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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

On the Composing and Singing of Psalms with a Lively Voice

By John Cotton (1585–1652)

[From Singing of Psalms a Gospel Ordinance. 1650.]

THE QUESTION now is whether in the days of the New Testament we are to sing the praises of God with a loud voice or noise, and for this we allege, beside the text in Isaiah, the prophecies of David who foretelleth and exhorteth all lands (at least the Churches and people of God in all lands) “To make a joyful noise unto the Lord, to make a joyful noise unto him with Psalms, to come before his presence with singing.”

“Yea but this bindeth us no more to make such a manner of loud noise, as our form of singing is, than to make such a loud noise, as was made in David’s days, ‘with ten stringed instruments;’ for so the Lord was to be praised.”

So the Lord was to be praised? Praised “with ten stringed instruments.” When was he so to be praised? In David’s days? True: And therefore it was the duty of all the people in any land that became proselytes to the Church of Israel in the days of David and during all the time of the Temple worship to come before the Lord, not only with the loud noise of singing Psalms, but of playing with instruments. But after the days, not only of David, but of the Temple and that worship be passed, in the day when our Jehovah (the Lord Jesus) hath entered into his rest, in the day of our Lord, when he commandeth us not to harden our hearts, but to hear his voice, to fall down and worship before him in prayer (both which are to be performed every Lord’s day), he then commandeth us “to come and sing unto the Lord, to make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation, and to make a joyful noise unto him with Psalms.” Here is now no mention of making a joyful noise with instruments, but “with Psalms.” And therefore the making a joyful noise “with Psalms” doth still continue, even on our Lord’s days, when making a joyful noise “with instruments” continueth not, but is laid down in silence, save only so far as it is kept alive in the antitype, the affections of our hearts (our Præcordia) making melody with the songs and professions of our lips, and with the gracious and peaceable conversation of our lives.

“Then you acknowledge it to be the duty of such as are called to the knowledge of the Truth, to come before the Lord, not with sorrow and sadness, and with a dejected spirit, but with singing.”

What singing do you mean? If you mean only the gracious rejoicing of the heart, that indeed, though it be requisite to avoid hypocrisy, yet it is not complete to reach the full extent of the duty, the duty of making a “joyful noise with Psalms.” Our chief Singer (of whom you speak) when he set the Lord and his own death and resurrection before his face (which he was to undergo for our sakes) he was not only glad in his heart, but his glory also (that is his tongue) rejoiced in “singing a Psalm” at his last Supper (Psal. xvi. 8, 9, with Matt. xxvi. 30). And therefore it will be a discord from the practice of our chief Singer, and so a dishonor to him if our hearts sing with joy, but our glory (to wit, our tongues) be mute with silence. Say not then, as you do: “We are no more bound to make a loud noise with our voices, than the trees are to clap their hands (as Isaiah prophesieth) or than the new Converts were to come with external singing of Psalms.” For in so saying you will not avoid the authority of the Commandment nor the necessity of that duty of singing. For when God redeemed his people out of the captivity of Babel, not only their hearts (the hearts of them who were returning to Zion) were filled with rejoicing, but even their tongues also with singing. And though the trees cannot be said in proper speech to clap their hands (for they have no hands to clap), yet common sense will easily tell you that there is a metaphor either in clapping of hands, or in the trees. If trees be taken properly, then clapping of hands is put (by a metaphor) for the flourishing fruitfulness of the trees of the field, which (by the blessing of God) is wont to follow the prosperity of the Church in such abundance that their boughs and branches shall clap and dash themselves and their fruit one upon another, whereby (as by hands) they reach forth refreshing and food to the children of the Church.

But if trees be put by a metaphor for trees of righteousness (as the Saints are so called, Isai. lxi. 3) then they shall “clap their hands, and shout for joy, and sing aloud” (expressing external signs of comfort) “to behold and consider the wonderful goodness of the Lord” to themselves and their brethren. And so in the same verse, Isai. lv. 12, when the “mountains and hills” are said to break forth before the Saints “into singing,” if there be not a metaphor in “singing” then “mountains and hills” are put by a metaphor for Princes and men of high degree which shall give example to others in holy rejoicing and particularly in singing praises to the Lord. So that these texts in Isaiah which you thought might excuse you from singing with the voice, which David exhorted to be done with a loud voice, they will not exempt you at all from this duty but rather bind you the stronger to it. And therefore look as when David saith: “I cried to the Lord with my voice,” a man shall detract from his meaning that shall say he cried only to God with his heart. So when David exhorteth the Gentile Churches “to make a joyful noise unto God with Psalms” you do detract in like sort from his meaning when you make his meaning to be, not that we should sing unto God with our voices but that we should only make melody to him with grace in our hearts. Such detracting from the Word is alike disallowed and accursed of God as is adding to the Word….

But if the Apostle had intended to commend to the Churches the singing of the “Psalms and Hymns and spiritual Songs” of David and Asaph, what need was there for him to exhort either the Ephesians “to be filled with the Spirit,” or the Colossians “to have the word of Christ dwell richly in them” for such a service? For any small measure of the Spirit and of the Word will suffice to sing the Psalms of David and Asaph in their words and in the metre and tunes accustomed. But to invent new spiritual Songs fit to teach and admonish the Church would require a full measure of the Spirit and a rich treasure of the Word to dwell in us. And therefore Paul biddeth the Ephesians “to be filled with the Spirit” in singing the spiritual Songs of the New Testament, as drunkards are filled with wine, and in the strength and spirits of their wine invent and sing their wanton Sonnets.

Paul did exhort them “to be filled with the Spirit” as drunkards be with wine, not that they might invent and sing spiritual Songs as drunkards do wanton Sonnets; for neither do drunkards filled with wine usually invent Sonnets, but sing such as they learned before when they were sober; nor doth the Apostle speak of inventing Songs at all, either wanton Songs by drunkards, or spiritual Songs by the faithful; but only to be filled with the Spirit as drunkards be with wine that so they might avoid the riotous and excessive mirth of drunkards and employ and improve their holy mirth and joy to the singing “Psalms and Hymns and spiritual Songs,” for their own mutual edification and consolation and for holy thanksgiving and praise unto the Lord.

Though it do not require such a full measure “of the Spirit” nor rich portion of the Word “dwelling in us” to sing a Psalm invented and penned to our hands yet a full and rich measure of the Word and Spirit will be needful to perform all those duties which the Apostle in those texts calleth for. For the Apostle calleth to the improvement as of the whole word of Christ unto the teaching and admonishing of one another, so of the Psalms, not only unto those two heads, but also besides those unto a further third end, to wit, unto the singing of them unto God’s praise. Now to be able to improve the whole word of God to these two spiritual ends, and the Psalms to all those three spiritual ends, doth require a full and rich measure both of Spirit and Word to dwell in us.

It will require a full and rich measure both of Word and Spirit “to dwell in us” to direct and appoint a fit Psalm out of the Book of Psalms suitable to the present occasions of singing to God’s praise, and to the instruction and admonition of the Church according to the present estate of their affections, or afflictions, their consolation, or conversation in hand.

It will require a fuller and richer measure “of the Word and Spirit to dwell in us” than a carnal heart would imagine even to utter a Song with such grace in the heart as might make melody to the Lord. It requires a good measure of the indwelling Spirit and Word of God to pray in the Spirit, much more to sing in the Spirit, wherein our senses delighted with the melody are apt to steal away our hearts from spiritual fervency. Deborah found her heart dull to be awakened so much as to utter the song which she had prepared by the Spirit for her and Barak to sing together. “Awake, Awake,” saith she, “Awake, Awake, Deborah, utter a song!” That fourfold ingemination: “Awake, Awake, Awake, Awake, utter a song!” argueth in the best of God’s servants a deep drowsiness of spirit when we should come to utter a spiritual Song spiritually, like as that fourfold ingemination to the Church of Jerusalem, to “Return, Return, Return, Return!” Cant. vi. 13, argueth a deep and strong averseness of the Spirit of the Jews unto Conversion and returning to the Lord….

Say not these writings of the Apostles and Evangelists, of David and the Prophets, do not speak to the edification of the Church, but as they are expounded and applied by the spiritual gifts of the Ministers and people of God in each age. For the very reading of them is an Ordinance of God, and no Ordinance of God is empty and beggarly and destitute of the Spirit which is the variety of men’s traditions and may not be imputed to any of God’s Ordinances.

Neither ought you to say that in singing the Psalms of David there is no more personal gift manifested, than there is in reading a stinted form of prayer.

For in reading a stinted form of prayer there is no gift of the Spirit at all manifested, but rather as I conceive, a manifest breach of the second Commandment of God, which is a grieving of the Spirit. But in singing of the Psalms of David there is a gift of the Spirit manifested, even the gift of obedience to the command of the Apostle. And that is the personal gift of him that singeth.

And secondly, all the treasures of the gift of the Spirit breathing in the Psalms of David are likewise manifested in the reverent and holy singing of them. You might more truly have said there is no more personal gift of the Spirit manifested in singing the Psalms of David than in reading the Psalms of David because either or both those duties are alike acts of obedience to God’s Commandment. But if you had so said, your objection had answered itself.

Many of God’s people now have gifts to compose spiritual Songs as well as carnal Poets to make carnal Sonnets or as drunkards that make Songs of God’s people. Now every one that hath a gift is to administer it by Christ’s Command. And if any for want of experience of such a gift in themselves should question it they may consider the promise of pouring out the Spirit in a more plentiful measure now in the days of the New Testament than in the Old.

Though many of God’s people have gifts to compose spiritual Songs, as well as carnal Poets carnal Sonnets and Drunkards profane Sonnets; yet that will not argue that the spiritual Songs which many of God’s people have gifts to compose are fit to be sung in the public holy Assemblies of the Saints, no more than the carnal and profane Sonnets of drunken Poets are fit to be sung in civil Assemblies. Let drunken, carnal Poets sing their carnal Sonnets in their taverns and ale-houses and such of God’s people as have received a gift to compose a spiritual Song fit for their private solace sing it in their private houses. But every spiritual Song fit for private solace is not fit to be sung in the solemn Assemblies of the Church for public edification, no more than it is fit for every private Christian who hath a gift to compose a spiritual prayer, to utter and pour forth the same in the public Congregation of the Church.