Last week, I shared thoughts re: what the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms, has to say about the mandate to sing new songs. This week, I will look briefly at the New Testament’s focus on singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” as found in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.
Defining the three terms isn’t as easy as might first appear. Some scholars suggest no clear musical delineation exists between the three. Eduard Lohse opines that, taken together, “they describe the full range of singing which the Spirit prompts.” Rudolf Schnackenburg likens Paul’s use of these terms to the Psalmists’ use of parallelism, suggesting that Paul here displays his “stylistic preference for the triplicate.”
That said, many theologians argue for distinct musical types here. Ralph Martin’s understanding is representative. He says psalms likely refer to songs from the actual Hebrew psalter, what we now know as the OT Psalms; hymns are “tributes of worship directed to God”; and spiritual songs “may mean either ‘spiritual’ over against ‘secular’ or worldly or, as is more likely, ‘songs inspired by the Spirit.'” There is fascinating discussion in the literature re: the spontaneity factor as connoted in this last term (what some today would label charismatic expressions of worship), and some authors put forth that the adjective spiritual here applies to all three classifications, not just songs. In other words, there’s a lot more to these exhortations than immediately meets the eye.
Principles for worshipers emerge from a careful look at the two “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” passages. The Ephesians text comes from verses 15-20 of chapter 5 in the New Living Translation, under the heading “Living by the Spirit’s Power.” In verse 18, Paul instructs the believers not “to be drunk with wine, because that will ruin” their lives; instead, they should “be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
The latter inclusion of the subject of drunkenness prior to encouragement to be filled with the Spirit seems odd initially. Andrew Lincoln notes that while the “former represents folly,” the latter “is a prerequisite for wisdom. Both involve the self coming under the control of an external power, and the states of alcoholic and of religious intoxication were often compared.” My doctoral thesis advisor, Gerald Borchert, in his wonderfully thorough book Worship in the New Testament, asserts Paul’s rhetoric calls Christians to a “hearty” singing–in contrast to the obstreperousness inherent in “becoming drunk and carousing.”
But the juxtaposition here of the concept of drunkenness serves as a comparison in addition to a contrast and gives us reason to say that our corporate worship should, at least periodically, be intoxicating. Such worship will, obviously, look different for different people and in different cultures, but Christians filled with the Spirit of God will, at least on occasion, in the midst of their worship, find themselves, in the words of the great hymn, “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” For those of us who look at the world via prisms of rationalism and logic, this is an important word.
In the text, the evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit (as opposed to wine), in verse 19, is the singing of the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. What is particularly interesting to note, given the above context, is that at the end of a long warning about the dangerous potential of association with products of the culture, Paul has nothing but praise for music. In other words, writes Stephen Guthrie,
to a Christian community surrounded by ignorance and immorality; to a people who themselves were prone to blindness and indulgence of their former way of life; at the conclusion of a passage warning against irrationality and sins of the flesh–Paul urges singing and music making. . . . Paul shares the same broad concerns [about music’s power to move people emotionally] as Augustine and Calvin, but the recommendation emerging from those concerns is entirely different. To put it very crudely, Augustine says: “Irrationality is bad. Sensuality is bad. Therefore, be careful about music.” Paul on the other hand says, “Foolishness is bad. Sensuality is bad. Therefore, you had better sing.”
Indeed, in our quest to worship our Lord with all our being, we need not fear the power of music. In fact, we can and should channel its power for our benefit in our fight against the enemy.
Finally, dissecting the grammar of the Greek, Klyne Snodgrass determines this verse illustrates the results of being Spirit-filled; in other words, the participles in the text are not part of the earlier imperative (as if singing and making music would produce a Spirit-filled life). Hence, we can embrace wholeheartedly the recent worship-related rhetoric that speaks of the goodness of both vertical and horizontal worship, the former offered directly to God and the latter manifested in Kingdom-building actions on behalf of others.
One of my favorite current worship leaders, Ryan Flanigan (@FrFlanigan), in speaking of this passage (along with Rev. 4:11 and Is: 6:2-3), notes that sometimes we sense
we are not “worshiping” unless we are singing to the Lord. . . . [But in worship we] join with the angels, singing both to one another and to the Lord. . . . There is so much more joy when we use our songs to remind one another of the Gospel, when we exhort and encourage one another with our unified voices.
I will look at the similar passage in Colossians, Lord willing, at a later time. Until then, the Lord be with you!