"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Col. 3:16
My recent discussion of the singing of Psalms in church prompted an unexpected and lively internet discussion with some friends from all over the globe as to the distinctions between the three types of singing mentioned in Paul's words to the Colossian and Ephesian churches. The initial concern seemed to be that I was implying that only the Psalms should be sung in churches, a notion which had honestly never occurred to me. I began this little mini-series with the intention of addressing the categories as I understood them, and as I believe they are most commonly understood. It hadn't really occurred to me that my view of them was so insular. How typically American of me. Having been made aware of just how much room there is for misunderstanding, I decided to examine the matter a little further before I commenced my gushing over the value of hymnody.
My sampling of sources mainly agreed that "psalms" here refers to the Old Testament Psalms. There are a few, however, who believe that these three "are all different descriptions of the Psalms, and that the Word of God in these passages requires the singing of Psalms and only the Psalms in worship. These passages, then, teach what is sometimes called “exclusive Psalmody” — Psalms only in worship."
According to Vine's Dictionary, "Hymn" refers to "A song of praise addressed to God" and 'spiritual songs' refers to "songs of which the burden is the things revealed by the Spirit" .
John MacArthur states in his Study Bible notes* that 'psalms' refers to "Old Testament psalms put to music, primarily, but the term was used also of vocal music in general....hymns. Perhaps songs of praise distinguished from the Psalms which exalted God, in that they focused on the Lord Jesus Christ. spiritual songs. Probably songs of personal testimony expressing truths of the grace of salvation in Christ."
The venerable Matthew Henry, in his Commentary on Eph. 5:19, doesn't bother with distinctions at all but focuses instead on the proper place of music among believers: "Drunkards are wont to sing obscene and profane songs. The joy of Christians should express itself in songs of praise to their God. In these they should speak to themselves in their assemblies. Though Christianity is an enemy to profane mirth, yet it encourages joy and gladness. God's people have reason to rejoice, and to sing for joy."
My own pastor emphasizes that the Psalms were the musical heritage of the Jews. "Hymns", on the other hand, was the word the pagan Gentiles preferred for the music of their worship (and is presumably how the Greek for this word would have been understood by the church at Colossae). The sub-point being that the corporate worship of the church was to include the musical traditions of both Jew and Gentile believer. (The "hymns" of course would no longer be directed to pagan deities but to God, similarly to how Luther and others are said to have put their own Christian lyrics to the popular tunes of their times.) This inclusiveness of styles, would aid in including and unifying the two diverse groups of believers into one, and in building up all, since all had something unique to offer the body.
So, I learned, there is a certain amount of disagreement as to how the three categories should be defined, and a certain amount of overlap. It seems clear that our common distinctions between hymns and spiritual songs don't exactly correlate with the Biblical distinctions. Many of what we call hymns, for example, since not addressing God directly, might fall under the category of spiritual song. Be that as it may, each kind is useful, and each kind encouraged for use in the church. What seems most clear to me, however, is that Paul's intent in writing to the Colossians was not to categorize, or to limit the type of songs being sung in the church setting so much as to encourage believers to sing with thankful hearts, to God and to each other, and to use all the kinds of God-glorifying music available to them or that comes to them, music so rich with biblical meaning that it will serve as a means of conveying Christ's word to those who sing and those who hear.
And on that note I feel comfortable in returning, for the sake of the rest of my little series, to the somewhat loose and overlapping but commonly understood distinctions with which I began: Psalms = the Old Testament Psalms, hymns = songs commonly found in hymnbooks, and spiritual songs = all the rest, including gospel music, contemporary Christian music, worship choruses, etc.
|image via stthomasaquinas.org|
* from commentary on Ephesians 5:19, a parallel passage to Col. 3:16