Importance of Regarding Divine Appointment in the Worship of God—Statement of the Question in Dispute.
“Give unto the Lord, the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” What glory is due unto God, and what worship will be acceptable to him, we must learn, not from the discoveries of reason, but exclusively from the revelation which God has given of himself in the Oracles of Truth. That God should receive the religious homage of the intelligent creature, is a conclusion which recommends itself to our reason; but in what particular way this religious homage should be expressed, reason cannot inform us. In all our inquiries, therefore, with respect to the worship which is proper to be offered to God, we must go directly to his word. “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
Among the ordinances of religious worship which God has appointed, the singing of praise is one of peculiar interest to the pious soul. When the christian is enabled to lift up the soul with the voice, and praise God with the understanding and the heart, he enjoys on earth a foretaste of heavenly blessedness; and even now enters upon that delightful employment, which shall constitute the happiness of the redeemed before the throne of God. That, in the performance of this duty, the christian should be governed by the revealed will of God, must therefore, be a matter of great importance. “I am the Lord; that is my name; and my glory will I not give unto another, neither my praise to graven images.” God claims as his prerogative, the honor of appointing that religious worship his intelligent creatures shall render to him. When men, therefore, take this matter into their own hands, and undertake to determine how God shall be praised, or with what he shall be praised, do they not plainly arrogate to themselves that glory which Jehovah declares he will not give to another?
On this subject, the case of Nadab and Abihu is at once instructive and admonitory. These sons of Aaron took their censers, and put fire in them, and put incense thereon, and “offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.” [Levit. 10:1.] It was the business of the priest, in the discharge of his official duty, to burn incense before the Lord. In so far as the burning of the incense was concerned, common fire would answer the end as well as that which was kept alive on the altar. According to divine appointment, however, fire taken from the sacred altar, and none other, was to be employed for this purpose. But on this occasion, these presumptuous men, disregarding the divine appointment, employed common fire. And as a testimony of the divine displeasure against their presumption in thus contemning his authority, “there went out fire from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” In reference to this awful occurrence, “Moses said unto Aaron, This is it that the Lord spake, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come nigh me, and before all the people I will be glorified.”
From a superficial view, the conduct of these ministers of God, might seem to involve no remarkable criminality. Common fire possessing the same properties with the sacred fire which had originally descended from heaven, and was kept alive on the sacred altar, might seem to answer equally well the end proposed, which was to consume the incense and produce an agreeable perfume. But in this matter, human wisdom had nothing to do in determining what was fit and proper. In relation to everything connected with the worship of God, it is our duty to inquire, what is the divine appointment? And because Nadab and Abihu disregarded the divine appointment, and offered unto God that which he commanded them not, therefore the consuming wrath of heaven descended upon them, and cut them off by a terrible death. And have we not reason to apprehend, that the disregard of divine authority in the worship of God, will now subject the guilty to the displeasure of heaven, as certainly as it did the presumptuous sons of Aaron? “The Lord thy God, is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.” [Deut. 4:24.]
The application of this historical fact to the subject under discussion, is very apparent. In the case of these sons of Aaron, we have an example of the disregard of divine appointment in the worship of God, and of the awful displeasure of heaven to which their presumption exposed them. And the things which were written aforetime, were written for our learning. By the fearful destruction which overtook these men, we are warned in relation to the danger of imitating their sin. It will not be supposed that God has less regard for the purity of his worship now, than he had in the days of Aaron. And though he is not confined to any particular mode of manifesting his displeasure against the corruption of his worship, yet that the sin is now as abhorrent in his sight as it ever was, and that it will be punished in the way which seems proper to Infinite Wisdom, there can be no reason to doubt.
That the singing of God's praise is an ordinance of religious worship, is admitted generally by all the professed followers of Christ. But on one point connected with the general subject, the christian world is unhappily divided; and that is, What system of songs shall be used by the church in the celebration of God’s praise? In consequence of diversity of views on this subject, it sometimes happens, that professing christians, when they meet together, can most cordially unite in other exercises of religious worship; but in the delightful employment of singing God’s praise, some can take no part; because they believe that the songs which are used, have not the sanction of the divine appointment. And therefore, however well their hearts may be tuned for the exercise, and however ardently they may desire to unite in praising God, they are compelled to remain silent, lest they should be chargeable with offering “strange fire before the Lord.”
The conflicting views, on this subject, which have divided the christian world, may all be reduced to two. The first maintains, that the songs contained in the book of Psalms, being given by inspiration of God, are to be used in singing his praise, and that we have no authority for the introduction of songs of human composure. The other contends, that evangelical hymns composed by uninspired men, not only may be sung in the worship of God, but that they are preferable to those contained in the book of Psalms, being better adapted to the Gospel dispensation. To a proper understanding of the merits of this controversy, it is a matter of much importance, that we should keep distinctly in view, the question at issue. The reader is therefore desired to observe, that the question is not. What metrical version of the Psalms may be used in the praise of God? But, it is simply this: “What system of songs may be used? Shall we use that collection contained in the book of Psalms; or may we use another, prepared by men?”
It is the more necessary to be particular in stating the point in dispute, because some writers, who at least ought to know better, give such a representation of it as is calculated to mislead. In the eighth volume of the Biblical Repertory, there is a notice of a tract on the subject of Catholic Communion, published by the author of these remarks. The learned conductors of that journal, do not condescend to answer the argument against Catholic Communion, but endeavor to turn it into ridicule. And no living men understand better than the “Princeton Reviewers,” that it is a much easier task, to laugh at an argument, than to refute it. With regard to this tract these gentlemen are pleased to say,—it “will be found a rare example of exclusiveness, after the straitest sect.” After making this dignified remark, they proceed to observe,—“One would think, at this period of the world’s age and experience, that two bodies of Presbyterians, having precisely the same Confession of Faith—and a form of worship exactly agreeing in all respects, save only a difference in the version of Psalms, which they employ, might freely commune together, without any unhallowed mixture, or any criminal abandonment of principle on either side.” And is it really so? A difference simply with regard to the version of Psalms, which shall be used! One really would have thought that, “at this period of the world’s age and experience,” men who, like the Princeton Reviewers, are in the very centre of literary light and of religious intelligence, would understand the difference between these two bodies, on the subject of Psalmody. With all due deference to these learned gentlemen, I must be permitted to say, the difference between the bodies of Presbyterians here referred to, is not, what “version of Psalms” shall be employed? No! It is a difference of unspeakably greater importance. The Associate Reformed Church, one of the Presbyterian bodies referred to, employs exclusively a version of the book of Psalms; while the General Assembly, the other Presbyterian body, employs that which is not, in any proper sense of the word, a version of the book of Psalms; and in addition to this, allows the use of the poetical compositions of uninspired men; which the Associate Reformed Church regards as a corruption of the worship of God. It is, then, a difference which involves, not simply the preference of one version before another, but a principle of great importance.
Let me then once more desire the reader to observe, that the controversy has not respect to the relative merits of different versions. But the question is simply this: Shall we, in the praise of God, employ the songs contained in the book of Psalms, which are the productions of the Spirit of God? Or, shall we make use of the compositions of uninspired men? And one would be ready to suppose, that if men who reverence the Bible as the word of God, would look fairly at the point in dispute, no labored argument would be necessary to conduct them to the proper conclusion.
These general remarks being premised, I proceed to examine the “Inquiry into the Propriety of using an Evangelical Psalmody in the worship of God.” And I must be permitted, in the outset, to observe, that the very title which the venerable author has prefixed to his book, has a tendency to produce an erroneous impression upon the mind of the reader, with regard to the real point in dispute. “An Inquiry into the Propriety of using an Evangelical Psalmody!” Why, my dear Father, such an inquiry is wholly unnecessary. No portion of the christian world, which uses any psalmody at all, would dispute the propriety of using an “Evangelical Psalmody.” For the Associate Reformed Church, at least, I will answer, that she not only has no doubt as to the propriety of using an “Evangelical Psalmody,” but that she actually does not, and will not use any other.
But what does the author mean by an “Evangelical Psalmody?” The phrase will probably be understood by most readers to signify a Psalmody, the matter of which is collected from the New Testament. And that the author intended that it should be understood in this sense, his own language would seem to make evident. After noticing the position, that we have no authority “to versify other portions of the Scriptures than the book of Psalms, to be sung in the churches,” he observes,—“We think, however, that we have both precept and precedent for doing so, and that our songs of praise are to be drawn from the New Testament in an especial manner.” And then, after referring to Colos. 3:16, 17, he adds,—“No precept can be clearer or fuller to the point than this; or that we are to draw our songs of praise to God, from ‘the word of Christ,’ or the New Testament Scriptures.” And to make the matter still more definite, after adverting to a different interpretation of the phrase, “the word of Christ,” he adds,—“We hesitate not to say, that there is not a man whose mind can rise above the prejudice of education and think and judge for himself, or who has not in view the support of a sinking cause, would give those words that interpretation, but understand by them, the New Testament exclusively.” This is pretty strong language; and I shall have occasion hereafter to examine it carefully. My present object is, to ascertain precisely what our author means by an “Evangelical Psalmody,” or, as he elsewhere expresses it, a “Gospel Psalmody.” And I think we cannot be mistaken, when it is said that, by an “Evangelical Psalmody,” the author means a system of songs, the matter of which is taken from the New Testament. And as there is no collection of songs in the New Testament, of course a system of Psalmody drawn from the New Testament, must necessarily be a system of songs of “human composure,” no matter how faithfully these songs may exhibit the doctrines of the Gospel.
The principle, then, for which the venerable author pleads, is, that evangelical songs composed by uninspired men, may with propriety be sung in the social worship of God. To this principle I cannot subscribe. On the other hand, the principle for which I contend, is, that “it is the will of God that the sacred songs contained in the book of Psalms, be sung in his worship, both public and private, to the end of the world;” and that we have no authority to use the productions of uninspired men.
It is hoped that the reader will now see precisely the point in dispute. And if he will lend me his patient attention, I will in some future chapters, at least, “show my opinion.”