The Third Commandment
Chapter 15 – The Songs We Sing
In the last chapter we began to consider how the New Testament regulates the songs of worship. We saw that both of Paul’s instructions to the churches, which are the two major texts on New Covenant worship music, teach that our songs are to be participatory, reverent, and challenging. We did not, however, consider the words in those verses which have generated significant controversy in so many churches. In both Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 Paul addresses the types of songs which should be sung: “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”
How are we to understand these categories?
It was once a popular argument to point to this phrase as proof that the Apostle Paul approved Contemporary Christian Music. The words were quoted, followed with an assertion that you can worship God with Psalms (meaning songs written in the Bible) or with formal hymns (meaning English-language worship songs written prior to 1970) or with spiritual songs (meaning informal music developed in America after 1970).
That this cannot be what Paul meant(! ! !) should be obvious to everyone. Such an interpretation assumes that Paul 1) prophetically foresaw the specific developments in worship music more than nineteen hundred years after his ministry (which could have happened), that he 2) approved of all existing music traditions in late-twentieth-century America (which gets a little more doubtful), and that he then 3) translated late-twentieth-century American English into first-century Greek in order to instruct the Ephesian and Colossian churches about their church music, using as examples songs which would not be written until centuries after their deaths (which is categorically absurd).
This usage appears to be dying a much-deserved death, but in its wake the church suffers from two lingering effects. There is a widespread lack of understanding of what Paul may have meant by each particular word, coupled with a vague sense that what he was really saying was that any songs, provided they have some spiritual content, can be profitably employed in worship. If we are to overcome such murky conclusions we must strive to understand how Paul used these terms in the first century.
One suggestion has been made by those who believe that biblically regulated worship cannot include any songs but those found in Scripture. The Psalms, they say, are a biblical hymnal, and as such they ought to constitute the entirety of the songs that we sing. This is a valid attempt to apply the Regulative Principle strictly, allowing Scripture to determine not only that we sing but also what we sing.
At first glance this seems to ignore the text of both New Testament passages we are considering, but it is an idea worthy of investigation. “Psalms are viewed not as a category, but as a basic description of what we are to sing. This is then broken down into the categories of “hymns and spiritual songs.” What recommends this idea is that it recognizes the fact that the word “hymn” does indeed designate one category of Psalm. Properly speaking, a “hymn” is a song of praise. (Now you can chuckle quietly to yourself whenever someone tries to distinguish “hymns” from “praise songs.”) Was Paul saying that we should sing the Psalms, including those which specifically address praise to God?
One problem with this approach is that even the advocates of exclusive psalmody (singing nothing but biblical Psalms) cannot agree on what “spiritual songs” is to mean. That designation is not a recognized category of Psalms. A further problem is an inconsistency with the application of the Regulative Principle. We know that God expects us to use our own words in our prayers and sermons. Why would he not want us to use appropriately written songs in our worship as well?
However, the “psalm-singers” have been a great blessing to the church in at least one sense: they have developed an English language psalmody with which the church might follow one of the directives of Paul. We cannot ignore the fact that the Apostle commands us to sing Psalms.
The Importance of Psalms
The Book of Psalms was written for worship. Its initial purpose was to provide Israel with a hymnal. Nothing like it exists in the New Testament; it remains the only collection of inspired hymns. We should not be surprised that Paul wanted the churches to sing Psalms. They are filled with exactly the type of worship God requires, and as such they serve as an excellent template for all other worship music. The church which regularly sings Psalms will not tolerate poor hymns; the Psalms set too high a standard.
Consider the very things we have already learned about worship music. While some of the Psalms are long, their language is simple and accessible. They were developed with participation in mind. A whole section of the Psalter was written for traveling worshipers to sing together on their way to the temple. The Psalms also describe the very attitude towards God which He demands. Reverence and awe permeate the Psalter, regardless of whether the dominant emotion is joy or sorrow. The Psalms also instruct. In them we learn of the nature of God, the history of His dealings with His people, and the importance of loving and serving Him. The Psalms constitute the most doctrinally complex set of hymns ever produced, and at the same time they challenge singers to live according to God’s perfect standards.
An approach to worship music which excludes Psalms is not an option. Rather, singing the Psalms should be a priority. It will radically revise the way we look at all other hymns.
Songs of Worship
Beyond the Psalms, Paul authorized the church to use “hymns and spiritual songs.” Again, these words must be understood as Paul would have used them in the first century.
By specifying “hymns” he certainly meant that our songs should focus on the praise of God. Just as a significant portion of the Psalms exist for no reason but to praise God, so our hymnals must reflect the same worshipful emphasis. Furthermore, songs of praise ought not to be mere repetitions of the word “praise,” nor should they be sappy love songs addressed to God. Such songs do not follow the pattern established in the Psalms. Instead, hymns of praise must intelligently and joyfully explore the attributes and acts of God, using each as an occasion to magnify His greatness.
By the phrase “spiritual songs” Paul indicated that we are free to utilize songs which, while they are not exactly focused on praise, expound on appropriate spiritual topics. In other words, any biblical subject is legitimate fodder for worship music. Remember, we are to instruct and admonish one another as we sing. Just as the psalms explore many topics, so the music of the church may range far over the field of biblical theology and practice.
Paul’s three categories establish a comprehensive approach to worship music. The first category of songs set the pattern of the rest: we must sing Psalms to learn what our songs are to look like. The second category establishes a focus: our worship is to abound with praise for God. The third and final category delineates the scope of our music: any topic is valid so long as it is spiritual, which is to say, biblical.