Music in the Bible (Psalms)
A Brief Study On the Music that Can Be Found In the Psalms of the Bible.
The Psalms were the hymnbook of the Old Testament Jews.
Most of them were written by King David of Israel. Other people who wrote Psalms were Moses, Solomon, etc. The Psalms are very poetic. They have a flow to them. You could put a metronome to them and recite them in time. In many Bibles a musical phrase will be written above the chapter. Example: Psalm 61 "To the chief musician upon Neginah, A psalm of David" Neginah , plural Neginoth , in the Bible, direction for the musical accompaniment of a psalm. Psalms 4, 6, 54, 55, 61, 67, 76. The actual sheet music doesn't exist today. But one can still put music to the psalms today. The method to follow is this. The commas and periods are rest marks. Shape your melody and chords to represent the emotions given by the words. Repeated phrases are found often in music today. They are for emphasis. Pay attention to phrases like "and all Israel cried". This is the call for more voices to join in.
Psalms Through the Years
Psalms have been used throughout history, including in Christian usage up to today. Eskew and McElrath summarize the use of the Psalms through history this way: From one standpoint the entire history of the hymn could be delineated according to its varying relationship to the Scriptures. Generally speaking, the line of evolution in that story, if it were retold, is from the actual singing of parts of the Bible (the psalms, for example) through the strict paraphrasing of extended passages and the dutiful use of biblical allusion, language and figures of speech to the free expression of scriptural thought and teaching in contemporary terms. (Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath, Sing With Understanding (Broadman Press, 1980), p. 45.)
The Old Testament
The history of psalmody actually begins long before the Book of Psalms was ever written. The Israelites sang the Song of the Sea, Exodus 15:1—18, after crossing the Red Sea, and Craigie finds at least six other poetic texts embedded in the prose narrative of the Old Testament. (Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, Vol. XIX of Word Biblical Commentary (Word Books, 1983), p. 25.) Of course, many of these songs of the Israelites have been recorded in the Book of Psalms itself.
Still prior to the birth of the Christian church, the Book of Psalms became in effect the standard “hymnal” for the Jewish nation. On this point scholars are nearly unanimous. (Donald P. Hustad, Jubilate! (Hope, 1981), p. 83.)
Before the establishment of the Temple, King David appointed skilled singers and musicians to sing unto the Lord. The Bible makes no specific mention as to what songs were sung, except that they were “joyful songs.” (1 Chronicles 15:16) Perhaps 1 Chronicles 16:14 contains the most revealing detail of what was sung without specifying the Psalms. The passage says that David “appointed Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, to make petition, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel.’ This verse innumerates three types of expression: petition, thanks, and praise. Weiser distinguishes these same three types of expression in the book of Psalms. (Artur Weiser, The Psalms (Westminster Press, 1962), p. 52ff.) In 1 Chronicles 25, some of the men are set apart, it says, “for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals” (verse1).
The ministry of prophesying coincides with Weiser's subcategory of Wisdom and Didactic Psalms. No doubt songs similar to those in the book of Psalms were in use before the canonic book was compiled. One could assume that many of the songs sung in the Old Testament era eventually found their way into the Psalter.
In later years, at the dedication of the Temple, Scripture records that the Levites used the instruments “which King David had made for praising the LORD and which were used when he gave thanks, saying, “His love endures forever.” (2 Chronicles 7:6.) The expression “his love endures forever” is recorded in the first verse of both Psalm 118 and 136. The same words were sung years later at the rededication of the Temple, as recorded in Ezra 3:11. One may assume, then, that psalms, particularly those compiled in the canonic book, were used often by the Israelite priesthood.
Many scholars conclude that instrumental music was halted by the Babylonian captivity. When the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, very possibly all music was banned as a sign of national mourning. (Many historians have assumed this from historical records and also from Psalm 137:1-4.) After the Jews returned from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple, they again used music in worship. In later years much of the music of the Temple, or music similar to that of the Temple, was transferred to the synagogue. (Eric Werner, The Sacred Bridge (Columbia University Press, 1960), pp. 22-26.) Since music of the Temple consisted largely of psalm singing, (Winfred Douglas, Church Music in History and Practice (New York: Charles Scribners Son, 1957), pp. 13-19) the psalms were also used generously in the synagogue. So it is to this day. (A. Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (Schocken Books, 1967), pp. 3-336)
The New Testament
When the Church was born, singing to the Lord entered a new era. This section explores what place the Psalms had in the Church of the New Testament. Even there, the primacy of the Book of Psalms is clear.
Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs
Psalms One may assume from James 5:13 and 1 Corinthians 14:15 that the New Testament church was fond of singing, in fact, of singing psalms. James tells his readers, “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” In the Greek, the command is psalleto, to sing psalms. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” Again the word for “sing” here is psalo. Whether these are references to the actual book of Psalms or not is not important ultimately; that they are references to songs at least similar to the book of Psalms is the issue for this study.
The apostle Paul also referred to songs in the assembly of the church when he wrote to the Corinthians, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn…(I Cor. 14:26). The actual word used here is not “hymn,” but rather it is psalmon. Some have felt that this was an indication that the Corinthians opened their assemblies with a psalm, since psalmon begins a list here. Such an assumption may not be correct, but if that congregation did indeed open with a psalm, it would have been in agreement with the pattern for the synagogue service. (Werner, p. 22) Perhaps James 2:2 indicates that services of the early church were patterned after synagogue services. There James speaks of someone coming into their “assembly,” and the word used for “assembly” is synagogue.
The book of Psalms is quoted more frequently in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. (H. B. Swete, An Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek, 2d rev. ed. (Harvard University Press, 1914), pp. 383,384) Jesus Him¬self quoted from the Psalms more than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Briggs finds at least fourteen times when Jesus used the Psalms. (Charles Augustus Briggs and Emilie Grace Briggs, The Book of Psalms, Vol. 1, The International Critical Commentary (T & T Clark, 1907), introduction, pp. ci,cii).
Hymns Jesus and the apostles are recorded as singing only once, that being the hymn after the Last Supper. (Matt. 26:30 and Mark 14:22) Although it is called a hymn, almost all authorities agree that this was in fact the Great Hallel, Psalms 113-118, which was traditionally sung by the Jews after the Fourth Cup of Blessing in the Passover Meal. This being the case, the word “hymn” as used in the New Testament could be defined at least in some cases as a series of psalms linked together, or as a long psalm. Certainly this is at least a part of the definition.
After the Last Supper hymn, the next clear reference to hymn singing in the New Testament is found in Acts 16:25. Paul and Silas are in prison “praying and singing hymns.” In light of the definition of the hymn at the Last Supper. it is at least possible that Paul and Silas in fact sang several psalms. Hymn singing is again mentioned in Hebrews 2:12. There the writer quotes a psalm and says, “in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” The actual term is hymneso se, “I will hymn thee”.
Songs Revelation 5:9 mentions a new song to be sung in the Great Throne Room. This verse contains the third word used to describe singing in the New Testament, the Greek word ode. The passage does not necessarily describe what was happening in the early Church, but rather what would happen at the end of the age. Events at the end of the age do not necessarily describe the actual singing of the early Church.
Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs Having made mention of those three words which describe singing in the New Testament, it is well to move on to a discussion of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. These are the most familiar and most often-discussed verses about singing in the New Testament. They read this way: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, . . (Eph. 5:19), and, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and counsel one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Col. 3:16).
Both Ephesians and Colossians use all three terms of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. For the purpose of this study, the interest in this passage lies in Paul’s intended definition of these three terms.
The word PSALMS, psallo, originally meant to pluck, as in the string of a harp, hence, to sing to the accompaniment of a harp. And then to the making of music in general. Although this was not the original Hebrew title for what became known as the Book of Psalms, the title of “Psalms” came from the Greek translations of the Old Testament. Some have claimed that when Paul referred to psalms he was referring to new Christian compositions patterned after the Old Testament book, but most scholars agree that this term probably referred to the Old Testament book of Psalms itself. Without a doubt, the term psalms could mean the book of Psalms.
The word HYMNS, humnos, is a little more difficult to define. It seems that the emphasis of a hymn was not on musical accompaniment, as with the term but more on praise of God. (Joseph Henry Thayer, ed., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), s.v. “humnos”, p. 637) This word could mean, as mentioned earlier, a series of psalms linked together, as in the Last Supper passage. Some scholars label as hymns the canonical Canticles or so-called “hymn fragments” of the New Testament. This is an interesting thought; however, since none of the “canticles” or “hymn fragments" of the New Testament actually claim to be music, it is difficult to be dogmatic on that definition. Some scholars have suggested that the term could be applied to poetry in general. Their suggestion would resolve the dilemma. There is some support for their view in that there is a strong relationship be¬tween poetry and music in Greece, and these letters were written to churches that no doubt had many converts who would be a part of Greek culture. Ambrose’s famous definition of a hymn sheds light on the post—apostolic view. He says that a hymn is a song containing praise of God. If you praise God, but without song, you do not have a hymn. If you praise anything which does not pertain to the glory of God, even if you sing it, you do not have a hymn. Hence, a hymn contains the three elements: song and praise of God [underline added]. (Werner, p. 207)
The term “hymn” at least could mean the book of Psalms.
The term SPIRITUAL SONGS is the most difficult of the three to define precisely. The Greek word is ode, and it is a generic word for “song.” In the New Testament ode is found only in the passages in Ephesians and Colossians and three times in the book of Revelation. (Revelation 5:9, 14:3, and 15:3) The Revelation passages are not very helpful in defining ode because in two of the three cases it is modified by the term anew,” “a new song.” In any case they are not very helpful because they are set in a future dispensation. The passages from Ephesians and Colossians are difficult because ode is modified by the term “spiritual” (spiritual songs). What does Paul mean when he specifies spiritual songs? Some have suggested that the word “spiritual” here refers to a song that is inspired by the Holy Spirit, in the sense that Scripture is inspired or God-breathed. Some have, in light of I Corinthians 14:15, seen this to mean outbursts of speaking in tongues, although that view is generally discounted by scholars. Could they be songs of the spiritual life? Could they be songs composed by spiritual men? Could they be freely composed hymns, inspired in the modern sense of being highly creative? Some have asserted that they might have been chants without words, melodies sung on just one syllable, called a melisma. The explanation that this author leans toward is that “song,” being a generic term, is qualified by the term ‘spiritual’ to clarify that the song is not to be just any pagan song, but a godly one. Possibly the term “spiritual songs” could also be referring to the Old Testament book of Psalms.
The Ephesian and Colossian congregations could possibly have used some kind of hymn book. Their being familiar with a common hymn book would explain some of the so-called hymn fragments which Paul uses elsewhere. Louis Benson believes that Paul used all three terms, “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” to connote an actual hymn book already being used by the churches. (Louis F. Benson, The Hymnody of the Christian Church (Richmond, Va: John Knox Press, 1956), p. 45-48) Such a hymnal would not be likely to be so well known so early, however. All three terms could as easily refer to the book of Psalms as they could to a common hymnal.
Jerome, in his “Commentary on the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians,” assumes that all three terms refer to different aspects of the canonical Psalms. He states that those who sing hymns “declare the power and majesty of the Lord and continually praise his works and favors.” (Oliver Strunk, Source Readings in Music History (W..W. Norton & Co., 1950), p. 72) Hymns, then, according to Jerome, are Psalms of declarative worship. Spiritual songs, Jerome says, “properly affect the seat of ethos, so that we know what ought and what ought not be done.” (ibid) He claims that the psalm, use of which implies instrumental accompaniment, is directed toward the body, while the spiritual song is directed toward the mind. He concludes, “We ought, then, to sing and make melody and praise the Lord more with heart than with voice.” (p.72)
Other scholars more recently have also asserted that all three terms refer to the Psalms. Edward Robson documents well his view that “all three terms can only mean psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs of the Old Testament Book of Psalms.” (Edward J. Robson, “An Exposition of the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16,” The Biblical Doctrine of Worship (n.p., The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 1974), p. 197) He goes into great detail to prove this point by observing syntax and discussing use of the word “spiritual” in the context. He demonstrates that the syntax of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is the same parallel structure as in Matthew 28:19, in which baptizing is in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. His claim is that psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are as much a three-in-one as the Trinity, and thus must mean the same thing: the Psalms.
Others have made some convincinq arguments that all three terms refer to the Book of Psalms. Frank Frazer points out that the command is for Christians to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, not to make them. (Frank D. Frazer, “Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, p. 334) He feels that the Church should sing the old Psalms which are already written instead of creating new compositions.
Perhaps the best argument which would allow all three terms to mean the Book of Psalms is put forth by G. I. Williamson: …We are in the habit of using the terms “hymns” and “songs” for those compositions that are not Psalms. But Paul and the Christians at Ephesus and Colossae used these terms as the Bible itself uses them, namely, as a title for the various Psalms in the Old Testament Psalter. (G. I. Williamson, “The Singing of Psalms in Worship,” The Biblical Doctrine of Worship, p. 321)
Earlier he had explained: …For the fact is that all three of these terms are used in the Bible to designate various selections contained in the Old Testament Psalter. In the Greek version of the Old Testament familiar to the Ephesians and Colossians the entire Psalter is entitled “Psalms.” In sixty-seven of the titles within the book the word “psalm” is used. However, in six titles the word “hymn” is used, rather than the “psalm,” and in thirty— five the word “song," appears. Even more important, twelve titles use both “psalm” and “song,” and two have “psalm” and “hymn.” Psalm seventy-six is designated “psalm, hymn and song.” And at the end of the first seventy-two Psalms we read this, “the hymns of David the son of Jesse are ended.
This present study is not making some proscription to use only the Psalms in worship, as these Reformed scholars would do. It is, however, calling the church to a more scriptural balance. If new compositions are to be written, they should reflect a similar sentiment and balance as did the Old Testament Book of Psalms itself. In the next chapter, this balance of the primacy of worship will be established, and that is the end result of all of this argument.
The Early Church
In Jesus’ day, the Jews described their entire Bible in three words. It was called the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. (Briggs, p. xix) Jesus used these three terms in Luke 24:44. The Law, of course, was the Pentateuch and the books of history. The Prophets were the prophetic writings, both major prophets and minor. The Writings were the Psalms and other books of poetry. Jesus left out mentioning the Writings when He said that He had come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them. Could it be that the Writings were not fulfilled?
The New Testament contains no section of poetry. Both Old and New Testaments have sections of history. Both have sections of prophecy. Only the Old Testament, though, has a section of poetry. The Psalms transcended the New Testament into the early church.
What happened to the Psalms after the canon was closed? Were second-century Christians bound to the Psalter? What did they sing? Benson gives his theory: These first Christians are described as in that state of spiritual elation out of which song springs as naturally as flowers blossom. And plainly they felt perfectly free to add new songs to the old, which the more gifted among them did from the beginning. (30) He goes on to say, To most students that early atmosphere seems to embody a spirituality of the creative sort, of expansion rather than compulsory restriction. It appears to have been a divine providence rather than a divine prescription that laid the Psalter ready to the Church s hand, and as though its contents rather than the urgency of its rubrics recommended its use to the first Christians.
After the close of the New Testament canon, however, the information on the singing of the Church is sparse. Delling explains that Philo writes that in addition to the Psalms early Christians created songs and hymns in various meters and melodies in traditional Hebrew styles. (Gerhard Delling, Worship in the New Testament, trans. Percy Scott (Philadelphia: Westminter Press, 1962),p. 85)
Some of the apocryphal writings contain new songs. The Acts of John supposedly has the hymn which Jesus and the apostles sang at the Last Supper. The Acts of Thomas contains several songs which begin to reflect some Gnostic theology. Clement of Alexandria wrote at least one formal hymn, and Ambrose wrote several intricate hymns. (Robert Payne, The Christian Centuries (New York: W.W. Norton, 1966), pp. 112-128) Other Christians, several of whom were martyred, are known to have written songs. Among them are Ignatius, Athenogenes, Hippolytus, and Nepos. (Benson 60) whether or not the apocryphal writings are genuine and whether any of these contain Gnostic thoughts is irrelevant for this chapter. The Christian community wrote some original compositions early in its history. This confirms Benson s thought that there was no early proscription against adding to the Psalter.
Werner states that the Church of the first millennium used to its best advantage the one book of the Old Testament that came to be the backbone of most liturgies, the Psalter. . . . Whoever evaluates psalmody and its part in daily life approaches the spirit of the Middle Ages.’ (128, 129)
He pursues his thought further, linking the association of the church with the Jewish synagogue and Temple practices. The single most noticeable common denominator between the Jewish and early Christian practice of worship is the Psalms. Apel also traces this early development. (Willi Apel, Gregorian Chant (Indiana University Press, 1973) pp. 33-83)
Not long after the Church began, however, heretics began to discover the power of these new compositions. The Gnostics began to gain popularity through their songs. The heretic Anus also began to write songs. He said, “Let me make a people’s songs and I care not who makes their laws.” (Williamson, p. 325)
John Chrysostom countered the heretics in his city by having the believers sing some popular songs with orthodox theology while marching in procession. (Benson, p. 67) This worked with some success for the church there.
Others, such as Augustine, reacted to these new compositions with suspicion and legalism. In A.D. 430, he testified, The Donatists make it a matter of reproach against us, that, in the Church, we sing with sobriety the divine songs . . . whereas they inflame the intoxication of their minds by singing psalms of human composition. (Williamson, p. 325)
In an effort to carefully preserve the orthodox faith, the Church began to limit all non-scriptural compositions. In fact, as early as A.D. 343, the Synod of Laodicea forbade “the singing of uninspired hymns in Church” (Williamson, 325) as it also forbade “the reading of uncanonical books of Scripture.” (ibid) The proscription was reaffirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451.
During these early centuries, the liturgies of the Church used what became known as Gregorian Chant. Willi Apel notes that the Psalms played a major role in the formation of this body of song: Not without justification has the Book of Psalms been called the most influential single source of texts in all music history. Indeed it is by far the most important textual source in Gregorian Chant. -Nearly all the chants of the Gregorian repertory have a psalmodic background, the main exceptions being the Antiphons, the Resonsories, and the Hymns. (Apel 87)
Evidently, the Church leaders thought that if no one wrote or read or sang anything that was not directly Scripture, they would eliminate doctrinal error in song.
As time went on this suspicion of any unscriptural composition faded, and composers moved away from writing only Psalm settings. What had begun in apparent freedom went through a period of control and suspicion, and then slowly returned to freedom again. The problem was that in the Church's loosening of restrictions on the songs of her services, she also loosened her grip on orthodox belief. These were the Dark Ages, and the Reformation grew out of this period.
The Reformation and Beyond
During the Reformation the Protestant Church broke away from the Catholic Church in Rome. With the new—found freedom from Roman control, a scramble began for a new authority, both in theology and in music. Each new group that began had its own view of music. By and large, the history of church music can be summarized by looking at a few of the major leaders who helped to shape Protestant thought. The present study now turns to examine some of these leaders.
Luther The most prominent figure of the early Reformation is Martin Luther. The Hussites had already re-invented the vernacular hymn before him. Luther also used and wrote vernacular hymns. He believed in the priesthood of all believers, and as such he wanted the congregation singing instead of spectating as the professional clergy sang for them. Luther had no reservations about adding to the Psalter and he actively sought to find new hymns which would be appropriate for his people. He wrote some of them himself. His choice was to call them “spiritual songs” (Benson 76) to distinguish them from the Latin Psalms and to reflect their inward direction.
Luther, however, was far from wanting to abandon the Psalms altogether. He said, “Let the entire Psalter, distributed into parts, remain in use at the morn¬ing and evening service,” (Benson, 76,77) and he was quite willing to have them sung in their then-customary Latin. Luther believed that when Paul used “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" instead of just “psalms” he gave the Church permission to freely compose its own new songs. Benson says, he calls “the songs of holy writ to witness that patriarchs and prophets composed original hymns,” and therefore a modern reformer and his friends who do likewise should “not be looked upon as innovators” as following in the train of these ancient worthies. (78)
Calvin John Calvin was the next prominent figure to rise in the history of Church music. Unlike Luther, Calvin did not desire to reform the church; he desired to restore the primitive church as it had originally been. This difference in basic viewpoints created the difference in their attitude toward the Psalms. Calvin, being more conservative in his approach, concluded that the Old Testament Psalms were the only permissible source for church singing. Benson describes Calvin's thinking by summarizing Calvin’s preface of 1543 like this: First: To find songs not only pure but holy. Second: But none can write them save he who has received the power from God Himself. Third: “When we have searched all around, here and there, we shall find no songs better or more suitable than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit dictated and gave to him.” Fourth: “And therefore, when we sing them, we are as sure that God hath put words into our mouths as if lie Himself sang with us to exalt His glory.” (83)
Calvin differed from the Catholic Church in that he pre¬scribed that the congregation be encouraged to sing, and that he also prescribed that the Psalms be sung in the vernacular instead of in Latin. Calvin also avoided those Roman chants not directly based on the Psalms.
Calvin's idea of bringing the Psalms to the people was very far-reaching in congregational song. To begin with, it created the Metrical Psalm, a psalm set to vernacular poetry. Setting the Psalms to verse helped the Calvinists sing in meter. It also helped the Church move away from singing strict Scripture and move toward freedom of expression, even though it was not nearly as free as Luther’s concept of song. English Psalmody grew from this limited freedom of Calvin, and some two hundred years later the changes of Isaac Watts came from English Psalmody.
Watts The English psalm was already changing before the time of Isaac Watts. Writers had begun to feel more free to add personal applications and thoughts to the strict prose text of the Psalms. Sternhold and Hopkins completed The Whole Book of Psalms in 1562, and this psalter remained popular until Watts entered the scene.
Isaac Watts’ perspective on singing the Psalms was different than Calvin’s perspective. According to Benson, Watts “denied in general that we are under the call, either of God or of Christian prudence, to sing the Bible.” (Benson, 88) In fact, Watts believed that the church’s hymns should not simply be the Word of God, but should be the Church’s response to the Word. Secondly, Watts denied that the Book of Psalms was God’s intended hymn book for Christians. it was Jewish, not Christian, and some of the messages are far from New Covenant messages. So Watts set out, with his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Apply’d to the Christian State and Worship, to remedy that flaw. Thirdly, Watts denied that the metrical psalm was the pure Word of God in the first place. If the Church is to sing Scripture only, then human versions of Scripture manipulated to rhyme and meter are not sufficient. Watts went about creating hymns, many of which were based on the Psalms but which reflected the joy and truths of the new creation in Christ.
Watts’s ideas were radical in the early eighteenth century, but before long they became widely accepted. Watts, as a Calvinist, seldom extended an invitation for salvation in his hymns. Later generations would soon change that as well.
Wesleys John and Charles Wesley represent the next major shift in Christian song. The Wesleys were Arminians, who, unlike the Calvinists, believed in the free will of man with regard to salvation. This theological position, coupled with freedom from strict Psalmody, helped to create the first “invitation” songs. The Wesleys approached music in much the same way as Luther had. They wanted people singing their songs more than they wanted to win the traditional Church’s approval. They, therefore, had little concern with singing Scriptural paraphrase, and even began to neglect the practice of listing a Scriptural reference at the head of a hymn. The Wesleys were out to shake the sleepy Church of England into revival, and the old forms which came from the Church were no longer adequate to carry the power of their call. Their cry was that a person was not a Christian just by being in the Church. That person must be in Christ, and the only way to have assurance of being in Christ was through personal experience. The Wesleys created music for the people. According to Hustad, the Wesleyan songs “covered every conceivable aspect of Christian devotional experience and may be said to be the progenitors of the modern gospel songs.” (Hustad 127)
The Wesleys' music accompanied England's Great Revival. In America, the Great Awakening and later revivals shared a similar kind of music as that of the Wesleys. Church music had taken another major step away from the Psalms and toward the gospel song.
Sankey and Bliss The latter half of the nineteenth century in America was the era of great mass evangelistic meetings. During that era, the gospel song became a popular vehicle for presenting the Good News about Jesus. Gospel songs were the next great step away from the Psalms. Many wrote and com¬piled gospel songs during this time, but the music of Ira Sankey and Phillip Bliss seems to have been a rallying point for the rest of evangelical Christian music.
Gospel songs are subjective songs emphasizing human experience and testimony. (Donald P. Elsworth, Christian Music in Contemporary Witness (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 93) They are usually directed to the unbeliever and press for a decision from him. Their music is consciously the simple, singable music of the world. Usually they have a refrain. The texts, far removed from any attempt to imitate the Psalms, basically are strongly evangelistic sermons set to rhyme.
Gospel songs were found to be quite effective in bringing about mass evangelism in the late nineteenth cen¬tury. Even today they are quite popular among evangelicals. They are seldom used strictly for mass evangelism anymore, for the edge of their effectiveness has long ago worn dull. Nonetheless, congregations who have become used to gospel songs still sing them, even as part of their worship on Sunday mornings.
Recent Trends More recent trends are perhaps too close to categorize yet, until history can put them into perspective. The trend seems to indicate that modern Christian music up through the 1970s has continued on the same path as the last century. Personal experience and evangelistic invitation have been the major themes. The music of John W. Peterson dominated the 1960s, and that of he and Ralph Carmichael dominated most of the 1970s. Almost all of the music of these two men was written in a popular, palatable style, full of testimonies and mild invitations. By the 1980s there seems to have been a heartening trend back to an emphasis on the Psalms and on music of worship, especially represented by the writing of Don Moen, Twila Paris, Michael W. Smith and others. The decade of the 1990s brought an even greater renewal of worship music, including touring “worship concerts” and many “worship” recordings by such groups as Sonic Flood and Delirious?. Martin Smith and Matt Redman from the UK, and Darlene Zschech from Australia joined US writers from Integrity and Vineyard churches to create intimate songs that were designed for the common use of both believers and seekers alike. Historians will have to see if these trends continue.
The Psalms in the Church have made a full swing. The Church began with free composition but heavy reliance on Scripture, almost solely the Psalms. It changed to an attitude of prohibition and control to sing only the Psalms and a few other texts. Luther advocated a whole new freedom from such limitations. Calvin preferred rather strict limitations to the use of metrical psalms only, but once he allowed the Scripture to become metered, human creativity was set loose. Watts applied the Psalms to the Christian state, and then went on to write free hymns. Wesley introduced the invitation song and more of an element of personal experience to the free hymn. Sankey and Bliss- then added the gospel song.
Benson summarizes the flow of Christian song this way: The era of “Psalms and Hymns” gradually merged into an era of “Hymns.” As the books labeled on their backs, “Psalms and Hymns” had replaced the Psalms in Meter, so the “Hymnal” came to replace the “Psalms and Hymns.” (92)
Benson made his observation early in this century. If he were to update it he might add: “hymns and spiritual songs” have now replaced the “Hymnal."
The history of Christian song could also be summarized this way: it began with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, which were all Psalms or similar to the Psalms. Calvin limited the Church to using psalms only. Eventually Luther and Watts changed the Church to sing psalms and hymns. Finally evangelicals like Wesley came to use hymns and spiritual songs, then Sankey and Bliss used only spiritual songs. The trend away from psalms has continued to today.
A modern problem is that hymnal compilers, in an effort to have a “balanced” collection, are gathering material from Watts forward in time. What compilers consider “balance” is to have a nearly equal number of older hymns and of recent evangelistic spiritual songs. Psalms have been neglected. The Church would do well to return to the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of its primitive days.
The Psalter is not the only proper source for Christian song. Surely within the Church there is room for original composition of any topic and of any style of music. If the Church is going to look for an objective standard for her song today, however, the most logical source would be the Old Testament Book of Psalms. Sadly enough, the Psalms have been almost totally neglected in modern evangelical hymnals. Even more sadly, the very spirit of the Psalms has been abandoned for pragmatism.