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.


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


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