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

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs: Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16

Psalms, Psalms and Psalms?

Historical Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists know that we must only worship God in the way that He commands, but how can one justify singing man-made hymns in worship? Where does God ask us to compose our own songs and sing them to Him?

Often an appeal is made to Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16:

Paul tells us to sing ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’. It doesn’t just say ‘psalms’, it also says ‘hymns and spiritual songs’, so we can sing other songs than the Book of Psalms.”

You Psalms-only guys make Paul say that ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ are ‘psalms, psalms and psalms’? That’s ridiculous!”

These statements are due to a lack of familiarity with how the Bible uses these terms. This brief study is an attempt to shed some light on what Paul actually meant.

It may surprise some people to know that Psalms-only adherents (e.g. historic Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists, and the Early Church) don’t believe that “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” are “psalms, psalms and psalms”. So what are they?

What Do the Greek Terms Mean?

Firstly, let’s remember that Paul was writing in Greek, not English. In today’s world, when we talk about ‘hymns’, we mean songs other than the Psalms, but it is illogical to apply our modern English usage to the Greek of Paul’s day. What did Greeks mean by these words?


The word “psalm” is not exclusive to the Bible. Today, we talk about ‘psalms’ as the Book of Psalms in the Bible, but to the Greek-speaking peoples ‘psalmos’ could be applied to any song that was accompanied by string-instruments by derivation from the Greek word for plucking. This term came to have a more generalised meaning over time.


A ‘hymn’, or ‘hymnos’, was a song of praise, usually to deities or heroes. In English, we refer to Christians songs outside of the Book of Psalms by this term, but the Greeks, and even the Greek-speaking Jews and Christians, didn’t make such a distinction by this term.

Spiritual Songs

‘Songs’ is a general term, but it is specifically defined in this context as “spiritual”, although the Greek grammar allows for the adjective “spiritual” to apply to all three nouns.

These three terms in and of themselves say nothing about what Paul was referring to. Indeed, if it wasn’t in the Bible, it could apply to the entire repertoire of songs that one could come across in life. However, it is in the Bible, so how do the Scriptures use these terms?

The Greek Version of the Book of Psalms

The Greek version on the Old Testament was known as the Septuagint, referring to the 70 scholars who were supposed to have translated the original Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. How the Septuagint uses the terms “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” is important because this was the Bible used by the NT Christians, and many of the Apostles’ quotations of the OT in the NT show their extensive use of this version.

It was the title that these scholars gave to the Hebrew Sepher Tehillim, “Psalmoi”, which gives us the title of the “Book of Psalms” in our English Bibles. However, in this “Psalmoi”, the individual songs are categorised using the three terms, “psalms, hymns and songs”. The Book of Psalms isn’t just Psalms!

Psalms, Hymns and Songs as Titles

In our English Bibles, we will see titles to many of the Psalms: only 34 don’t have any. However, in the Septuagint there were even more titles with only 2 lacking a title. In this Greek version (not necessarily our English Bibles), 67 titles include the word ‘psalm’, 6 include the word ‘hymn’ (Psalms 6, 54, 55, 61, 67 and 76) and 35 the word ‘song’. Even some of those that were entitled “hymnos” in the Greek should more accurately have been translated as “psalmos”, but the fact the Greek translators used the word “hymnos” shows the interchangeableness of these two terms to Greek Jews and Christians.

Frequently, these terms are used in groups, such as “a psalm of a song”, “a song of a psalm”, “a psalm, a song”, “in psalms a song”, “in hymns a psalm” and “in hymns, a psalm, a song”. Note that the Seventy referred to some of the Psalms as “a psalm in the hymns” or “a psalm and a song in the hymns”. They referred to the collection of Psalms as “the hymns”.

Here I refer to the titles, but all three terms are also used in the body of the Psalms themselves.

Psalms, Hymns and Songs in the Psalms

In the text of the Psalms themselves, the terms “hymn” and “song” (together with their cognate verbs and substantives) are used throughout as descriptive of the Psalms, e.g. “He put into my mouth a new song, a HYMN to our God” (Psalm 40:3).

At the end of Psalm 72, the Septuagint says, “The HYMNS of David, the son of Jesse, are ended”, presumably referring to all the Psalms up to that point, or something similar.

One of the most interesting texts in the Septuagint Psalms is Psalm 137:3, which reads, “There they who took us captive demanded of us words of SONGS, and they led us away said, ‘Chant us a HYMN out of the SONGS of Zion.’” Clearly the Songs of Zion were the Book of Psalms, but they were also hymns. The Psalmist goes on to call these "the LORD's song".

The Hebrew “Book of Hymns”

Although the Seventy entitled the Greek version of the Psalms as “Psalmoi”, they would have been more accurate to have translated it as “The Book of Hymns” because the Hebrew title was Sepher Tehillim, and the equivalent of Tehillim in Greek was ‘hymnoi”.

It is only traditionalism from the Greek usage that means that we call the book “Psalms” and not more accurately from the Hebrew “Hymns”.

Psalms, Hymns and Songs in the Rest of the OT and Apocrypha

In 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Chronicles and Nehemiah (and elsewhere) the Psalms are referred to as hymns or songs, and the singing of the Psalms is referred to as “hymning”.

In the Septuagint Apocrypha, the same terminology is used in Ecclestiasticus, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Clearly, the Greek Christians would have been familiar with the Psalms being “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”. Everyone was calling them hymns and songs (apart from modern English-speakers!).

Psalms Spoken of as Hymns by Jews and Christians

The Songs and Hymns of the Greek-speaking Jews

The fact that the Hebrew title for the Psalms should really have been translated “The Book of Hymns” is interesting when one considers the use of “in hymns, a psalm”, and also the way that the Greek-speaking Jews referred to the Book of Psalms. Two of the best-known unbelieving Jews who spoke Greek are Philo and Josephus.

Philo never used the term “psalmos” in reference to the Psalms, but “hymnos”. This amazing absence of the term “psalmos” in his writings has caused some scholars to speculate that some Greek versions of the Psalms were actually (and more appropriately) entitled “Hymnoi”, rather than “Psalmoi”.

The Early Church Hymns

As McNaughter says, not only the Greek-speaking Jews, but the Early Greek Church also referred to the Psalms as hymns, citing the Apostolic Constitutions, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Hilary, Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine and Cassian.

When Emperor Domitian burned huge quantities of Bibles and Psalters during his persecution of the Christians, where were the man-made hymnals? When the Early Church authors wrote their multitude of letters and books, where are the hymns? They do not exist. How can this be, if man-made hymnody was the early Christian practice?

The Middle Age and Beyond

McNaughter states, “Testimonies from the Middle Ages could be multiplied at great length, but Bede, ‘the Venerable,’ gives their gist when he speaks of the whole Psalter as called ‘Liber Hymnorum” by universal consent. Thereafter, through the Reformation period and down to modern times, the Psalms are spoken of incessantly as hymns.” This is no surprise as hymns are songs of praise, especially directed to deity. Is the Book of Psalms a collection of hymns? Yes.

The New Testament Use of Psalms and Hymns

The Hallel (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26)

When Jesus and His disciples finished the Last Supper, they “hymned.” It is generally accepted that they followed the Jewish practice at the Passover in singing Psalms 113 – 118, which is known as the Hallel. It seems that the singing of these Psalms is referred to here as singing hymns.

Singing in Prison (Acts 16:25)

Paul and Silas prayed and “hymned” to God while imprisoned at Philippi. As they sang from memory, it seems more than likely that they sang the Psalms that they would have learnt in their youth.

Each of You has a Psalm (1 Corinthians 14:26)

It is interesting to note that at the Corinthian worship services, they sang Psalms. There is no mention of man-made hymns, let alone the composition of man-made hymns. Now, admittedly, these “psalms” could have been man-made, but the natural use of the term is that they were the Canonical Psalms. There is certainly no evidence of man-made hymnody either here or anywhere else in the NT.

Hymning in the Psalms (Hebrews 2:12)

In quoting Psalm 22:22, the writer to the Hebrews says, “…I will hymn to you.” So, again, to the distinction between psalms and hymns is blurred.

One could look at further instances of the use of psalms and hymns in the NT, but these examples give an idea that our modern use of the word “hymn” as songs to God distinct from the Book of Psalms is foreign to the NT.

Jewish Parallelism

We may say that Paul should have said “psalms” and left at like that, but we impose our own meaning of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” on him. The same goes for the titles of the Psalms”: in 12 of them psalms and songs are put together. Isn’t this all a bit superfluous? Isn’t a psalm a song? Again, this shows the distinction between modern English-speakers and Jews. We should remember this distinction and take it into our interpretations.

“Doesn’t it seem a bit of a mouthful?” one may say, but the Jews weren’t British or American, they like using long parallelisms in their speech. In 1 Kings 2:2, David charged Solomon before he died:

to walk in His ways, to keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgements, and His testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses”.

Again, in Deuteronomy 30:16 (and elsewhere), Moses says something similar:

to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgements

“Why doesn’t they just say obey God’s commandments?” says the modern Evangelical. David and Moses were a bit more poetic than that. These are all commandments, but there are different categories in God’s commandments, just as there are three categories for the Canonical Psalms. One is further reminded of the various categories that David applies in Psalm 119.

Similarly, in Acts 2:22, Peter (a Jew) speaks as follows:

Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs…”

Peter could have said “Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles” and left it at that, but he didn’t. He was more Jewish than us (funny that!).

Paul was a Jew and spoke like a Jew, and wrote “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” because he was Jewish, not because he was distinguishing the Spirit-inspired Psalms from man-made products.

Songs from the Spirit, not Songs from the Pub

As stated previously, the word “spiritual” could apply to all three terms, but I am inclined to think that it refers to “songs” only. In Ephesians 5:18, Paul was exhorting his readers to be different from the unbelievers who wasted their lives in drinking and singing drunken songs to Bacchus:

And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord”

The heathen sang songs when they were filled with wine, but we sing songs too when we are filled with the Holy Spirit: these songs are spiritual.

What does the word “spiritual” or “pneumatikais” mean? We think of “spiritual” as being religious, but the word has a far stronger meaning than this. As Dr. B. B. Warfield of Princeton said (The Presbyterian Review, July 1880):

Of the twenty-five instances in which the word ["spiritual"] occurs in the New Testament, in no single case does it sink even as low in its reference as the human spirit; and in twenty-four of them it is derived from "spirit" (pneuma), the Holy Ghost. In this sense of belonging to, or determined by, the Holy Spirit, the New Testament usage is uniform.’ ‘The appropriate translation for it in each case is “Spirit-given,” or “Spirit-led”, or “Spirit-determined”.’

These songs are given by the Holy Spirit, they are not merely religious. Some would argue that the hymns of Charles Wesley, for example, are given by the Spirit, but is this really what Spirit-given means in this context? I think that “pneumatikais” is too strong a term for mere man-made hymnody.

What about the psalms, hymns and songs of Scripture, including those which weren’t included by the Spirit in the Book of Psalms? Were they merely man-made products – “spiritual”, but not inspired? None of them were like modern hymns: they were either personal utterances of praise (some of which may not properly be termed songs, but are nonetheless praise) and not meant for public worship (e.g. the ‘Songs’ of Hannah, Jonah and Hezekiah), or they were given for public worship in the Temple or Synagogue, but only produced by prophets and prophetesses (e.g. Moses, David and Habakkuk).

It is also noteworthy that many of them were produced by a specially-inspired class within the Levites who were devoted to God’s praise (1 Chron. 16:4-7), e.g. Asaph and the Sons of Korah. It is also noteworthy that just as some prophecies ended-up in the Canon of Scripture and many did not; so also some inspired songs made it into the Canon-within-the-Canon, i.e. the Book of Psalms, and some did not.

Does God command us to compose our own “spiritual” songs for public worship, or are there examples of it in the Scriptures? The silence is deafening. The Spirit-given songs are all inspired. We have no reason to believe that “spiritual” refers to anything else.

The Word of Christ

Not only are these songs given by the Spirit, but they are the Word of Christ:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

How does the Word of Christ dwell richly within us? By teaching and admonishing one another through singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs together. These “psalms, hymns and songs given by the Spirit” must be “the Word of Christ”. This makes sense if these terms refer to the Canonical Psalms, but can even Charles Wesley’s hymns be spoken of in this way?

Psalms, Hymns and Hymns?

If “psalms” refer to the Book of Psalms, and “hymns” refer to man-made productions, then what are “spirituals songs”? Is Paul saying “psalms, hymns and hymns”? What sense does that make? Those who ridicule us with the absurd interpretation that we say that these are “psalms, psalms and psalms” should consider the implication of their own interpretation when they hold that “psalms” is the only term that refers to songs from the Book of Psalms.

The only interpretation of these terms that make sense are that they collectively are an expansive term for the Book of Psalms, with the various categories of song within it.

Are the Scriptures Anything Else but Scripture?

It may be argued by some that although psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are different categories of song, and that these categories are found in the Book of Psalms, yet why should we think that they are restricted to this Book; maybe even the songs of the Wesleys could be referred to as “psalms”?

As we have seen previously there are real difficulties with this: are they Spirit-given in the Scriptural sense? Are they the Word of Christ? Should we sing songs to teach each other that are any less inspired than what we use in reading from the pulpit?

Another fundamental issue with this interpretation is: how do the Scriptures use these terms? We should not ask merely how they are used outside of Scripture. For example, when we read that the Bereans “searched the Scriptures daily whether these things were so”, do we think that these were writings in general, even though the term could be understood in that sense? Why is that? It is because we know from the use of this term in the Bible what is meant by it.

Even so, we know from the use of the terms “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” that the Bible refers to the Book of Psalms when referring to the congregational worship of God’s people. We have no reason to understand it any other way.

No Warrant for Singing Man-made Hymnody

All the Scriptural evidence points to the “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” being the various categories of song found in the Canonical Psalms. There is no evidence that hymns are man-made as distinct from the Book of Psalms, nor is there evidence any where is Scripture of the composition or singing of man-made productions in when Christians meet together for worship. Neither is there evidence in history from the period covered by the Scriptures, nor the period immediately after it.

Those who claim to hold to Biblical worship and seek to worship God as He asks, have no warrant to compose or sing man-made songs. The only logical conclusion is to restrict ourselves to what God has provided in His grace as sufficient for us: the Book of Psalms.

Let us sing "the LORD's song" (Psalm 137:4).


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