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

William Perkins (1558-1602), the “father of English Puritanism:” “[The Book of] Psalms contains sacred songs suitable for every condition of the church and its individual members, composed to be sung with grace in the heart (Col. 3:16)” (The Art of Prophesying, p. 14). 

Henry Ainsworth (1571-1622), English Puritan, scholar in Hebrew and Rabbinics, commenting on Psalm 3: “There be three kinds of songs mentioned in this book: 1. Mizmor, in Greek psalmos, a psalm: 2. Tehillah, in Greek humnos, a hymn or praise: and 3. Shir, in Greek ode, a song or lay. All these three the apostle mentioneth together, where he willeth us to speak to ourselves with ‘psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs,’ Ephesians 5:19.”

John Robinson (c.1576-1625), the minister of many of the Congregationalist settlers who journeyed to Plymouth Colony, New England: “What is required touching singing of psalms in the church? That they be such as are parts of the Word of God, formed by the Holy Ghost into psalms or songs, which many may conveniently sing together, exhorting and admonishing themselves mutually with grace in their hearts (Matt. 26:30; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).”

Nicholas Byfield (1579-1622), English Puritan, commenting on Colossians 3:16: “The matter is here three ways to be considered: First, in the ground, foundation, or authority of the psalms we use, viz., they must be the word of Christ, that is, contained in the Scriptures. Secondly, in the kinds of psalms. There are many sorts of psalms in Scripture, the psalms of Moses, David, Solomon, and other prophets; but all are here referred to three heads; they are either psalms, specially so called, or hymns, or songs … But I think there needs not any curious distinction. It may suffice us that there is a variety of psalms in Scripture, and God allows us the use of every kind. Thirdly, the property of the psalms: they are “spiritual,” both because they are indited by the Spirit, and because they make us more spiritual in the due use of them.”

John Cotton (1584-1652), New England Congregationalist theologian: “In both which places (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), as the apostle exhorteth us to singing, so he instructeth us what the matter of our song should be, to wit, Psalmes, hymnes, and spirituall Songs. Now these three be the very titles of the Songs of David, as they are delivered to us by the Holy Ghost himself: some of them are called Mizmorim, that is Psalmes; some Tehillim, that is Hymnes; some Shirim, that is Songs, spirituall Songs.  Now what reason can be given why the apostle should direct us in our singing to the very titles of David’s Psalms, if it were not his meaning that we should sing them? … The words of David and Asaph, as they were the words of Christ in the mouth of David and Asaph: so they were the words of Christ also in the mouths of the sonnes of Corah, or any other singers in the Temple.”

The Annotations of the Dutch Bible (1637) ordered and appointed by the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) on Ephesians 5:19: “These three sorts of spiritual singing serve for one end. Namely to recreate the spirit; and are by some thus distinguished, that Psalms are all kind of spiritual songs, which are exercised, not only with the voice, but also with stringed instruments of music. Hymns, thanksgivings unto God, or metrical celebrations of God’s grace to us: and spiritual songs such indicting as contains all manner of spiritual doctrines. See also Col. 3:16, and these several names seem to be taken from the several inscriptions of the Psalms of David” (spelling modernized).

The Preface to The Bay Psalm Book (1640), the first book to be printed in New England:  “… the whole Church is commanded to teach one another in all the several sorts of David’s psalms, some being called by himself Mizmorim: psalms, some Tehillim: hymns, some Shirim: spiritual songs. So that if the singing of David’s psalms be a moral duty and therefore perpetual; then we under the New Testament are bound to sing them as well as they under the Old: and if we are expressly commanded to sing Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), then either we must sing David’s psalms, or else may affirm they are not spiritual songs: which being penned by an extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, for the sake especially of God’s spiritual Israel, not to be read and preached only (as other parts of holy writ) but to be sung also, they are therefore most spiritual, and still to be sung of all the Israel of God: and verily as their sin is exceeding great, who will allow David’s psalms (as other scriptures) to be read in churches (which is one end) but not to be preached also, which is another end so their sin is crying before God, who will allow them to be read and preached, but seek to deprive the Lord of the glory of the third end of them, which is to sing them in Christian churches.”

John Daille (1594-1670), French Huguenot commenting on Colossians 3:16: “The apostle names three sorts of them [i.e. ‘divine canticles’], psalms, hymns, or praises, and odes, or songs … You have various examples of them all in the book of Psalms … It is with these sacred lyres, of which the word of Christ affords us both the matter and the form, that the apostle would have us solace ourselves.  St. James gives us orders for it: ‘Is any among you merry? let him sings psalms,’ James 5:13.  The apostle calls all these sonnets spiritual, both on account of their author, who is the Holy Spirit, and also of their matter, which concerns only divine and heavenly things, the glory of God, and our salvation …”

Isaac Ambrose (1604-1664), English Puritan: “Whether may not Christians lawfully sing David’s or Moses’s psalms? And how it may appear?  Answered affirmatively: Ephesians 5:19, where, under those three heads of Psalms, and Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, David’s Psalms are contained.”

Thomas Manton (1620-1677), English Puritan, commenting on Ephesians 5:19: “The learned observe, these are the express titles of David’s Psalms, mizmorim, tehillim, and Shirim, which the Septuagint translate, psalmoi, humnoi, and odai, ‘psalms, hymns, and songs,’ [and] seem to recommend to us the book of David’s Psalms.”

George Swinnock (1627-1673), English Puritan, commenting on Colossians 3:16: “The Holy Ghost when he commandeth that the word should keep house with us, doth also enjoin us to ‘teach and admonish one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs.’ (which are the titles of David’s Psalms, and the known division of them, expressly answering to the Hebrew words, Shurim, Telhillim, and Mizinurim, by which his Psalms are distinguished and entitled, as the learned observe.) ‘singing and making melody with grace in our hearts to the Lord,’ Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19, Jam. 5:13.”

John Flavel (1628-1691): “You [Anabaptist opponent] … are found in the sinful neglect of a sweet and heavenly gospel-ordinance, viz. the singing of psalms, for which you have both precept and precedent in the gospel, Col. 3:16, James 5:13, I Cor. 14:26” (Works [Edinburgh: Banner, 1982], vol. 6, p. 357).

John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787), Scottish Presbyterian, author of the Self-Interpreting Bible: “The Holy Ghost hath, under the New [Testament], plainly directed us to the use thereof [i.e., of the Psalms], Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19. The Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, there recommended, are plainly the same with the Mizmorim, Tehillim, and Shirim, mentioned in the Hebrew titles of David’s Psalms, 3, 4, 5, etc.; 145, 120, 134.”

John Murray (1898-1975), professor at Westminster Theological Seminary: “Paul’s usage will show that the word ‘Spiritual’ is derived from the Holy Spirit. ‘Spiritual words’ (I Cor. 2:13) are words taught of the Holy Spirit. The ‘Spiritual man’ (I Cor. 2:15) is the man indwelt and controlled by the Holy Spirit. ‘Spiritual songs’ (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) are songs indicted by the Holy Spirit. ‘Spiritual understanding’ (Col. 1:9) is the understanding imparted by the Holy Spirit (cf. also Rom. 1:11; I Cor. 3:1; 10:3-4; 12:1; 15:44, 46; I Pet. 2:5)” (Epistle to the Romans, vol. 1, p. 254).

Rev. James Kerr: “The notion that finds in these terms—‘Psalms, and Hymns, and Spiritual Songs’—a warrant for an uninspired Hymnology in the matter of the Church’s praise, has been exploded hundreds of times. In the Septuagint version of the Old Testament Scriptures, with which the Ephesians and Colossians were familiar when the Apostle wrote these words, there were various titles prefixed to the Psalms. The titles of 107 were psalmos (Psalm) or ode (Song), or both psalmos and ode. Taking the title Alleluia as equivalent to humnos (as the best critics do), 26 come under the description of humnoi (Hymns). When the Apostle used these titles—psalmoi kai humnoi kai odai—those to whom he wrote knew at once that he referred to the Inspired Collection, which may be designated Book of Hymns, or Book of Songs, as well as Book of Psalms (Sepher Tehillim). Spiritual (pneumatikais) means guided, or inspired, by the Spirit. Instead of prefixing spiritual to Songs, as if it were to be limited only to the Songs, the translation should rather run—‘In Psalms, and Hymns, and Songs, inspired by the Spirit,’ understanding ‘inspired by the Spirit’ to refer, in harmony with the idiom of the original, to all three. That these terms are used of the Psalms, and of the Psalms alone, is the opinion of … Beza, Owen, Ridgley, Gill, Bloomfield, Horne, MacKnight, Edwards, etc. Josephus alludes to the Psalms under the name of ‘Songs and Hymns.’ In the Apostolic Canons they are called ‘the Hymns of David.’ They are spoken of in the Talmud as ‘Songs or Praises and Hymns.’ Augustine vindicated the use of the Psalms in worship against ‘one Hilary, who took every opportunity of loading with malicious censures the custom that Hymns from the Book of Psalms should be sung at the altar.’ And in the fifth century Cassian (c.360-435) writes, ‘The elders have not changed the ancient custom of singing Psalms. The Hymns which were sung at the close of the night vigils, namely, the 50th, 62nd, 89th, and 148th Psalms are the same Hymns which are sung at this day.”

John McNaugher: “Let it be supposed that the Book of Psalms alone had been used in the Christian Church up to the present, that it had taken root in the affections of the people, and that in the Authorized Version of the Bible and the popular praise-manuals its one hundred and fifty odes were styled psalms, hymns, and songs. Suppose next that a pastoral letter was dispatched to our congregations, advising the people to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. What would be understood by the exhortation? The question answers itself. But these were precisely the conditions among the churches of Asia Minor. According to the principles of historical criticism, therefore, the evidence is ample and decisive that these passages reproduce the technical Psalter designations of the Septuagint.”

“Among the authorities upholding the foregoing interpretation of these passages [Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19 as referring to the 150 biblical Psalms] may be mentioned the following: Clement, the celebrated Greek Father who presided over the Catechetical School at Alexandria (Paidagogos, book 3, chapter 4); Jerome, the most learned of the early fathers of the Latin Church (Com. on Eph.); Beza, the friend and ablest coadjutor of Calvin (Com. on Col.); John Owen, the prince of English divines in the seventeenth century (Preface to a metrical edition of the Psalms published in 1673 for use among the Independents and Dissenters of England); Jean Daille, d. 1670, a celebrated French Protestant minister (Expos. of Col.); Cotton Mather, d. 1728, the well-known New England author; Thomas Ridgley, a standard English writer on theology (Body of Divinity, edition of 1819, Vol. 4, p. 134); Jonathan Edwards, d. 1758, the noted American divine and metaphysician (Hist. of Redemption, Period 1, Part 5); John Gill, a learned Orientalist and Baptist theologian of the eighteenth century (Body of Divinity and Com. on Eph.); John Brown of Haddington, Scotland, professor of divinity in the Associate Synod of Scotland, d. 1787 (Dictionary of the Bible); William Romaine, an eminent author of the eighteenth century in the Church of England; Walter F. Hook, d. 1875, an Anglican dean and ecclesiastical historian (Church Dictionary); The Encyclopaedia Britannica, article on Hymns, by the Right Hon. The Earl of Selborne; William Binnie, of Scotland (The Psalms: Their History, Teachings and Use. London 1877); H. C. B. Bazely, of Oxford, England, d. 1883 (Biography); E. L. Hicks, Hon. Canon of Worcester, Church of England (Biography of Henry Bazely); Edmund Reuss, of Strasburg, the great Alsatian Protestant Theologian, d. 1891 (History of the New Testament); Taylor, for many years professor of Greek Language and Literature in Union College, Schenectady, N. Y. (The Bible Psalmody); Philip Schaff, of Union Theological Seminary, New York City, the distinguished Church historian, d. 1893 (Hist. of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, p. 463); and the late John A. Broadus, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Com. on Matt.).[1]

“…and to us David’s Psalms seem plainly intended by those terms of Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs, which the Apostle useth, Ephes. 5.19, Col. 3.16.” subscribed by Thomas Manton, Henry Langley, John Owen, William Jenkyn., James Innes, Thomas Watson, Thomas Lye, Matthew Poole, John Milward, John Chester, George Cokayn, Matthew Meade, Robert Francklin, Thomas Dooelittle, Thomas Vincent, Nathanael Vincent, John Ryther, William Tomson, Nicolas Blakie, Charles Morton, Edmund Calamy, William Carslake, James Janeway, John Hickes, John Baker, Richard Mayo.”[2]

1All the quotes above are adapted from an article on the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church website. Covenant Protestant Reformed Church (unattributed). “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).” Covenant Protestant Reformed Church. Web. January 23, 2016.
2. Silversides, David. “The Development of the Scottish Psalter.” Loughbrickland Reformed Presbyterian Church. Web. Unpublished PDF article.