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A Little Look at Liberty with

the Language of Music in

The Worship of the Lord

Is it true that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty ? Of course it is, for God invented freedom, a most staggering addition to the arsenal of accomplishment at the merely technical level, that invests beauty with its appreciation, love with its depth and invention with its marvel (II Corinthians 3:17).

It is no accident that II Corinthians 3:18 follows this verse, with its emphasis on the beauty of holiness, as the saints look by the mirror of faith on the wonder of the Lord, being changed in likeness towards HIM, as they do. Nor is it accidental that prior to this verse, Paul is talking of the blinding by the preliminary provisions of the Law, to the intended outcomes and consummations. In this case of music however, far was it even from the law, with its tutelary stringencies, to be circumscribed in music as some are today.

As we shall see, the liberty to express the current wonders of the unchanging Lord in terms of His ultimate and irrefragable New Covenant and invariant principles is one of the parallels to the blessed work of sermon production, which attests the work and ways of the Lord to each generation, where it is, from where the Lord is.


Q. Why sing only Psalms ? and why not ?

This is not an historical review, a sophisticated sally into erudition, such as scholars might delight in. It is sufficient that we find what the Bible in fact says on this topic.

ARE we to follow the world with its often grimily glamorous ways, and wallow in its hog-pits ? or are we to become reactionary and cling sanctimoniously to the tradition of this or that way, perhaps even allowing a Pharisaic fellowship of the super-superbs of spirituality who find the Bible too little ? or find its clear statements subversible, by studious substitutes, for the plain sense ?

Confessedly neither option has attractions for the Bible-believer. True, the world can be a disgusting slide, attracting the almost- Christian to its ways, and invading the church with its climate of opinion, its cultural options, its wayward rhythms and its spiritual seductions. Yet equally, historically limited vision, substituting for the Bible and putting clamps upon its mouth in terms of preferred 'orthodoxy' can make for precisely that Pharisaic empire which Jesus so radically attacked. The word of God, not the superb traditions of men, is the criterion - whether they are worldly in a carnal or in a spiritual fashion. Of the two, the latter, being the major focus of Jesus' exposure, is undoubtedly the worse.

This is not to question the sincerity of any; it IS to require solely Biblical credentials for any approach which may be made; and it is to warn of dangers inherent in our task, in both directions. The slightest presumption in moulding the word of God with one's own brilliant (or indeed clottish) grasp, individual or based in some historical 'camp' (Psalm 19:13) can be fatal.

The same is true when it comes to other doctrines. You have the super-Confessionalists whose desire is conformity to their traditions (which might be good, mainly good, bad or indifferent, but which in any case are likely to be limiting, for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty); and you have the liberal radicals, whose desire is (though they often do not know it) to create new traditions, albeit with less ostensible reverence for the word of God. This they will often cover however, by claiming that the REAL word of God, obtainable through experience or other glamorous advents of flesh, is just what they are about to purvey.

Undue emphasis on Confessions can be exceedingly unwholesome, tending to blight like mould the holy purity of the Bible itself; and I have met such, even in one worship service, where I was, without evidence, held to account lest I had too little wallowed in Confessions. This spirit of antagonism is justly condemned and can be, as in that case, linked with astonishing immunity to what the Bible is saying, as shown in that case. Perhaps such a spirit has its own reward, when it is manifested.

On the other hand, let us by all means be thankful for former saints and indeed for the whole historical panoply of their renditions, remembering only this, that this is help to inspiration, not bracelets for the wrist. It is GOD ALONE who will be exalted in that day. In view, indeed, of I Corinthians 3:3-23, it is astonishing how many (perhaps basically sound) people can still call themselves 'of Pelagius', 'of Calvin' and so forth. Certainly, vast help may be gained through seeing formulations and counter-formulations, but it is not a life. The WORD OF GOD is the place for constant application, not something less. Further, some of these cases are horrific heresies, some impressive contributions; but the stricture of scripture remains, and for many, remains unheeded.

But now let us consider some subsidiary questions.




Let us take I Chronicles 25:1ff.. Here we find that King David, himself a Psalmist of the most expansive, made certain provisions for music. What were these?

SOME of the sons of Asaph, and of Jeduthun, were to PROPHESY with harps, stringed instruments, and cymbals. Many are then listed by name. Jeduthun in particular is named as one "who prophesied with a harp to give thanks and to praise the Lord."

Now are we to ASSUME that these 288 souls who STATEDLY prophesied in music, and who are NOT named in the Psalms to that number or to anything remotely resembling it, prophesied ONLY by repeating what others who ARE recorded in the Psalms, set forth ? Or that they did NOT prophesy, but were some type of spiritual stenographers ?

THAT, without question, is not what the Old Testament EVER indicates as the meaning of prophesying. The term CANNOT be so limited to such a concept without ADDING to the word of God, not to mention subverting the plain meaning. These 288 had a task with musical instruments (incidentally authorised for worship in terms of godly reverence and suitable praise, as you would expect in view of Psalm 150): it was to prophesy. IF we ASSUME restrictions not stated, WE are writing the word of God, instead of God, a policy which is not within the ambit of this discussion, or any wise one.

If we ASSUME NOTHING, then the word 'prophesy' is used of 288 persons in the domain of music, many of whom do not have their words in the scripture. You often find this in other respects, as when the Book of Jasher is mentioned, though it is not at all apparent in the Bible. GOD is NOT required to put into HIS MANDATE TO THE HUMAN RACE, HIS COVENANTAL expression, what man requires. He puts there what He chooses for His own purposes. Much said in HIS name is NOT there. It did not become the chosen vehicle of universal application conserved for the purpose by God. Let us let God be God; not least because we are infinitely unsuited to the task, but also because He IS! an excellent reason.

Hence, at once, it is apparent that there was no limit in the Old Testament, where the Psalms are found, to Psalms for worshipful music. On the contrary, MORE is AUTHORISED by the most extensive Psalmist of all time, to be sung before the Lord. If he to whom it was given so ordained, who are we to limit him! God has spoken in this word; let us simply notice and follow.

2. Does the New Testament however INSTITUTE



Here let us consider the word of God in I Corinthians 14:9-15. This shows us that there were many practices of speaking (lalew)which occurred in the phenomenon of 'tongues' (see Questions and Answers 8). One of these related to singing with the spirit, but not with the mind; another to praying with the spirit, but not with the understanding. Contrariwise, Paul invites them to sing with the spirit but ALSO with the understanding. This particular form of utterance, singing, is therefore subject to edification rules, and these are pervasive and unexceptionable (I Corinthians14:8,17,26). If you have a psalm or an utterance, it must be interpreted.

It follows that some psalms could be in tongues. If these had to be those of the 150 in the Old Testament, then we have a strange phenomenon indeed. It would mean this: someone who put into a tongues format, a psalm. A well known and classical scripture would be misquoted in a garrulous formula which did not include the criterion of comprehensibility. It would appear nonsense, being imported from the Bible. It would then HAVE TO BE interpreted back into the psalm form, for if the miraculous gift of interpretation from the Lord enabled anything, it could not be other than truth. Contrary views constitute blasphemy.

God would then be conceived of as follows: He would scramble a psalm in someone's mind, then unscramble it like a decoding expert, with this - that not to elude an enemy, but to help friends He would do this!

With such a view, an intrusive conception of the Almighty to say no more, we have this additional feature. IT IS NOT STATED THAT THIS OCCURRED. To found a doctrine on that ASSUMPTION*1 is to add to the Bible, something with extreme severity, yes and most justified, forbidden. Since we CANNOT do this, we MUST NOT act on it to found a doctrine. Hence the psalms in view may or may not have been scriptural, presumably not; but whether this be so or not, they are left OPEN in the Bible as to their source, and to attribute that source where the Bible does not is inadmissible. It is not interpretation but eisegesis, illicit entry into the mind of God by the mind of man, when the latter is ostensibly interpreting the mind of God. Vocabulary shows nothing to the point here, for it is not for us to say what form or format the Lord may have chosen in his spiritual gift operation scene.

3. What must be concluded, if the Bible is to rule our musical operations in this field ?

This: there is in the mere fact that there are 150 psalms in the Bible a clear evidence that songs are equipped with marvellous standards and a sure repose and repository for worship.

However, to go further is merely to limit the Lord, and limiting the Holy One of Israel is not to His taste (Psalm 78:41), or indeed to any wise taste in this field, for WHO BEING HIS COUNSELLOR HAS TAUGHT HIM! as Isaiah (in Ch. 40) aptly asks, by the Spirit of God.

1. Psalms from the Bible should be sung because as words to musical items they are authorised and secure, spiritual and uplifting, God-given and awe-inspiring.

2. Psalms not from the Bible and spiritual songs from other formats, as in I Chronicles, may also be sung, as there is evidence in the New Testament which admits of songs without limitation, except as to their spirituality.

3. Since however, songs as a part of spiritual worship must partake like the rest of it in the beauty of holiness and the reverential fear of the Lord (see A Question of Gifts pp. 18, 89ff.), these must be most carefully considered for

a) doctrinal content

b) spirit and dynamic

c) correlation with evil by association which might intrude into worship and especially

d) intrinsic evils which were the ground of their development and of their creation.

That is, if songs and music are to be obtained, there should be godliness in the result in all categories. Adaptations of purpose

should be ordered with extreme care, lest hints that would mislead a "weaker brother" or sister should intrude and cause harm.

It is the same in so much in the history of Christianity. There are extremes; each has a measure of ground. Each can irritate the other. The result is often a hardening past scripture in the face of provocation, which then limits and arrests development in a church.

4. Why, however, should Psalms not be used, for precisely the above reasons, and used exclusively of all other church singing, even if this is not Biblically required? Do they not, above all, meet these criteria of usefulness ?

These are not "criteria of usefulness", but grounds for rejection. They are intended to guard against the world, but can be used equally to guard against pseudo-spiritual productions. However, the criteria of SELECTION are broader than those of REJECTION (as in Psalm 78:41). Who are we to arrest the work or confine the ways of the Lord ? 
Let it suffice to do what He says, not defiling the liberties of His love, lest not acting in the scope He provides, we suppress His pleasure and would delete His desire. The word of Mark 7:7 must ever be in mind.

With food, removal of poison is not all; the negative is not king; but it does have a place.

So here. Other criteria would be these: Do the songs in question have some gateway from current times, to assist their impact,? and prevent misconception that nothing of the 20th century could really be spiritual, in itself a misleading vogue? If weaker brethren may be misled one way, they may no less be misled in this equally.

Does such music contribute something creative and representative of fulfilling what remains of the sufferings of Christ, as Paul puts it in broad terms? That of which Paul is there speaking has nothing to do with the atonement; it deals rather with the expression of the love of Christ, even if need be through suffering, on the part of the ongoing church. Thus such things may be noted in song, as was the crossing of the Red Sea by Miriam.

Is something signalised, then, or given a memorable treatment, some Christian experience in the deliverance of many? Or is it something which adds to the musical heart of the Christian by some fresh insight, derived from Scripture, and brought to light, precisely as occurs in contemporary sermons: not a doctrinal novelty, but a dew-fresh touch of the Lord on some heart ? Who are we to reject the current and contemporary movements of the Lord within the New Covenant as He shall please, and this the more as He specifically indicates in Acts 2 the dreaming of dreams and the having of visions as part of the preliminaries which, Biblically, proceed without limitation to the coming of the Lord ? (Cf. A Question of Gifts, pp. 1ff., for the locale of 'gifts'.)

True, precisely this point is often used to allow false teaching, addition to scripture and foolish heresy; but this is not the point here. We do not refuse to eat because someone was once poisoned; instead, we merely inspect the food. We do not raise up carnal shibboleths but adhere to spiritual criteria and select accordingly.

5. Finally, is there some way in which the concerns of both Psalm singers, mistakenly imagining the Bible so restricts them in many cases, and those using the liberty the Lord confers where He is, within His covenant, can be reasonably satisfied in justifiable principles ?

Yes. It is a case of moderation and gentleness of spirit. It requires that there be great restraint in choosing spiritual songs, acute care in assessing their message and doctrine, watchful and informed alerting to invasive intrusion and Trojan horses on the one hand; and an equal care and conscientious and scrupulous regard not to play the Dutch Uncle in reducing the songs used in worship until every hair-splitting concern is met, as if psychology were king. We must all grow; some to be more tolerant of change, and some to be more tolerant of conservation. In all cases, each must seek the good of the other and not merely the indulgence of his/her own heart. Meanwhile, let us serve and worship the Lord with reverence, rejoice with trembling and express that joy unspeakable and full of glory as in the presence of Him whose glory it is. (See I Peter 1:8, Psalm 97:12, 95:1-2,92:1-3, Hebrews 12:14,28-29, PSALM 89:7 - and see
A Question of Gifts, pp. 18,89,91ff.)

As in the cases of baptism and predestination, a lot of extremism and radicalism comes readily into play (cf. Questions and Answers 11, p. 133 supra), but not rightly into place, as people sometimes incite each other not to good, but to reaction; and reaction tends to be unreasonable and to ignore the tolerance of other people's sensitivities on the one hand, and to fail in self-control in showing needless sensitivities, on the other. The end of the whole matter is the Lord Himself, in whom is liberty according to His word, which is exceedingly "broad" (Psalm 119 to the point) in its provisions for His worship and expression, though very narrow in its strictures on the spiritually libertine and unruly. Let us not narrow the narrow or misuse the broad, but abide in His words and rejoice in His liberties, who law is perfect and is indeed the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25).

  • To restrict the Lord is to take liberties with the Lord;

and to fail to use the liberties which He provides

becomes readily not circumspection but circumvallation:

the building of a wall about His leading in green pastures,

with rejoicing at the provision of the marvels of His grace.

Meanwhile, let us say advisedly with the Psalmist, "I will PRAISE THE LORD WHILE I HAVE MY BEING, or again (104:33), "I will sing to the Lord as long as I live". Indeed, David puts it (from 145:1-8): "I will extol Thee, my God, O king; and I will bless Thy name for ever and ever. Every day will I bless Thee; and I will praise Thy name for ever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and His greatness is unsearchable... I will speak of the glorious honour of Thy majesty, and of Thy wondrous works... (Men) shall abundantly utter the memory of Thy great goodness and shall sing of Thy righteousness. The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy." So does David welcome eternal life with an exuberance of song!

It is NOT WHY should I sing, but how NOT sing; not WHY should I bless His greatness but how NOT bless Him, who is most blessed!


*1 The term  translated into English as  'Psalm', as attested by Thayer's Greek Dictionary, a work of some elegance and eloquence and considerable fame, is not by any means limited to the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament.  Indeed, the term rendered 'hymn' in Ephesians 5:18, can mean Psalm of David also.  In fact, the data supplied by Thayer show that the three terms, translated 'hymns', 'psalms' and 'spiritual songs' in Ephesians, have slight differences of intonation and intimation, of meaning; and that they are not mutually exclusive. You often get such a thing in English, as in courage, bravery, audacity and fearlessness.

Reverting to I Corinthians 14, we note that someone may have a psalm to provide (14:26), a doctrine and so forth. This may be a highly reverential spiritual song, perhaps eminently fitted for joint worship; and in particular, it could refer to any of the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament.

If the latter is to be imagined as the limit of the term 'psalm', on nil grounds of any logical force or cogency, then as befits valid interpretation of scripture, this cannot be accepted. If however it should be done anyway, as if to over-ride the nature of the term Paul was led to choose, so that this imaginary limit to 'psalms' of the Bible is imposed, then as already observed, there are serious problems, almost amounting to the comic, in such a concept, coding and decoding the already well-known. Moreover, such a thing is not so written, and such a limit is not so stated - this, it is not a scriptural interpretation. It is an imagination, and any may act on imagination; and many frequently do just that: but such limitation is at all not the word of God any more than are assaults from other sources and motives, which for so many centuries, but especially the more recent ones, have tried to twist the clear, and invent in God's name, their own thoughts.

Indeed, the ultra-scriptural limitation which some would impose on the church, in this field of singing,  is as massive an invasion of the context as it is in harsh dissonance with what is elsewhere written on the topic of spiritual worship, in the Bible; and we have already noted the case of Old Testament worship above, in our second point and the liberty which cannot be contained except by again imposing the thought of man from outside, in blatant eisegesis.

The psalms-only idea is contrary to what is written:  by addition (of meaning), beyond the terms used; by subtraction (of liberty displayed); and by annulment (of the use of expository gifts in hymn format, in its own right).


It fits neither text, nor textual nor liturgical context, within the generic emphasis on liberty (II Cor. 5:17), whether here in in Psalm 148-150 or I Chronicles 25. It limits the Lord, and in addition to the 'psalm' constriction, noted in detail above, is the generic fact that you are authorised, indeed impelled by the apostolic word (I Corinthians 14:14-15) to "sing" with the Spirit, and with the understanding. Yet in the very face of this psalm-limitation concept,  NOWHERE are we told that this authorised singing may be cut down to some sort of spiritual limitation, for it is not to be found in the word of God  - the only one limit, other than reverence (Psalm 89:7),  being that  it be sound in doctrine, and motivated by the desire to glorify and praise Him: like anything and everything else in the church of God.

As to that, the liberty of the Spirit in preaching at once exhibits the misplacement of zeal to contain singing by artificial inhibitions. Where scripture is silent, it is better for man to avoid his own prohibitions, and far less is it apt to exalt as 'pure worship', what defiles the authority of the word of God, by adding to it, the word of man, so impeding both the historical and contemporary modes of worship by human fiat, adding mere man's voice, if not in singing, then instead, to the word of God. Indeed, this, by a weird paradox, is wrought as a means to reduce that very voice's scope and liberty in the worship which includes the praise of God.

So does human liberty, misused, reduce human liberty, divinely granted and indeed exhorted; and so do the prescriptions of man make of no effect, the word of God, just as in Mark 7:7ff..

That the aim may be good, in such affairs, is undoubted; that extreme care should be exercised to prevent hymns from being a medium for doctrinal invasion, is equally sure. Yet an aim of purity does not justify methods inhibitive of obedience to the directions of the word of God.

Courage and zeal must be applied in the application of the word of God, purely, practically and on all sides; but to dictate to it, or to require death for some of its liberties, injunctions and functions, is but a moribund mess, mistake and miasma. LIFE, not death, is both the requirement and the gift. Artificial constructions do not aid, but do rather oppress and inhibit the holiness of singing to the Lord "a new song"; and distance from the exuberance shown and attested, for example in Psalms 147-150.

In fact, the very idea of trying to make a tonality complex, such that to speak one has this and that liberty, but to sing one has ever so much less, being limited to the inspired word of God as such: this is a vision so extraordinarily twisted as to seem rather a concept of mirth, than a serious provision. For all that, as attested, this does nothing to reduce the need for the utmost stringency in subjecting possible hymns and songs for worship to the utmost scrutiny by scriptural principles and law, as in spiritual grace and zest, lest the liberty be abused, and, again contrary to the speaking voice, there be an opposite verbal disjunction, using singing as a shield for false teaching! Then indeed it would be as if one could sing quite carelessly, but must preach only in accord with the word of God written, the Bible!

In  all things, a certain moderation is needed, except in fidelity to the word of God, love of the Lord, and in obedience to His will.