Why does Paul use the term “spiritual” when speaking of songs?

One objection against Exclusive Psalmody comes from the terminology that Paul uses in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. Paul uses the term “Spiritual Songs” in both of these passages when in the Septuagint the title “Spiritual” (πνευματικός) is never found in any of the titles of the psalms. Rather the title is simply “Ode” or “Song” (ᾠδή). So if this extra word is not in the titles in the Septuagint, how can we know for sure that Paul is referring to the Psalms themselves? Maybe he is referring to different uninspired genres.

My first response to such a question is that we must be faithful to the entire Word of God. We can use the others portions of the Word of God to clarify this passage. In passages such as James 5:13, Matthew 26:30, Acts 16:25, Mark 14:26 and even Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, the term Psalms or Hymns is used referring to sections in the Book of Psalms. From these passages, I believe the practice of Psalm singing in the early Christian church is very clearly expressed. Now the question remains: was it exclusive psalmody? I believe it was and there is a clear reason for why Paul adds the term “spiritual” to the title “songs.”

The explanation then for the use of “Spiritual” has to do with the historical context of what was happening in the churches and the world at this time. It also has to do with the context of Paul’s letters in both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 (both have a very similar context and I encourage you to compare and contrast these passages yourself). You will notice that the context of both Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 makes continued mention of sexual immorality, licentiousness, drunkenness, gluttony, and impurity. These sins, which sadly are promoted much in the world today, were very common in Greek and Roman society. Indeed, these lustful actions were the focus of so many parties and orgies in the Roman Empire, not to mention part of the worship of the gods (e.g. temple prostitution). Thus Paul warns against such sinfulness when he states in Ephesians 5:3 “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.” Then in Colossians 3:5 he says “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience: In the which ye also walked some time, when ye lived in them.” Instead, they are to “seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1) and to be “followers of God, as dear children” (Eph. 5:1).

An aspect of these worldly parties was the singing of songs and odes (ᾠδή) to secular, sensual words. So when Paul tells the saints at Ephesus and Colossae to sings songs/odes he wants them to realize that he is not telling them to sing these secular songs (which exalted the flesh and debauchery), but rather he wants them to sing the songs mentioned in the Book of Psalms. Paul did not want his Gentile audience to think that when he mentioned the word “ode” (the common term for a secular song in Greek society) that he was referring to these drunken, riotous songs. Thus, one commentator writes, “Paul contrasts (as in Eph 5:18, 19) the songs of Christians at their social meetings, with the bacchanalian and licentious songs of heathen feasts. Singing usually formed part of the entertainment at Greek banquets (compare Jam 5:13).”

Christians, in their own gatherings, were to fill them with the Words of Christ, not the words of sinful, corrupt men. “At the Agapae or love-feasts, and in their family circles, they were to be so full of the Word of Christ in the heart that the mouth should give it utterance in hymns of instruction, admonition, and praise (compare De 6:7).” This is again supported by the context on Colossians and Ephesians. Paul, urges Christians to “seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1) and to be “followers of God, as dear children” (Eph. 5:1). And when they come together they are to worship God, admonishing and encouraging one another through the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.

Calvin seems to be in agreement here, for he states, “He would have the songs of Christians, however, to be spiritual, not made up of frivolities and worthless trifles. For this has a connection with his argument [i.e to be distinct from the world, letting the word of Christ dwell in them richly].”

Further, the note in the Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible makes this comment on Ephesians 5:19 “The church should sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, terms most often used of the biblical psalms. The church’s worship should be trinitarian, empowered by the Spirit (v.18 [“And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit”]) to sing to the Lord Jesus and give thanks to the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The point to take away is that these are spiritual songs, not songs of debauchery, sexual perversion, immorality, or frivolity that were so common among the drunken, idolatrous parties of the unconverted gentiles. They are thus in great contrast to what the unconverted world was singing. Paul has to add the adjective “spiritual” to the noun “songs” so that the Ephesians or Colossians would realize that these were of a different nature and essence than the songs of the world. These are songs that are the very words of Scripture and thus are profitable to the Christian for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. They are of substance, being the Word of God. Paul does not want the saints to be at all confused when he uses the word “songs.” They are not the songs of the world, they are spiritual songs.

Let us then, in obedience to Paul, be circumspect in the songs that we sing and listen to. Let us let the Word of Christ dwell in us richly, not listening to the secular songs of this world, but the beautiful words of Scripture. Let us not be enticed to listen to the sexually immoral and sensual songs that pass for so much of the music in the current day. But let us glorify God even in the music that we sing and listen to.

Sources:

Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997)

Calvin’s Commentary, Colossians.

Reformation Heritage Study Bible

Lenski, Commentary on Ephesians

Lenski, Commentary on Colossians

Tertullian, Apology

 

Why do I Hold to Exclusive Psalmody in the Worship of God?

My reasons for holding to Exclusive Psalmody are as follows:

God is a jealous God and this is especially true when it comes to His worship. He has always, throughout Biblical history, carefully outlined and regulated how He is to be worshiped (and as the perfect, infinite, holy God, He has a right to do this). God takes His worship very seriously as illustrated throughout the Old Testament with Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:3 – 5), Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16), Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:7), King Uzziah and the offering (2 Chronicles 26:19-21), Isaiah 59:13, and in the book of Malachi (Malachi 1:7-8, 13, 14). This is also why the first Four Commandments deal with how God is to be worshiped (Exodus 20: 1 – 8). Since God regulates how He is to be worshiped in the Scriptures, we must not include anything in our worship of God that is not found in the Scriptures. Rather our worship of God must be regulated by how the Scriptures tell us to worship Him, not adding or removing anything from that worship. This, in short, is the regulative principle of worship.

Part of the Regulative Principle of worship is the adherence to Exclusive Psalmody. The Book of Psalms is the book of worship which God has given to the church. The Psalms were not only sung in the Old Testament but were also an integral part of the worship of the church in the New Testament. This is evident from passages such as:

  • Ephesians 5:19 – “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”
  • Colossians 3:16 – “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.”
  • James 5:13 – “Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.”
  • I Corinthians 14:15, 26 – “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. . . . How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.”
  • The example of Christ Himself in passages such as Matthew 26:30, “And when they had sung a hymn (one of the Hallel Psalms), they went out into the mount of Olives.”

There are certainly differences of opinion regarding what people believe the meaning of Paul is in passages such as Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 (most of it revolving around the interpretation of the words: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs). Some argue that hymns and spiritual songs are uninspired compositions outside the canon of Scripture, thus making an argument against Exclusive Psalmody. However, I argue Paul is making reference to the Septuagintal separation of the Book of Psalms and thus these passages in Colossians and Ephesians are an excellent example of Exclusive Psalmody in the practice of the New Testament Church. I hold to this position for a number of reasons:

  1. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) was widely used by the Christian church, as evidenced by the numerous quotations from the Septuagint in the New Testament. Whenever an Old Testament passage is quoted, that quotation almost always comes from the Septuagint (e.g. Matthew 1:23/Isaiah 7:14; John 1:23/Isaiah 40:3-5; Mark 7:6,7/Isaiah 29:13). Paul readers would be familiar with the Septuagint translation.
  2. The Septuagint breaks up the Book of Psalms into Psalms (ψαλμός), Hymns (ὕμνος), and Songs (ᾠδή). Thus, it makes sense that when Paul lists, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, his readers would understand that by that he means the entire book of Psalms. Not compositions that are of human invention and composition and, thus, outside the Canon of Scripture.
  3. Paul, in Colossians 3:16, commands this: “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom.” The Word of Christ is very clearly the Scriptures: Jesus Christ is referred to as the Word in John 1:1, 14. But Paul goes on to further classify the Word of Christ by stating, “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” What Paul is saying here is that we let the Word of Christ (Scripture) dwell in us richly through teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. These Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs must be found within Scripture then and I argue they are found in the Book of Psalms.

So why would Paul list three of the same thing? If Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs are all Psalms why not just say Psalms? Could it be possible that Paul is telling his readers to sing uninspired compositions as well aka the modern definition of a hymn? Well, it must be remembered that Paul is drawing these definitions from the Septuagint. So the question should be asked: why did the Septuagint classify them as such? Well, these three words (psalm, hymn, and spiritual song) refer to three different types of songs.

  1. Leupold describes a Psalm as such in his Commentary on Psalm 3: “(Heb. mizmor [Hebrew word for Psalm]). It seems best to accept as the root meaning of the word zamar the idea of plucked strings rather than to sing; and it is better to understand mizmor in the sense of a poem that is to be rendered with musical accompaniment than as ‘melody.’ The latter term would result in a misleading meaning; for the psalm is not a ‘melody’ but a poem sung to a melody or accompanied by some melody.” This title is perhaps the most common in the book of psalms: Psalms 2-8, 10-14, 18-24, 28-30, 37-40, 42-43, 45-50, 61-67, 72, 74-76, 78-84, 86-87, 91, 93, 97-100, 107-109, 138-140, 142. The special use of instruments in the singing of these Psalms was especially a part of Old Testament worship. Whether or not they are necessary for New Testament worship will have to be the discussion of a later article.
  2. A Hymn is a genre generally considered to be one of the Hallel Psalms: Psalms 113 – 118. These were generally sung in association with the feasts and particularly the Passover. Thus, at Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the people sang from Psalm 118 (John 12). Further, when Matthew and Mark make mention of Jesus singing a hymn (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26) this again most likely refers to anything from Psalm 113 – 118.
  3. A Song, or Ode, may likely refer to Psalms such as Psalms 3, 17, 29, 38, 44, 47, 64-67, 74-75, 82, 86-87, 90-92, 94-95, 107, 119-133. It is a “song, ode (to God) Ex 15,1; song of praise, joyful song Am 8,10.” In a later article it will be established why Paul makes specific mention of spiritual songs and not simply “songs.”

So then it makes sense that Paul would use these three terms to refer to three different types of Psalms. In short, we are to sing all the Psalms in our worship of God. Calvin also agrees with this distinction between the meaning of these three different words. He states this, “they are commonly distinguished in this way—that a psalm is that, in the singing of which some musical instrument besides the tongue is made use of: a hymn is properly a song of praise, whether it be sung simply with the voice or otherwise; while an ode contains not merely praises, but exhortations and other matters.” While Calvin does not make mention of the Septuagint, I believe Calvin’s interpretation is helpful as it demonstrates specific meanings for these three terms, each with a distinct function.

Thus, in conclusion to this post, Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 not only illustrate a practice of Exclusive Psalmody in the early Christian church but also command such a practice for the church. Believers are called to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as part of their worship of God. They are to sing the Word of Christ as found in the Book of Psalms.

 

Stay tuned for further articles on this subject! I hope to deal with further objections to the EP position.

Notes:

[1] John Calvin and John Pringle, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 217–218.

[1] Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, A Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint : Revised Edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft: Stuttgart, 2003).