30 Nov 2020

What are the Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Ephesians 5.19?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Church History, Ephesians, Exegesis, Music, Patternism, Precision Obedience, Psalms, Septuagint, Unity, Worship
Psalms. Hymns. Spiritual Songs, Psalm 76

For many years I did not know what Ephesians 5.19 meant.

I grew up on debates about “instrumental music” that were shaped by the word ψάλλω in that text. This term was critical for our argument that God “changed his mind” about instrumental music (we rejected it outright). From time to time a person would talk about the types of songs represented in the words “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” These terms are indeed foundational. But Paul was simply talking about singing in general. But he was actually directing the Gentiles to learn what the will of God is from the Book of Psalms itself. They were not merely to sing but sing the Psalms.

For more on how the Instrumental Music debate has sometimes misrepresented the Hebrew Bible see my article, Israel, David, Music: Caricatures, Misrepresentations and Unity.

Because the so called Old Testament played such a minimal role in our theology, we typically did not look to that source for the meaning of Paul’s terms. Further because we read the “Old Testament” in English translation we were even further removed from the important information.

Yet Paul’s readers in Asia Minor did not read English. Nor did they read a Protestant translation of the Hebrew Bible (like the KJV or NIV). They read, their Bible was, the Septuagint ( =LXX). In fact, the LXX was their only Bible. They in fact had the Septuagint read to them orally because Paul had told their preacher to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4.13) and these are the same Scriptures Timothy had known since he was a child that Paul said to that congregation was “good for doctrine” and “equipped” the people of God for “every good work” (2 Timothy 3.15-17).

In our text (Eph 5.19) Paul makes two references to the “Old Testament” as it is represented in the LXX. These two references are significant and show Paul believed the Hebrew Scriptures taught the fellowship of the Messiah how to worship God.

The first reference to the “Old Testament” is when he quotes the phrase “sing and make melody to the Lord…” In quoting this Paul points the readers of Ephesians back to the Scriptures he told them made them wise and equipped them to properly serving God. “Sing and make melody to the Lord” occurs repeatedly in the Book of Psalms. The exact phrase comes from Psalm 27 (in English)

I will offer sacrifices with shouts of joy,
I will sing and make melody to the Lord

{ᾄσομαι καὶ ψαλῶ τῷ κυρίῳ}” (Psalm 27.6 = 26.6, LXX)

Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous.
Praise befits the upright.
Praise the Lord with the lyre;
make melody
{ψαλῶ} to him [the Lord]
with the harp of ten strings
(Psalm 33.1-2)

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody
{ψαλῶ} to our God on the lyre
(Psalm 147.7, we recall that Paul mentions thanksgiving as well in 5.20)

For a deeper look at the phrase “Sing and Make Melody” see “Making Melody to the Lord: Paul’s Debt to the Psalter when talking about Worship.”

The word ψάλλω is immediately apparent and used in all of these examples.

Paul’s second reference to the “Old Testament” is when he references the Book of Psalms as a whole. When Paul says “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” he is not making some general comment about singing various musical genres in the Greco-Roman world. Paul is looking at the content of the Book of Psalms in his LXX. These are the songs Jesus, Peter, James, Paul and myriads of disciples had already been singing in worship for centuries. ψαλμός (psalms), ύμνοις (hymns), ωδή (songs) are genre identifications from the headings of the Book of Psalms itself.

Psalms (ψαλμός) is the most common identification of texts. We can find it among other places in the headings of the LXX (the heading is vs. 1 in the LXX just as in Hebrew, they are not numbered in English) at 3.1; 5.1; 6.1; 7.1; 8.1; 9.1; 11.1; 29.1; 47.1; 91.1 (etc, etc, etc). So we read in Psalm 3.1 in the LXX, “ψαλμός to/pertaining to David.”

We find hymns (ύμνοις) identified in the headings in among other places at 53.1; 54.1; 60.1; 67.1; 75.1; etc, etc. So in Psalm 53.1 of the LXX we read “Among ύμνοις. Of understanding. Pertaining to David.”

We find spiritual songs (ωδή), the second most common designation in the headings in, among other places: 4.1; 17.1; 29.1; 38.1; 47.1; 86.1; etc, etc. All of the “Songs of Ascents” (Pss 119-134, LXX) are identified as Odes (hymns). So in Psalm 4.1 of the LXX we read, “ωδή to David.”

A number of headings include both ψαλμός and ωδή.

Most interesting of all, though, is a number have all three of Paul’s terms in the heading. So Psalm 66 (Ps 67 in English) is a “ύμνοις. ψαλμός. ωδή.” It is a psalm, hymn and (spiritual) song! See also Psalm 75 (Ps 76 in English). These categories the Ephesian readers already know from the public reading of the Scriptures.

Paul identifies the Book of Psalms and catalogs its contents straight out of what people call the headings today for praise to God and building up the ἐκκλησίᾳ (church). Then he quotes Psalms (as noted above) to tell us to praise God.

If this were not interesting enough (and to me it is very interesting) we read the following in Psalm 149 in the LXX.

V.1 “αλληλουια ᾄσατε τῷ κυρίῳ ᾆσμα καινόν ἡ αἴνεσις αὐτοῦ ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ ὁσίων”

That is in English,

Sing to the Lord a new song,
praise his name in the church of the faithful

In verse 3 we read,

“αἰνεσάτωσαν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ ἐν χορῷ ἐν τυμπάνῳ καὶ ψαλτηρίῳ ψαλάτωσαν αὐτῷ”

That is in English,

Let them praise his name with dance;
let them make music to him with the drum and harp

I wonder if anyone reading the LXX, as Paul just told them too, in Ephesus would think they are part of the “church of the faithful?” And I wonder if they thought the term ψάλλω (in v.3) did not really mean what it seems to mean? Especially since Paul told them to praise God from the Book of Psalms?

But here in this text we find Paul’s language. Paul clearly thought the Book of Psalms was the worship manual in Asia Minor. There is no evidence that he means something different by psalms, hymns and (spiritual) songs than what those words mean in the very LXX he quotes. Nor is there any actual evidence that he means something different by ψάλλω. The burden of proof that he means something different is upon those who make such a claim.

Everett Ferguson, a scholar devoted to a cappella music, makes a rather startling admission. Of course the Jerusalem church is sidelined as is the Book of Revelation in his discussion (Revelation gives three instances of instruments used in the worship of God, cf. Revelation 5.8-10; 14.2-3; 15.2-3). The confession is interesting in light of the energy Churches of Christ have expended on dividing over this issue.

“Before leaving the New Testament references, we may note in passing that the New Testament gives no negative judgment on instrumental music PER SE.” (A Capella Music in the Public Worship, p. 42).

What a stunning admission. There is not a shred of evidence that any biblical writer, not just the NT, ever even hinted at disapproving instrumental music (as Ferguson admits). But here is another stunning fact, there is no evidence anywhere from any writer prior to about AD 200 that anyone said anything negative about “instruments.” Then it would be another 150 years or so before we get the great denunciations in the Fourth Century that are frequently quoted. But such a denunciation is not to be found in the First nor the Second century that I can find. But in the earliest Christian collection of hymns known (next to the Book of Psalms itself) which dates before AD 125 we read, these interesting words.

To announce to those who have songs of the coming of the Lord,
That they may go forth to meet Him and may sing to Him,
With joy and with the harp of many tones

(Odes 7.17)

I poured out praise to the Lord,
Because I am His own.
And I will recite His holy ode,
Because my heart is with Him.
For His harp is in my hand;
And the odes of His rest shall not be silent.

(Odes 26.1-3)

Paul told us to praise God from the Psalms, he uses the very words of the Psalms both as to its content and its form. I think these facts are not acknowledged nearly enough, but should be.

Sometimes our divisions may not be righteous ones. I suspect that Paul, Peter, John the Seer, and most of all Jesus, would wonder about this one.

For more on Jesus, the Way and the Psalms see: Psalms and the Temple: What Jesus and the Early Way Experienced.

2 Responses to “What are the Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Ephesians 5.19?”

  1. Greg Says:

    Great analysis, really enjoy your writings.

  2. Brian Birdow Says:

    Thank you for your study and willingness to share and challenge to study deeper (without bias)


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