On Singing in the Assembly.

1883 233 [Dear Mr. Editor, As there are some of the Lord's people who are needlessly troubled, and are troubling others with questions relating to this subject, I send you the following remarks, which are the substance of a letter to a brother, that you may use them as you please].

The question has often been asked: — "Is there any Scriptural warrant for singing hymns at the Lord's table?" and that too, by christians who are more or less familiar with Scripture. They would never yield to such speculations, if they were but content to allow the Word of God, if but one line of it, to settle every question that arises. When Scripture speaks but very seldom on any given topic, there is almost certain to be a bone of contention; and for this simple reason: — that men habitually prefer their own thoughts to the declarations of Scripture.

If christians desire only to be governed by God's Word, it would not matter one jot or tittle whether that Word spoke much or little upon a certain subject so long as it spoke. A single word of Scripture ought to be sufficient to set any mind forever at rest. A "Thus saith the Lord" is worth volumes upon volumes of arguments from the best or most original men that ever lived.

Now the subject of hymn-singing is one on which the Scriptures say very little indeed. I suppose the reason is that the Holy Spirit never recognised* the probability of christians calling in question what is so instructive and universal, and withal so reverent, holy, and blessed an exercise. The word which gives us "hymn" only occurs six times in the whole of the New Testament; four times as a verb (hymneo) and twice as a noun (hymnos). In Matt xxvi. 30, and Mark xiv. 26 the original is: — "And when they had hymned." In Acts xvi. 25 it is: — "And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed and hymned to God." In Heb. ii. 12 we have "In the midst of the church will I hymn to thee."

{*This sentence is at the least unfortunate, appearing to impute a lack of omniscience in the Holy Spirit, and a deficiency in the word of God. Ed STEM}

These are the only instances in which the word is used as a verb, but it is used as a noun in Eph. 5:19, and Col. iii. 16, — "Singing in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs."

I am not going to write a paper on "Hymnology;" as it might be unprofitable and certainly is unnecessary for our present purpose; but I wish to given clear and decisive answer to the question: — "Is there any Scriptural warrant for singing hymns at the Lord's table?"

In order to have a right understanding of any subject under discussion, it is well to attend to the real meaning of terms. What then is the definition of a hymn? Rose's edition of Parkhurst's Greek and English Lexicon to the New Testament says the word that hymnos means a hymn, a song in honour of God, as among heathen of the gods; or a celebration in verse of some hero, and his exploits. So the more general Lexicon of Liddell and Scott, etc.

Let us look then at the word as it occurs in the New Testament. In Matt. xxvi. 30 and Mark xiv. 26 we had these words: — "And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the Mount of Olives."

Now we must bear in mind that the Lord had been speaking to His disciples many things concerning Himself and them. He had been telling them how that He was going to suffer and to die, and how in giving Himself thus to die on the cross, He was fulfilling that Passover of which they were then partaking, after which paschal supper He Himself instituted what is called the Lord's Supper. He gave them the bread and then the wine, telling them to eat and drink in remembrance of Him. See also 1 Cor. xi. It was at this very supper (the same which we repeat every Lord's day morning) that they sung a hymn.

I do not go into the question as to what sort of a hymn it was, interesting as it might be in its proper place; but it is sufficient to know that they sang. And I ask, if they sang then with the Lord in their midst, was that not a precedent of sufficient weight to warrant our doing the same, supposing there were not another verse of Scripture on the subject?

It is useless for my object to offer any comment on the word in Acts xvi., as it will be said that they were singing, not in the assembly, but in a prison. But I ask you to turn to Heb. ii. 12, where we have a quotation from Psalm xxii., a psalm which every christian admits is in view of suffering and of glory, a prophecy of the experiences of the Lord Himself.

In the first part we have "the sufferings of Christ" and in the second "the glories that should follow." (See 1 Peter i. and Matt. xxvi. and xxvii.) In verse 22, He is seen standing on the resurrection side of the grave, saying "I will declare Thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the congregation (or assembly) will I sing praise unto Thee." This is what we see so beautifully carried out and practically fulfilled in John xx. in the words "Go tell my brethren that I ascend unto my Father and your Father, to my God and your God," and then farther on He is seen "in their midst."

If we turn now to Heb. ii. 12, we shall find the Holy Spirit quoting this passage from the psalm and applying it to Christ saying: — "In the midst of the church (or, assembly) will I sing praise (or, hymn) unto thee." Is this nothing to or for us? Is it a mere historical fact, or a living reality to faith? Did He only fulfil it then? Is it not abidingly true now? or do we fail to believe it?

If it be true that Christ is in the midst of the assembly, hymning to God, shall we refuse to join with and follow Him who thus leads our praises? Is it not our chief joy on earth?

But it may be said that we can praise God without putting our words into metre and singing out of a humanly composed hymn-book. It may be argued that, inasmuch as our experiences must come infinitely short of Christ's, it interferes with the Spirit's action if we give such expression to those experiences, because in so doing we confine Him, as it were, within the covers of a printed book.

My answer is, — that, on the very first occasion of the Lord's Supper with the Lord there personally, He Himself joined with the disciples in singing a hymn. Moreover, if the hymn they then sang was one of the Psalms, which corresponded with the circumstances the blessed Lord was then passing through, as most Christians think, His entrance into its depth must certainly have been infinitely beyond the experience of the disciples, yet, He did not on that account discourage their singing it. If, on the other hand, it was a humanly-composed hymn, an uninspired breathing of a godly soul, suitable to express the disciples' experiences, He in grace condescended to identify Himself with them in their experiences and sang with them. Whichever way you take it, it condemns the fastidiousness of those who decline to sin; a particular hymn, either because it may be beyond them; or else (which is far more frequent) because they think themselves beyond it.

But it is sometimes objected that, when the Lord sang with the disciples, it was under a different dispensation. But surely they do not so speak of the Lord's Supper, which began on that very same night in which the Lord took and brake bread saying "Do this in remembrance of Me." It was the inauguration of this precious institution; and if the Lord on that occasion set us an example in the breaking of bread, He also set its an example in singing a hymn at the time.

Again, as if the example of the Master were not enough, we find on referring to Corinthians xiv. that it was customary for the early christians to sing in their church assemblages. In that chapter the apostle is speaking of various things which ought, and others which ought not, to be done in the Assembly, not privately but when come together. He had already spoken of the things concerning their private life in previous chapters; but now he turns to things actually occurring when the church assembled; such as, speaking with tongues, and to edification; singing or praying, understood or not. While giving directions for the right doing of all things, he says: — "What is it then? I will pray with the Spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also; 1 will sing with the Spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also."

What is the inference at which we must arrive as to such words? The only conclusion which to me seems true or oven possible is that singing at the Lord's Supper, or in assembly meetings, was the divinely and approved customary practice of the saints in those early days. The Apostle does not deprecate any of the things which he mentions, whether praying, prophesying or singing; he merely gives directions that they shall be done in the Spirit, and so in a decent and orderly manner. Verse 26 of the same chapter is another illustration of this. "How is it then brethren? When ye come together, everyone of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation: let all things be done unto edifying." Did he tell them they were not to have their psalms, their doctrines, etc? No; but he insists that they were to be exercised to edification, and in accordance with the order and comeliness suitable to the occasion, thoroughly subject to the Lord. In short they themselves were to be led of the Holy Spirit. Christ was present in their midst.

In Eph. 5:19, and Col. 3:16, the Apostle tells us to speak to ourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,* singing, and making melody in our hearts to the Lord; and I am told that this means that we are to do so (not in the assembly but) in the family or in private company. But surely if it is well to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual sings in my heart, it is also good to express the feelings of the heart by voice and lips; and if it is good to do so at home, it is also good to do it elsewhere, and not by myself only but also with others; and, lastly, if I can do it to the Lord at all, I can surely do it when assembled at the most precious and solemn meetings of all. Indeed, as we have seen, Scripture warrants all this without reasoning.

[*Attention is here confined to the principle. It seems that as of old as now metrical compositions among Christians varied in character. This is as it should be. All are not equally elevated: praise, thanksgiving, experience, etc. The Spirit alone can guide rightly when and how to use each.]

There is one other remark I would make before closing this paper, and it is this: — that although I think what some sneeringly call "a humanly composed hymn-book" to be of God, nevertheless, like every other privilege, it has been abused. But are we going to abandon a true and happy privilege because some are unwise enough to abuse it? It is sad to think that any saint could desire to abolish the hymn-book and so reduce the assemblies to melancholy and incongruous silence; but we do need that hearts should be exercised as to the too free and unspiritually minded use of it. The principles of the New Testament demand that every brother in the assembly (who is not otherwise disqualified) be open or at liberty to be used by the Spirit to give out a hymn, engage in prayer, or give thanks, etc. But those principles give him no license to do so when and how he pleases. There is a wide difference between liberty and license, yet this difference is far too often forgotten. It may be too that brothers who are most free with the hymn-book are seldom or never heard in prayer or happy service of the word. This fact alone ought to weigh with those who give out hymns to be sung at the table of the Lord. H. C.