Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

What sort of songs should we be singing in worship? This debate has been going on for some time. I have known people who think this or that type of music should be sung and another that or this type. I have known people who refused to go to services because they played contemporary music. I know people who mock even the idea of playing a hymn in worship. I know many people within the same church that say they go to a different church than another person because they go to different services.

These ideas are wrong and bring disunity to the body of believers (Eph. 4:1-6, Col. 3:12-14). And I am not speaking specifically of liturgical or “modern” worship. That is a discussion for another day. Is there a way to create unity with an issue that has become strangely divisive? What sort of music should be sung in Church?

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

~ Colossians 3:16-17 ~

Speak to one another with Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

~ Ephesians 5:19-20 ~

What should be said and sung in the Church? Is it either “traditional” or “contemporary?” Whatever is new? Whatever is old? I think this battle has been over what the music sounds like and when it was written, overshadowing a more important factor: what the song teaches.

Too often I hear songs – new and old – that sound decent but contain nothing. There is no meat. There might be phrases or words that perhaps come from the Bible, but the songs do not teach or mean anything. The music sounds nice, but the words impart nothing useful. More often than not, if I heard these songs in any other context than Church, I would hardly recognize them as a “Christian” song.

But what should be said and sung in the Church? The two verses above explain that we Christians should speak and sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that teach, admonish, rebuke, and encourage.

There are two related words used to describe Psalms in the New Testament. There is ψάλλω, or psallo, and ψαλμός, or psalmos, which translate as “psalm” and “psalms” and implied the aid of instruments (Strong’s5567.”, “5568.”). Unsurprisingly, similar words were used in the Old Testament (Strong’s “4210.”, “2172.”). The Greek phrase used in the above two verses specifically means “one who has it in his heart to sing or recite a song” of praise, thankfulness, confession, and admiration (Rom. 15:9, Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16, Jas. 5:13; Strong’s “5568.”).

Hymns are akin to Psalms, their words, then and now, are often taken from Psalms, though not always. Hymns were specifically sacred songs for God. Greek literature used the word ὕμνος or hymnos to praise great heroes, gods, and conquerors (Strong’s5215.”). In Scriptural context, these were lyrics that spoke the awesomeness (in the fullest sense of the word) of God (Psa. 40:4-5, 65:1-13, Isa. 42:10). Psalms sung the praise of someone; hymns were sung to someone. During this season of Lent, it would be good to point out some paschal hymns of the “great halal” of the Jews: Psalms 113-118 & 136 (BLBStrong’s “1984.”). These hymns were to the glory and celebration of God (Strong’s5214.”; Mat. 26:30, Mar. 14:26, Acts 16:25).

Finally, there are spiritual songs. The two Greek words here are πνευματικός, or pneumatikos, and ᾠδή, or ode (Strong’s4152.”, “5603.”). An ode is sung in praise of something, namely God. The word “spiritual” can mean non-human, a spirit, supernatural, religious, and ethereal (Strong’s4152.”). In Scripture, this word is used to refer to the things of God, the Spirit, and the renewed life Jesus has given us; the phrase means to sing of spiritual things. In the context of music, it means singing scripture and “let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” as we sing.

All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

~ 2 Timothy 3:16-17 ~

Besides daily devotions and faithfully reading Scripture, I think the next best way to learn and remember Scripture is through song. How many childhood songs can you still remember? How many catchy advertisements? I presume the number is high. This is true for three reasons: they were taught young, repetitively, and with music. With this in mind, we should strive to have all of our songs in worship be full of Scripture so that we can better remember the Word (Pro. 22:6). Hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs are drawn from Scripture so that they can teach, admonish, rebuke, and impart the wisdom of our God.

What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn [psalm], a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

~ 1 Corinthians 14:26 ~

The word used here for “strengthening” is οἰκοδομή which means edification (Strong’s 3619.”). Therefore, what we sing should be edifying for the people of God and bring Him glory and praise. What we sing should be Scripture, which teaches, admonishes, praises, and edifies. The above forms have this main thread: they are drawn from Scripture and use music to help memorize God’s Word.

Here are some things to keep in mind regarding music in worship. The instruments do not really matter. The sound does not really matter unless it is painful, distracting, or detracting from worship (e.g., becomes a performance). Orderly worship is called for here, but I do not believe it is a battle between “contemporary” or “traditional” styles. Both can be worshipful if done well and correctly, even together (1 Cor. 14:33 & 40). Singing to God should be done in unity, not division (Eph. 4:1-6, Col. 3:12-14).

What matters especially is what the songs teach. Do they praise our Lord? Do they teach His Word? What lyrics will be circling our minds and hearts, or our children’s, for the next week or decade? Not all “worship music” is edifying. There are hymns that have not been entirely scriptural and contemporary music plainly quoting it, though this is often reversed.

Songs should be intentional and scriptural. They should teach, admonish, rebuke, praise, and impart wisdom. They should help us remember Scripture. We should sing of them when we are happy, when we walk along the way, waking and rising, and even in times of trouble (Deut. 6:4-9, Jas. 5:13, Act. 16:25). We should have the word of God and His praises in our hearts and on our lips always, and one way we can do this is by teaching scriptural psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in worship.

How can a young man keep his way pure?

By living according to your word.

I seek you with all my heart;

do not let me stray from your commands.

I have hidden your word in my heart

that I might not sin against you.

Praise be to you, O Lord;

teach me your decrees.

With my lips I recount

all the laws that come from your mouth.

I rejoice in following you statutes

as one rejoices in great riches.

I meditate on your precepts

and consider your ways.

 I delight in your decrees;

I will not neglect your word.

~ Psalm 119:6-16 ~

Blessings to you and yours,



(Examples of possible hymns in the NT: Phil. 2:6-11, 1 Tim. 3:16, 2 Tim 2:11-13, Rev. 5:9, 14:3, 15:3)


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