Why We Only Sing Psalms Without Instruments

by Brian E. Coombs, Pastor of Messiah’s Church

  • “How come there’s no organ?”
  • “Can’t anyone in the church play guitar…or something?”
  • “Let me guess—you’re really an oratorio society?”
  • “Are you guys a cult?”

Yes, people have asked these questions. And, they were all sincere and well-intended questions, though they were asked in clever ways. Furthermore, they all received essentially the same answer you will read in these pages. Maybe you have a question similar to these? We’ll here explain why we only sing Psalms without instruments in our worship services. However, we ask this: please look up all Bible passages, and consider them with a teachable heart in light of what is said.

The place to start is with the basic idea of worship. All worship belongs to God; not us. It’s His; not ours (Psa. 115:1; Deut. 6:13). Therefore, God is the One who determines what is done in worship, and how it is done (Deut. 12:29-32; John 4:24).

Just before God’s people crossed over into the promised land, Moses admonished them to worship at God’s chosen place, and not as their own hearts directed (Deut. 12:3-5). There would be an obvious change in worship from Egypt’s wilderness to Canaan’s land (vv.8-14). After a few hundred years of military conquest (the book of Joshua) and spiritual apathy (the book of Judges), God raised up David to oversee Israel’s affairs. This included the temple and all its worship (1 Chr. 28:1-6, 9-20). The fulfillment of Moses’ admonition hinged on this king, not Saul or another (Deut. 17:14-15; Judg. 17:6; 19:1; 21:5 with 1 Sam. 8:4-22; 16:1).

In this context, God also chose David, and those he appointed, to write the songs for use in public worship (2 Sam. 23:1-3a; 2 Chr. 29:30; Psa. 84:title; 88:title; 89:title). And of course, they wrote “Psalms,” a distinctive collection of praises and prayers for God’s worship, as the Lord Jesus affirmed (Luke 20:42; cf. Acts 1:20). David also appointed instruments to be played by the priests with these songs (1 Chr. 16:1-7, 37-42; 25:1-6; also 2 Chr. 5:11-14; 7:4-6; 8:14-15; 23:18; 29:25-26; 30:21; 34:12). Notice carefully that these instruments were used for worship in the Old Testament only in the temple, and only by priests, when they offered the sacrifices (2 Chr. 29:25-29; 35:4,10-15; Num. 10:10).

The Holy Spirit commanded all this through David (2 Chr. 8:14; 29:25; 2 Sam. 23:1-3). But this was not something only for his generation. Other righteous kings followed his command throughout the rest of the Old Testament, as some of these passages show (i.e., 2 Chr. 29:30). Even when the Jews returned to rebuild their temple after their captivity hundreds of years later, they followed David’s command. They worshiped his (i.e., God’s) way (Ezra 3:10; Neh. 12:22-24, 27-47).

So we see that God had a specific desire and purpose in mind for how He wanted instruments and songs to be used in His worship. And David carried it out in obedience to God. But what was His purpose? To point to something greater than the temple (Matt. 12:6), something greater than its builder (Matt. 12:42), and something that encapsulated it all – Jesus Christ, the Son of David, whom David typified. Jesus is the temple (John 2:19-21; Eph. 2:21-22), the priest (Heb. 7:23-24), and the sacrifice (Heb. 10:5-10). He is the sum and substance of all the temple was about. All these things under the OT really spoke of, and pointed to, Jesus.

And since Jesus is the fulfillment of the priest and sacrifice, the Old priestly worship of the temple, with its instruments, is now discontinued (Heb. 7:12; 8:13; John 4:21ff.). Think about training wheels. Children use these to help them learn to ride a bike. But once they learn, they take them off. What would we think of a 21-year old man who rides with training wheels? Instruments were temporary in regard to the worship of God. They were designed to train Old Testament saints in the coming Messiah. They drew attention to the great significance of the sacrifice they accompanied, much like the darkness, earthquake, split rocks, and torn temple veil did at Christ’s own sacrifice (Matt. 27:45,51).

The apostles, then, call us to maturity in our understanding, not childishness (Heb. 5:12; 6:1; 1 Cor. 13:11; 14:20; Eph. 4:14). Since we are now under the New Covenant, they command us (still) to sing Psalms (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:18-20; Col. 3:16; Jam. 5:13; Heb. 13:15), but with different instrumentation. The instrument that now accompanies a believer’s praise is his heart alone. He needs no external helps. He has an internal Help, the Spirit (John 14:17). Now, from the vantage point of the New Covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we make melody with our heart (Eph. 5:19) and lips (Heb. 13:15), not a mere harp or lyre.

The Old Testament believers looked forward to these ‘new songs’ (Psa. 33:3; 96:1; 98:1). This was the call and course of Old Testament praise (Psa. 50:13-14 with Heb. 13:12-13,15). These “new songs,” then, are not “new” in the sense of different words and “better” instrumentation, as many wrongly understand them today. They are the old songs now “new” because we now have a full understanding of God’s purpose in Christ from this side of the cross because of the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in the heart (Ezek. 36:26-27; Heb. 10:22; Tit. 3:5). One will search the New Testament in vain for a reference to musical instruments being used in the Church’s praise of God. There is only reference to the instruments of the heart and singing voice (Acts 16:25; Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:18ff.; Col. 3:16; Heb. 13:15; Jam. 5:13).

So, we have seen that God commanded that musical instruments accompany the priestly, temple sacrifices. They herein drew attention to the great significance of the sacrifice offered by a priest. By the Spirit’s work, one truly sees Christ, and His work, as the heart of the Psalms and the instruments, and thereby has a ready, tuned, and resonant instrument with which to accompany his praise to God – a new heart. This new heart accompanies the singing of an old, but new, song. This was announced (and anticipated) under the Old Testament.

Despite this biblical teaching, you may still have some questions. Many books answer these more fully, but here is a concise response to some very common questions:

Don’t some Psalms say, in fact, to worship with instruments? Yes, they do. Being written under the Old Testament, we would expect Psalms to call for instruments, as we’ve seen. The real issue is how to understand these Psalms from the perspective of the New Testament. Many who cite these Psalms as justification for using instruments in worship today actually say more than they really want to, and still do not say what the Scripture says. For example, Psa. 150:4, “Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.” These are not suggestions or permissions. They are commands. One thing that is commanded is “dancing.”

A church would be disobedient to God, then, if it did not dance in worship. Also, a church is still disobedient if it does not use all the instruments the Psalms specify: ten-stringed lyre (Psa. 92:3), trumpet, harp, lyre, tambourine, and cymbals (Psa. 150:3-5). In this vein, it is not forcing the issue to note that drums, pianos, and organs are never specified in the Psalter, things commonly used in the Church’s worship today.

Along with this, the Psalms also speak of offering animal sacrifices (Psa. 66:15). But obviously, Christians don’t do this because Jesus has fulfilled this. But the same applies for the instruments, for they were part of the temple worship and accompanied the sacrifices. And since Jesus has come and completed what the instruments accompanied and pointed to (i.e., His sacrifice), we do not use them. What can they mean apart from a sacrifice being offered for sin? And if there is no longer a sacrifice for sin (Heb. 10:9-14,18), and none is offered, then instruments have no purpose, and should not be used, in worship.

Aren’t the Psalms insufficient to sing what Jesus has done? They certainly were sufficient for Jesus, for He sang them (Matt. 26:30 with Psa. 118; Heb. 2:12 with Psa. 22:22). He did not write or encourage the composition (or use) of others. Are the Psalms, inspired and inerrant, somehow insufficient for us? Are the non-inspired, imperfect songs and hymns the Church sings today better than the inspired Psalms Jesus sang then? Does one have to say the actual name “Jesus,” or the very words “crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, born again, or church” to best sing about Jesus and what He has done?

In fact, we sing all the gospel doctrines and truths (and even more subjects of life and human experience) in the Psalms. The full person and work of Christ is contained in the Psalms. Read the Gospels and Epistles (especially Hebrews), and note how many Psalms are cited and explained by Christ and the Apostles. More directly, note Jesus in the Gospels voicing Psalms before (Pss. 8, 91, 110, 118) and on (Pss. 22, 31) the cross. Note in the early chapters of Acts how the Apostles preached the death, resurrection, and rule of Christ from Psalms 2,16, 110, 118, 132. From the Psalms we have a perfect theology that is focused on the Savior and His work.

Clearly, the Book of Psalms is the Holy Spirit’s sufficient hymnal for both the Old & New Covenant Church of Jesus the Messiah. As we sing Psalms, we show our unity with the people of God in all ages bound to a common Savior, who Himself sang them while among us. This dynamic testimony simply is not given through other hymnals.

Aren’t humanly composed songs allowed at Col. 3:16 & Eph. 5:18-20? Paul was not here referring to the “hymns” of Fanny Crosby or the Wesley family. Nor was he referring to praise choruses or “songs” from the Charismatic movement. Note that the “psalms, hymns, and songs” of these passages are all “spiritual.” This does not mean “spiritual” in the sense of “religious,” but Spiritual as in what the Holy Spirit has inspired and put in Scripture. It is clear that the apostle Paul did not allow man-made songs because he said, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you” (Col. 3:16).

Furthermore, these words “psalms, hymns, and songs” are synonyms. They all refer to the Book of Psalms. (Note these words at the beginning of many Psalms, like 65,66,67,68 etc.). The people of Ephesus and Colossae in Paul’s day would have immediately understood that he meant the Old Testament Psalms, because he referred to the Psalm titles according to the Greek version of the Old Testament commonly in use at the time. And we know that the New Testament churches sang these psalms (1 Cor. 14:26; Jam. 5:13). In a 1st century context, no other interpretation (or option) is credible.

Aren’t harps used for worship in the NT book of Revelation? It is true that instruments are seen in connection with worship in the NT book of Revelation. Revelation is a highly figurative and symbolic book. Many things are not to be taken literally (like Satan’s chain at 20:1-2, or the horses at 6:2ff., etc.). Harps, too, should not be understood literally, but literarily. In the book of Revelation, many biblical themes are relayed in OT pictures and terminology so that the gospel of Jesus Christ would be seen as the fulfillment of the OT promises.

In the initial reference to harps in the Revelation, we learn that they represent praise (Rev. 5:8 with Psa. 150:3; 137:2-4), even as incense represents prayer offered to God (Rev. 5:8 with Psa. 141:2f.; Dan. 9:21). The second reference to harps (Rev. 14:2) must be read closely. The harps are mentioned only as a description of the voice John heard. The third reference associates harps with the OT Song of Moses (Rev. 15:2-3). And furthermore, this ‘song’ is really a compilation of not only general biblical truths, but also specific statements from the Psalter and Prophets (cf. Jer. 10:6-7; or in the order of Moses’ song [v.3]: Psa. 111:2; 118:23; 19:9; 10:16; 22:28, 3). So either way one should still arrive at seeing instruments in connection with the OT, and not the NT.

In this light, there is no necessary indication, or instruction, that instruments are (or will be) used in heaven for worship. Although there is some mystery as to the form worship will take in heaven, it is at least consistent with the flow of God’s redemption that as musical instruments were for preparing OT believers for the Messiah, and as there is now no place for musical instruments in the public worship offered to God by the redeemed since the finished work of Christ, we could anticipate that they would not be used in eternity wherein the fullness of redemption is fully celebrated corporately before God. I.e., if our public celebration of God’s redemption in the Church age is to be without musical instruments, it is at least consistent that it also would be without musical instruments in the eternal age. We are not here saying that this actually will be the case, but only noting it as possible and consistent with the Scripture’s principle and the Church’s practice of only singing Psalms without accompanying musical instruments.

The Scriptures emphatically mention that, before the plan of redemption started to unfold, singing was central to heavenly praise (Job 38:4-7). It is obvious that it will be central even when the plan of redemption is brought to its ultimate point (Psa. 89:1). The very fact that we will have glorified mouths and tongues at that point strongly implies that we will be perfectly fit to join in the songs of heavenly worship. Musical instruments being the result of man’s creation (Gen. 4:21) – though not sinful in themselves – may in eternity be excluded by God in favor of that instrument He made, redeemed, and perfected – the voice.

Can all this really be true, since your view is such an obscure view? Of course, “obscurity” is not in itself a sound reason for rejecting this teaching. Applying this standard to Christ, why should we receive Him, then? Singing only Psalms without instruments may be “obscure” (to some), but only when compared to today’s practices largely based on modern tastes, and not historical precedence or biblical support. In the light of Church history going back to apostolic times, singing only Psalms without instruments is definitely “mainstream,” and arguably, exclusive. It was commonplace in all Reformation churches.

Hymns and songs of merely human composition were barely received by the Church until the earlier 18th century. Instruments were not introduced to Christendom until the later 7th century by Pope Vitalian I. Even some ancient church leaders – Calvin, Luther, Wesley, and Spurgeon – a few of whom mistakenly approved (and wrote) hymns, all rejected the use of instruments in worship. Our point? The non-acappella, non-Psalm singing of the modern Church is innovative compared to the New Testament and Church history.

Are you against musical instruments everywhere and in every setting? No. We are saying that musical instruments do not have an approved place in the worship of God since the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no biblical prohibition to play instruments in other contexts. Continue your piano lessons. Don’t cancel your symphony tickets. Enjoy music (and instruments) as God’s good gift.

What do you think about churches that believe/worship differently? While we believe that our position is faithful to Scripture and representative of a huge chunk of Church history, we recognize as brothers and sisters all who seek to worship the true God through saving faith in Jesus Christ. Close brothers and sisters sing hymns and choruses of mere human composition with everything from drums to organs. And we recognize them as siblings, and love them as such, even as they worship differently. No church in this life is perfect, including ours. But this should lead us to, and not away from, the sufficiency of God’s Word for our life – and worship.

We know that some Christians are either unfamiliar with this teaching, or, even after hearing it, not in agreement. Regardless, no one can deny that we are commanded to sing Psalms. But we do find it strange that churches, almost predictably, do not practice even this in modern times. And if it’s true that singing Psalms without instruments is God’s Word and way, then we should especially be careful how we think about it, and, what we do about it.

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