Ad Gloriam Dei

"Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." - 1 Corintians 10:31

"Let us pursue the things which make for peace and those by which one may edify another"- Romans 14:19

"As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend." - Proverbs 27:17

Monday, October 13, 2008

Enjoying God

Our congregation is studying the Shorter Catechism in our Home Fellowship Groups. It was disappointing to see the first chapter of the book that we are using virtually ignoring the question of enjoying God. Glorifying God is only half of our chief end. There is one chief end that encompasses BOTH glorifying and enjoying God.

How different this is to our Puritan and Covenanting forefathers! Ussher begins his Body of Divinity with the question of happiness and what men especially desire. Perkins defined theology as "the science of living blessedly forever". Thomas Vincent in his commentary on the Catechism deals in a balanced way with both glorifying AND enjoying God. This was Puritanism! It was so much more than the Five Points of Calvinism, and pure forms of worship and Church Government.

John Piper's Desiring God is a much needed antidote to the imbalanced half-answer that many Reformed Christians really give to the first question of the Shorter Catechism, even if his "glorifying God BY enjoying Him forever" goes too far (in my opinion).

(Although this blog is called "Ad Gloriam Dei", the real motto of our family is "Ad Gloriam et Delectorem Dei", but that was too much of a mouthful for a blog title.)



Sing a New Song! Shouldn’t We Compose New Hymns, Instead of Singing Old Psalms?

Given that there are several exhortations in the Bible to “sing a new song”, shouldn’t Psalms-only advocates ‘take a leaf out of their Psalter’ and obey the exhortation to compose new songs and hymns for congregational worship?

‘Sing to Him a new song! Play skilfully with a shout of joy!’ (Psalm 33:3)

‘He has put a new song in my mouth — praise to our God! Many will see it and fear, and will trust in the LORD.’ (Psalm 40:3)

‘Oh, sing to the LORD a new song! Sing to the LORD, all the earth.’ (Psalm 96:1)

‘Oh, sing to the LORD a new song! For he has done marvellous things; his right hand and his holy arm have gained him the victory.’ (Psalm 98:1)

‘I will sing a new song to you, O God! On a harp of ten strings I will sing praises to you!’ (Psalm 144:9)

‘Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song, and his praise in the assembly of saints.’ (Psalm 149:1)

‘Sing to the LORD a new song, and his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you coastlands and you inhabitants of them!’ (Isaiah 42:10)

This is a fair question and one that I asked when I was a teenager examining the practice of the Church in which I was raised. Let me answer it in my imperfect way.

Did Those Contemporary to Scripture Compose New Songs?

Just like the appeal to Paul’s exhortations to sing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”, the superficial interpretation that “sing a new song” calls for new man-made composures should be carefully examined in the light of the history of the Old and New Testament Churches, and the early, post-Apostolic Church.

This is not to invoke “tradition” as authoritative, but to aid us in the normal task of interpretation. We usually interpret words and phrases as contemporaries understood them. We should have lots of examples of hymn-composition, if this is how they understood these words, but we don't. We don't even have a little! This doesn’t seem right, if the exhortation to sing a new song” is a call for new compositions.

More importantly than extra-Biblical sources, Scripture itself gives no indication that we are called to add to, or take from, the God-given Hymnal.

If those contemporary to Scripture didn’t practice the composition of new hymns, except for prophets like David called to this task, then it seems unlikely that “sing a new song” could refer to such a practice. Is there an interpretation that makes more sense in the light of the rest of Scripture and known Church practice?

What Does New Mean?

“A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another.” (John 13:34)

‘And now I plead with you, lady, not as though I wrote a new commandment to you, but that which we have had from the beginning: that we love one another.’ (2 John 1:5)

‘He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked. Brethren, I write no new commandment to you, but an old commandment which you have had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which you heard from the beginning.

‘Again, a new commandment I write to you, which thing is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining… He who loves his brother abides in the light…’ (1 John 2:6-8,10)

When we hear the word “new”, we usually think of something freshly made that didn’t exist before, but Scripture doesn’t always use the term this way.

Christ calls the exhortation to love one another “a new commandment”. Did this commandment not always exist? Yes, it did. Christ Himself says that the Law could be summed-up in our love for God and for our neighbour. Indeed, the Second Table of the Law is devoted to loving our neighbour, for love is the fulfilment of the Law. As John said, it was not a new commandment, but an old commandment they had from the beginning. So clearly Jesus didn’t mean that it had not previously existed.

John also says that there is a sense in which the command to love one another is new because a radical change has happened when the light of Christ shines in the heart of true believers.

Even the Psalms which are the “new songs” in question are not particularly new, in the sense of not having previously existed. The content in each case was sung many times before, and indeed several of them repeat what the other “new songs” already stated. Interestingly, Psalm 96 would appear not to be a new composition. It was extracted from a longer song that is found in 1 Chron. 16:8-36 and only encompasses vv. 23-33 of that chapter. (Or was this latter song an expansion of the former?)

Newness as Freshness

“New” in the Scriptures can mean that it is so unusual, fresh and different, that it is as if it had never existed previously. In my opinion, this definition fits what Christ was saying in John 13:34. This commandment had fallen into such disuse by the selfishness of men that it was something new to them, even though it was as old as God himself.

John Calvin agrees with this idea of “newness” in commenting on the various verses that speak of a new song. He describes this newness as “rare and choice”, “exquisite and not ordinary”, “singular and worthy of remembrance”, “not one which was common”, “unusual and extraordinary”, “singular or uncommon”, “rare and unusual” and “distinguish[ed] from those with which the saints commonly and daily praised God”.

Matthew Poole similarly talks of this newness as “renewed”, “fresh”, “new matter or occasion for a song”, “new and great occasion” and “new mercies”. How many new occasions does God give us for renewed praise to our God?

But maybe these are just Psalm-singing Presbyterians from centuries ago? The modern Anglican Derek Kidner also describes this “newness” as “freshness” in his comments on these various Psalms.

In commenting on Psalm 96:1, he says, “The new song (cf. on 33:3) is not simply a piece newly composed, though it naturally includes such, but a response that will match the freshness of His mercies, which are ‘new every morning’.” Here he does not draw away from the fact that David’s song was one newly composed for the occasion in question (nor does Poole or I), but he emphasises “the freshness of His mercies, which are ‘new every morning’.”

The late 19th Century, hymn-singing Baptist, Charles Spurgeon similarly states the following:

“We ought to make every hymn of praise a new song. To keep up the freshness of worship is a great thing, and in private it is indispensable. Let us not present old worn-out praise, but put new life, and soul, and heart, into every song, since we have new mercies every day, and see new beauties in the work and word of our LORD.”

Spurgeon goes on to quote Augustine and others who take the same interpretation. It is worth noting Diodati’s comment that Spurgeon quotes: “sung with such fervency of affections as novelties usually bring with them.”

New Songs for New Creatures

In commenting on the new song of the nations (Psalm 96), Spurgeon further comments:

“Men are made new creatures and their song is new also. The names of Baalim are no more on their lips, the wanton music of Ashtaroth ceases; the foolish ditty and the cruel war song are alike forgotten; the song is holy, heavenly, pure, and pleasant.”

The Exultation of Victory

Derek Kidner, in commenting on Psalm 144:9, also emphasises the hope of victory that the “new song” expresses. The New Geneva (or Reformation) Study Bible similarly states, “Often such ‘new’ psalms are found in contexts of victorious war and can be seen as shouts of victory.”

Singing a New Song, not Composing One

It is a fact that the Psalms were new songs when they were composed, but this is not an exhortation for us to compose a new song. The Psalmist calls us to sing his new songs, but he does not command us to compose new ones ourselves. This is an important distinction.

Nor is he calling us to only sing songs that are new; clearly this would be absurd and irrational, and is contrary to the commandments to sing the Psalms.

For us, the purpose should be that we are filled with the joy and freshness of God’s mercies, and I believe that it is really this newness that the Psalmist is pointing us to, and what he is calling us to join with him in. Let us join him in singing his new songs, the old Psalms, with such fervency of affections as novelties usually bring with them.”

A New World of Fresh Mercies

Matthew Henry comments that the Psalmist entered a “new world” of “fresh mercies”. Often when God mightily delivers us from the old, long-endured burden of affliction, it is as if we entered a new world. The song of deliverance, although used many times before (like the Psalmist), becomes for us a new song because of the freshness of God’s mercies toward us.

When we sing of a “new song” in these Psalms, we should not think, “What new song should I compose today?” or “What newly-composed song should I sing?” but “How new and fresh are God’s mercies to me! What a place of freedom and joy I find myself in through my Saviour Jesus! Let me sing this old Psalm with the fresh joy of salvation!”

Let us constantly remember:

‘Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not; they are new every morning! Great is your faithfulness! “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I hope in Him!”’ (Lam. 3:22-24)


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