Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

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“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord. ” (Eph 5:18)

We engage with one another in worship. It’s communal, corporate, and family-centred. “Speaking to one another…” That is to say, worship is not completely uni-directional. Of course we sing to the Lord. We sing lyrics such as , “O Lord, you’ve done great things…” We sing to Him. He is the focus and centre of our praise. But even there we don’t lose the “we” who sing. We’re in this together.

And of course, there’s a place –a crucial, vital place – for solitary times of worship. “Early in the morning I sing to thee…” But in his letters, Paul was writing to fledgling Christian communities and was concerned to encourage this third aspect of worship. Not You, or me but we.

What does it mean, to speak “to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord”? Some writers have suggested a spectrum of formality (from liturgy to spontaneity) and that’s helpful.

Some have noted the parallel verse in Colossians 3:16: “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” This verse seems to ground communal worship in the teaching and exposition of the Bible: we share “the message of Christ..[as we] teach and admonish one another.” How do we do that? Again, it’s through “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” This is important in the practice of balancing and critiquing our worship material. Every song has to go through the filter of Scripture. We have to consider song lyrics just as carefully as we consider sermon content, and proceed “with all wisdom.”

But the verse still has quite a lot more to say. Paul was encouraging communal worship, through a Biblical matrix, but he differentiated these three areas of worship.

Perhaps it’s safe to say that “Psalms” relates to material drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul’s own background –and the background of many of the early believers (both Jew and Gentile “God-fearers”) was steeped in the worship tradition of the Old Testament. And since they believed that these scriptures pointed to the Christ, it is natural to assume they adopted these familiar lyrics for their own worship, just as we might happily sing Psalm 23 today without worrying about its Jewish provenance.

“Hymns” is a different word, of course, and probably relates to the new worship material that new believers were producing. We see signs of this peppering the letters of the New Testament. Paul and the others seem occasionally to leap into song mode – as if they just couldn’t carry on dictating the letter when their hearts were so full! Think of that paean of praise at the end of Romans 8 or 11, or passages such as Phil 2:5-11Col 1:15-20Heb 1:1-3, and 1Pet 2:21-25 among others.

Here’s 1 Tim 3:16, for an example. Paul suddenly leaves the thread of his discourse and writes:

He was revealed in flesh,

vindicated in spirit,

seen by angels,

proclaimed among Gentiles,

believed in throughout the world,

taken up in glory.

The Latin term which translates the Greek word “hymn” comes up in a letter of Pliny, written to the Emperor Trajan in AD 112. Pliny was a rather fussy local governor in Bithynia, determined to get things exactly right. He encounters a group of Christians and after a bit of routine torture and threatening, he writes for further advice. Among other things, he reported that they regularly sang “hymns to Christ as God.” It’s a fascinating glimpse into early Christian lifestyle.

So what of “spiritual songs” or “songs in the Spirit”? Working on the “liturgy to spontaneity” spectrum, this would seem to indicate the most intimate level of corporate worship.

Some writers associate the phrase with another, that is the “new song” that worshippers are encouraged to bring to the Lord.  The Bible often encourages us to “sing a new song to the Lord” (Psalm 96:1; 144:9; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9; 14:3). Psalm 40:3, for example, puts it like this: “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.”

When we sing “songs in the Spirit” we are singing out of a heart that is overflowing. Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians about music is preceded by the command to “Be filled with the Spirit” (5:18). When we are filled with the Spirit, then psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are the natural expression of our hearts. A Spirit-filled person is a singing person and God delights when we use what He created to worship Him.

Music finds its highest purpose when used as a tool to extoll the greatness of God. It can console, encourage, teach, and even admonish those who are away from God. Music is a biblical way of expressing our worship of the Lord. Spiritual music gives voice to our joy and adoration unlike anything else. Whether a psalm or a hymn or a spiritual song, the purpose of music is to glorify God, and He wants us to use this gift as a means of worshiping Him.

So God calls us to be filled with the Spirit…

Together.

And to worship in the Spirit,

To sing new songs out of the overflow of gratitude and wonder.

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