New Songs
Copyright © 1993, Michael S. Bushell Used by Permission.[1]

[In the following excerpt, Mr. Bushell deals with the objection to exclusive Psalmody that there are places in Scripture that refer to a “new song.” The force of the objection is that if Scripture refers to “new songs” then we must be allowed to compose songs for various occasions whether or not we are prophets or being “borne along by the Holy Ghost.” Mr. Bushell demonstrates in this excerpt that the “newness” of the new songs deals with the perspective of the singer and not with supposed compositions apart from the Psalter.]

We cannot enter here into a detailed exegesis of the musical portions of the Apocalypse. A few comments, however, concerning certain aspects of the subject may be of some help. Appeal is sometimes made to the "new song" of Revelation 14:3 as justification for the making of “new songs" now. The passage in question must, however, be seen in the context of the general concept of eschatological "newness" which finds expression in so many of the apocalyptic sections of Scripture. The phrase "new song (ode kaine, shir chodesh)[2] is found in a number of places in both Testaments. Originally it signified a song of praise inspired by gratitude for new mercies. As such it occurs six times in the psalter.[3]Obviously the reference to a "new song" in each of these instances is either a reference to the particular psalm in question or else a figure of speech to be interpreted metonymically for a doxology or prayer of thanksgiving. In any event they do not constitute a warrant for us to produce uninspired worship song any more than they did for the Old Testament saints. Quite often, especially in the eschatological portions of Scripture, the phrase "new song" is merely a figure of speech, having no direct reference at all to literal worship song. Such is the case, for example, in Isaiah 42:10 (cf. 24:14ff, Rev. 5:13), where the islands and their inhabitants, the cities and their dwellers, and everything that lives and moves in the sea are summoned to praise the Lord with a "new song." Attribution of song here to inanimate objects is, of course, a hyperbolic device intended to express poetically the comprehensive scope of God's saving operations and the fullness of the praise that is due unto His Holy Name (cf. Isa. 55:12ff). Certainly there is no warrant here for the production of uninspired worship song.

The concept of “newness” is a leading feature of the apocalyptic portions of Scripture, and this is particularly true of the Book of Revelation. We are told, for example, of a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21: 1; 2 Pet. 3:13; Isa. 65:17); the new Jerusalem (Rev. 3:12; 21:2); the new name (Rev. 2:17; 3:12; Isa. 62:2; 65:15); and the new song (Rev. 5:9; 14:3). Indeed, we are told that all things will be made new (Rev. 21:5). The concept of "newness" in the Book of Revelation is thus used as a poetic device to express in a heightened sense the fullness and the scope of the eschatological redemption of all things. The "new song," the "new name," the "new heavens," the "new earth," and the "new Jerusalem" are all yet future. The fact that we have in these visions a present anticipation of this newness, provides no more warrant for the production of "new" worship song than it does for the building of a “new Jerusalem." Quite the contrary is the case. It is very significant, in fact, that worship song is placed in the category of the "new" things of John's vision. The distinguishing character of the "newness" attributed to these objects is its divine origin. The old creation groans and travails even now under the corruption of sin, so the Lord Himself will provide a new one. Men do not themselves build the New Jerusalem; it is fashioned directly by the hand of God and brought down from heaven (Rev. 21:2). Eschatological "newness" in the Book of Revelation is functionally equivalent to divine origin. This is just as true of the "new song" as it is of the "new heavens" and the "new earth." Eschatological “newness" in song may thus be seen as functionally equivalent to immediate inspiration by God. Seen in this way, the "new" songs of Revelation, far from providing a warrant for the use of uninspired songs in worship, bring to the fore once again the same basic principle that we have seen time and again in our consideration of the biblical principles of worship, namely, that the production of acceptable worship song is the sole prerogative of the Lord God Himself as He works through inspired authors set apart by Him to that very task.

Of course, it must be conceded that the apocalyptic visions of Isaiah and the Book of Revelation do have reference to a certain extent to our own dispensation. Certainly the "new covenant" (Jer. 31:31ff; 1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 8:8ff-, 9:15), the description of the Christian as a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), and so on, are present anticipations of the eschatological situation described in John's vision.

The question arises as to whether there is any sense, proleptic or otherwise, in which the worship song of the pre-consummation church is to share in this eschatological newness. In response to this question it may be observed, first of all, that much of the “newness” enjoyed by the Church in this dispensation is clearly proleptic or anticipatory in nature. Even our salvation, though complete in Christ, is seen in Scripture to have a future reference. Our redemptive “newness” has not yet been fully realized. We are to put on the “new self” (Eph. 4:22-24) because our "old self" was crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:6), and yet every Christian bears witness to the strength of the "old self' yet remaining (cf. Rom. 7:23). We are new creations in Christ, and yet we wait for that day when all things will be made new. What all of this teaches us is that "newness" in the present state of things is not at all inconsistent with the continuation of certain aspects of the old order. Of the many examples that could be mentioned here, there is perhaps none clearer than that of the "new commandment" given by Christ to His disciples. His "new commandment," that we love one another (John 13:34), was not really a new commandment at all. It was in fact incorporated into the Mosaic law (Lev. 19:18). It was, as John tells us, a new commandment that was at the same time an old commandment (1 John 2:7; 2 John 5). The newness lay in the new perspective that we are given on the old commandment as a result of the manifestation of God's love in Christ. The "newness" of the New Testament with respect to the law of God does not have to do so much with content as with perspective. The law has not been abolished in Christ. It has been fulfilled and therefore placed in a new light, but it has not been superseded by a new law.

In the same way the "newness" in song of which the New Testament is heir does not have to do with content per se but with newness of perspective. So even if the passages in Isaiah 42:10 and Revelation 5:9 and 14:3 are seen as having pre-consummation significance, there is still no warrant to see in them a mandate for the production of uninspired songs for worship. If in fact the concept of eschatological "newness" is seen in its proper context, quite the opposite is the case. Newness in the eschatological sense absolutely precludes human invention. The one essential presupposition lying behind the necessity of a "new heavens," a "new earth," a "new Jerusalem," a "new covenant," and a "new song" is the fact that the old order had been thoroughly corrupted by the touch of man's sinful hand. God is therefore to be the sole craftsman of the new order, even in its proleptic manifestations.

The Old Testament Psalms may therefore in a particular sense be seen as "new songs" because they have all taken on new significance in the light of their fulfillment in Christ and in the interpretive light that the New Testament sheds upon them. Seen in this way, the Psalms serve quite sufficiently as a proleptic realization of the need for "new songs" in the worship of God. Because of their divine origin and their organic connection with the rest of Scripture, they serve this purpose in a way not to be matched, much less excelled, by the compositions of uninspired men.

[1] The title is our own. The extract is reproduced with permission from Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion: A Contemporary Case for Exclusive Psalmody (Crown & Covenant Publications, 1993), pp. 95-97. Copyright © 1993, Michael S. Bushell. We thank the author and Crown & Covenant Publications for the permission to make this extract available on the FPCR web site. Bushell's book is the standard modern work on the topic of exclusive psalmody.

[2] [This is a transliteration of the Greek and Hebrew Bushell used. See Songs of Zion, page 95. This is the only intentional change made to this passage from the book, other than renumber footnotes..]

[3]Psalms 32 (33):3; 39 (40):3; 95 (96):1; 97 (98):1; 143 (144):9; 149:1.