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Household Duties (3) - The Singing of Psalms. William Thomas (1593-1667).

The duty that I shall now speak of (in some generality, but with respect also to the respective families of Christians) is, Singing of Psalms; For the better establishing whereof, I shall in the first place endeavour to take out of the way what is objected against it; I say, objected against it, not so much in our days formerly, as in these latter days wherein many have so cast off all forms of godliness, and (under that name) God’s own institutions, and amongst them, this holy exercise, that, though they be afflicted, yet it is a question, whether they will pray, or, though they be merry; whether they will sing Psalms; albeit the Scripture expressly requires both, James 5. 13.

I shall not meddle with many objections but only with two more usual, and that seem to be more material.

Objection 1

Many that join in singing of Psalms, cannot say truly what they sing, as Psalm 86. 2. Preserve my soul, because my ways, and doings holy be, &c. And such like.


1. This objection, whatsoever colour there is in it, yet carries this weakness with it, that it is against the reading of the Psalms as well as the singing, for they that read utter the same words when they read (at least for substance) which they do when they sing; yea, this objection is against the reading of the histories of Scripture generally, because, therein other men speak otherwise then we can.

2. To speak more directly to the thing itself, I answer, that the words of Scripture, which men recite when they read or sing, are not to be taken as their own words, but as the words of them whose words the Scripture declares them to be: It is David, or some other holy man of God, who speaks those words that are written in the Psalms, which whosoever repeats (whether in reading or singing) he does only declare what another sometime, which, if he cannot say of himself truly, yet he truly saith that such or such a person (speaking in the Psalm), said so of himself.

3. I add, that we should so put on the persons of those that speak, or are spoken of in Scripture, as to think that every thing spoken (though of others), yet some way or other belongs to us; for, whatsoever things were written afore-time were written for our learning (Rom 15. 4), and profit in every kind; yea, our duty is to labour to be so far like the holy servants of God, whose gracious speeches are recorded in Scripture, as to be able to say truly (in our measure, and in regard of the saving substance of religion), the same things that they spake; which they that cannot yet do, or can less do, by observing such sayings in their singing of Psalms, have an help to do, and by often repeating of them in their minds and mouths, may come at length (through the blessing of God) truly and sincerely to profess in their own persons, the like piety.

Objection 2

There are in divers Psalms, heavy imprecations and curses pronounced against sundry persons, Must we? How can we sing such things, and curse enemies?


1. Although it should be acknowledged, (as in part it is to be granted) that such imprecations, or praying fearfully against evil men, be not for our imitation, yet they are for our instruction. For:

(a) They show us the woeful estate of the enemies of God, and of his people, which such prayers (proceeding from the Spirit of God) are a prophesy of.

(b) They serve to nourish patience, and preserve comfort and constancy in the hearts of God's people, by observing that such men as have been found desperate enemies to God and to them, are mentioned in the Book of God as a cursed generation.

2. Some imitation there may be (in these times) of the imprecations that we find in Scripture in former times, (though with much caution, charity, and jealousy over our own spirits) and that with respect not only to the Church’s safety (Psalm 94.1. 5, 6), but God’s glory (Psal. 83.17, 18 & Gal. 5.12.); And the rather, because of Scripture promises and declarations, which are the grounds of our prayers, Deut. 32. 35 & Psal. 139. 19. Yet we should still remember that we are not to pray personally; that is, to fix such fearful prayers on such and such particular men (albeit they in Scripture that had an extraordinary spirit of discerning (2 Tim. 4. 14. & 2 Chron. 24. 22), did so, as the Church also did against Julian, seeing so much in him of the sin against the Holy Ghost); I say, we are not to single out particular persons, and pray against them; And, especially, we are not to turn religion into revenge, and to direct our prayers against our private enemies, though they have done us never so much wrong; Nor must we be hasty in judging, and then hard-hearted in praying; But, yet all this hinders not, but that, in a generality, we may pray, that God would exercise his justice (as He seeth good) in cutting off the implacable and irreconcilable enemies of himself and of his Church (Judges 5. 31. & Psal. 129. 5). Albeit, the thing in question here is, whether we may not in reading or singing, take into our mouths, the imprecations recorded in Scripture, making thereof that holy use which God would have us to make of that part of his Word? which none that understand will doubt of. In all such cases, the duty of reading and singing is not to be left; but they that perform it, are to be instructed, and if they are out of the way, be rectified.

Having endeavoured to remove these rubs, I shall now proceed to enquire what may be gathered from Scripture; and, what arguments agreeable to Scripture may be produced to establish this heavenly exercise.

A Necessary & Profitable Duty

First, the Scripture will inform us, that singing of Psalms is a necessary and profitable duty.

1. A necessary duty, because God requires it, Ephes. 5. 17, 18, 19. It is the will of God, that (on the one side) Christians should not be drunk with wine; and, on the other side, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to themselves in Psalms, &c. It is the Spirit of God that saith to the afflicted, pray; and to the merry, sing Psalms, James 5.13.

2. And a profitable duty, because the Spirit of God declares unto us the benefit of it, prescribing that the Word of God should dwell in us richly, and then adding further, teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms, &c. Now it's true, that teaching and admonishing may be referred either to the Word of God going before; or to Psalms and Hymns following after; but, it comes all to one, if the Psalms, Hymns, and Songs spoken of there, be such as are recorded in Scripture, for then they are a part of the Word of God: and so the intent of the Apostle may be to show that of every part of the Word of God, and in particular of the Psalms and Songs thereof (the rejoicing part) use is to be made for our edification; thereby something may be added to our light in a teaching way, and to our life and vigour in piety in an admonishing way.

Secondly, the Scripture gives excellent rules also for singing, that it may be a profitable duty; As that it be:

1. With understanding, Psal. 47. 7. 1 Cor. 14. 14, 15.

2. With the heart and affection; not without the voice: but the meaning is, that we should not please and content ourselves with the outward sound without an inward sense.

3. With grace in the heart, Col. 3. 16. that is, (as I conceive), with a godly and gracious frame of heart inwardly, (according as the matter of the Psalm is), showing itself in a graceful and dexterous demeanour in that duty outwardly (as in a comely and reverent gesture, a decent tune and tone), so as that it may tend most to the edification of the company, and the reputation of the duty, and of such as perform it, so the word [grace] seems to be taken, (Act. 4. 33. Col. 4. 6.)

4. Unto the Lord, Eph. 5. 19 that is, to the glory of God, Psal. 101. 1 & Isa. 5. 1.

Thirdly, the Scripture sets it forth as a congregational duty, or a duty to be performed in the public meetings of Christians, because we find the people of God still called to it by the commands of the Old Testament, (pointing to the New), Psalm 100. 1, 2, 3. 4. & 66. 1, 2, 3. & 149. 1. Sing his praise in the congregation of Saints. And also we find it used in the New Testament, and in the Apostle Paul's time, in the Church of Corinth, (1 Cor. 14. 15, 26.) which appears also to be practised by Christians when they met together in after times, the end of their meeting being (however many grievous accusations were raised against them) to sing to Christ and to God, and by a confederation among themselves to establish all good discipline, and suppress those wickednesses which were most falsely laid to their charge. Tertul. Apol. cap 2.

Family Psalm Singing

Now, as to the performance of this duty in families; it is not my meaning (nor ought to be) to impose anything further than the grounds of Scripture will conclude it; and it's possible, there may be some families, at present, or at some times, not in a capacity for it; yet, that none may slight such a service, and shut their doors against it, I shall offer (out of Scripture) not only to invite, but to induce Christians to set and keep it up in their families; these considerations:

1. The duty it self (as has been shown before) is evidently commanded as a duty much tending to Christian edification.

2. The command of singing is no where limited to public meetings, but rather given forth in such a generality, as to comprehend (in the command) the use of it in Christian meetings of all kinds, whether church-meetings or family-meetings; yea, it is extended to every particular person, (James 5.13. Is any? &c.) Besides, that the profit and benefit of this holy exercise argues for the use of it every where, where that profit may be had by it. Zanchius therefore is resolute, and saith, he makes no doubt, but that what the Apostle speaks both in the fifth to the Ephesians, and in the third chapter to the Colossians of this duty, is to be understood as well of those things that were to be sung in the public meeting of the faithful, as within their private walls, and their private families; where it is to be observed that this learned man speaks this, as arguing for singing in the public congregation, taking it for granted, that the fore cited places make for the use of it in private families. And how much good might be done in families, if the Word of Christ did so dwell in us as to be made use of in a way of conscientious domestical teaching? For which the Psalms of David would supply much assistance. But Christians have learned (of late) to preach in public without a calling, with neglect of teaching their families where their calling and charge lies; and divers shake off singing both in public and private.

3. We find our Saviour singing with his family after the eating of the Passover, which is the more to be observed, because the Passover was eaten in private houses, the family and fraternity joining together in the whole celebration of it; in the conclusion whereof, they did use to sing from the 113th Psalm to Psalm 119 which they called their great Hallelujah. This may mind us of doing the like in our private houses, especially, when God shall minister unto us more special occasion of glorifying his name. And godly householders have (accordingly) accustomed themselves to the use of this holy exercise in their families; Why should nor others go, and do so likewise? it being so suitable to, and such a declaration of, the spirit of holy and lively Christians?

4. Private families enjoy many mercies, God makes them laugh and be merry, (as he did Sarah, (Gen. 21.6.) and the rule is, Let such as are merry, sing Psalms, James 5.13. Agreeable hereunto is that of the Psalmist, (Psal. 118.15) The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous. That Psalm speaks of the joy and salvation brought to Zion and the people of God by David's government, which made them greatly to rejoice: and that not only in public, and in God’s tabernacle, but in their own tabernacles and private habitations. And what a mercy is it, when God so orders things in public, that we need not wander about weeping, but may sit in our own houses singing? This should make us to make the Lord our song, Psalm 118. 14.

5. The Apostle (writing to the Ephesians of this exercise,) does not speak of public meetings, or of singing in the public Assembly (at least, appropriating his speech to that, though it may be extended and applied to that), for, he saith first, Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; as alluding therein to immoderate feasting in those times (especially) among unbelievers, (1 Pet. 4.3.) which used to be in their houses; not, but that there was feasting also in their idols temples, (1 Cor. 8.10.) and (for some time) in Christian Church-meetings, (1 Cor. 11.20, 21, 22.) but (ordinarily) they feasted in private, (1 Cor. 10.27.) and were then likest to exceed. Now, if the Apostle reason from excesses in private banquetings, and the vain mirth there, for a contrary carriage in Christians, and a making of themselves merry with godly Hymns & Psalms; then it will follow, that it is the purpose of the Apostle here to speak to families, and to such Christians as had families, requiring them to refresh themselves in their meetings and feastings there with spiritual and heavenly mirth; which has been (especially heretofore, when the times and hearts of Christians were better settled) a very usual thing, amongst godly and knowing Christians, when they entertained their friends. Thus does this Scripture bring singing of Psalms into families according to the occasions of rejoicing which God offers them, which though (at times) they more abound, yet are never wanting; No more should Christians be in this duty, Phil. 4. 4. & 1 Thess. 5. 16, 18.

Scripture Reasons Confirming the Duty

Thus for grounds of Scripture serving to set forward the service of singing of Psalms. I come now, to Scripture reasons confirming this duty.

First Reason

First, It is an exercise making much for the glory of God; that usual preface, Let us sing to the glory of God such or such a Psalm shows that to be the intent of singing, and of those who seriously apply themselves to it: Besides, the thing itself, that is, the action of singing speaks so much; because it is exercised about that matter which makes much for the glory of God, that is, about the Word of God, which sets forth, to the praise of God:

1. His names and attributes, as his power, truth, mercy, Psal. 59.16. & 62.11, 12. & 138. 2.

2. His promises and threats, Psal. 1.3, 4, 5. & 12.5. & 68.20, 21.

3. His works, which they speak of, speak of the glorious honour of his Majesty, because all his works praise him: and therefore they set forth his praise, because what he has spoken in his Word was of promise or threatening, those works make good, and thereby he magnifieth his Word above all his Name, shewing how upright he is, and that there is no unrighteousness in him, Psal. 92.15.

Second Reason

Secondly, It makes much for the spiritual benefit of those who rightly and religiously perform it; Hence also, the ordinary introduction to this duty has been, Let us sing to the praise of God, and our own edification. Particularly, it edifies and assists three ways; For:

1. It is (as has been shown before out of Scripture) a teaching exercise; teaching and helping us, to know rightly; believe firmly; live holily; and pray wisely and effectually. To know, because many of the Psalms are doctrinal, wherein divine doctrine, (as Moses saith in his Song, Deut. 32.2.) drops as the rain, Psal. 49.3, 4.

More particularly, the Psalms will teach us:

(a) What God is; which is fully shown by the descriptions of his greatness, from Psal. 95. to Psal. 100. As also by the relation of his works, Psal. 9. 16. & 46. 10. & 48. 14. & 68. 20.

(b) What Christ is, of whom divers Psalms speak glorious things, as Psal. 2 & 8. & 16. 20. & 45. & 72.

(c) What the Holy Ghost is, to wit, the Holy Spirit, the heart rejoicing and upholding spirit, and the leading spirit into the land of uprightness, Psal. 143.10.

And that the Book of Psalms generally, is an instructing part of Scripture, may appear by the title of the 13th Psalm, wherein they are said to be Psalms giving instruction, which is plain in the first Psalm that has that title, wherein we are instructed in the way to blessedness, and in another Psalm, which saith, I will instruct thee.

2. To believe, for to that, Psalm singing (if the matter be minded, and we speak to one another therein, Col. 3.16.) trains us up; And that:

(a) By the many sweet promises dispersed, in that part of Scripture, as Psalm 12. 5, 6, 7. & 27. 14. & 34. 10. & 37. 4, 5, 6. & 19. 34, 40. & 91.

(b) By the examples of holy men going before us in a way of faith, and resting and rolling all upon God, together with the great success and satisfaction that they have found in that course, as Psalm 3. 5, 6. & 11. 1, 7. & 20. 7, 8. & 22.4. & 27. 13. & 56. 3, 4, 13. & 62. 6, 7, 8.

3. To live holily:

(a) By many rules and directions laid down there for an holy life, as Psal. 32. 8, 9. & 34. 13, 14. & 37. 1, 3, 8. & 27.3, 4. & 97.10, 12.

(b) By many declarations of the blessedness of a godly life, Psal. 1. & 15. & 24. & 31. 19, 23. & 41. 1, 2. & 112. & 115. 13, 14, 15. & 119 .56. & 128.

4. To pray wisely and effectually, there being in the Psalms very many prayers made to our hands, whereby we may go to the Lord, and take with us words, to express before him our necessities and desires of every kind: As:

(a) For understanding, Psal. 119. 18, 27, 33, 34 & Psal. 90. 12.

(b) For grace, Psal. 86. 11. & 119. 35, 36, 37 & Psal. 17. 5. & 119. 133.

(c) For comfort, whether in outward afflictions, or in troubles of conscience; See Psal. 102. 1 in the title, and in all the 119th Psalm, & Psalm 74 & 79, with many others full of prayers, in regard of outward troubles; and, for inward sorrows, see Psalm 6. 3. & 51. & 88 & 143.

Thus may singing (with setting our hearts on the Psalms) be a very teaching duty.

2. As it is an exercise helping the understanding, so does it also (in special manner) work upon the affections; it is an heart-quickening exercise; It is so spiritful a duty, as that it is said to flow from such as are filled with the Spirit: The reason is, because in Scripture-songs there is lively matter, expressed, and set forth to the life: In Psalms, the soul speaks, and all within, is set a work; Now he that elevates, and sets a work his own soul, speaks most feelingly to another mans soul. As iron sharpeneth iron, so does one lively soul recreate, affect, and sharpen another. As in ordinary Songs and Poems, there is all that height and quintessence of wit, which they that compose them are able to reach unto; so in Scripture-Psalms and Songs, there are the highest notions, and rarest invention, followed with, and set forth by, the stirrings of the sweetest and most enlarged affections; and both, clothed and recommended with the most vigorous and taking expressions. Insomuch, that singing of Psalms is the holy recreation of Christians, renewing their strength, and the vigour of their spirits when they are tired or grown flat with other exercises.

3. Singing Psalms is a Solacing Exercise, ministering comfort, as in all troubles generally, so especially in troubles of conscience, and for conscience. To instance in some afflicting things. I shall say first, Who can but be sad (in the want of ordinances) that sings the 42nd & 84th Psalms? But I add also, Who can be dejectedly sad, even in that want, that sings (as he should) Psalm 63. 6. 7, 8? for therein David shows, that when he was banished, and bereft of the tabernacle-ministry, yet, he had singular comfort in the thoughts of God, and of his providence, and in following God with his prayers on his bed; and in those several stations, which in his exile he was forced to betake himself unto. To go on, who can be dismayed with a Doeg, that sings seriously the 52nd Psalm? for, that Psalm shows, not only the malice, but the madness and misery of the dogged enemies of God’s people; or, Who can be afraid (with a fear of amazement) of an Absalom, that observes the third Psalm? yea, or of any adversaries, that sings well the 46th and 76th, Psalms? Nay, (to go further), How can they that have grievously sinned, be altogether comfortless, and give way to despairing thoughts, who sing (with David's penitent and faithful spirit,) the 51st Psalm?

Thus, as the Scriptures generally, so the Psalms especially, serve for consolation, being filled with the afflictions, sorrows, and supports of the faithful servants of God. And something it is for the honour and heavenliness of this exercise, that when godly men refresh themselves with it, profane men are so grieved at it; they cannot well and with patience (at least, without some reluctancy) pass by the houses where they hear singing of Psalms, much less go into them; for, the mirth and recreations of godliness are heavy to them as well as the rules, especially to persecutors; singing of Psalms has been still the pleasure of martyrs (as it was to Paul and Silas in Prison;) but their tormenters were tormented with it, and used them the worse for it; yet, such was the comfort of that exercise, that they would not leave it; And when forcible restraints were put upon them, yet their hearts were full of it.

Third Reason

Thirdly, It is observable, that this duty is commended to Christians in way of exchange, or in opposition to the vain delights of unregenerate men, or of themselves in their unregenerate estate whence arises this argument for it, that it is a distinguishing exercise, putting a difference between heathens and Christians, between sensual and spiritual men. Profane-spirited men sport themselves with their excessive cups, abusive songs, carnal and vain catches, wanton and unclean mirth, and so make melody to the Devil in their houses; when (on the contrary) it becomes (and is the manner of) Christians and godly persons to converse one with another in holy Hymns, therewith recreating themselves in their houses and entertainments, and therein making melody to the Lord, in their hearts. I say [in their hearts]; for an hypocrite may sing, and that with a very good will, (especially if he have a very good voice), but his pleasure is in the action of singing rather then in the holy frame of his heart; and he makes melody to himself and those that like him, rather then to the Lord that looks at the inner man. So that this exercise (taken with its qualifications) puts a difference between men pious and profane, sincere and hypocrites, and so is like the Rain-bow, a pleasant sight and a better sign; I say, such is singing Psalms, a sweet exercise in itself, and as it is an act of godliness; and a better sign, if well acted, that is, of a godly person and one filled with the Spirit of God, and (by the same reason) it will mark out a spiritual, and distinguish it from a carnal family; Not, but that a family wherein there is the fear of God, may be, by reason of some impediments, at a time, or for a time, without it; but, that's a carnal family that does not like to have it, and that cannot dwell pleasantly with it.

Advice to Christians

Now that these reasons may be of more weight, and this exercise of more use, I would advise Christians to two things.

1. Before they sing, to view and weigh, and (by one or other of the company) mention and declare the matter of the Psalm they intend to sing, for which Mr. Beza his argument on every Psalm, together with his Paraphrase, opening the meaning thereof (both which are set forth in English) would be a singular help. And as for such as cannot procure it, let them at least consider the contents of the Psalm, which contents (though they may in some places, need a review,) yet for the generality) are so advisedly composed, throughout the Bible in our last translation, that they give a great light to the Chapter or Psalm which they are set before; to all those that discreetly observe them.

2. When they have sung, a little to discourse together (as their ability will serve, and time give leave) of what they have sung: by which means, they will better both know and show the meaning of that passage of the Apostle, [Teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms and Hymns,] because, matter both of teaching and admonishing will be supplied, by observing what the Psalm offers to their considerations for the one, or the other; So shall this be sound an edifying exercise, when as (otherwise) a bare singing passes without profit and spiritual commodity, because without pondering, and Christian conference.

And here I cannot (before I leave) but lament:

1. The great neglect of this duty by many, whereby it comes to pass that it is so little regarded; for the omission of duty is the enemy of the duty, and the observation of it preserves the estimation.

2. The negligent performance of it by many others that do not neglect it, but seem to affect it rather. O how rare a thing is it in those that sing Psalms, not to delight (yea not to terminate their delight) in themselves, if there be a greater sweetness in their voice, or if they excel in skill in that vocal music, when all the melody should be, to the Lord? But, (to speak of that which is most usual), How many content themselves with keeping tune, and carrying on the exercise with others in a formal way, without understanding the matter of the Psalm, when they should sing with understanding, or with seeking to understand; And, yet there is another fault (which the best (I think) are not free from, or, if they be, they may be well reckoned amongst the best) and that is, the not minding in their singing that which they do understand, or (at least) not keeping their hearts to it [still]; but contenting themselves to mark what they sing now and then, and to do that at times, and by starts, which they ought to do at all times whilst such holy services are performed, and the thing they have in hand, is, the holy Scripture.

It is easily observed, that the Devil makes great gaps in duties by distractions, and in this more then in other exercises, by the advantage he has from the nature of the service: wherein they that are employed do so attend the tune, and mark the singers, so please themselves with the outward and natural part of it, (if it be well performed,) and have such various and turbulent thoughts, (if there be any thing not decent in it,) that they are easily drawn from the substance of what they sing, their hearts are alienated from what their mouths utter; and so there is a failing in that main rule, which is, to make melody to the Lord in their hearts: when better it is, to be out of tune with the voice, then out of frame, in the heart. It's necessary that the eye and the ear should be so far watched and disciplined, as that they may not draw away the mind from meditation on the matter of the Psalm; This meditation and heart-holding to the thing in hand, is of such use in praying and praising God, that both of them are expressed by the word meditation; Hence Isaac is said to go out to meditate in the field at even-tide, or to pray: The same word is also used when David speaks of singing and praising God, I will sing to the Lord, I will sing praise to my God, and then, it follows, My meditation of him shall be sweet, I will be glad in the Lord. Nor is this meditation requisite only in those prayers and praises which we conceive and compose ourselves, that we may frame them the better; but we are also to be thoughtful in, and to attend unto, those that are already framed to our hand, especially out of Scripture, for which we have this rule given us, to set our hearts to all the words thereof; whether we hear them, or read them, or sing them, still, that's the rule; and the rather to be observed in singing, because the words spoken of in the fore-cited Scripture, are the words of Moses Song.

Bernard speaks excellently to this purpose, when thou singest (saith he) in the sight of God, Psalms and Hymns, let thy mind be busied about, (handle, or have a hand in) that which thou singest with thy voice; do not sing one thing, and think another; Agreeable to which is the godly advice of another holy man; Let them that sing (saith he) attend, not to the sound and noise, but to the spirit of the words; let the words be the leaders of their minds and souls to God. And Austin plainly confesses his sin, when it so fell out, as that he was moved more with the singing, than with the thing sung; and professes that when it is so, he had rather not hear him that sings. Aug. confess. lib. 10. cap. 33.

But I must hasten; were these things searched, considered, what is amiss reformed, and this exercise conformed to Scripture rules, what sweetness would there be in it? How much would knowledge, holiness, and comfort be improved by it? In a word, what strong arguments might Christians make for singing, by making conscience how they sing? I confess, exactness in this duty is an hard work to the best, but would be an happy work to all, and is (in some measure) attainable by all.

To conclude the whole; let me beseech all serious Christians, to look upon singing of Psalms, as the soul support of David, (the sweet Psalmist of Israel,) in all his afflictions: As the cordial of wounded consciences; As the holy fire to enkindle heavenly affections; As the perfume of prisons; the music of martyrs; yea, the work and pleasure of saints and angels in the paradise of God. And then, how will they, how can they neglect it?

Edited and revised from A preservative of piety in a quiet reasoning for those duties of religion, that are the means and helps appointed of God for the preserving and promoting of godliness. Thomas, William