In two of Paul’s letters in the New Testament he instructs the church on what we are to sing together in worship. In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 he lists three terms related to music. We are to speak and teach and admonish one another in “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”
So what are psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? What comes into your mind—or into your ear—when you read those verses? Was Paul just stacking up terms as synonyms for music? Was he using terms that were only limited to the 150 psalms in the Psalter? Scholars and theologians have debated the precise meanings.
We tend to define the terms based on what sounds familiar:
When we see psalm we may think of music like All People That on Earth Do Dwell, Psalm 100 set to the familiar tune of the Doxology. Or we might call to mind the beautiful metrical psalmody of the Reformation.
When we see hymn we may think of older music of the church that has survived the test of time, cherished hymns like Amazing Grace (John Newton) or When I Survey the Wondrous Cross (Isaac Watts).
And when we see spiritual songs we may think of some of the newer, uplifting worship songs of our day that wouldn’t fit the more traditional labels of hymn or psalm, songs like Let Creation Sing (Hillsong) or All I Have Is Christ (Jordan Kauflin).
These are all legitimate forms of music for worship. But there is a problem with thinking only in terms of what sounds familiar to us—and imposing these definitions on the words of Paul. All of these musical forms were still in the future when Paul was writing his letters. Paul could not have imagined the metrical psalmody of the Reformation, as beautiful as it was. He could not have envisioned the wonderful hymns of Watts and Newton from the 18th century or the worship songs of today. They were all future expressions, future forms of music that God purposed for the church that would one day fill out the paradigm that Paul provides.
So what would Paul have heard?
Paul was writing his letters to instruct and encourage the church. He spoke using familiar terms that his readers would understand. He wasn’t simply stacking up synonyms for music or using technical vocabulary that only musicians could decipher.
Literally a psalm is a poem written to be sung to the accompaniment of stringed instruments. It was a term that would have been especially familiar to the Jews. Psalms were the established music of God’s people, sung since the days of the Old Testament in the tabernacle and Temple. By the time of the New Testament the word psalm referred especially, though not exclusively, to the 150 psalms of the Psalter. Paul points us to psalms first, exhorting us to sing the words of Scripture and take them as our pattern. The psalms anticipated the coming of Christ and set a precedent for praising God through music. Jesus said that the psalms spoke of Him (Luke 24:44). We must value the psalms and not neglect this wellspring of praise in our day.
Hymn was a term that would have been especially familiar to the Gentiles. In the Greek and Roman empires leading up to the time of the New Testament, hymns were sung in praise of heroes and gods. People would celebrate the military victories of great generals and exalt the false gods of mythology in hymns. But as the gospel swept across the known world, the church transformed the hymn into a song in praise to the one true God. Its transformation astounded the Romans. In 112 when Pliny, a governor in Bythinia, wrote to Emperor Trajan, asking for advise on how to handle the rising number of Christians in the realm, he commented that the Christians were observed singing “a hymn to Christ as to a god.” In his mind hymns were songs for heroes and champions, not for one shamefully crucified on a cross!
When Paul spoke of singing hymns, he wasn’t thinking “traditional” or reminding the church to include or revive some of the old songs from the past. He had something more radical in mind. Paul encouraged the church to claim the music of the culture and sing it to God’s glory. The hymn is the first example in church history of a secular form of music being captured and claimed for the sake of the gospel—its transformation so complete that today a hymn is most commonly recognized as belonging to the church.
Paul concludes his list with spiritual songs. The term song is a generic term in Greek meaning all kinds of songs. Paul added the descriptive adjective spiritual to narrow its meaning. Not all music is composed for worship or should be used for worship. We are to sing music that is the result of the Spirit God working in hearts and cultures and peoples—music that is sanctified for (set apart for and intended for) God’s glory in corporate praise—music that helps us speak truth to one another, teaching, exhorting and encouraging one another.
What we typically envision and hear when we think of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs is likely not what Paul envisioned and heard. We don’t know exactly what the music of Paul’s day sounded like, but his paradigm in Scripture laid the foundation for a rich tapestry of praise. Down through history and around the world church music has included many musical forms composed, conquered and claimed to God’s glory. And by God’s grace, as the gospel continues to go out in the power of Spirit, and more nations and new generations add their new songs, we have not seen the last.