Last updated: Wednesday, 14 August 2013

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Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs


by S J Tanner



“And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:18, 19).

“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” (Colossians 3:16).

“Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:13).  


Introduction –

The New Testament expression used in the title above is not infrequently brought up in discussions regarding the congregational worship of God. Now as we are told to sing to the Lord in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”, and as this singing is a means of strengthening our faith and letting the “word of Christ” – the infallible Word – dwell in us richly in all wisdom, it is important to understand what the apostle actually means by the three different words.

Psalms –

There is probably little contention over the word “psalm” (Greek “psalmos”), because in today’s English the word generally signifies the book of psalms, just as it did in the New Testament –

“And David himself saith in the book of Psalms, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand” (Luke 20:42; cf. Psalm 110:1).

“God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee” (Acts 13:33).

“Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 13:35; cf. Psalm 16:10; see also Luke 24:44; Acts 1:20).

Hymns –

The second word in question is “hymn” (Greek “humnos”), which simply means “praise”. This word is more controversial than “psalm” because of the modern tendency to use it exclusively to describe extrabiblical or man-made songs of praise, especially those written in the style of such famous composers as Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. (Though undoubtedly very useful when written by faithful men of God, such compositions can in no way be put on a level with the inspired poetry of the Bible – no more than a biblical sermon or prayer can be put on a footing with Scripture itself, so as to be constantly repeated in worship by whole congregations.) However, not only is there no evidence that the Greek New Testament word “humnos” ever applies to fallible or uninspired songs, it is actually used in reference to the praise of inspired psalmody. The New Testament translates the words of the Lord Jesus (Psalm 22:22) in this way:

“Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise [Greek, “hymn”] unto thee” (Hebrews 2:12; quoting Psalm 22:22).

Also, we are told that the Saviour and his disciples sang a “hymn”, or "praise" (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26), at the time of the Passover, during which the people of Israel customarily sang the Hallel (Praise) – psalms 113-118. As the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament was in use in the times of the apostles, its word usage may be consulted in order to throw light on the meaning of religious words in New Testament Greek. In the Septuagint we see that sometimes the word “hymn” is used for a psalm in the book of Psalms, both in the titles (e.g. Psalm 64) and in the body of the psalms (including the above-quoted Psalm 22:22).

Songs –

The third expression, “song” (Greek “ode”), which on its own has a rather broad meaning, is also used not infrequently in Greek to refer to the Psalms, as in the Septuagint translation of such titles as that of Psalm 65: “To the chief Musician, A Psalm and Song [Greek, “ode”] of David”.

The threefold expression –

The theory that Paul is referring to three completely different kinds of praise – one composed of a book of the Bible and the others man-made – becomes even more unreasonable when it is seen that the inspired Hebrew of the Old Testament uses three different words to describe the psalms: “mizmor” (generally translated as “psalm”), “tehillah” (a “hymn” or “praise”) and “shir” (usually “song”). Similar threefold expressions are found elsewhere in Scripture – for example the “statutes and judgments and laws, which the LORD made” (Leviticus 26:46) – and it is most probable that in the passages in question the apostle is using Greek equivalents of Hebrew words to describe the contents of the one infallible collection of hymns.

Spiritual songs –

The expression “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (which in the original Greek is in this order: “psalms and hymns and songs spiritual”) indicates that the songs we use in worship should come from the Spirit of God. Only Scripture itself is infallibly inspired; and the Psalms of David are plainly in this Spirit-breathed category:

“David the son of Jesse said . . . the sweet psalmist of Israel, said, The spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:1, 2).

“Wherefore (as the Holy Ghost saith, To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts . . .” (Hebrews 3:7, 8; cf. Psalm 95:7, 8).

Psalm singing biblical –

Those believers of early times who put their trust in the promised Messiah, and often died for this faith (see Hebrews 11), sang the psalms of Scripture:

“Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the LORD with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshipped” (2 Chronicles 29:30).

These psalms speak of Christ our Saviour (Luke 24:44) and the Christians of the New Testament acknowledged this fact with boldness and joy (Acts 4:26). The psalms gave comfort to the scattered Christians of the Middle Ages, and burst onto the church scene once again at the Reformation, when great congregations sang them with the vigour of a new-found joy in a long-lost Gospel message – that of salvation by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

The psalms are biblical and they are Christ-centred. They are composed solely by inspiration of our Almighty God, whose “praise endureth for ever” (Psalm 111:10).


"The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Isaiah 40:8).