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Psalms and Hymns: Confusing the Covenants and Testaments


Recently a preacher, talking about church hymns, referenced an early hymn writer (perhaps Isaac Watts; or someone else from that time period) who argued for hymns beyond the words of the Psalms–by reasoning that the Psalms were “Old Covenant” and thus were limited in worship, because in singing only the Psalms we could not express the great New Covenant / New Testament truths about Jesus, including His name, and the greater truths we now have in this age.

That statement struck me as a bit off, as a misunderstanding of the definitions of the Old and New Covenants, which are not the same as the Old and New Testament of the canon of scripture.   After all, the New Covenant is mentioned in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36), and the Psalms are not the Old Covenant (that is the Mosaic law of the Pentateuch, and not even all of those five books); and the Psalms have a great deal to say concerning New Covenant and New Testament ideas.  Rather than having “old covenant” content, the Psalms specifically include several references to the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, while also referencing the doctrines of the kingdom (the idea of royalty, and the Lord God as King), creation, and many other Christian beliefs and concepts.  A recent Dr. Reluctant post addresses the specific error of conflating the Old/New Covenant with the Old/New Testament.  Here I especially note point 3:

When one reads about the contrasts between the “first covenant” and the “new covenant” in Hebrews it is clear that the former is equated with Moses’ Law (Cf. Heb. 7-10), which is inferior to the “better covenant” (7:22) and is “growing old and is ready to vanish away” (8:13).  This type of language cannot be used of the relation of the Old Testament books to the New Testament books.

Looking further into the Psalms and music issue, though, I found some interesting articles, both from the perspective of Psalms-only and a more moderate view that includes Psalms as well as hymns that strive to reflect scriptural language.  Yet here too, often the references were to “New Covenant” hymns as contrasted with “Old Covenant” Psalms.  I also observe that the Psalms-only advocate, as in this article, a review and criticism of Iain Murray’s work about hymns, shows greater understanding of what the Psalms contain and the problems that come from not using the Psalms as hymns  – along with proper use of the terms:

While the Psalter is not exhaustive in telling us everything in the Old or New Testament, neither are uninspired hymnals. In fact the Book of Psalms is far richer, better and more doctrinally complete, and balanced than any modern hymnal. Hymn writers historically have avoided the judicial aspects of God’s character in favor of love and heavenly bliss. They have avoided the important imprecatory aspects of praise which, contrary to Murray, is not inappropriate in the New Covenant era. Hymns do not contain warnings against trusting in princes (Ps. 146:3-4) and they certainly do not focus on the doctrine of creation in a manner that approaches the Psalter (e.g. see Ps. 146:6). Hymnals do not contain the many antitheses between the righteous and the wicked that are found in the Psalter. Neither do they contain such amazing statements about God’s holy law as found in Psalm 119. Such examples could be multiplied extensively. …  Even if a humanly produced hymnal contained no unorthodox doctrines, it still would be grossly unbalanced theologically by emphasizing popular doctrines while ignoring the less popular teachings.

Another article takes a more moderate position (include Psalms along with newer music, with the emphasis on music that closely agrees with scriptural language), and mentions the importance of progressive revelation.  Yet this work shows a few misunderstandings and misuse of the terms “covenant” and “testament,” as in this paragraph:

In addition to their pre-Christian stance of anticipation, the Psalms frequently reflect the struggle of faith that the OT saints had due to the seeming conflict between the promises of God and the reality of his providence.  On the one hand, God had promised the nation that they would have a king and a land. Yet in reality, they often had ungodly kings and at one point were removed from the inheritance during the exile. Thus the Psalms are full of the cry, “O Lord, how long?”And the cry largely goes unanswered. To sing only the Psalms without updating them with the Christological solution is to say that we are still living under Old Covenant conditions.

Does this author really think that in our New Covenant era believers know nothing of the Psalmist’s experience:  ungodly kings (rulers), and the “seeming conflict between the promises of God and the reality of His providence”? The New Testament writers themselves describe similar conditions of hardship and persecution, submitting to ungodly rulers, and still awaiting Christ’s return to fulfill what was not done at the First Coming (reference Acts 1:6; 3:20-21; 26:6-7; 1 Cor. 15:23-25).  In Revelation 6:9-11 (as explained in Revelation 4:1, this is in the section of things yet to be), the souls who had been slain for the word of God are still crying out, “how long?” and here again, in a New Testament book, in the New Covenant era, we find again the spirit of the imprecatory Psalms: the righteous rejoicing over the judgment done to the wicked.

I find that, ironically, it is the CT non-premillennial view that tends to find more division between the Old and New Testament and more tendency to misuse the terms covenant and testament.  After all (as in the above example), when people think that everything Christ set forth to do was accomplished at His First Coming, and we are now either living in the kingdom (amillennialism) or going to bring the kingdom into the world gradually before Christ’s return (postmillennialism), the result is a much sharper distinction between the “Old Covenant Church” experiencing struggles of faith and conflict between promises and reality, versus our golden, glorious triumphant age of the Church.

Also ironically, it is really the biblical dispensationalists, understanding the importance of the unconditional biblical covenants set forth in God’s word (the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants), who see the overall unifying theme of scripture: the Kingdom of God as that one uniting theme throughout, God’s Divine Purpose, including the work to be accomplished by Christ at His First AND Second Coming. Such emphasis brings about the understanding of the difference between the terms Old and New Covenant, and Old and New Testament.

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