Just Psalms? How about Ephesians and Colossians?

From time to time, people ask me about why Christians might sing only Psalms in the worship of God. One of the more understandable arguments they sometimes present is an appeal to one or both of these verses:

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.

My response to them on this is that we need to look at how the terms Paul uses would have been understood to people in a 1st century context. In that context, there was no “Trinity Hymnal” nor any “Praise Song” transparencies or the like. So, Paul wasn’t speaking about three different sources, i.e. the Psalter, the Hymnal, and the Praise Songs licensed by CCLI.

What was Paul referring to? He was referring to the Psalter. This may seem surprising, because we have so closely associated the term “Psalm” with the book of Psalms, whereas we have associated the word “Hymn” with songs that aren’t in the Psalter.

Nevertheless, the terms translated “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs” are three of the four words commonly used in the Septuagint titles of the Psalms. Specifically: ψαλμοσ (Psalm)(66 times), συνεσεοσ/συνοισ (understanding or wisdom)(13 times), υμνοισ (hymn)(6 times), and ωδη/ωδησ (song or ode)(36 times). (see more detailed analysis here)

18 Responses to “Just Psalms? How about Ephesians and Colossians?”

  1. Kirk Skeptic Says:

    We have done ourselves a great disservice by limiting the use of the Psalter to the occasional Old 100th or the Twenty-third. While many of our great Lutheran hymns are inspiring, not a one is inspired – even “Ein' Feste Burg” is but a knock-off of Paslm 46. We owe God and ourselves better.

  2. c.t. Says:

    I think hymns composed by human beings can be inspired because even many composed by Arminians turn out to be Calvinist in doctrine. (As per a J. I. Packer observation.)

  3. Lockheed Says:

    I think hymns composed by human beings can be inspired because

    So you think modern hymns can be God-Breathed?

  4. michael Says:

    Lockheed //So you think modern hymns can be God-Breathed?\\

    Why not?

    We are God breathed now that we are born again. And there is no other way to approach God but by the Spirit.

    Eph 2:18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
    Eph 2:19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,
    Eph 2:20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,
    Eph 2:21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.
    Eph 2:22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

    And furthermore, as TurrentinFan points to, Ephesians 5:::>

    “…in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord,…”.

    The Church Jesus is building is not a dead entity but a thriving, vibrant, Holy active breath of Our Creator. As long as the song is of the Spirit, inspired it won't go offtrack from what has already been expressed through the writings we come to time and time again:::>

    Act 20:32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

  5. c.t. Says:

    >So you think modern hymns can be God-Breathed?

    Other than what Michael wrote above, I suppose there is a difference when someone writes “inspired” and “God-breathed.”

    Bach's great choral works are inspired. I don't think anybody's called them God-breathed. I think we associate that term with Special Revelation.

    Something can be inspired without being the actual word of God. The fundamental difference between the creation and the Creator.

    I was slightly joking with my comment above, yet think of it this way: a committed Arminian might channel (or be in sync with) the Spirit more purely when composing a hymn than when mentally learning and holding to doctrine.

  6. SGTTruth Says:

    What about those passages that seem to be quotes from early church hymns (1 Tim 3:15, Phil 2:6-8, etc)? Doesn't that lead us to believe that the first century church worshiped outside the Psalter?

  7. Kirk Skeptic Says:

    @SGTT: there are passages which seem to be hymns, but none that we definitely know to be so. There are other canticles in Scripture, though.

  8. Tim H Says:

    One thing I've never understood about the use of these verses, on either side of the debate, is that they don't seem to be treating of formal worship as such.

  9. Matthias mcf Says:

    I've had trouble thinking through Psalms – or rather the idea of singing the particular Psalms – which speak of making sacrifices to God, when God's people no longer make the sacrifices the Psalms speak of. Attitude surely stands [a very close] second in importance to obedience, but if the principles of RPW are drawn from the OT, wouldn't attitude (by which I mean emotional context) be significant?

    On one hand, we can surely sing them in a mode of remembrance of those things. But on the other, we're therefore singing those psalms with a different attitude than David, etc. themselves. (It's understood, I hope, that an argument against singing *only* psalms is not an argument against singing *any*)

  10. Kirk Skeptic Says:

    @Matthias: the Psalms also point to Christ and, as NT believers, the become or “new songs” when so viewed. In my various ecclesial meanderings I've noticed the declension of Psalms -> Psalms and hymns -> hymns with an occasional Psalm -> hymns to be universal. Now, sad to say, we can add -> happy-clappy inane refrains, because hymnsingers can muster no credible arguemnt against them.

  11. Matthias mcf Says:

    Thanks for the reply Kirk Skeptic.

    I would see it as a dangerous thing for a person to be singing progressively “less-inspired” songs, to a level of song that is general enough to refer either to an earthly lover or God, and so can pass for public radio stations. But if a person recognizes your distinctions as simply a hierarchy (affirming the importance – or lack thereof – at each level), he might not be persuaded of the danger.

    I used to work on a bus route for a fundamentalist Baptist church, and for the kids we would pick up, we would sing stupid songs like “Potato chip, potato chip / munchy crunchy / I love Jesus / a bunchy bunchy” (no lie). And I hated them, mainly, sad to say, because they were corny. My distaste is a bit more sophisticated these 10 years later. In any case, I'm aware of the extent to which men can fall from inspired Scripture in order to create stupidity.

    So then another question arises: what place do those people who are song writers have in the church of God? Must they compose songs that are not biblical? Or else (and I guess this is reasonable) simply not require their songs to be sung in church. But then is RPW to be applied only in congregational singing, or also on one's own? (“speaking to yourselves…”)

    So anyway, I know my comment is kinda everywhere. But I do appreciate the replies.


  12. Kirk Skeptic Says:

    @Matthias: those few Reformed left – and there are very few – who have any appreciable historical understanding of the RPW from the Kirk through the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland (which sees itself ask continuing the apostate former), hymnody is will-worship, as is anything not commanded by God. This means no hymns, instruments, holy days, and many other practices common in our churches. Indeed, one will not find any Holiday trappings in such peoples' homes either.

    Yet, where children remember the chorus you mentioned, as well as other similar spiritual gems (cough), their kids have memorized metrical Psalms; indeed, while it is musically rather banal, their Psalter is easily sung by most people in church or around the table. In Sunday worhsip it is sung in 4-part harmony, lest one think that their services are bereft of aesthetics.

    Maybe if more kids learned those Psalms, we wouldn't be faced with the degree of Biblical illiteracy we see in our churches. Our service books have enough room for homoerotic drivel like “Fairest Lord Jesus” and the limbic bilge of Andre Crouch & Co, but no room for Reformed metrical Psalmody. Go figure.

  13. Matthias mcf Says:

    It could be a very powerful argument indeed, if the issue of song-singing could be correllated with regulations for worship set out in the Old Testament. If I understood that to be the case, clearly, I would be persuaded.

    Perhaps I'm incorrect to think this way, but if the regulations for, say, the sacrifices were given alongside the considerations for singing, then I'm inclined to look for something similar when it comes to the New Testament. Granted, when it comes to the New Testament we have little choice but to look at the example of the NT church, not that that means “anything goes.”

    TurretinFan says that the early church didn't have something in existence like the Trinity Hymnal or other such well-known collection of hymns, and so they would understand the Psalms to really be the only possible point of reference. But I guess I can easily conceive of people coming up with their own songs that perhaps aren't in a “popular” status as the Trinity Hymnal. Is there something I'm missing? I will say I'm warming up to the idea of EP more and more, cautiously, so maybe it's just not my time yet.

  14. Kirk Skeptic Says:

    @Matthias: the NT only mentions Psalms. In the LCMS we also use other scriptural canticles, eg Nunc Dimittis, and the Genevan Psalter contains even more of such, including a versification of hte Decalog.

    The early church would have drawn upon the liturgy of the synagogue, in which the Psalter was the primary hymnal. manmade hymns were added later, including a versification of Maimonides' 13 Fogmata, a sort of Jewish creed (but without the authority of the ecumenical creeds).

    Lutherans, like Anglicans, are normative principle (what is not forbidden is permitted), as in practice are most Reformed churches. However, despite the irrational phobia Lutherans show vis-a-vis the Teformed, they have something to teach us when it comse to restoring thej Psalter to its rightful place in Christian worship..

  15. Matthias mcf Says:

    That's very interesting. Perhaps my hesitation to embrace the position stems largely from my unfamiliarity with its history.

    What place would songs like what Moses composed (Deut. 32) have in worship? It's inspired Scripture, but not part of the Psalms per se.

    At this point, I currently default at the position of “whatever can be taught fron the Bible can be sung,” a position endorsed by John Frame, which I suppose is more in line with Normative. It seems practical enough while guarding against abuses of entertainment.

    Again, thanks for the replies.

  16. Kirk Skeptic Says:

    @Matthias: the probelm with your position is one that dogs the Reformed World; ie confessional integrity. In the LCMess officers are required to subscribe to the FC *quia (because)” it completely conforms to Scripture, rather than “quatenus (insofar as)” it does; iow no scruples or other sorts of legerdemain, and FC is a package deal rather than a dim sum cart. WCF and the other documents of the assembly not considered binding (but nevertheless necesseary to understand original intent) ar clearly EP. Later amendments in the US and England softened this, hence one of the reasons for the many splits within the Presbyterian world – yet the orignal language continued and continues to be used equivocally, making the RPW in effect naught but a nose of wax. This is why you can have everything from EP to shake-yo'-booty CCW being touted as in conformity with the RPW.

    This is not to say that we don't have our own problems with worship; our own menzie of booty-shakers and the occasional polka liturgy from the Heartland demonstrate this all too well. I guess none of the earlier manuscripts contain any prohibitions against booty-shaking or polkas, leaving the rather unconvincing “zis is not ze vay we did sings in ze Vaterland!”

  17. Matthias mcf Says:

    Thanks, I have a bit to think on.

  18. Hugh McCann Says:

    And of course, Paul meant “in the worship service,” though he didn't say that, right?!

    Or does he mean we can't sing along with the Beach Boys or the Stones while driving in the car? That we're only to sing Psalms whenever we sing.

    What is the limit on “sing to yourselves”?

    Methinks the exclusive Psalmists' argument “proves” too much.

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