Author: Brad Meyer
Scripture References: Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16
Verse Text: Ephesians 5:19 "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord."
Colossians 3:16 "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God."
There are all kinds of songs: love songs, patriotic songs, nursery songs, battle songs, campfire songs, songs that tell a story, songs that call people to rally for a cause, songs that teach, songs that express complaint.
Singing a song is a way to communicate or express a thought. Just about anything that can be said in words, can be said in a song. The Bible mentions several kinds of songs such as a hymn (Mark 14:26), a lament (2 Samuel 1:17), a spiritual song (Eph 5:19), and a sensual song (Ez. 33:32, NASB).
Want to start an argument? Ask a group of believers what kinds of songs are appropriate for Christians to sing. Let¹s avoid the argument for now and simply look at three kinds of songs that should be indisputably acceptable: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
The difficulty with describing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs is in the fact that the words that Paul used were written in Greek some 1950 years ago. While we now use the words "hymn" and "psalm" that are transliterations of the words from Greek to English, we might not have the same connotation to these words as existed in Greek at the time of Paul. For example, in common practice today, Christians refer to hymns as opposed to contemporary music. The word hymn takes on the connotation of a certain style of music or a certain collection of songs; a style or collection that certainly was not known in the first century!
A few years back, after listening to too many people argue about kinds of music that are appropriate to sing in church, I did some digging into the definitions of these words. I came across a helpful book called, "Synonyms of the New Testament", by Richard C. Trench. This author has made a careful study of many of the Greek words used in the New Testament and how they were used in Greek culture, as well as how they were used by the early church fathers. After reading his discussion of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, I came to the conclusion that it makes much more sense to see these words as describing the content of songs, rather than the style of music in the songs. Let me explain.
The Greek word for psalm had an interesting history. There was a word that meant to touch. Over time it came to be used to describe touching a harp or some other stringed instrument. A related word came into use to describe the instrument itself, and then finally, the songs sung with such an instrument. This last word, psalmos, was the term used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) as the title of the collection of the songs of David, Asaph, and others, we now call the Psalms. When Paul used the word, psalms, in Col. 3:16 and Eph. 5:19, he was probably referring to the musical arrangements sung at that time with words from the Old Testament book of Psalms.
Hymns are songs of adoration and praise. The word had come to be used in Greek to refer to the songs about the gods and the humans who became like gods. Hercules, Zeus, and Apollo all had hymns written to them. The Christian use of the term was, of course, songs of praise to God. Under this meaning of the term, "Lord, I lift Your Name on High" is just as much a hymn as "A Mighty Fortress".
"Spiritual songs" is a phrase used only in the two passages noted above. It¹s inclusion after psalms and hymns, suggests that it is some kind of catch-all term to refer to other Christian songs that were not taken from the Psalms or that were not necessarily praise songs. That could include songs of admonition (Rise Up, O Men of God), songs of vision (We Want to See Jesus Lifted High), songs of doctrine, teaching songs, songs of petition, or really any other kind of song that expresses a thought that is spiritual. Since we are to use songs to teach and admonish one another, this category seems a very appropriate addition to Paul¹s list.
When we gather together as believers, all of these kinds of songs are appropriate to sing. We sing many hymns, that is, songs of devotion. We have lots of songs that come from the Psalms. We also sing teaching songs and songs of admonition. As a music leader I try to pick out songs that stir minds, songs that stir hearts, and songs that stir wills. I choose songs that lift people¹s thoughts to the person of God and I pick songs that focus attention on our responsibilities as followers of Christ.
The two passages that list the threesome of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are telling us that it is necessary for us as believers to teach and admonish one another; that¹s part of what it means to walk in love. But they are telling us that we can do so not only through our conversation, but also through singing. Music is a very powerful and effective way of communicating. Finally, these passages encourage those of us who are music leaders to think broadly about the content in our songs; we can sing Scripture, especially the Psalms, we can sing songs of worship and adoration, and we can sing songs that otherwise call our attention to spiritual matters.