Psalms Hymns Spiritual Songs

by Mike Ratliff

18 And do not become drunk with wine in which is dissipation, but be filled by the Spirit, 19 speaking among yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord, (Ephesians 5:18-19 Possessing the Treasure New Testament v1)

In our last post, Be Filled By the Spirit, we studied exegetically what Paul meant by commanding Christians to be filled by the Holy Spirit. Joy is one of the primary evidences of the Spirit-filled life and how that is often expressed is in song as Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:19 (above). The Spirit-filled Christian is a singing Christian regardless of talent. In this post we will look a few aspects of what is often called “church music” using the terms Paul used in this verse. I believe if you compare this study with what goes on in the name of “worship” in many churches nowadays there will be big difference. 

The first term Paul used in v19 is “psalms,” which translates ψαλμοῖς (psalmois) the Dative, Plural case of ψαλμός (psalmos), “a sacred, inspired poem of praise.” Psalms were actually designed to be sung with the accompaniment of a stringed musical instrument, such as a harp, the lute, or the lyre. In fact, the word psalm is merely a transliteration of the Greek title of the book of Psalms (psalmoi), which originally meant plucking the strings of a musical instrument. So, the first type of Christian music is the psalm, a sacred, inspired poem of praise. No new psalms are being written today because no inspired writings are being produced, however, some hymn writers have adapted certain psalms. For example, Robert Grant (1785-1838) adapted Psalm 104 inot the hymn “O Worship the King.” Also, Martin Luther adapted his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” from Psalm 46. The focus of all psalms is to bring glory to God.

The second type of music Paul lists in v19 is “hymns” which translates ὕμνοις (hymnois) the Dative, Plural case of ὕμνος (hymnos), “an ode of praise to Almighty God.” In ancient Greece a ὕμνος referred to “songs to the gods, particularly a song in praise of the divinity.” For this reason the word ὕμνος nowhere occurs in the writings of the apostolic fathers because it was used as praise of heathen deities and  so the early Christians instinctively shrank from using it. However, Paul used ὕμνος for a reason. His purpose was to show that instead of hymns being dedicated to pagan gods, Christians sing hymns to the one true God. According to Augustine, a hymn has three characteristics: it must be sung; it must be praise; it must be to God. There is reason to believe that some hymns are inspired such as those found in 1 Timothy 3:16, Philippians 2:6-11 and Hebrews 1:3.

The third type of music Paul lists in v19 are “spiritual songs,” which translates πνευματικαῖς ᾠδαῖς (pneumatikais ōdais) the Dative, Plural of πνευματικός ᾠδή (pneumatikos ōdē), “a spiritual song.” What does this mean? What is the difference between and hymn and a spiritual song? Believe me, this is a huge issue in today’s churches. A hymn is a direct praise of God, while a spiritual song is an expression to other people, as illustrated in the son, “In My Heart There Rings a Melody.” A hymn is objective and presents objective facts, while a spiritual song is more subjective in expressing personal feelings. A good example of this is found in the song, “It Is Well with My Soul.” A hymn focuses on the attributes and majesty of God, while a spiritual song is often evangelistic, as in the song, “Have You Any Room for Jesus?” The tune or melody of a hymn is more staid, sober, and sedate, while a spiritual song often has a catchy melody of lifted rhythm, as in the songs, “He Lives” and “Are You Washed in the Blood?” A hymn usually does not have a chorus, while a spiritual song usually does.

I believe there are many good spiritual songs, but I am grieved that hymns have virtually disappeared have been replaced with the “praise chorus” or something even that would be classified as secular. When proper hymns are not allowed in worship then proper praise to God is missing. Without that then along with that goes the depth of doctrinal truth. Those churches who ban hymns as boring or for any other reason are also guilty of being doctrinally shallow instead of substantive and trite instead of true.

Soli Deo Gloria!

14 thoughts on “Psalms Hymns Spiritual Songs

  1. mike this is an interesting topic. I’ve always been amazed about peoples attitudes about church music. When I started attending church at 38 years of age, it was because the Lord was drawing me. I had never even heard of “contemporary Christian” music. I was the “unchurched” that the seeker sensitive guys say they want to reach or appeal to. But I was not there for the music. I was there because the merciful God of heaven was drawing me. I was looking for Him, for His truth, not a certain type of music! I am so thankful that the Lord spared me from attending a church where rock music “worship” was the norm.


  2. Mike, what would you call .’In Christ Alone’? Is it a spiritual song?…. In verse 3..
    ‘There in the ground His body lay
    Light of the world by darkness slain’
    Does that agree with John 1:5?
    I am concerned about some of the things that get into today’s Christian songs..
    sung so heartily by many people I respect…
    and some of the music…
    Am so happy about Travis and am asking the Lord to keep you all in His care, and peace!


  3. I find it interesting that, one one hand, some reformed (typically Presbyterians) sing only from the Psalter. On the other hand, we have those foolish people who will sing anything, such as Perry Noble singing a horrid song from AC/DC on Easter. And then there’s the very real distinction between a song that be very good and proper for the individual Christian to sing (in his shower or car) but not good for use in the corporate worship setting. Pastors need to think biblically about these things. This article is a good starting point.


  4. My husband and I so struggle with this now. We have moved several times, due to work transfers, in the past several years; hence, we have visited many, many churches looking for a church home. We cannot get over how music has changed in that time! It is next to impossible to find a church that doesn’t serve contemporary as the main style (and we are Reformed, so on the more conservative side.) At our present PCA church, the hymns are sung occasionally, but more likely it is that the tune has changed to some kind of syncopated thing that is hard to get. The praise band has become the focus. Our church is probably half senior citizen, so why the push to get rid of hymns, which we all know and love? I feel gypped in the worship service, because I don’t know (or like) most of the contemporary songs being sung. I end up frustrated and angry. This is not conducive to worship. I have tried to encourage the music leader when we do sing certain hymns, but we end up back with the new stuff. Not that telling you this is going to change anything, but it feels good to vent alittle. 🙂


  5. Celine, I don’t think that particular verse agrees with John 1:5, but then again it was Jesus Christ the Son of Man who was slain, not God the Son even though they are one and the same. So what does this say about what death is? Death does not mean non-existance. Jesus was not dead like a rock in the tomb and, yes, he was slain by evil men, but his light was not extinguished and no evil could ever do that. Man, you and I who are in Christ who are alive because of him and his sacrifice have this light and so even when we die, it is only our bodies that have died, not us for we are spiritually alive in Christ. However, the lost, the unregenerate, may be alive in the flesh, but when their bodies die, they go to eternal death, that is, eternal separation from God into hell. So then, what is spiritual death? It is to be not alive in Christ, to not have that eternal life from God. Those outside of Christ may exist forever in hell after they die, but it will be in darkness and utter devestation. How horrible!

    Thanks for your prayers for my nephew and his family.


  6. Manfred. I would expect an AC DC song at an Easter service since this is a pagan singing on a pagan holiday! Easter/Ishtar…Now, this would be totally out of place at a fellowship of called out ones worshipping our Lord and His finished Work at Calvary on a day we remember His resurrection, say Resurrection Sunday!
    But when we see the world invited in and egg hunts as the theme? Well what better music for their worship of satan then back in black or some other nonsense!?!?
    The real question though is what amount of paganism will we tolerate in our worship services?
    I prefer none…


  7. Mike, not only is the music for entertainment, but is it also intended to cause people to feel a certain way? They are seeking to feel something and music does that for them. They want to have an experience. Some teach that we are supposed to “experience God” whatever that means. So they are made to seek experiences, feelings and to have their ears tickled. Loud raucous music and/or repetitive lyrics might even generate a trance-like state. Add to it dimmed lights and you can really manipulate feelings and emotions. Or maybe they are genuine Christians and don’t want that music but what can they do, they don’t want to raise a stink over music? Many are led to believe that it is merely preference and so we shouldn’t get all spun up over mere music. But is it really just music preference? I believe there is more to it than that.


  8. I’ll never forget after I was saved I began just singing songs to the Lord trying to express to him how much JOY he filled me with.. One day I was reading the Psalms and came across where David said ~”He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD.”-‘Psa 40:3

    I was wowed to say the least that what had happened to me was backed up in Scripture….

    Mike and all there’s an excellent study of worship by a Lutheran woman, Marva J. Dawn called “Reaching Out without Dumbing Down” which is actually about worship. She makes the chief point that much of what we call worship today is not worship at all but is instead a glorification of ourselves. This is particularly true of what we often call “praise” songs. Dawn gives this example:
    “I will celebrate, sing unto the Lord.
    I will sing to God a new song. (repeat)
    I will praise God, I will song to God a new song. (repeat)
    Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
    I will sing to God a new song. (repeat)
    I will celebrate, sing unto the Lord.
    I will sing to God a new song. (repeat) (repeat all)”

    It’s a fair example of what we hear in many church services. The chorus seems to be praising God—it claims to be praising him—but that is the one thing it does not actually do. As Dawn points out, “The verbs say “I will” but in this song I don’t, because although God is mentioned as the recipient of my praise and singing, the song never says a single thing about or to God.”
    What is the song about then? If we look at it carefully the answer is clear. With all the repeats, “I” is the subject twenty-eight times, not God, but “I’ myself. And not even myself along with other members of the covenant community, just “I.” With that kind of focus,” says Dawn, “we might suppose that all the ‘hallelujahs’ are praising how good I am…. At celebrating and singing.”
    What is this but narcissism, an absorption with ourselves which is absorbed in our worship services, as we seem to be, it can only mean that we are worldly in our worship, and not spiritual as we ignorantly suppose.


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