HYMNS IN THE PSALMS.
BY REV. JOHN BROWN, A. M.
In two of the apostolic epistles, Paul enjoins it on Christians, as a religious duty, to sing hymns in the worship of God. “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Eph. 5: 19; Col. 8: 16). It is supposed that this apostolic injunction not only renders the use of human compositions allowable, but even imperative, inasmuch as we are commanded to sing both psalms and hymns. Now, I observe:
I. That those who make this distinction are not quite consistent with themselves. For the Apostle distinguish between “psalms, and hymns and songs,” whereas they distinguished only between psalms and hymns, making no account of the songs.* Even on their own principle, therefore, their worship is incomplete. In obedience to what they suppose to be the apostolic precept, they sing “psalms and hymns;” but, I am not aware that they sing anything which they themselves call “songs,” as distinct from “psalms and hymns.” On the same principle, then that they urge on me the use of hymns, as distinct from psalms, I urge on them the use of songs, as distinct from both. But,
II. It is evident that the hymns to which the Apostle refers were not modern productions. For they must have been in existence at the time when the epistles were written, as he does not direct the churches to make hymns, but to sing hymns. Consequently, he neither enjoins nor recommends the use of the hymns of Watts, or Doddridge, or Newton, or Toplady, or Hart, or Wesley, &c, however excellent these hymns may be; and we readily admit that many of them are beautiful pieces of sacred poetry. But Paul does not enjoin the use of these, for this plain reason, that they had no existence at the time, nor were their authors born until seventeen centuries afterward. The same observation applies to all modern productions, whether they be called psalms, hymns, or songs.
III. There is no evidence whatever that the apostolic churches were in the possession of any hymns, except those which have been transmitted to us in the Scriptures. Should any one be disposed to insist that the apostolic churches were in the use of hymns besides those contained in the Scriptures, the burden of proof lies upon him. Let him give us the hymn book that was used by the Colossians and Ephesians, and furnish us with satisfactory evidence of its genuineness and authenticity, and we will at once feel the obligation to use it. [This distinction is more apparent in Scotland, where those who use what are called “hymns,” have the “Psalms” bound in one book, and the “Hymns” in another. To be consistent, they would require a third book—a Book of Songs.] But,
IV. The “psalms, and hymns and songs,” of which the Apostle speaks, are all comprehended in the “Word of Christ”—a phrase which is equivalent with the “Word of God.” “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” By this phrase the Apostle limits the hymnology of the primitive church to the Word of Christ, or the Word of God.
V. The Book of Psalms is emphatically the “Word of Christ.” The divine songs contained in the Psalter, are not only the Word of God, in the sense in which all Scripture is his word; but they may, with great propriety, be styled the “Word of Christ,” inasmuch as they are constructed on the principle that Christ is, in many of them, the speaker. The 22d Psalm, for example, is the “Word of Christ” in the same sense as the 17th of John is the “Word of Christ.” But modern hymns are not constructed on this principle, nor entitled to this appellation.
VI. Paul’s “songs” are described as being “spiritual,” or (pneumatikais) “inspired.” This is evidently the meaning of the original word in 1 Cor. 2:13, where the Apostle applies it, “not to the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth.” And as he describes the songs which he recommends as being “inspired,” it is but reasonable to suppose the “hymns” to be likewise inspired. “By hymns,” says Dr. Gill, “are intended not any mere human compositions; since I can hardly think the Apostle would place such between psalms and spiritual songs made by men inspired by the Holy Ghost, and put upon a level with them.”
VII. The term hymn has unhappily acquired a new acceptation in modern times. Other Scripture terms have been subjected to the same abuse. The word bishop, for example, is now generally applied to a dignitary of the Church of England, or of the Church of Rome, presiding over the clergy within a district called a diocese; and many are, no doubt, led to believe that it has the same meaning in the New Testament; whereas the term in Scripture is used synonymously with that of elder—the Scripture bishop being the overseer not of the clergy, but of the congregation. So the word hymn, being now generally applied to the poetical compositions of good, but uninspired men, in distinction from the Psalms of David, many are led to suppose that the Apostle uses the word in the same sense, and makes the same distinction. Before I knew the Greek language, I thought it wrong to sing a psalm after the Lord’s Supper, because we are told that the disciples sang a hymn, imagining that a hymn must be something distinct from a psalm, according to the modern notion. But this distinction is founded on the abuse of language.
VIII. “The psalms and hymns and inspired songs,” recommended by the Apostle, appear to me to be all contained in the Book of Psalms. It is well known that in the sacred languages the same book is denominated by two names, namely, psalms and hymns—hymns in the original Hebrew, and psalms in the Greek translation. When we sing psalms, therefore, we sing hymns, for such is the meaning of the word Tihillim, the Hebrew title of this sacred book.
IX. Besides the running title applied to the book, each of these inspired compositions, generally, bears a superscription of its own; and by the subordinate titles they are distinguished into psalms, hymns and songs. It is most probable, therefore, that the Apostle alludes to this distinction. But,
X. Should the authority of the titles be disputed, this will not alter the matter much, for the same distinction is to be found in the body of the psalms. Thus we read: “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms” (Ps. 95:2). “And he hath put a new song into my mouth, a hymn to our God” (Ps. 40:3, Greek); “I will praise the name of God with a song” (Ps. 69:30). Now, as the Greek terms in the Septuagint, rendered psalms, hymns and songs, in these three texts quoted from the Psalter, are the very terms used by the Apostle, in Col. 3:16, and Eph. 5:19, I think it is plain that the psalms and hymns and songs, of which he speaks, are all to be found in the Book of Psalms, especially as we have no evidence of any other hymns being in existence at the time, except those contained in the Old Testament Scriptures, and as the Apostle does not direct us to make hymns, but only to sing them. As Dr. Gill quaintly remarks, “We are commanded to take a psalm, not to make a psalm.” (Ps. 81:2.)
P. S.—Candor requires me to state that the hymns adopted by the Baptist denomination are the hymns used by the congregation over which I preside.* I should greatly prefer the Scotch version of the Psalms, and that alone, believing it to be the purest metrical translation extant; but, of course, I cannot compel my brethren to see with my eyes. The hymn-book which we use, however, contains a considerable number of the Psalms of David, together with the hymns contained in other parts of Scripture, more or less purely translated. I endeavor to select the best of these for public worship, and think I can do so on the same principle that I would use a translation of the Bible which I did not consider the best, until the church were brought to sanction a translation more perfect. By making this statement, I shall, perhaps, expose myself to the criticism, or even censure, of my brethren; but I rather run all risks on that head, than conceal either my views or my practice.
John Brown, “Hymns in the Psalms”, Reformed Presbyterian and Covenanter, Vol VIII, 8-10.