Posted by: bonarlairg | December 29, 2009

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

A defence of the practice of singing only inspired materials of praise in Christian worship

The historic practice of the reformed church in Scotland has been to sing the Psalms in public worship rather than uninspired hymns.  Although this form of worship is continued today in many congregations like our own, it seems to be considered by many to be an unnecessarily restrictive practice and, in adhering to this position, we are sometimes accused of clinging to merely man made traditions.  In what follows it is hoped that the reader will not only find a clear biblical defence of the position of our church but also an encouragement towards a more pure and God honouring worship.

There are two passages in the New Testament that have a direct bearing on this subject and upon which the case for singing only inspired materials of praise can be soundly based.  These passages are Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.  In Ephesians 5:19 the apostle tells the believers to be “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.”  Similarly the passage in Colossians 3:16, following the same wording, speaks of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” The question is, what does the apostle mean by psalms and hymns and spiritual songs?  The modern evangelical mind immediately thinks of psalms as the book of Psalms, hymns as old fashioned hymns like the kind found in dusty church hymn books, and spiritual songs as more modern worship choruses like those found in Mission Praise.  It is, of course, impossible that the apostle was referring to these things.  On careful examination it is clear that what is referred to is not three different types or categories of song but rather three elements that must all be present in every act of sung praise.

Commenting on these verses Prof. John Murray wrote ‘The evidence does not warrant the conclusion that the apostle meant by “psalms, hymns and Spiritual songs” to designate three distinct groups or types of lyrical compositions. It is significant in this connection that in a few cases in the titles of the Psalms all three of these words occur. In many cases the words “psalm” and “song” occur in the same title. This shows that a lyrical composition may be a psalm, hymn and song at the same time.  The words, of course, have their own distinctive meanings and such distinctive meanings may intimate the variety and richness of the materials of song the apostle has in mind.’ (Minority Report to OPC General Assembly 1947)

What then are the “distinctive meanings” of these words?

1.  Psalms (Greek – psalmois).  The first and ordinary meaning of the word psalm is “a set piece of music” (Strong’s Greek Dictionary).  This is how the word should be understood here.  Not as a reference to the book of Psalms but to the musical or melodious nature of Christian praise.

2.  Hymns (Greek – hymnois).  A hymn is “a song in praise of gods, heroes, conquerors” (Thayer’s Greek Definitions) and thus denotes the worshipful element of a song and that it is directed towards a praiseworthy being or personage.  The apostle goes on to clarify that in Christian worship the praises must be directed “to the Lord”.

3.  Spiritual Songs (Greek – odais pneumaticais).  This relates to the origin of the songs, that they have been directly inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Not that they are songs of merely human origin that are religious or even theologically accurate in nature, but that the songs themselves are of divine origin.  Undoubtedly the apostle is referring to actual songs to be found in Scripture and which are to be sung in worship.  Understood in this way it is clear that uninspired compositions have no place in Christian worship.  Some argue that the principle of divinely inspired songs allows for the singing of paraphrases of any part of Scripture in the worship of God, but this is not what is being contemplated here.  The command is that what is used is actually a proper song given by the Spirit; not simply “spiritual words”, but “spiritual songs”.  A paraphrase of Genesis 1, for example, clearly doesn’t satisfy the criteria.  On the other hand there can be no doubt that the book of Psalms contains 150 of the Holy Spirit’s songs.  These have been collected and organised under the guidance of the Spirit in the Old Testament period and are presented to us as the songs which God specifically commands us to sing melodiously in his worship.  This collection also has the seal of Christ’s authority and, we believe, remains the Christian’s only hymnbook in this age.

There are therefore these three elements which must be present in Christian praise – melodies AND praises directed to the Lord AND Spirit-inspired songs.  The apostle couldn’t be more clear if he tried.  In Ephesians 5:19 he even clarifies his own meaning: “singing (adontes) and making melody (psallontes) in your hearts to the Lord”.  That is to say that he wants the believers to sing Spirit-inspired songs accompanied by melody, permitting them to devise these melodies themselves in order to stir their heart.  In addition he desires that the whole activity be directed towards the Lord and in praise of him.  All three elements are required and if we leave out one of the elements then our praise is improper.

Consider what happens if one of these necessary elements of praise is neglected:

If the psalm/melody element is left out then the song becomes merely a chant and loses its heart stirring effect.  God has not only graciously permitted his people to sing melodiously but he has sovereignly commanded them to do so in order to rouse their heart and stir their emotions.  He also gives grace in the heart (Col 3:16) to enable his people of every culture and time period to devise melodies that reflect and express their emotions and the sentiments of the spiritual song they sing.  “Is anyone cheerful? let him sing psalms (psalleto)”, James 5:13.   The great wisdom of the Lord is seen in that, while musical taste will vary from place to place, every nation or people group is permitted to compose melodies that are culturally significant for themselves.

If the hymn/praise element is neglected then even the melodious singing of Spirit-inspired songs becomes merely ritualistic, or professional, and empty of true worship.  This might happen when psalm singing is used merely as a performance, sung with the intention of pleasing a crowd rather than to please and praise God.  In this case the singer has no personal appreciation of the fact that his praises should be in honour of Almighty God and directed towards him only.  Christian singing must never be a performance merely for the benefit of onlookers but a purposeful and worshipful praise of God.

If the use of Spirit-inspired songs is ignored then the result is that the sung praise of the church is not truly spiritual. In this regard, an important principle is set out in 1 Corinthians 14:15 where the apostle Paul declares, “I will sing with the spirit and I will also sing with the understanding”. The context of this instruction was that some believers in Corinth were claiming to sing songs directly inspired by the Holy Spirit but their songs were in a language that many, or perhaps all, of the worshippers did not understand. A modern day equivalent would be the singing of the psalms in Latin in a congregation that has no understanding of Latin. That is, of course, unedifying to the congregation.  It is necessary that the worshipper understands the words he is singing so that his mind is actively and intelligently engaged in the worship.  Equally, however, his spirit must also be engaged in the worship. This occurs when the songs that are sung are of divine origin so that the spirit of the worshipper is brought into perfect union with the Holy Spirit in the praise of God.  Thus the apostle says, “I will sing with the spirit”. There can be no doubt from the context that what is being referred to is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the songs that were sung. The claim of the Corinthians was, after all, that their songs were Spirit-inspired, albeit in a different language. Whether that claim was true or not is a subject of debate among theologians today.  All agree, however, that they were, at the very least, claiming divine inspiration for the words of their songs.  That is the important point reaffirmed by the apostle, as if to say “you have some things wrong but in this particular you are absolutely right, that your songs must be Spirit-inspired.”  If we abandon the use of Spirit-inspired songs then our praise may be melodious, we may even intend and desire that intelligent and theologically accurate man-devised or man-selected songs are directed towards God, but the whole activity is, quite simply, unspiritual.

It is ironic that Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are often cited by those who wish to undermine the position of using only inspired materials of praise in worship.  It is these very passages that give the strongest and clearest evidence that such practice is biblical and ought to be normative for all Christians.

Rev J C A Forbes

(Revised 9 July 2011)


  1. Hello,You make a convincing argument that I had never really heard expressed in quite this way before – I must admit when I used to think of these 2 passages I did have in mind the picture of psalm (from scottish psalter); old fashioned/ “weighty” hymn and praise chorus but as you say a little bit of thought makes it obvious this is not what Paul could have intended. The other argument I have heard from people who defend the “exclusive psalmody” is that the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs do actually refer to different types of sung material used in worship but that each of these types of worship items is to be found in the book of Psalms. If I understand you correctly you are saying that the three descriptors (psalms, hymns and spiritual songs) do not refer to seperate classes of sung items but refer to different (and essential) aspects of the one same sung item which in the context does seem to make more sense.
    What do you think about the argument that is sometimes made that some NT portions of scripture (e.g. Phil 2; Col 1:15f) were early “hymns” of the NT church (I’m guessing you would refute this!)
    Also, do you see any distinction between what is permissible in “private” as opposed to “public” worship?
    Kind Regards, in Christ, John

  2. Thanks for your comment John. To answer your questions. First, yes there are some passages in the epistles that seem to have a structure that is not that of ordinary prose, but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that they are early hymns. On the contrary there is abundant evidence that they belong to a collection of “faithful sayings” given by the apostles (1 Tim 1:15, 3:1 & 2Tim 2:11-13). It is clear that there was a “pattern” or “form” of sound words that was given to the early church, not for singing but for reinforcing crucial points of doctrine (2Tim 1:13).
    In answer to your second question, the reformed view is that God is only to be worshipped in the way that he has specifically revealed. This principle applies to all worship, public and private. I do think there are some things, like the preaching of the word, that are permissible in public worship but not in private worship. But I don’t think the opposite is true. I don’t think it is credible to say that we can introduce non-inspired songs into private worship but not into public worship. I firmly believe the book of Psalms should be used for both.

  3. Hello John.

    I found your article very interesting. As a member of the C of S I often hear people speak disparigingly of Exclusive Psalmody in the way you highlight and realise that it makes for a weak rebuttal. In relation to this I thought you may also be interested in something that I heard many years ago. Apparently the Septuagint divides the Psalter into three sections, Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

    You may also be interested in a public lecture that Gordon Wenham gave in the Dingwall Free Church for HTC (FF Bruce lecture 2008). I can’t remember the title of the lecture but it was very much in favour of the use of Psalms in worship. Coming from GW’s English context he spoke about how Psalms had all but gone from use in public worship and as a consequence people do not have the same Scriptural grounding. I think he pointed out how a congregation’s theology is often developed through their Hymnal. I can identify with that in the C of S where I have heard people refer to their Hymn book as the Bible. He also talked in depth about the advantages of learning Scripture through Psalm singing. You can down load his lecture off the HTC web site.

    I hope this may be of some interest to you.

    • Hi Ross,
      Thanks for your comments and for highlighting Gordon Wenham’s lecture. I know there are some congregations within the C of S, and other denominations, that make a point of always including Psalms in their worship along with whatever else they might sing. I would think the reason is along the lines of Gordon Wenham’s argument, that what we sing will undoubtedly shape our theology.

      Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) once said if he were allowed to make the ballads of a nation, he didn’t care who made the laws. As a literary giant of his day he saw the great influence that songs have on the way we think and act. It makes you wonder what influence our secular songs are having on our society. It also makes you wonder what influence our religious songs are having on our churches!

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