The Israelites Were Not Exclusive Psalmists (Nor Are We)

T. David Gordon

The Reformed tradition has been somewhat more hesitant to employ Christian hymns in worship than the Lutheran tradition. Ulrich Zwingli removed all music from worship entirely, so Calvin’s effort to restore the singing of praise had to proceed somewhat cautiously. Calvin himself was not an exclusive psalmist: his Strasburg liturgy included musical settings of the Decalogue, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Nunc Dimittis.[1] He was, however, a vigorous proponent of metrical versions of the Psalms, and the Reformed tradition has always been very friendly to such. Exclusive psalmody, however, is now a fairly small minority report of the Reformed tradition; Isaac Watts altered the Reformed tradition substantially on that point. I myself not only do not believe in exclusive psalmody, I believe it was an extremely late development in Christianity, and that not even the Old Testament saints were exclusive psalmists. What follows is an abbreviated discussion of the five grounds on which I conclude that even the Israelites were not exclusive psalmists.

The Lexical Issue

“The Psalms” is an unfortunate designation for this body of literature, because there is no secular equivalent in our speech to “psalms.” For us, “psalms” are always “the canonical Psalms.” Other terms could be used, and/or have been used, that might be more helpful. We could refer to them, as our Hebrew text and Jewish friends do, as “Praises.” In the Hebrew Bible, the title to our “Psalms” is תהלים, “praises.” The Psalter also employs the term self-referentially in a number of places:

Ps. 22:3 Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises (‎תְּהִלּוֹת) of Israel.

Ps. 40:3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise (‎תְּהִלָּה) to our God.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Ps. 51:15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise (‎תְּהִלָּתֶךָ). ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Ps. 65:1 Praise (‎תְהִלָּה) is due to you, O God, in Zion, and to you shall vows be performed.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Ps. 145:21 My mouth will speak the praise (‎תְּהִלַּת) of the LORD, and let all flesh bless his holy name forever and ever.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Insofar as Psalms recount and celebrate the praise-worthy character and deeds of God, they are properly called “praises.” In my handy little volume by Rabbi Avrohom Davis, The Metsudah Tehillim, which provides the Hebrew and English of the Psalter in parallel columns, Rabbi Davis says this: “Sefer Tehillim is often referred to as the Book of Psalms. A more precise translation of the word תהלים is praises, the plural of the word תְהִלָּה. We should therefore refer to this work as the Book of Praises. The book was named because so many of its words express David’s praise of God.”[2] Indeed, the noun is formed from the verb הלל, which means to praise or extol. So the Psalter itself does not refer to itself by a term that suggests a fixed or determined canonical reality, the way our expression “The Psalms” does. It refers to itself by the ordinary term for “praises.”[3] I do not suggest that this evidence is conclusive, because the term could conceivably refer to a fixed group of praises. I do suggest, however, that the natural reading of the Hebrew permits a much more open-ended collection of praises than does our English expression “The Psalms” does.

Even more significant, lexically, is that some of the psalms refer to themselves as “prayers” (LXX, προσευχὴ, ᾠδὴ or ὕμνος):

Ps. 17:1 A Prayer (תפלה) of David (LXX, προσευχὴ τοῦ Δαυιδ)

Ps. 42:8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song (>שירה, LXX ᾠδὴ) is with me, a prayer (תפלה, LXX προσευχὴ) to the God of my life.

Ps. 72:20 The prayers (תפלות) of David, the son of Jesse, are ended (ἐξέλιπον οἱ ὕμνοι Δαυιδ τοῦ υἱοῦ Ιεσσαι).

Ps. 85:1 A Prayer of David (προσευχὴ τῷ Δαυιδ)

Ps. 89:1 A Prayer of Moses, the man of God (προσευχὴ τοῦ Μωυσῆ ἀνθρώπου τοῦ θεοῦ)

If we referred to these biblical psalms as “prayers,” since so many are addressed to God, would any of us consider being “exclusive pray-ers”? Would anyone seriously consider praying only the prayers found in the canonical Psalter?

Further, the term “psalm” (ψαλμὸς) is not restricted in the OT to the collection that we would call the canonical Psalms. Other prayers and praises are referred to by this designation.

1 Sam. 16:18 One of the young men answered, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing (εἰδότα ψαλμόν, lit., “who knows psalm”), a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him.”

Note that, at this point in David’s career, he is “skillful in playing,” but has not yet written any of what we would later call “the Psalms.” So he did not know (εἰδότα) “the Psalms”; he knew how to play an accompanying instrument. Indeed, this is how the term is employed in Job, to refer to a musical instrument:

Job 21:12 They sing to the tambourine and the lyre and rejoice to the sound of the pipe (φωνῇ ψαλμοῦ).

Job 30:31 My lyre is turned to mourning, and my pipe (ὁ δὲ ψαλμός μου) to the voice of those who weep.[4]

Lexically, then, not any of the language employed in the OT suggests what our English “The Psalms” does, to wit: a fixed collection of prayers or praises. It refers much more openly, to lyrical music that may be accompanied with an instrument.

OT Songs Not in the Psalter

As Douglas O’Donnell has documented, there are a number of prominent songs recorded in the Old Testament that are not in the Psalter.[5] Two “songs of Moses” are recorded in the Old Testament (Exod. 15 and Deut. 32), the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), two of Samuel (1 Sam. 2:1–10; 2 Sam. 22), and the song of Habakkuk (Hab. 3). The Old Testament not only contains a record of these non-Psalter songs; it contains approval of those who composed and sang them. Yet the compilers of the five collections that eventually constituted our canonical psalms did not hesitate to omit them. Had those compilers thought that their collections would have been regarded as exclusive, they almost certainly would not have excluded such well-known songs. If a strict view of exclusive psalmody were held, we would be permitted to sing the 150 canonical psalms, but not permitted to sing these six other songs that are recorded elsewhere in the Old Testament canon. The Israelites could have lawfully sung them (and did), but we could not.

Five Collections of Psalms

All students of the Psalms now recognize that what we call the Psalter was itself constructed of five collections of psalms that originally existed independently of one another:

Psalms 1–41 David Psalms

Psalms 42–72 Solomonic Psalms

Psalms 73–89 Despair over the Davidic Monarchy

Psalms 90–106 Mosaic Psalms

Psalms 107–150 A Coming King[6]

Interestingly, with almost no exceptions, these five different collections of praises did not contain the praises that were in the other four (psalms 14 and 53 appear to be the exception). If any one of the five had intended to be exclusive, we would not have had the other four. Indeed, the second collection suggests that it was/is complete: “The prayers of David, the son of Jesse, are ended” (Ps. 72:20). But whatever “ended” means here (LXX, ἐξέλιπον, Hebrew, כלו), it did not mean that an entire canon of exclusive psalms ended, because over seventy-five more followed it. The only thing that “ended” here was one of five collections of praises; but the ending of that collection did not exclude the other four.

The Psalter itself Grew

Our present canonical collection of “prayers or praises” developed over time. Not only did five separate collections develop separately, but the canonical psalms were written over hundreds of years. Psalm 90, for instance, is attributed to Moses: “A Prayer of Moses, the man of God” (προσευχὴ τοῦ Μωυσῆ ἀνθρώπου τοῦ θεοῦ, Ps. 90:1). Critical scholars may dispute the Mosaic origins of this particular psalm, but the general consensus, even among critical scholars, is that the Psalms, at a minimum, date from the original monarchy to the post-exilic era.[7] As William L. Holladay put it, “Scholars who have worked on the Psalms in the last hundred years or so have detected within them the kind of variations of style and emphasis that suggest that they are the product of many poets and singers over many centuries.”[8] At various critical moments in Israel’s history, laments, thanksgivings, or praises were composed to commemorate, bewail, or celebrate some new work of God’s judgment or deliverance. And indeed, more than one psalm was composed for most such occasions. A number of psalms, for example, recall Israel’s exodus from Egypt (e.g., 22, 44, 80, 83). During that process of composing psalms, one would have assumed that the process of composing such praises or prayers would continue as long as God continued to judge or deliver. If, therefore, Christians regard the cross as God’s judgment and the resurrection as God’s deliverance, we would surely expect prayers and praises to be composed to commemorate and celebrate (and lament) such.

The Psalter Commands Praising God for All His Works

If one reads the canonical psalms, it is not at all surprising to learn that they were composed over the course of many generations, because so many of the psalms command the people of God to praise and extol him for his works or deeds of judgment and deliverance. In doing so, such passages command God’s visible people to compose such songs in response to all of what he has done. Note in these representative passages the relationship between God’s acting and his people’s singing in response:

Ps. 9:11 Sing praises to the LORD, who sits enthroned in Zion! Tell among the peoples his deeds!

Ps. 13:6 I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Ps. 66: 1 Shout for joy to God, all the earth; 2 sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! 3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you.

Ps. 67:4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.

Ps. 92:4 For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

Ps. 95:1 Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Ps. 96:1 Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! 2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.

Ps. 98:1 Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.

Ps. 105:2 Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!

Ps. 139:14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.

These passages (and others like them) invite and command those who benefit from God’s works to sing praises to him for such works. Both the non-psalter songs in the Old Testament and the 150 in our collection testify to Israel’s obedience to the divine invitation. Generation after generation composed new songs of praise, lament, or thanksgiving in response to God’s acts of judgment and deliverance. And, as I indicated above, they were not content to compose merely one prayer or praise for such acts; many of God’s acts were celebrated by many compositions.

If the arrival of God’s anointed was an occasion for singing in the psalter, how could humanity not compose songs for the advent and birth of God’s Christ (“Come, thou long-expected Jesus”)? If the Israelites sang laments when David’s enemies drove him from the city (e.g., Psalm 3), how could Christians refrain from lamenting the Son of David’s Passion (“O Sacred Head, now wounded”)? If Israel sang when the exiled king returned to Jerusalem, how could we not sing when the crucified Redeemer returned to life (“Jesus lives, and so shall I; death, thy sting is gone forever”)? If Israel sang songs to celebrate the ascension of David or Solomon to rule, how could it be possible that we would not also compose songs when the Son of David ascended to the right hand of the Father (“Crown him with many crowns, the Lamb upon his throne”)? How could we possibly refuse to sing about such things? God disclosed himself much more supremely and definitively through his incarnate Son than he ever had before in any of his acts of judgment and deliverance in Israel; how could we possibly fail to sing praises for the greater and fuller act of judgment and deliverance in God’s own Son?

New Testament Saints Are Not Exclusive Psalmists

The answers to those rhetorical questions are not difficult to find in the New Testament. When Jesus took on human flesh, his conception and birth were greeted by song (Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46–55 and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis in Luke 2:29–32). If Calvin’s interpretation of Acts 2:42 is correct,[9] the earliest meetings of the apostolic churches included singing of praise that was not restricted to the Old Testament psalms. Paul’s letters contain both an example of what is likely a Christ-hymn in Philippians 2,[10] and Paul’s instructions about singing in the congregation in texts such as 1 Corinthians 14:26: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.” While it is possible that the “hymn” here is an Old Testament canonical psalm, the context suggests that it, like the “lesson” or “revelation” contained New Testament truth. Similarly, Paul’s comment in Colossians 3:16 virtually necessitates such an understanding: “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.” What the Colossians sang in their psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs were rich with the message/word about Christ. The songs recorded by the apostle John in the book of Revelation are never Old Testament psalms; they are always new compositions, and sometimes expressly Christological, referring to the slain “Lamb” (Rev. 5:9–10, 12–13; 7:10–12; 19:1–8), and one of which expressly juxtaposes the songs of Moses to those of the Lamb: “And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, ‘Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!’” (Rev. 15:3).

Indeed, even secular Roman sources of the period were aware of the Christian practice of singing expressly Christological songs. When Pliny the Younger reported to the emperor Trajan about professing Christians, he examined those accused with infidelity to the emperor carefully, found that many of them had never been Christians, and some only for a time, who then renounced their faith. But among those who had been Christians, Pliny’s accusation included this: “However, they assured me that the main of their fault, or of their mistake was this: That they were wont, on a stated day, to meet together before it was light, and to sing a hymn to Christ, as to a god, alternately; and to oblige themselves by a sacrament [or oath], not to do anything that was ill.”[11] Pliny received this testimony from their own mouth, and since, in his report, he was exonerating them, he was not attempting to include in his report anything incriminating. So the testimony is almost certainly authentic.


The evidence throughout the history of revelation is the same: Songs of lament, thanks, or praise are the ongoing response to divine acts and perfections. When God acts in judgment or deliverance, his people reply in lament, thanksgiving, or praise, as befits the situation. The Lord is not only great, but “greatly to be praised” (1 Chron. 16:25; Ps. 48:1; 96:4; 145:3). Each of his great attributes and each of his great acts is to be greatly praised. The notion that his greatest acts—the incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son—would be greeted mutely is contrary to the entire pattern of act-and-praise disclosed across biblical history, and is indeed contrary to the evidence of the New Testament. Is the composition of hymns a serious matter that should be taken with all due seriousness and skill? Yes, just as this is true of preaching sermons and composing prayers; but we do the two latter in every service of worship, and there is no reason to believe we are exempt from the same careful composition when it comes to Christian hymns.


[1] For a review of the different emphases between the Lutheran and Reformed heritage on the matter, cf. Theodore Brown Hewitt, Paul Gerhardt as a Hymnwriter and His Influence on English Hymnody (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1918); Walter E. Buszin, “Luther on Music,” The Musical Quarterly 32, no. 1 (January 1946): 80–97; James Hastings Nichols, Corporate Worship in the Reformed Tradition (Philadelphia: Westminster 1968); Charles Garside Jr., “The Origins of Calvin’s Theology of Music, 1536-43,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 69, part 4 (1979): 1–36; Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005); John Barber, “Luther and Calvin on Music and Worship,” Reformed Perspectives Magazine 8, no. 26 (June 2006). Consider also Hughes Oliphant Old’s comment: “Luther was a talented musician, and he liked to sing the gospel as much as preach it. The Reformation produced a great amount of excellent hymnody. Luther left us several superb hymns that we still sing today, but he was not alone; a number of other Reformers did the same. In fact, the Reformation spawned a whole school of hymnodists. . . . Hymn singing is firmly wedded to the very nature of Protestant worship. We Protestants have as great a love for hymn singing as we do for preaching.” Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 321.

[2] The Metsudah Tehillim: A New Linear Tehillim with English Translation and Notes (Brooklyn: Simcha-Graphic Associates, 1983), iii.

[3] This designation of “praises” is somewhat imperfect, since nearly seventy-five of the psalms are more technically laments, and only about forty are what we would designate as songs of praise. But since there are seven different genres within the canonical psalter, perhaps “praises” is the most generic term that can be used for them.

[4] Pipes are indeed extremely old. Elena Mannes has an interesting discussion of a vulture bone flute found in Germany that is forty thousand years old: five thousand years older than the famous cave paintings in Chauvet, France. Even more remarkable, when archaeologists recreated one using a condor bone, the flute played the five-tone (pentatonic) Western scale perfectly, a scale used in “Amazing Grace” or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” So our preference for that pentatonic (later developed into the heptatonic) scale is not merely the result of enculturation; it is apparently wired into our DNA, and was wired so into our ancestors over forty thousand years ago. Cf. Elena Mannes, The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the New Science of Song (New York: Walker, 2013), and also her PBS Special, “The Music Instinct: Science and Song.”

[5] Douglas O’Donnell, God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship through Old Testament Songs (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2010).

[6] All students of the Psalms agree with this numbering of the five collections, but the labels are obviously interpretive. I derived these labels from the persuasive argumentation of Mark D. Futato, Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007).

[7] Cf. John D. Telgren, “Dating the Psalms,” n.p.n.d.

[8] Cf. William L. Holladay, The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996), 17–18.

[9] Calvin understood the ταῖς προσευχαῖς of Acts 2:42 to refer to the prayers both spoken and sung. As James Hastings Nichols put it, commenting on Calvin, “The second element in every meeting of the church is the prayers. These are of two types, said Calvin, spoken and sung. We must say something of each. It is significant that Calvin discusses church music under the heading of prayer.” Nichols, 33 (emphasis mine).

[10] “Philippians 2:2–5 is distinguished by the fact that it is perhaps the most illustrious example of New Testament Christ-hymns. It stands out as an ode sung to Christ in praise of Him and His achievement.” Ralph P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians ii.5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), 294–95.

[11] Trajan was emperor from 98 AD until his death in 117 AD, and most historians date the letter from Pliny at ca. 110. But of course, the behavior narrated had been committed many years earlier, so the testimony probably refers to merely the second generation of the church. Already, by the second generation, the Christians confessed to singing hymns to Christ “as to a god.” It is, of course, possible, but highly unlikely, that the second generation would have introduced a practice unapproved by the apostolic church.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, February 2014.

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Ordained Servant: February 2014

Worship Song

Also in this issue

Democracy and the Denigration of Office, Part 2

God’s Lyrics by Douglas Sean O’Donnell

God’s Astounding Grace by D. Scott Meadows (Briefly Noted)

How Jesus Runs the Church by Guy Prentiss Waters

The Singer Saith of His Song

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