Singing of Psalms

“Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto Him with psalms.”

Ps. 95:2

“Sing unto Him, sing psalms unto Him”

Ps. 105:2

“Is any merry?  Let him sing psalms.”

James 5:13

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Subsections

Psalters Online

Familiar Tunes for Singing Psalms

Spiritual Helps for Psalm Singing

The History of Psalm Singing

The Westminster Assembly and Psalm Singing

The Puritans and Psalm Singing

The Puritans on ‘Psalms, Hymns & Spiritual Songs’, Eph. 5:19 & Col. 3:16

Historic Quotes of Praise on the Psalms

Do We Sing Christ’s Name in the Psalter?

The Imprecatory Psalms

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Order of Contents

Where to Start?
Articles
Books
Quotes

How to Use a Split-Leaf Psalter
What if my Church Sings Hymns?
Why Psalms-Only & Not Other Scripture Songs?
Is the Content of Singing the Same as that of Prayer?
Singing the 10 Commandments?
Tunes are Circumstantial
Latin

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Where to Start?

God tells us in his Word to sing psalms with joy (1 Chron. 16:9; Ps. 95:2; 105:2; Jam. 5:13).  Listen to the voice of God and start singing the Psalms:

The Scottish Metrical Psalter, 1650  Buy

All the psalms are set to Common Meter, which means that if you know the tune to ‘Amazing Grace,’ you can sing the whole psalter.  Here are several handful more tunes you may know to help you start singing the songs that Jesus sang.  Once you get a little better, try the traditional tunes that the Scottish covenanters sang long ago!

Barth, Paul – ‘A Concise Case for Exclusive Psalmody’  2017

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Articles

1500’s-1700’s

Puritan Era Treatises on Psalm Singing  15+

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1800’s

Binnie, William

The Use of the Psalms under the Old Testament, six pages, starting on p. 355, a chapter from his The Psalms: their History, Teachings and Use

The Music of the Synagogue and of the Early Church, four pages, starting on p. 361, a chapter from his The Psalms: their History, Teachings, and Use

Hemphill, William Ramsay – ‘A Reply to Charlestoniensis (Dr. Thomas Smyth)’  In three parts.  Originally published in the Charleston Observer. Republished in the Evangelical Guardian, vol. I, 1843 and Vol II, 1844

Hemphill argues against Rev. Thomas Smyth, the prominent Southern presbyterian at the notable 2nd Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  For comparison’s sake, here is Smyth’s main work for hymns in his Works, vol. 6, pp. 449 ff., though Smyth in this series of articles argues against a Mr. Flanniken of the Associate Reformed Synod (of Seceder stock).

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1900’s

Bushell, Michael – New Songs, 1993, 7 paragraphs, from his The Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody, p. 95-97

This article addresses the question of what the Bible means when it says “sing a new song to the Lord.” (Ps. 98:1)

Isbell, Sherman – The Singing of Psalms, no date, 167 paragraphs

This excellent article responds to all objections to exclusive psalmody current up to its day since the publication of Bushell’s work, including those of Vern Poythress, Greg Bahnsen, Leonard Coppes, Stephen Pribble and others.  It does this through quotes and arguments of puritan writers such as Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, John Owen, Thomas Gataker and others.  Isbell also gives a detailed historical analysis of John Calvin’s Biblical belief and practice that inspiration was a requirement for praise songs.

Williamson, G.I. – The Singing of Psalms in the Worship of God, no date, 58 paragraphs

A good introduction to the subject.

Fentiman, Travis – Do We Sing Jesus Christ’s Name in the Psalter?  2015  50 paragraphs

The answer is Yes, the proof of which is overwhelmingly documented from the Hebrew.

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A Collection

Myers, Andrew – ‘We Have a Lot of Early American Presbyterian Resources on Psalmody on our Website’   2017  at Log College Press  Being 14+ articles and books on psalm singing from early American presbyterian history

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Books

1500’s-1700’s

Puritan Era Treatises on Psalm Singing  15+

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1800’s

Gibson, James – The Public Worship of God: its Authority and Modes, Hymns and Hymn Books1869, 186 pp.

This book argues for the Biblical practice of exclusive psalm singing from a day when hymns were beginning to be brought into the Free Church of Scotland.  Gibson first shows that scripture regulates the worship of God, then applies it to singing praise, then answers alleged arguments for hymns, reviews the history psalmody in the church and the entrance of hymns, argues against musical instruments in worship, and then reviews numerous hymn books from his own day.

Reformed and United Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia – The True Psalmody: the Bible Psalms the Church’s Only Manual of Praise, 1883, 212 pp. with prefaces by Henry Cooke, John Edgar, and Thomas Houston.  This book was recommended by the Free Church of Scotland ministers James Begg, John Kennedy, and Thomas M’Lauchlan as well as others.

The chapters are:

(1) The Book of Psalms: a Complete Manual of Praise
(2) The Book of Psalms has the Seal of Divine Appointment, Which No Other Has
(3) No Warrant for Making or Using any Other Hymns in the Worship of God
(4) Objections to the Use of the Psalms Considered, (5) Remarks Upon the ‘Scottish Version’ of the Psalms

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1900’s

Bushell, Michael – Songs of Zion,  Buy  1993  329 pp.

This is the best and most exhaustive book arguing for the majority, historic, reformed practice of exclusive psalmody.  Until one has read this book they have not fully considered the issue.  Bushell addresses and responds to all objections to exclusive psalmody that were current up to the publication of his book.  Bushell’s survey of psalm singing through church history is also priceless.

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Website

For a very full chronological collection of books online about psalm singing, see Books Online at ExclusivePsalmody.com

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Quotes

John Calvin

‘Letter to the Reader’ in The Form of Prayers and Songs of the Church  (1543)

“We must have songs not only honorable but also holy, which are to be like needles to arouse us to pray and praise God, to meditate on his works, in order to love him, fear, honor and glorify him.

But what St. Augustine says is true, that no one can sing things worthy of God unless he has received them from Him. For when we have searched here and there, we will not find better songs nor ones more appropriate for this purpose than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit has spoken to him and made. Therefore, when we sing them, we are certain that God has put the words in our mouth as if they themselves sang in us to exalt his glory. Consequently Chrysostom exhorts both men, women and little children to learn to sing them in order that they may be like a meditation to associate them with the company of angels (Chrysostom, In Ps. 41:1,2).

Besides, we must remember what St. Paul says, that spiritual songs cannot be better sung than from the heart (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). But the heart requires understanding. And in that (says St. Augustine) lies the difference between the singing of men and that of birds (Aug. Enarr. in Ps. 81, 2.1). For a Linnet, a Nightingale or a Popinjay will sing well, but it will be without understanding. But man’s proper gift is to sing, knowing what he says; after understanding must follow the heart and the affection, something that can only happen when we have the song imprinted on our memory never to cease singing it.”

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William Whittingham

Prefatory Letter to The Form of Prayers and Ministration of the Sacraments, etc., used in the English Congregation at Geneva: and approved, by the famous and godly learned man, John Calvin (Edinburgh, 1562)

“St. Paul giving a rule how men should sing, first says, “I will sing in voice, and I will sing with understanding.” And in another place, showing what songs should be song, exhorts the Ephesians to “edify one another with psalms, songs of praise, and such as are spiritual, singing in their hearts to the Lord with thanks giving.” As if the Holy Ghost would say, that the song did inflame the heart to call upon God, and praise him with a more fervent and lively zeal. And as music or singing is natural unto us, and therefore every man delights therein; so our merciful God sets before our eyes, how we may rejoice and singe to the glory of his name, recreation of our spirits, and profit of ourselves.

But as there is no gift of God so precious or excellent, that Satan has not after a sort drawn to himself and corrupt, so hath he most impudently abused this notable gift of singing, chiefly by the Papists his ministers, in disfiguring it, partly by strange language, that cannot edify, and partly by a curious wanton sort, hiring men to tickle the ears and flatter the fantasies, not esteeming it as a gift approved by the Word of God, profitable for the Church, and confirmed by all antiquity. As, besides other places, is most manifest by the words of Pliny, called the younger, who, when he was depute in Asia unto the Emperor Trajan, and had received charge to inquire out the Christians to put them to death, writ among other things, touching the Christians, “That their manners were to sing verses or psalms early in the morning to Christ their God.” If any, perhaps, would doubt, when, or by whom these churches or assemblies were institute, it is likewise evident, that St. John the Apostle, who, although in Domitian’s time he was banished in the Isle Patmos; yet when Nerva his successor, and next before Trajan reigned, returned to Ephesus, and so planted the churches, as the stories report. Seeing therefore God’s Word does approve it, antiquity bears witness thereof, and best reformed Churches have received the same, no man can reprove it, except he will condemn God’s Word, despise antiquity, and utterly condemn the godly reformed Churches.

And there are no songs more appropriate than the Psalms of the Prophet David, which the Holy Ghost hath framed to the same use, and commended to the Church, as containing the effect of the whole Scriptures, that hereby our hearts might be more lively touched, as appears by Moses, Hezekiah, Judith, Debora, Mary, Zechariah, and others, who by songs and metre, rather than in their common speech and prose, gave thanks to God for such comfort as He sent them.

Here it were to long to entreat of the metre; but for as much as the learned doubt not thereof, and it is plainly proven that the Psalms are not only metre, and contain just pauses, but also have grace and majesty in the verse more than any other places of the Scriptures, we need not to enter into any probation. For they that are skillful in the Hebrew tongue, [Read Moses Chabib, in his books called, מרפא לשון דרכי נרעם] by comparing the Psalms with the rest of the Scriptures, easily may perceive the metre. And to whom is it not known, how the Holy Ghost by all means sought to help our memory, when he fashioned many Psalms according to the letters of the alphabet; so that every verse begins with the letters thereof in order. Sometimes ‘A’ begins the half verse, and ‘B’ the other half; and in another place, three verses, yea and eight verses with one letter, even the Psalm throughout; as if all men should be inflamed with the love thereof, both for variety of matter, and also briefness, easiness, and delectation.

Now, to make you privy also why we altered the rhyme in certain places of him, whom for the gifts that God had given him, we esteemed and reverenced, this may suffice: that in this enterprise, we did only set God before our eyes, and therefore weighed the words and sense of the Prophet, rather considering the meaning thereof than what any man had write. And chiefly being in this place, whereas most perfect and godly judgment did assure us, and exhortations to the same encourage us, we thought it better to frame the rhyme to the Hebrew sense, than to bind that sense to the English meter: and so either altered for the better, in such places as he had not attained unto, or else where he had escaped part of the verse, or sometimes the whole, we added the same, not as men desirous to find faults, but only as such which covet to hide them, as the learned can judge.”

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Jerome Zanchi

On Eph. 5 in De Music. in Eccles.  as quoted bin Nathaniel Holmes, Gospel Music: or, The Singing of David’s Psalms, etc. in the public congregations, or private families asserted and vindicated…  (London, 1644), p. 25

“By any means sing the psalms and hymns of the Scriptures, for the bringing in of others will be of dangerous consequence.”

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How to Use a Split-Leaf Psalter

Isbell, Sherman – How to Use a Split-Leaf Psalter: a Book Review, no date,  15 paragraphs

Isbell enumerates the practical advantages of using a split-leaf psalter and gives helps in how to use one.

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What if My Church Sings Hymns?

John Delivuk – Reformed Presbyterians in Hymn Singing Churches, 1982, 4 paragraphs.  Delivuk is a professor at Geneva College, PA.  This is an excerpt from his Master’s Thesis, “The Doctrine and History of Worship in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America”

The noted theologian, J.G. Vos, answers that one should not sing.  Regarding the question of psalm singing pastors preaching in hymn singing services the 1886 Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America gives three directives entailing that the minister is able to preach in such a church with the understanding that it does not sanction the use of hymns, while another elder lead those parts of the service.

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Why Psalms-Only & Not Other Scripture Songs?

Arthur Hildersham

152 Lectures upon Psalm 51…  (London, 1635), Lecture 1, p. 4-5  This section is occasioned upon the title of Ps. 51, that it is a psalm of David ‘to the chief musician’.

“That it is an ancient and excellent ordinance of God, that in his worship and service we should sing psalms, even David’s Psalms, and that we should sing them in that manner as may be most unto edification.  Observe the proof of this doctrine, as I shall propound it unto you distinctly in three points:

Thirdly, the Psalms that God’s people did use to sing in the worship of God were most usually David’s Psalms, and those that are accounted among his: and that even at such times when there were prophets in the Church that had extraordinary gifts, and were inspired by the Holy Ghost, yet the Church did not usually sing any other than David’s Psalms:

This we shall see in the days of Hezekiah, 2 Chron. 29:30.  Hezekiah the King, and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise to the Lord, with the words of David, and of Asaph the Seer.  The like we may see in Ezra’s time, Ezra 3:10.  They set the priests in their apparel with trumpets; and the Levites the sons of Asaph with cymbals to praise the Lord with those songs (as Tremelius rendreth it) that David the King of Israel did deliver; and the Psalm they sung was, Ps. 136, as appeareth by the 11th verse.  And this may also further appear by that which we read, Neh. 12:46. 

To which purpose it is worthy the observing that though there were many of God’s holy servants that made songs, and psalms beside David, as Deborah, Jud. 5:1, and Anna, the mother of Samuel, 1 Sam. 2:1, and Solomon, Cant. 1:1, and Mary the blessed Virgin, Lk. 1:46, such as might be used, yet were none of them committed to the musicians to be publicly sung in the temple, but these of David only.  In which respect he (by an excellency) is called the sweet Psalmist of Israel, 2 Sam. 3:1.”

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David Hay Fleming

‘The Hymnology of the Scottish Reformation’, Part 1, p. 7  in Shorter Writings of David Hay Fleming, vol. 1 (Naphtali Press, 2007)

“…while admitting the metrical translations of other portions of the Bible are not to be compared with mere human hymns, the fact of God’s having gathered the Psalms, Songs, and Hymns of various inspired writers into one Book of Psalms, seems conclusively to show that that book alone was meant to serve as our manual of praise…

There must be some reason why the Prayer or Psalm of Moses in the 90th Psalm found a place in that Book, though his Song in the 15th chapter of Exodus did not; why David’s Psalm of thanksgiving, when the ark was brought to Zion (1 Chron. 16:8-36), is reproduced in the 105th, 96th, and 106th Psalms; why the 14th and 53rd PSalms are almost exactly the same; and why the 108th Psalm is embodied in the 57th and 60th.  The reason given above seems most satisfactory.

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Is the Content of Singing the Same as that of Prayer?

John Robinson

A Justification of Separation from the Church of England Against Mr. Richard Bernard his Invective, entitled, The Separatists Schism  (Amsterdam, 1610), pp. 467-9

“3. Mr. [Richard] Bernard, himself in this book makes prayer one thing, and the blessing pronounced upon the people, when they departed, another thing: as he also makes singing of psalms a third distinct thing from them both: as there is cause he should.

For first, the apostle writing to the Corinthians of the diverse gifts, and administrations in the Church, speaketh thus: ‘I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, but I will sing with the understanding also.’  Answerable unto which is that in James [5:13], ‘Is any among you afflicted? let him pray; is any merry? let him sing’: both the one, and other apostle making singing, and praying distinct exercises.

And unto this, that whereas in praying we are to speak only unto God, it is otherwise in singing, where we are taught to ‘speak unto ourselves in psalms, and to teach, and admonish ourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.’  What greater difference?  In prayers we speak only to God: in psalms to ourselves mutually, or one to another.  Neither had Mr. Giffard any advantage in the words following, where we are taught to sing with a grace in our hearts to the Lord: for by singing with a grace is meant such singing as ministereth grace unto the hearers, contrary to that corrupt, or rotten communication, Eph. 4:29.  And in this, as in all other things, we must propound the glory, and honor of God unto ourselves.

3.  There are very many both of David’s, and others psalms, wherein there is no title of prayer: but they are merely to be sung for doctrine, instruction, and meditation, as Ps. 1:2, and many more.  The Ministers write (pp. 192-3), that the most Psalms that David made were sung not only as meditations and doctrines, for the instructions of the Church, but as prayers to God: because they are said to be sung unto the Lord: for which purpose they instance in one only, which is Ps. 66:2-3.

Well, not to fall to reckoning with them (wherein they and I should not agree: for I would except against their picked instance: Ps. 66:2-3, which all men may see was not sung for prayer, nor unto the Lord, as they mean, but for instruction, and provocation of the Church to praise God) if they consider it, they should have proved, not that some, but that all psalms are prayers; otherwise they may not be confounded and made one ordinance, as by them they are. 

But to come to that which is specially to be observed: even those psalms, whose matter is prayer, are not prayers: neither is the singing of them, the outward ordinance and exercise of praying.  And this is the very state of the controversy.  Which that it may be understood the better, it must be considered that the very same matter of prayer may be used diversely, and so formed into diverse external ordinances.  It may be read, preached, heard, written, sung, or prayed.  Now who is so simple as to say hereupon that reading, preaching, hearing, writing, singing, praying, are all one? 

If a man read David’s prayer, that the Lord would turn the counsel of Ahitophel into foolishness: or either read, or sing the 6th Psalm, where in his prayer he professeth that he causeth his bed every night to swim, and waters his couch with tears: or psalm 42, that he remembers God from the land of Jordan, etc. doth that man therefore pray to God, that he would turn into foolishness the counsel of Ahithophel?  or doth he profess that he waters his couch with tears every night and remembers God from the land of Jordan? or is it not evident he reads, and sings those prayers only for instruction of himself and others? 

And so we read in the inscription of the last named psalm that it was committed to the sons of Korah (not to pray it, which they could not do without folly) but for instruction.  And as truly may it be said, that the reading of Noah’s curse, or Shimei’s, is cursing (Gen. 9:25; 2 Sam. 16:5), as that the reading, or singing (for singing is but a reading in tune) of David’s prayers, is praying.

But it will here be asked, is it not then lawful for a man in the singing of David’s psalms (consisting of prayer) to lift up his heart, and to have it affected accordingly, as he can apply the matter in them to his present state and occasions?  Yes, certainly, it is both lawful and godly: but withal it must be remembered that the question here is not about the inward affection of the heart, but about the outward ordinance: and 2. that a man may so lift up his heart and have the affection of prayer and thanksgiving in preaching, hearing, writing, reading: and yet not perform the outward exercise and outward ordinance of prayer, of which our question is.

Lastly, in psalms there is of necessity required a certain known form of words, that two or more may sing together: according to the nature of the ordinance, wherein many joining vocally, do make a concert or harmony.  But who will say there is such simple necessity of a set form of words for prayer? wherein one is to utter a voice according to the suggestions of the spirit in his heart, and the rest to consent by silence, with saying ‘Amen’.  By which it appeareth how unadvisedly these ministers and others, do thus again and again urge set forms of psalms to prove set forms of prayer.”

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Ought we to Sing the Ten Commandments as Worship?

The Marrow of Sacred Divinity Drawn out of the Holy Scriptures, and the Interpreters thereof, and brought into Method  (London: 1642), Book 2, ch. 9, ‘Of Prayer’, pp. 283-4

“43.  Vocal prayer is either in prose, or in meter.

44.  In meter singing is joined, and therefore there must be more care of the speech and tone, then in prose.

45.  But the melody of singing is ordained for a certain spiritual delight, whereby the mind is detained in the meditation of the thing that is sung.

48. But because this religious melody hath the respect of prayers: therefore it is not so fit, that the Decalogue, and other such like which do not partake the nature of prayer, be turned into meter and be sung in stead of psalms.”

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Tunes Are Circumstantial

John Gaskin

A Just Defence and Vindication of Gospel Ministers and Gospel Ordinances against the Quakers’ many False Accusations, Slanders and Reproaches.  In answer to John Horwood, his letter, and E.B. his book…  (London, 1660), pp. 86-87

“[The Objection of Quakers:] But our Psalms are not the same in meter, nor the same tunes which the Jews had.

[Answer:] That seeing the singing of Psalms is a duty commanded, and amongst others, those of David, and hath hid from us the Hebrew tunes, wherewith the Psalms of David were wont to be sung, it must needs follow that the Lord hath left it to the liberty of the Church to sing them in such plain, grave tunes as may fit the solemnity of God’s worship, and that because that tunes are but circumstantial and not the sub∣stance;

and the Church now in the days of the Gospel is not in her minority or young age, but in her man-age, or full grown age, as the apostle speaketh (Gal. 4:1-6), and therefore fitter to appoint circumstantial things in God’s worship than the Jews, being in their non-age.”

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Robert MacWard

The True Non-Conformist…  ([Amsterdam], 1671), The Fifth Dialogue Answered, pp. 277-278.  MacWard was the protege of Samuel Rutherford. 

“…you say we ‘are not bound, or rather have no warrant to use the Psalms in meter or with tunes.’

To this I answer, that we are bound to sing is evident, both from Scripture-precept and example; and that we are thereby warranted to have the Psalms in meter with tunes is as clear, as both are necessary, at least convenient in the propriety of our language, for the use of singing:

I deny not, but prose may be sung; but seeing it is certain that our language hath no such exact prosody, as either to render it easily measurable, or the measures distinguishable by points and accents; nay that the import of the music or tonici accentus, in the Hebrew, qui olim moderabantur harmoniam musicam, is so far now lost and unknown, that if we were now to sing the Hebrew Psalms, we could not make use of them: Pray, Sir, leave us but the way of meter in place of points and accents until you teach us better grammar:

whereas you hint, that we ‘may have all David‘s instruments as well as tunes’, if you could learn us to sing without tunes, as we may well do without organs, I shall not contend, but seeing that David did, no doubt, invent and introduce these his instruments, as well by the special direction of the Spirit, as he did all other things anent the service of the Temple, and that the Primitive Christians, worshipping more in the simplicity of the Spirit than in outward shows, canebant assâ voce non […], I think you may now put up your pipes and spare the cost.”

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In Latin

Calderwood, David – pp. 628-9 of The Altar of Damascus, or the Ecclesiastical Polity of Anglicanism Obtruded on the Church of Scotland by Formalists, Delineated, Illustrated & Examined  (1623)

“They [the Anglicans] do not retain the hymns of the Roman Breviary only because, I believe [ut opinor], they lose that elegance of the hymn in translation compared to the Latin meter and rhythm, not, however, because they do not exist in sacred Scripture.  For they retain that song Te Deum Laudamus [‘You O God we praise’], which is not held among the songs of Scripture, and they even greatly magnify its prerogative more than that of the Psalms or other songs.” (p. 628)

Voetius, Gisbert – pp. 520-544 of Ecclesiastical Politics, vol. 1, book 2, tract 2, section 1, ch. 2, ‘Of Benedictions, Salutations, Doxologies and Ecclesiastical Song’

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“The psalter was the prayer-book of Him who is our only consolation in life and in death, so long as He, the Son of Man, sojourned on this earth.”

F.W. Krummacher

“The most celebrated hymns of uninspired men were, like Job’s friends, ‘miserable comforters,’ when compared with the experience of Christ, in the days of humiliation of which the Book of Psalms is the true prophetic picture.”

Henry Cooke

Preface to The True Psalmody, 1883

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Related Pages

Musical Instruments in Worship