Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
Bookmark and Share

The Historical Use of the Psalms


Basil the Great (c.330-379) bishop of Caesarea, author of a famous work on the Holy Spirit: "He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age or even those who are youthful in disposition might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul. For, never has any one of the many indifferent persons gone away easily holding in mind either an apostolic or prophetic message, but they do chant the words of the psalms even in the home, and they spread them around in the market place, and if perchance someone becomes exceedingly wrathful, when he begins to be soothed by the psalm, he departs with the wrath of his soul immediately lulled to sleep by means of the melody."

Synod of Laodicea (343-381), canon LIX: "No psalms composed by private individuals nor any uncanonical books may be read in the church, but only the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments."

John Chrysostom (c.347-407) bishop of Constantinople, the golden-mouthed preacher: "The grace of the Holy Ghost hath so ordered it, that the Psalms of David should be recited and sung night and day. In the Church’s vigils—in the morning—at funeral solemnities—the first, the midst, and the last is David. In private houses, where virgins spin—in the monasteries—in the deserts, where men converse with God—the first, the midst, and the last is David. In the night, when men sleep, he wakes them up to sing; and collecting the servants of God into angelic troops, turns earth into heaven, and of men makes angels, chanting David’s Psalms."

The Preface to The Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book to be printed in New England: "… certainly the singing of David’s psalms was an acceptable worship of God, not only in his, but in succeeding times, as in Solomon’s time (II Chron. 5:13) in Jehoshaphat’s time (II Chron. 20:21) in Ezra’s time (Ezra 3:10-11) and the text is evident in Hezekiah’s time they are commanded to sing praise in the words of David and Asaph (II Chron. 29:30) … the whole Church is commanded to teach one another in all the several sorts of David’s psalms, some being called by himself Mizmorim: psalms, some Tehillim: hymns, some Shirim: spiritual songs. So that if the singing of David’s psalms be a moral duty and therefore perpetual; then we under the New Testament are bound to sing them as well as they under the Old: and … we are expressly commanded to sing Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) …"

Westminster Confession of Faith (1640s) 21:5: "The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear; the sound preaching, and conscionable hearing of the word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence; singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ; are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: besides religious oaths and vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in a holy and religious manner."

The Westminster Directory for Public Worship of God (1640s)

"Of Singing of Psalms:
It is the duty of Christians to praise God publickly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.
In singing of psalms, the voice is to be tenably and gravely ordered; but the chief care must be to sing with understanding, and with grace in the heart, making melody unto the Lord.
That the whole congregation may join herein, every one that can read is to have a psalm book; and all others, not disabled by age or otherwise, are to be exhorted to learn to read. But for the present, where many in the congregation cannot read, it is convenient that the minister, or some other fit person appointed by him and the other ruling officers, do read the psalm, line by line, before the singing thereof."

John Lightfoot (1602-1675) member of the Westminster Assembly: "The constant and ordinary psalms that [the Jews] sang were these:

On the first day of the week, the Four-and-twentieth Psalm, The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, etc.
On the second day of the week, the Forty-eighth Psalm, Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of God, etc.
On the third day, the Eighty-second Psalm, God standeth in the congregation of the mighty, and judgeth among the gods, etc.
On the fourth day, the Ninety-fourth Psalm, O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth, etc.
On the fifth day, the Eighty-first Psalm, Sing aloud unto God our strength, make a joyful noise unto the God of Jacob, etc.
On the sixth day of the week, the Ninety-third Psalm, The Lord reigneth, He is clothed with majesty, etc.
On the Sabbath-day they sang the Ninety-second Psalm, which bears the title of A Psalm or song for the Sabbath-day.
These were the known and constant and fixed psalms that the singers sang, and the music played to, on the several days of the week …
This saying over of the Hallel is acknowledge by the Jews to be an institution of the scribes; and the reason of the picking out of these psalms for that purpose was because of their beginning or ending with Hallelujah, and partly because they contain, not only so high and eminent memorials of God’s goodness and deliverance unto Israel … but also several other things of high and important matter and consideration; for the Hallel, say they, recordeth five things: the coming out of Egypt, the dividing of the sea, the giving of the law, the resurrection of the dead, and the lot of Messias."

John Flavel (1628-1691): "Sir, I hope we do attend it, and, in some respects, better than some great pretenders to primitive purity [i.e., the Anabaptists], who have cast off not only the initiating sign of God's covenant, (this did not Abraham) but also that most comfortable and ancient ordinance of singing Psalms: and what other primitive ordinance of God may be cashiered next, who can tell? ... Certainly you are none of the fittest persons in the world to clamour so loudly against us, for want of express precedents for infants baptism, whilst yourself confesses, you want even one precedent in the New Testament to legitimate your own practice; and in the mean time are found in the sinful neglect of a sweet and heavenly gospel-ordinance, viz. the singing of psalms, for which you have both precept and precedent in the gospel, Col. 3:16, James 5:13, I Cor. 14:26 ... Infant-baptism, with you is not; singing of psalms, that plain and heavenly gospel ordinance, with you is not; and will you take away our Benjamin also [i.e., the covenant of God with Abraham and his children in their generations]?" (Works [Edinburgh: Banner, 1982], vol. 6, pp. 328, 357, 377). 

Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711): "The decision of the Dutch Synods has been very correct indeed, namely, that none other but the Psalms of David are to be used in the churches" (The Christian's Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout [USA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995], vol. 4, pp. 34-35).

Professor William Dool Killen (1806-1902) Irish Presbyterian: "Influential Bishops sometimes introduced them [uninspired hymns] by their own authority, but the practice was regarded with suspicion and seems to have been considered irregular. In confirmation of this statement it may be added that the Antioch Council (267) condemned Paul of Samosata for ‘discontinuing the Psalms formerly used, and for establishing a new and very exceptionable hymnology;’ and the Council of Laodicea (c.381) decreed that ‘private or unauthorised Psalms ought not to be used in the Church.’"

Dr. Philip Schaff, American church historian (1819-1893):
(1) The "Book of Psalms is the oldest Christian Hymn Book; inherited from the ancient covenant … The Councils of Laodicea (360) and of Chalcedon (451) prohibited the ecclesiastical use of all uninspired or private hymns."
(2) "[The church] long adhered almost exclusively to the Psalms of David, who, as Chrysostom says, was first, middle, and last in the assemblies of the Christians; and it had, in opposition to heretical predilections, even a decided aversion to the public use of uninspired songs. The Council of Laodicea, about 360, prohibited even the ecclesiastical use of all uninspired or ‘private hymns,’ and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 confirmed this decree."

Professor William Binnie, Scottish Presbyterian (1823-1886):
(1) "The singing of the Hallel by Christ and the eleven in the guest-chamber on the night of His betrayal, may be said to mark the point at which the Psalter passed over form the old dispensation into the New: for it accompanied the celebration of the new ordinance of the Lord’s Supper as well as the celebration of the expiring Passover. Thenceforward, it is assumed that at every gathering of Christians for mutual edification, some one will ‘have a Psalm’ to give out to be sung."
(2) "After an interval of four centuries, the Spirit of inspiration spoke again by the evangelists and apostles; but no Psalmist was raised up in the apostolical Church. The New Testament contains books of history, of doctrine, and of prophecy; but it contains no book of Psalms."

Josias A. Chancellor: "... when the administration of religion was changed [from the Old to the New Testament], and carnal ordinances vanished away, we can detect no indication of change in the service of song. Baptism at once took the place of circumcision, the Passover was displaced by the Lord’s Supper, the first day of the week was observed instead of the seventh, sacrifices gradually ceased, and at length the Temple was destroyed, but there is no hint of any alteration being needed in the matter of praise, nor was there the slightest cessation of its observance. On the contrary, Christ and his Apostles continued to sing the Psalms, just as they had been sung before, and the Christian Church was commanded to keep up the exercise (Lay-preaching and Hymn-Singing Unwarranted in the Church: In Reply to the Rev. F. J. Porter and Dr. Marcus Dill [Londonderry, 1860], p. 22).

Rev. Hugh Brown (1859) American Presbyterian: "…scripture psalmody has been used in every period of the church from the days of Christ and his Apostles down to the present time. The most learned and orthodox commentators agree that the hymn sung by our Saviour and his Apostles at the institution of the Lord’s Supper was the Hallel which consisted of six inspired Psalms, from the 113th to the 118th inclusive. And that the book of psalms was used exclusively in the apostolic period, we have indubitable evidence, but if hymns of human composition were then used by the church of Christ, we demand any to produce such, or give proof for it. After the death of the Apostles, and in the 2nd century, the church departed in several respects form its former purity. Still we find that scripture psalmody was used. Tertullian positively asserts, that in the 2nd century, the 133rd Psalm was regularly sung at the administration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Respecting the 3rd century, history says little on the subject of psalmody; but as Irenaeas, Tertullian, and others of the 2nd century, flourished in the beginning of the 3rd, we have every reason to believe that the practice of the preceding was the same.
     But that the book of Psalms was used by the church in the 4th century, we have incontrovertible evidence. Jerome of Palestine tells us that the 31st and 45th Psalms were sung at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper; and Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the same age, affirms the same thing. Jerome likewise says, ‘You could not go into the fields but you might hear the ploughman at his hallelujahs, and the vine-dresser chanting the Psalms of David.’ Augustine also testifies to the using the book of Psalms in worship from the aspersions of its enemies. He says, as we see in Calvin’s Institutes, book 3, chapter 20. ‘One Hilary took every opportunity of loading with censures the practice, that hymns from the book of Psalms, should be sung at the altar. But in obedience to the command of my brethren I answered him.’ And again, we are told in Epistle 119, Tome 2, that ‘the Donatists reproached the orthodox, because they sung with sobriety the divine songs of the prophets, while they [the Donatists] influenced their minds with the poetic effusions of human genius.’ Augustine also informs us, that Athanasius of Alexandria employed the Psalms of David in his church, and the same is affirmed of Ambrose. In the ‘Apostolic Constitution,’ which appeared in the 4th century, it is said in Book 2, chapter 57, that ‘the women, the children, and humblest mechanics, could repeat all the Psalms of David; they chanted them at home and abroad.’ Again we find Chrysostom, the orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, in Homily 6, saying; ‘All Christians employ themselves in David’s Psalms more frequently than in any other part of the Old or New Testament. And collecting the servants of God into angelic troops, turns earth into heaven, and of men makes angels, chanting David’s Psalms.’ Again, in the 5th century we find Cassian in Book 3, chapter 6 saying, ‘The elders have not changed the ancient custom of singing psalms. For the hymns which it has been the custom to sing at the end of the night-vigils, were the same hymns which they sing at this day, viz.: the 148th, and following Psalms, the 50th, 62nd, and 89th.’ This then is conclusive testimony, and from it we see three things: (1) That Scripture Psalms were sung in worship in the 5th century; (2) That these Psalms were also used in the foregoing centuries, for it is called an ‘ancient custom,’ and (3) The term hymns in the writings of the Fathers mean the Psalms of David, or Scripture Psalmody. But farther, Suidas in his Lexicon on the word, chorus, tells us, that ‘The choirs of churches were, between the years 337 and 404 divided into parts, who, in the time of Flavian of Antioch, sung the Psalms of David alternately.’ Also, the council of Laodicea in the year 364, decreed, that no unauthorized Psalms should be used in the church; and in the second at Graga, in Spain, in the beginning of the 7th century forbid the use of all hymns except those of divine inspiration … The Waldenses long before the days of the Reformation, in the valleys of Piedmont, and amid the Alpine hills sung Scripture Psalms …"

Mr. Moll (1869) German: "The Psalter is … the Hymn Book of the Hebrew Church, originally and primarily designed for use in the Public Worship of God."

Dr. Grier: "There is no more sheer assumption in all theological controversy than that the Early Church made and sang their own hymns."

John McNaugher: "It is the oldest hymn-book in existence, having a connected record through thousands of years down to our own times, and it is consecrated forever as having been the hymnary of our Saviour and of the Apostolic Church. In the light of its age-long history, of its rich poetry, of its unsectarian, catholic character, of its freedom from error, of its well-proportioned thought, of its theological depth and spiritual quality, of its wealth of evangelical matter, of its supremacy in the utterance of devotion and religious experience, and of the unexampled strains in which it celebrates the glories of God, there is ample occasion for the plea that the Churches of Christ recognize in the Psalter their heritage of sacred song, as against a human hymnody with its necessary imperfections."

Rev. W. E. McCulloch, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: "… ours are the songs of Solomon’s Temple, of Christ and His Apostles; the songs sung by martyrs amid the Roman Catacombs, by Waldenses among the fastnesses of the Alps, by the Huguenots who baptized the soil of France with their blood, by the Swiss and the Hollanders and the Germans of Reformation times, by the Covenanters on the hillsides and in the mountain caves of Scotland, by the Pilgrim Fathers who dared the terrors of the sea and the savage wilderness; the songs sung by saintly souls through the ages; the songs of the inspired Psalter, whose whole sentiment may be summed up in its final exhortation, ‘Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.’"

Rev. George W. Robinson, D. D., Allegheny, Pennsylvania: "The Psalms in America are a part of the national heritage, since they were so closely identified with its early history, wrought so mightily into the lives of those who made it, and have entered so largely into the religious experience and practice of the people from the first day to this. In the hour when the Pilgrim Fathers were about to sail from Leyden, not in quest of the Golden Fleece, not in search of the fabled wealth, but to find a haven of liberty and lay the foundations of a mighty nation, kneeling on the sands of Delft Haven, after prayer by the minister commending them to the God of the winds and the waves, they all joined in singing Luther’s favourite Psalm, the Forty-Sixth,

‘God will our strength and refuge prove,
In all distress a present aid;
Though waters roar and troubled be,
We will not fear or be dismayed,’

And then sailed away in the Speedwell. To the strains of a similar Psalm the Mayflower spread her sails for her perilous journey across the seas. Arriving at the shores of the New World on the Sabbath, a day holy to the Lord among these Puritans, they spent the day aboard the ship in the customary acts of religious worship, a part of which was the singing of the Psalms. Thus the first sacred song that ever went echoing along that ‘rock-bound coast,’ or broke the stillness of the slumbering forests, was one of the old Hebrew Psalms with which David, twenty-five centuries before, was accustomed to waken the echoes amid the hills and valleys of Judea."