“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:19) “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Colossians 3:16)
Exclusive psalmody is the belief that, when singing praise to God, only the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament Book of Psalms are to be sung. This position, once held by the majority of Presbyterian and Reformed Christians, is today maintained by very few Christians in a handful of small churches. The vast majority of churches have introduced the singing of uninspired hymns into God’s solemn worship. It is my purpose to show that exclusive psalmody is the teaching of the Bible — that only the Psalms of Holy Scripture are to be sung in the public worship of the church.
Scripture teaches, in both the Old and New Testaments, that God alone determines how He will be worshipped: that in our worship of Almighty God, we must obey what He has commanded and ordained; we may not go beyond His commands, or add to His appointments. This principle, known as the “regulative principle of worship,” requires that we include in our worship only what God has commanded, and exclude from our worship whatever He has not commanded. For example, God has commanded that we observe two sacraments in the church, baptism and the Lord’s supper; and has not commanded that any other sacraments be observed. All other pretended sacraments are therefore excluded, since they do not have any warrant in the Word of God.
Since we understand from Scripture that we are to sing God’s praise, we must ask how the regulative principle applies to our singing in worship. Are we allowed to sing any song that someone may write, as long as its message is scripturally accurate? Or are we limited to certain songs with defined texts, which have been appointed for that purpose by God?
In 2 Chronicles 29:30, we read, “Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the LORD with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshipped.” This passage clearly demonstrates that particular songs were appointed to be sung. It refers to the entire Psalter, or Book of Psalms, as “the words of David, and of Asaph the seer,” since they were the two principal authors of the Psalter. It is not merely the command of a human king, since this was a part of the divinely authorized reformation of Israel’s worship. All was done by “the commandment of the LORD by his prophets” (verse 25), so that “the service of the house of the LORD was set in order” (verse 35).
Because God appointed particular songs with defined texts to be sung in worship, we must recognize that God regulates this part of His worship. God has appointed the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be read and preached in worship, so that we cannot read or preach from anything else. Likewise, God has appointed the Psalms to be sung in worship, and has not appointed any other songs; so that we cannot sing anything else in worship. This regulation of the content of song in worship must be relaxed by God, if we are to have the freedom to compose and sing our own songs, not having His specific appointment.
Many at this point will object, saying that the verses quoted at the beginning command the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs;” so that we are certainly commanded to sing the Psalms of the Bible, but must also sing these other “hymns and spiritual songs” as well. But this passage does not set aside the regulation we have already found; it does not command the composing of new songs, or the singing of any songs that men may write, so long as they be theologically true or scripturally correct. Since this regulation is not set aside in these passages, or in any other place in the New Testament, it must continue in full force, and require that we sing God’s praise only with the songs He has appointed — the Old Testament Psalms.
Upon closer examination, it is clear that these verses in Ephesians and Colossians command the singing only of the Biblical Psalms, without giving mention to any other songs. This can be seen in two ways: (1.) They are “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” taken from Holy Scripture; and, (2.) They are “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” taken from the Old Testament Psalter, particularly.
1. They are part of Holy Scripture, and therefore cannot be identified as the works or compositions of uninspired men. (1.) They are called “the word of Christ,” that is, the Word of God, given by inspiration of the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:10, 11). (2.) They are to dwell in us “in all wisdom.” It is only from the inspired Scriptures that we find “all wisdom;” not from the writings of men, but from the Word of God written. (3.) They are to be used in “teaching and admonishing” each other, that is, for guiding or correcting our beliefs (“teaching”) or way of life (“admonishing”). Only the Holy Scriptures can be our authoritative guide in such matters. (4.) The word “spiritual” indicates that these “songs” are “of the Spirit” or “Spirit-given” — not the human spirit, but the Holy Spirit. Additionally, many commentators believe that “spiritual” modifies all three terms, not just “songs,” so that it would read, “spiritual (Spirit-given) psalms and hymns and songs” — they are all given by the inspiration of the Spirit, which we have only in Scripture. The natural conclusion from all this is that the Scripture itself would provide us with an inspired collection of songs with which to praise God; and this conclusion is realized in the Book of Psalms.
2. In addition, these passages are referring to “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” taken from the Psalter — not just any “scripture songs” found in the Holy Scriptures, but the Old Testament Book of Psalms, in particular.
(1.) The three terms found in these passages, “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs,” all refer to compositions found in the Book of Psalms.
(a.) For the first term, “psalms” (psalmois), there is little question or controversy. Practically every occasion that this word is used in the New Testament refers to the Book of Psalms. Additionally, in the Greek version of the Old Testament used by Christ and His Apostles, called the Septuagint (abbreviated as LXX.), the title of the book is given as “Psalms” (Psalmoi), and the word “psalm” (psalmos) occurs most frequently in the titles of individual Psalms.
(b.) The second term, “hymns” (humnois), also has reference to the Psalms. It occurs in the LXX. translation in several titles of the Psalms (Psalms 6, 54, 55, 61, 76), on every occasion identifying those Psalms as individual compositions within the larger collection of “hymns” (humnois). It occurs in several passages of individual Psalms, identifying them as hymns (Psalms 40:3; 65:1; 100:4; 119:171; 137:3). The translation of Psalm 72:20 is very interesting in this regard: where the Hebrew reads, “The prayers of David the son of Jesse are ended,” the LXX. reads, “The hymns (humnois) of David the son of Jesse are ended.” Additionally, the verb form of “hymn” is used in several contexts where we understand Scripture to refer to the singing of Psalms. The LXX. translation of 2 Chronicles 29:30 says that the Levites were commanded “to sing hymns (humnein) unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer.” And in the New Testament, Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 both speak of Christ and the Apostles having “sung an hymn” (humnesantes). All commentators on these passages testify that they sang Psalms 113 through 118 (known as the Hallel Psalms) on this occasion.
(c.) Lastly, the term “song” (ode) occurs frequently in the Psalter as well, especially in the Psalm titles. Aside from its appearance in the LXX. translation of the Psalms, one may simply turn to an English version of the Bible and see the word “song” occurring frequently in these titles, as Psalms 30, 45, 46, 65-68, 75, 76, 83, 87, 88, 92, 108, 120-134. The Psalms are called “the songs of Zion” and “the LORD’s song” (Psalm 137:3, 4). Although we, in our constant usage, refer to them only as “the Psalter,” or “the Psalms;” the early Christians, in their constant usage, referred to them as either “psalms,” “hymns,” or “songs.”
(2.) These three terms occur together, not to distinguish between three radically different kinds of praise songs, but as a grouping of similar terms collectively speaking of the same thing (i.e., the Book of Psalms). The practice of using two or three similar terms to refer to the same thing is a very common literary device, occurring in both the Old and New Testaments. “Iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:7); “The commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments” (Deuteronomy 5:31); “Prayer and supplication” (1 Kings 8:38); “Signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds” (2 Corinthians 12:12), etc. These passages are not speaking of two or three entirely different things, but are referring to the same things using several different words, to give a fuller description of them. Likewise, in Ephesians and Colossians, the phrase “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is being used to refer to the same collection of compositions — the Biblical Psalter.
(3.) In Ephesians 5:19, we are to employ “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” in “singing and making melody.” The Greek reads, adontes kai psallontes — literally, “singing and psalming.” The verb forms of “song” and “psalm” are both used, identifying the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” as songs and psalms. This shows that the three terms used are not distinct kinds of compositions, each receiving authority for use in worship. These terms are here indistinguishable from each other, and must refer to the same body of compositions. Since all acknowledge that the first term (psalmois) refers to the Biblical Psalms, all must likewise acknowledge that all three terms refer to the Biblical Psalms.
In worshipping God, we must worship Him only as He has commanded. He has commanded us to sing His own Psalms, and has not commanded any other songs to be sung in His praise. Let us be obedient to His Word, not adding to or taking from His command: “Sing unto him, sing psalms unto him: talk ye of all his wondrous works” (Psalm 105:2).
 See especially Leviticus 10:1-3; Deuteronomy 12:28-32; Matthew 15:1-9; Colossians 2:18-23.
 Because of the limits of space, I will not here attempt an exhaustive defense of this principle. For further study, see James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline and Government of the Christian Church (1869; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 1:335-375 [Ed.—available at http://www.naphtali.com/bannerman1.htm]; Michael S. Bushell, The Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody, 3d ed. (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 1999) pp. 107-153; G. I. Williamson, “The Regulative Principle of Worship: A paper presented at the 2001 International Conference of Reformed Churches” (available at http://www.reformedprescambridge.com/articles/ICRC_RPW_Final.pdf).
 This is clearly seen in the Ephesians passage, where it begins, verse 18, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit (Pneumati); speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (odais pneumatikais),” etc.
 See John McNaugher, “A Special Exegesis of Col. iii. 16 and Eph. v. 19,” in McNaugher, ed. The Psalms in Worship: A Series of Convention Papers Bearing upon the Place of the Psalms in the Worship of the Church (Pittsburgh: The United Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1907), p. 132, fn. 3.