an exhortation to sing is a blank space that we may fill in as we will. If we consider the original context of this verb “to sing” it is reasonable to translate it, as the KJV did “to sing a psalm” and least to recognize that it is Psalms that are being quoted when other verbs (e.g., ὑμνήσω in Heb 2:12) for singing are used.

        ps. And another thing. The formation of the Psalter is interesting but not definitive for determining what post-canonical actors (we) should do. The canon is formed and finished and imposed by God. In that canonical word is a collection of Psalms, which we receive as God’s Word. The church has always related to that collection thus. Exclusive psalmody = “singing only the 150 psalms.” That’s doesn’t seem difficult.

    • RSC

      ??? From other places we know what they sang and they were [not] non-canonical hymns.

      WADR your argument reminds me of the romanists who ask where sola scriptura was before the close of canon. (The answer is not AWOL.)


  3. Thank you for the comment Dr. Duguid.

    Looking at my post now I realize I must have missed a sentence or two in what I was saying which led to the correct impression you had of it and my gross error.

    I had meant to merely comment that psallo was present in the Septuagint verse of that passage.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Do you think there is a place for non-canonical songs in private worship?

  5. Dr. Clark, when you say that you agree with Mr Murray, Beza, and others that we should sing songs from across the canon of Scripture, do you mean that we should sing in corporate worsip only what we know to be actual songs from across the canon? (Like the song of Moses, Deborah’s song, etc.) (As opposed to setting Scripture from all sorts of genres to music and singing them.).

    • I would start with texts thought to be songs but here Iain & I might agree that the line between song and not song can get fuzzy. E.g., is Phil 2 a “song” or Col 1? They are regarded as such and I’m happy to do so but others do not. May we not sing them? They are the Word of God. It is one thing to impose upon a congregation a text to sing that is not God’s Word. It is another to set before them a text that is God’s Word. It’s difficult for me to see how anyone’s conscience is bound by that. I understand the scruple regarding EP and honor it but I’m hoping that we can make a swap. I’m asking those who would sing more than Psalms to settle for Scripture. I’m willing to sing anything from Scripture that is appropriate. I doubt it would be appropriate to sing “Jesus wept” or “Judas hanged himself” again and again. I trust that no one would ask that of a congregation. There are places in Scripture that might not be easily sung but there are different types of psalms. I guess that, for various reasons, even in EP congregations, not all the Psalms are sung.

      As I’ve said here many times, in the churches determined to sing only the psalms I would happily submit to that. If, however, the churches included the known and agreed songs from outside the Psalms I would be happy with that too. If there are other passages that are appropriate (e.g, 2 Tim 3:16) that would be good too.

  6. Thanks for your answer! I have been pondering it. Isn’t the scruple over EP really a scruple over the regulative principle- that since God has not commanded the singing of anything other than psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, we may only sing them (in corporate worship)? I don’t believe there is any proof that anything from the Epistles comprised a song that was sung by the first-century church.

    And don’t underestimate the eager young innovative songwriters out there who wouldn’t find, in the permission to sing any text of Scripture, permission to make songs out of much more interesting texts than the ones you mentioned!

    My understanding is that amongst EP’ers, all the Psalms are sung, none are excluded. That would be my own stance and conviction.

    • Jeri,

      In a Reformed congregation the consistory/session must approve whatever is sung in public worship. People may write all manner of songs but that does not mean that they should be sung in public worship. It seems to me that the basic tenet of sola scriptura as applied to worship is that the congregation may not be asked to sing what God has not commanded. I understand the EP view but I worry that it makes a canon within the canon.

      I concede that determining what is and isn’t a song in Scripture is necessarily a subjective judgment but I’m hard pressed to see how it can be wrong to sing those songs that occur in Scripture outside of Psalter (e.g., Ex 15 et al) or other passages. I’m happy to sing the beatitudes, the Pauline doxologies, the songs of the Revelation, or the prophecies in Jeremiah and Isaiah. If a consistory/session approved a song for public worship that was inappropriate, then the issue is not Scripture but the consistory/session.

      All of God’s Word is useful for correction, training, reproof etc.

      I’m not convinced that Paul is even discussing public worship in Col 3 and Eph 5 when he says “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” He may be and I’m convinced that he’s referring the psalter when he speaks thus (and I recognize that the churches have long interpreted those passages to refer to public worship) but if they aren’t addressing public worship directly then that also raises questions. That’s one reason why I argued in Recovering that we should interpret our Lord’s words to the woman at the well to refer to “worship in the Holy Spirit and in the Truth” (i.e., in Christ). If what we are singing is “in the Holy Spirit and in the Truth” (i.e., if it is God’s canonical Word) then we’re doing what he commanded. Here at least we’re making a more direct inference from a place where our Lord is addressing public worship.

  7. Thanks Dr. Clark. I guess my question is that if Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are not prescriptive for our singing in public worship, then what NT text is? I’ve read that some take these texts as possibly not referring to public worship, but they are all we have as far as commandments for what to sing; and there is no mistaking, as you say, that Paul is referring in those texts to the psalter.

    Thanks again, Dr. Clark, I greatly appreciate all your work and the attention you bring to these issues. My prayer is that we all come to understand Christ’s will and plan to sing in the midst of his congregations; Hebrews 2:22, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”

    • Jeri,

      I don’t assume that there must be a single text somewhere that prescribes worship in detail. The RPW is a good and necessary inference from a variety of passages and from the nature of special revelation itself (sola scriptura). We can observe patterns of worship (e.g., call and response) and we observe the history of redemption (the movement from types/shadows to realities) and we observe apostolic practice and instruction. Surely, as we do that, we should take those passages (Col and & Eph) into account but if they were not given to instruct us on congregational worship, then that’s a different sort of inference. That’s why I’m comfortable with what was done in Geneva, the Dutch and French Churches, where canonical songs other than Psalms were sung in response to God’s Word.

  8. Dr. Clark :

    Would it be possible to provide a reference or two to resources backing up the claim that “the Jews had been singing those songs for a 1,000 years by the time James wrote those words”. That’s an important point in your argument. What evidence is available regarding the singing of canonical Psalms during the OT era & in the synagogue? Simply canonicity?

    A quick glance through Everett Ferguson’s *Backgrounds*, Cohen’s *Maccabees to the Mischnah*, Lohse’s *NT Enviroment*, etc. yields little information.


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