The could and should of Psalm singing

I’ve written a couple of times about Psalm singing and whether or not we are required to sing THE Psalms.  The very first time I wrote on this back in November 2020 I said that I’d like to encourage a debate.  I’m not sure I’ve been very successful at that.  It seems that the response seems to be “we must sing Psalms because Jesus did and the New Testament commands us to.”

The first problem with that response is that I think it reads things into my argument that I’m not saying.  So to be absolutely clear:

It’s great to sing Psalms. You definitely should know and meditate on them! I hope your church preaches them. I personally love praying through them daily.

My issue isn’t with The Psalms. I love the book of the Bible as a whole and the individual Psalms within it.  In fact, I’m probably one of a select few of pastors who has preached through the whole book sequentially.  During COVID-19 we ran a daily Facebook service and each day we looked at a Psalm together.   Nor is my issue with singing individual Psalms nor on basing songs on them.  I preached just the other Sunday and chose two songs both based on Psalms, one loosely, the other much more tightly. 

Rather, the issue I’m raising is with the assumption that there is a prescription that the Psalms as a canonical book is the song book of the church and therefore as a whole book must be sung. I say that recognising that very few people would argue that we must only sing the Psalms, most who are arguing for Psalm singing are simply appealing for us to sing more, or even some. In that respect I have much sympathy with them. However, my point in my last article was that I think the foundational argument for this appeal is faulty because of its emphasis on THE Psalms as a prescriptive requirement.  I also argued that I think there’s a misunderstanding pastorally of how emotions work in the context of song, prayer and Scripture.

So my point is very simply that we are not under an injunction to sing all of the Psalms as part of our corporate worship.  Indeed, if we go down that line we may lose rather than gain from them.

A crucial part of the argument therefore is getting a right distinction between could and should. My friend Steve Kneale has written several times on this issue. We are stepping into risky territory when we put obligations on people that are not given by Christ.[1]

Are we actually told that we must sing The Psalms?  Well, I’ve been told several times that it is a command.  The New Testament tells us to sing psalms and when it talks about Psalms it specifically and always means the book of Psalms.  So is that correct? Well, the two specific Bible passages that people seem to have in mind are:

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.[2]

And

19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,[3]

First of all, the Ephesians quote probably best highlights the problem with the argument. You see, it cuts in half way through a sentence with a participle. This should help us to see that in Colossians 1:16 the verb “to sing” also appears mid-sentence. “Singing” and “addressing” are participles and they therefore hang off of, depend upon and explain, or colour in the meaning of the main verb. The actual imperative in Colossians 1:16 is “let dwell”. We are commanded to let God’s word dwell in our lives richly. In Ephesians 5, we have to go back to verse 18 for the imperative “be filled with the Spirit.”

I hope you pick up the link there as well. Paul says very similar things to both the Colossians and the Ephesians. His concern is that their lives are to be shaped and ruled by God, they are to live out their lives in the light of the gospel, seeking to be holy and to bring honour and glory to God. That is what we are called to do too. And, our ability to do this is dependent on two linked or overlapping things that are not contradictory or alternatives but complement one another. We are to be Word and Spirit filled so that Christ’s influence through his word and his spirit shapes and influences every aspect of what we think, do, say and sing.

Our problem then is that we have the primary command in major key and a filling out of that command with examples in a minor key if you like. What we’ve done is we’ve focused on the latter at the expense of the former. We’ve turned the consequences/explanation into the command itself. We’ve put second things first.  I suspect that if you get things in the right place and preach the actual commands here, teaching a church to be filled with the Spirit and to allow Christ’s word to dwell richly in them then unavoidably this will pour out in praise and much of that praise will be the words of Scripture in general and the Psalms in particular.

There is a second issue here. Remember that my challenge has been over whether or not we are to sing The Psalms. Paul simply talks about psalms. Even then, the assumption that he means the Psalms in our OT canon, only those Psalms and all of those Psalms is a bit of a leap. Here’s Andrew Lincoln writing on Ephesians 5:19 and the distinction between “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”

“As most scholars hold, it is difficult to draw any hard and fast distinctions among the three categories.”[4]

One of the scholars he presumably has in mind is John Calvin who writes:

“What may be the exact difference between psalms and hymns, or between hymns and songs, it is not easy to determine, though a few remarks on this subject shall be offered on a future occasion.”[5]

So we should be cautious about any attempts to insist that there are three types of song which we should sing in church. Further we should be cautious about the assumption that Paul has specifically in mind the psalms of The Psalter. Here is Lincoln again.

“Apart from these two passages [Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5] the word ψαλμος is used elsewhere in the NT to refer to OT psalms in Luke 20:42; 24:44;Acts 1:20; 13:33 and most probably as a Christian song in 1 Corinthians 14:26.” [6]

Indeed, FF Bruce was of the opinion that the description of Psalms individually was a reference to Christian songs which may well have been based on those in the Psalter. [7] So, in fact evidence for an explicit command to sing The Psalms as our corporate worship is in fact quite scant.

This seems to me an area for Christian liberty.  We should be careful about imposing “should” and “musts” where Scripture does not.  I’m sure that there are many Psalms that we will find it helpful to sing in our specific contexts but we are not under a obligation to do so. We are under an obligation to be filled with the Spirit and to allow the word of Christ to dwell in us richly.


[1] See for example, his article here on family worship. I was reminded of this when given the link to an article by Keith Getty & David Robertson singing the praises of Psalm singing including because it is helpful for family worship! 

[2] Colossians 3:16.

[3] Ephesians 5:19.

[4] Lincoln, Ephesians, 345.

[5] Calvin, Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians: The Expansive Commentary Collection, 104.

[6] Lincoln, Ephesians, 345.

[7] See Bruce, Epistles, 158-159. Cited in Lincoln, Ephesians, 345.