Psalms & “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs”

For years I thought that exclusive psalmodists (EP) were in denial. How could they contend that the biblical Psalms were sufficient for congregational worship when Paul speaks of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19 & Colossians 3:16)? It seemed obvious that if Paul meant to reference the Psalms exclusively he would have done so (i.e. with the moniker “psalms” or “book of psalms.”) But having come across the argument as to how an EP would understand this phrase in Pauline usage, I was struck by its simplicity and it required me to rethink my previous objection. After some time of study and prayer I became convinced of the position.

I thought it would be helpful to share the results of my study with others by outlining an explanation and defense of the EP view of these verses. The reader will see that these are mostly, if not entirely, arguments borrowed from other EP writers. I do not claim to write or propose anything new: I have simply catalogued them here for convenience.

1) The command in both Ephesians 5:19 & Colossians 3:16 is to “sing.” Paul assumes an extant collection of songs i.e. he does not propose for any to write but to sing those that already exist. One might argue that the command to compose is implied but that would be gratuitous.

“These are not commands to make hymns, but to use hymns and Spirit-given songs such as were already at hand. These could be found only within the volume of inspiration…”[1]

As others note, this is supported by the fact that no gift of song writing or a new songbook is ever attributed to any New Testament author.

2) The EP explanation is that Paul is simply using a three-fold phrase to refer to one collection of songs: “This use of “psalms, hymns, and songs” to refer to the collected Book of Praises thus echoes the OT summary for the Law of Moses, “commandments, testimonies, and statutes” (1 Chronicles 29:19), or Jesus’ summary of the Bible, “the Law of Moses and the prophets and the Psalms.” (Luke 24:44).”[2]

“Jewish writers would list three identical or synonymous words or phrases, or list three aspects of a thing to emphasize perfection or completeness. See Ex 34.7; Dt 30.16; Is 6.3; Jer 7.4; Lk 24.44; Acts 2.22; 2 Cor 12.12; 1 Thess 5.23; 1 Tim 2.1”[3]

3) Is it reasonable to conclude that Paul would place the biblical Psalms in the same category as uninspired material?

“if the Psalms of Scripture are intended by the word ‘psalms,’ as is assumed for the present, it is quite unthinkable that Paul would link human compositions with those of the Spirit of God, and direct that they be used for the same end… It was he who distinguished the Old Testament writings, inclusive of the Psalter, as “God-breathed” literature, clothed with inviolable sanctity… It seems incredible, therefore, that in this instance he should trample upon a distinction which elsewhere he guards jealously and put uninspired songs in competition with those inspired as having equal teaching worth.”[4]

4) The New Testament scripture, including its wording & phrases, is not an entirely new creation. Consider how many words and allusions are inspired from the Old Testament and this three-fold phrase takes a more ancient meaning:

“What shall we sing? Why, psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. How shall we know what these are? We must look in scripture, where these words are used. Now we find them nowhere explained so properly as in the Old Testament; where they are the usual titles of David’s psalms, and the songs of other holy men, and no other use of them expressed in the New”[5]

“In Psalm 137:3 (LXX) we read: “There they who took us captive demanded of us words of songs (ᾠδαῖ), and they who led us away said, ‘Chant us a hymn (ὕμνοι) out of the songs (εκ των ωδων) of Zion.’ Here the word “songs” (ᾠδαῖ) covers all the Psalms and a “hymn” may be selected at random from these “songs.”[6]

See also The Use of “Psalms,” “Hymns” and “Spiritual Songs” in the Septuagint

5) The grammatical phrasing of this Pauline expression is also instructive: “The structure of “psalms and hymns and songs spiritual” can be re-written in transformation syntax as: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. A noun phrase equals either a single noun (psalms or hymns) or a noun plus an adjective (songs spiritual). The conjunction, of course, is “and.” “And” is a coordinating conjunction in Greek, as it is in English. “And” places the things it coordinates in the same plane or gives the elements coordinated an equality relationship.

The structure of Ephesians 5:19, the syntax of Ephesians 5:19, is illustrated several other times in the New Testament. Matthew 28:19 is a parallel structure. The New American Standard Version translates Matthew 28:19 “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” This is a correct rendering and it indicates that there is one Name, and three Persons. The relationship between the name and the persons is clearer in the Greek. “…baptizing them into the Name of the Father and (into the Name) of the Son, and (into the Name) of the Holy Spirit.” The parentheses are implied by the cases of the nouns, but are not written on the surface structure” of Matthew 28:19. Rewriting this structure in transformational terms we have: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. The first noun phrase is “into the name of the Father” the second noun phrase is “of the Son” and the third noun phrase us “of the Holy Spirit.”

II Corinthians 13:13 reads: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” The structure of I Corinthians 13:13 in Transformational terms is: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase.

Luke 24:44 reads: “(Jesus) said unto then.., that all things must needs be fulfill which are written in the law of Moses and the Prophets, and the Psalms, concerning me.” The underlined words can be expressed in the Transformational terms: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase.

The argument is that the syntax of Ephesians 5:19, Matthew 28:19, II Corinthians 13:13 and Luke 24:44 is the same in form: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. The point is that the intimate and precise relationships of the elements in the four passages, Ephesians 5:19; Matthew 28:19; II Corinthians 13:13; Luke 24:44 are guarded by syntax. There is no more intimate, close, and indissoluble relationship than that of the Trinity. This is expressed, syntactically, in terms: Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase plus Conjunction plus Noun Phrase. To use this same structure in Ephesians 5:19 indicates that the terms psalms, hymns and songs are related very closely. It means that if any one of these terms is Scripture, then all of the terms have the authority of Scripture, i.e. are the equal of Scripture.

This is exactly the conclusion we are approaching. The terms psalms, hymns, and songs are equal in authority by reason of their syntax. Psalms is already acknowledged to be a reference to Scripture. Songs, modified by the adjective, spiritual, would also be a reference to Scripture, and therefore hymns must be Scripture.”[7]

6) Thus the adjective spiritual should not be understood to modify “songs” only but all three words and thus does not have reference to some special kind of song but rather Paul is noting the inspired source of these songs:

“The question, of course, arises: why does the word pneumatikos qualify odais and not psalmois and humnois? A reasonable answer to this question is that pneumatikais qualifies all three datives and that its gender (fem.) is due to attraction to the gender of the noun that is closest to it. Another distinct possibility, made particularly plausible by the omission of the copulative in Colossians 3:16, is that “Spiritual songs” are the genus of which “psalms” and “hymns” are the species. This is the view of Meyer, for example. On either of these assumptions the psalms, hymns and songs are all “Spiritual” and therefore all inspired by the Holy Spirit. The bearing of this upon the question at issue is perfectly apparent. Uninspired hymns are immediately excluded.”[8]

“when the apostle calls for the use of such songs of praise as he designates “spiritual,” he enlists a word which in all but one of its twenty-five occurrences in the New Testament refers to what belongs to or is determined by the Holy Spirit; never does the word designate merely a religious function, or what is produced by the human spirit.[9] When the word is used of men, as in I Cor. 2:15, 3:1, and Gal. 6:1, it indicates men savingly renewed and led by the Spirit. But when the term is applied to words and texts, as it is in Rom. 7:14 and I Cor. 2:13, it plainly denotes Spirit-indited, in the sense of revelatory prophecy;[10] the only other instances in which it is used with respect to words and texts are Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16.”[11]

7) If these references do not speak of the biblical Psalms, then a quandary exists for those who advocate uninspired songs in worship. What, after all, is a “hymn”?[12] How is it to be distinguished from a “spiritual song”? Do modern or older hymn books actually distinguish between all three?

“we must make an effort to understand what the words “psalms, hymns, songs” meant to the apostle and to his hearers. Most scholars today agree that it is difficult to draw distinctions between the three Greek terms ψαλµος, υµνος, and ωδη (psalmos, hymnos, ode). Some older commentators look to the etymology of the words to identify three classes of song, but this has proven fruitless. Modern lexicography considers them to be nearly synonymous, drawn from a single semantic field of ‘religious song.’ All commentators note the frequency of occurrence of these three words in the LXX, and especially in the book of Psalms.”[13]

8) Many early church fathers & our Reformed forebearers have spoken very clearly on this matter:

“In the early Christian church, similarly, the three terms [ed. of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs] were used interchangeably to describe the book of Psalms. Justin Martyr was referred to before as endorsing the LXX translation of “hymns” in Ps. 72:20. Clement of Alexandria must have been contemplating either Eph. 5:19 or Col. 3:16 when he said: “The apostle calls the psalms ‘a spiritual song.'”[14] Lactantius called David, “the writer of divine hymns;”[15] and the apostolic constitutions could not be any clearer: “sing the hymns of David.”[16] [17] 

See also Testimony of Reformed Fathers to the Meaning of “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs”

-Daniel Kok © 2017

1Wishart, W.I. “The Psalms the Divinely Authorized and Exclusive Manual of Praise” in The Psalms in Worship (1907), Edmonton: Still Waters Revival Books, 1992, page 55.
2RPCNA Synod’s Study Committee on Worship. “The Psalms in the Worship of the Church.” Submitted to the Synod of the RPCNA, June 2004. First Reformed Presbyterian of Cambridge. PDF article.
3Hughes, James R. In Spirit and Truth: Worship as God Requires (Understanding and Applying the Regulative Principle of Worship), 2009. PDF e-book, page 58.
4. McNaughter, John. “A Special Exegesis of Colossians 3:16 & Ephesians 5:19,” in The Psalms in Worship (1907), page 131.
Sidenham, Cuthbert. A Gospel-Ordinance: Concerning The Singing of Scripture-Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs; the Lawfulness of that Ordinance. London: 1653, page 6. PDF e-book, page 6.
6McNaughter, page 140.
7. Robson, Edward A. “An Exposition of the Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16” in The Biblical Doctrine of Worship. Pittsburgh.: Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, 1974.
8. Murray, John & William Young. “Reports of the Committee on Song in Worship (Minority Report of the Committee on Song in the Public Worship of God Submitted to the Fourteenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).” Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Web. January 9, 2016.

9The author’s footnote: Benjamin B. Warfield, “Notes on Pneumatikos and its opposites in the Greek of the New Testament,” Presbyterian Review 1 (1880): 561. The occurrences are Rom. 1:11, 7:14, 15:27, I Cor. 2:13, 2:15, 3:1, 9:11, 10:3-4, 12:1, 14:1, 14:37, 15:44, 15:46, Gal. 6:1, Eph. 1:3, 5:19, 6:12, Col. 1:9, 3:16, and I Pet. 2:5.
10. The author here cites John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1967), 1:254.
11. Isbell, Sherman. “The Singing of Psalms.” The Westminster Presbyterian. Presbytery of the 
United States, in the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). Web. January 9, 2016.
12Excluding, obviously, an anachronistic reference to modern day hymns.
13RPCNA Synod’s Study Committee on Worship op. cit.
14Author’s footnote: Clement of Alexandria, ‘The instructor,’ in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 249.
15. Author’s footnote: Lactantius, ‘The epitome of the divine institutes,’ in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 238.
16. Author’s footnote: Constitutions of the holy apostles,’ in The Ante-Nicene Fathers 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993 rpt.), 393.
17. Winzer, Matthew. “Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land. Puritanboard. (Web forum). August 15, 2007 (6:45 a,m.).