Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

There are two passages that get a lot of air/paper/screen time with regard to music in the church. Colossians 3:16 (Google Chrome’s spellcheck doesn’t have the word Colossians in it?! weird) and Ephesians 5:19

Two thoughts that were thunked ūüėČ yesterday afternoon. First, almost everyone agrees that there really isn’t much, if any (and if there is, we don’t really know) technical difference between the terms Psalm, hymn, and spiritual song. The words:
Psalm – psalmos¬†– just means a “pious” song… i.e., a song to a god. ¬†Also can refer to the plucking of an instrument (i.e., the noun form of “to pluck”).
Hymn: hymnos (or humnos) Рa song of praise to the gods, heroes, or conquerors; a sacred song, a hymn.
Song: ode Рa song.
Interestingly, in Ephesians, the word for “making melody” is psallo, the verb form of psalmos (“Psalm”).

(pardon my terrible Greek. ūüėČ )

So, first thought. While most agree that technical differences aren’t really there … it seems that many (and I have read several now) go on to try to distinguish between them, using words like “probably” or “perhaps” or “we believe.” One that I’ve read says that that “psalmos” means OT Psalms, “hymn” means songs that were meant to be theologically rich, and “spiritual songs” are songs of personal testimony about grace/salvation.

What?! ¬†So, we start out by saying that we don’t know the differences between the words, but then we go on to try to place differences on the terms … that¬†strangely match a particular line of thought about Psalms, hymns, and “choruses” of today? ¬†This seems like it’s kinda sad and strangely self-proclaimed eisegesis (another word Google doesn’t have). ¬†If we don’t know what the words mean exactly when distinguished from each other… then let’s just leave it at that and surmise that Paul was referring to a variety of song forms.

Edit: I ran across this right after posting:

From my own experience, the common American evangelical interpretation is to take this to mean something like “psalms (from the book of the Bible), hymns (roughly, older style Christian songs), and modern Christian songs,” which is an anachronistic approach to these words.

On to the second thought. ¬†Almost every time I’ve read or heard about this passage, it focuses on “what do the words mean” in more or less answer to the question “what kind of songs should the church do?” ¬†What is interesting, I think, though … is Paul’s context. ¬†In Ephesians 5, he puts it in the context of being¬†filled with the Spirit.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

We all know the “do not get drunk with wine […] but be filled with the Spirit” verse. ¬†But what about going on, which Paul does in the same breath … well, pen stroke … unless he was dictating ūüėČ ¬†Anyways, Paul just moves right in; what does he explain “be filled with the Spirit” with? ¬†Addressing one another through singing with your heart, thankfulness, and submission.

Now, we read that submitting part and go “yes, everyone needs to do that.” ¬†We read the thankfulness part and say “yes, everyone needs to do that.” ¬†We read the singing part and say “well, I don’t sing” (well, I don’t submit.) ¬†Or “I sing, but it’s just for God to hear, not everyone else” (addressing one another?) ¬†Or “whether or not I sing is between me and God.” ¬†Or “it doesn’t matter what I look like when I sing, God sees the heart”¬†(it doesn’t matter what I look like when I submit/when I’m thankful). ¬†Again …¬†what!? ¬†Are we really this picky and choosy with what Scripture we follow (the ones we like and sound easily attainable for us) and which we don’t? ¬†Nobody would think it’d be okay to say “I’m just not a thankful person, so I don’t do that whole thankfulness part.” ¬†Why is it okay to say “I’m just not the type of person that sings in church, so I don’t worship like that.”

I realize there are people who are tone-deaf.  Very, very few (one statistic I saw put it around 4%).  Most people CAN carry a tune, bucket or not. :)

How about Colossians.  It is, of course, very similar:

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In this case, it’s connected to the peace of Christ ruling our hearts and the word of Christ dwelling in us. ¬†Again, Paul says that we address¬†one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and¬†again he references our¬†hearts in the context of singing – as well as thankfulness.

One last conclusion; singing (in gatherings of believers) comes from our being filled with the Spirit, our hearts being ruled by the peace of Christ, and the word of Christ dwelling in us… to the extent that, to Paul, in writing to two separate churches, it seemed like the natural follow-up to saying to “be” those things.

This post is not just for people who have trouble singing or something. ¬†It also is for those who find it very easy to sing and enjoy singing – the question then is not “why DON’T you sing” but why DO you sing? ¬†Singing primarily because you enjoy music isn’t what Paul said, either… “let your love of music dwell richly in you” wasn’t in there.

It ought to be the love of Christ that causes us to sing.

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4 Responses to Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

  1. Laurie says:

    Good thoughts, Paul. Thank you for your research. One thing I wonder about however is if “singing” was more a part of the culture Paul was in at the time. I.E. It seemed “normal” to do so. While I’ve grown up singing while washing dishes, riding in the car, around the piano at anybody’s house (the “culture” of my “Armstrong” family) it is definitely not part of the culture of the Duffy family which I married into. I haven’t heard any of them ever sing. Not even hum really. So I’ve gotten out of the habit (which I miss) because it kind of “feels odd” now. I just say that to illustrate my “wondering” if that’s a lot of why some people just dont’ sing. It’s weird. It feels “out of character”. Still needs to be learned because God commands it but it may take awhile to get used to.

  2. Paul says:

    It does seem to be true that cultures go through phases of singing and non-singing. We are all, of course, familiar with the “singing” phases (e.g., around the time of the Reformation, or times in England, or the late 19th century in America). As a historical note, we tend to be less familiar with the times where singing wasn’t as common, such as 18th and early 19th centuries in America. From some accounts/historians that I’ve read, the “singing” in church was pretty “appalling” at times, and almost no one could read music.

    Anyways… yes, a “culture” of not singing (perhaps we should call it a “subculture” or something) is definitely a problem. And it seems to particularly affect men. I don’t know exactly why this is. There is also a subculture of “don’t show emotion,” it seems, among men particularly? And singing is – or certainly should be, in many cases! – a showing of emotion. I wonder if it has to do with some … cultural definitions of masculinity. Emotion, singing, sympathy, compassion, empathy, crying… they all seem to sometimes be placed in the “girly” or “not manly” type category. It’s not manly to show emotion or to be sympathetic or compassionate or whatever. Our expectations for what men do certainly have ramifications in church participation.

    I don’t know how much a part of Paul’s culture singing was. It did seem to be big in Hebrew culture, but Paul wasn’t writing to Hebrews primarily, as I recall. I don’t know enough about Greek and/or Roman culture to know if everyone walked around singing songs or what. :)

    My personal opinion is that it seems to stem from not being accustomed to showing emotion or speaking out (for whatever reason). We don’t tend to recite creeds, speak Scripture together, etc., either, and participation seems to tend to be somewhat lacking in those non-musical “together” things as well… and that certainly isn’t because we “don’t sing” anymore :) I know I can say that for myself, my biggest “roadblock” is this strange feeling of not wanting to be … well, seen. Showing emotion publicly is uncomfortable, loudly assenting is not particularly in my personality. There also seemed to be an anti-emotion-in-worship-services thing that occurred as a backlash against some of the charismatic movements.

    Just as a note, I do have opinions in an “on the whole” basis, but I try very hard not to apply them to individuals…. so I do not think that a given individual at TBC is “not singing” for this particular or that particular reason. That would be something one would have to personally ask the individual. :)

  3. Paul says:

    Oh, one other bit; I think part of this also stems from *not* being taught. It does appear that God commands singing, and “unless you don’t have a good voice” was not mentioned, hehe. I don’t think that’s particularly taught now, though. I don’t know when that stopped (it does seem that singing was more talked and taught about in the past… and even when the church music was “appalling” and some authors said they would rather not have ANY music in church, it seems most people still sang, ha!). Many seem to take aim at contemporary music and blame that, but I don’t think so … e.g., charismatic churches seem to have a lot of people singing and they are usually singing modern songs and hymns.

  4. Laurle says:

    Thanks for your comments Paul.

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