The Worship of God

More articles in this collection from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.

Singing a New Song

by Rev. David Thompson

We often hear from the advocates of a man-made hymnody that the Bible exhorts us to "sing a new song" and so we may compose hymns for today's church. Linked to this is the suggestion that the 'hymns' of the New Testament indicate that praise after Christ's coming was not restricted to the Psalter. A good response to such ideas is found in the following sections of "The Songs to be used in the Worship of God " by the Rev. David Thompson (1806-1893), born in Ireland but a minister of the Associate Synod of North America. It was first published by a Committee of Synod in 1848.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 16, October-December 1999.

O NE of the arguments usually relied on, to prove the Divine warrant for singing human composition in the worship of God, is the fact that we are, in several of the Psalms, commanded to sing a new song, as in Psalm 96:1; 98:1. To this it is replied:-

1. A distinction is to be made between singing a new song, and making one-these passages say nothing respecting the making of songs.

2. The command expressed in these passages was obeyed, when new inspired songs were presented to the church.

3. Such passages generally speak of the introduction of the gospel among the heathen, and consequently, when converts from the heathen world would commence singing the Psalms, they would sing songs that were new to them : and doubtless, many who bring the above argument in favour of uninspired songs in Divine worship, would sing songs entirely new to themselves, should they commence singing the inspired songs.

4. When worshippers sing a Psalm with new exercise of grace - when their soul and all that is within them is stirred up to bless and magnify the Divine name - when they see new applications of the Psalm to themselves and others; and for this purpose, they may confidently expect their heads to be anointed with fresh oil, Psalm 23:5 - when they experience this newness and freshness in the Lord's song, which is common to it with all other parts of his word - then "they sing as it were a new song." Uninspired songs have not the same exhaustless source of delight to the new creature - they become old and vanish away.

5. If those passages would justify uninspired men to make songs for worship under the present dispensation, they must have justified, yea, required such men to compose songs under the former dispensation. There is not, however, in all the Old Testament, the most distant allusion to the singing of such songs in the worship of God with his approbation. Besides, the good Hezekiah must have disobeyed the Divine command to make a new song, suited to the reformation, which he was promoting, when instead of this, he enjoined the Divine praises to be celebrated in the words of David and Asaph, which had been written long before, 2 Chronicles 29:30. A similar disregard of Divine authority is to be attributed to the apostle Paul, who on two occasions expressly enjoins the use of the Psalms, most of which had been in use a thousand years at least (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). A similar offence is perhaps to be ascribed to James, where he says, "Is any merry, let him sing Psalms," chap. 5, v. 13.

6. If the passages alleged authorise the composition of new uninspired songs for worship, we would ask, how long or how often may they individually be used, and still retain the character of new songs? If any such songs may be used more than once, and still be truly new, why may not the same thing be said of uninspired songs? It is believed that uninspired songs or hymns have now been used for more than a century in some parts of the church; are they still new? if not, how greatly have those parts of the church erred in continuing them? If a song becomes old on being used twice or thrice, or even a thousand times; it is supposed, that even the world itself could not contain the songs that should be made to supply the wants of the church.

It is said, that as Christ and his disciples sung a hymn, it is a precedent which we may lawfully follow. That this argument may prove it lawful to add to the church's songs of praise, it is necessary to prove first, that our Lord and his disciples sung an uninspired song. No proof of this, however, is attempted; but it is assumed, that the word hymn in our translation has this signification in scripture. This cannot be proved.... Suppose our Lord employed, in the celebration of the passover, a song which was not contained in scripture, still that would give us no such authority - he was a son over his own house - he was anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows - the Father gave not the Spirit by measure to him: what he did, therefore, had always the character of inspiration. But we, who are not endowed with such authority - we, who are of yesterday and know nothing, should not presume to imitate him in everything. In the ordinary duties of the moral law, he has set us an example that we should follow his steps; but making songs to be sung in worship is no such duty. The passage, Matthew 26:30, where it is said, they sung a hymn, might be rendered, having sung praise (υμνησαντες). Neither this term itself nor the context can determine the character of the praise employed on that occasion, whether it was inspired or otherwise, whether it was composed for that occasion, or was one of the Psalms. As we are informed by ancient Jewish writers, that it was customary to sing from the 113th to the 118th Psalms inclusive, at the time of celebrating the passover, and to this portion of the Psalms, they gave the name of the Hillel, or Hallel, and as some things in the 118th had special reference to Christ, it is quite likely that our Lord and his disciples sung the whole or a part of this.