Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
April 4, 1968
NUMBER 47, PAGE 7b-9a

Psalms, Hymns, And Spiritual Songs

Joe Ed Furr

In the early days of the Protestant Reformation many of the reformation groups had no singing at all in their religious services. Many supposed that singing was unnecessary. Undoubtedly this view was caused by gross ignorance of the will of God. Ephesians 5: 19 and Colossians 3:16 indicate plainly that Christians are to sing. Furthermore, these verses indicate what we are to sing — psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. What are these kinds of songs that we are to sing? How can we recognize them?

Psalms William Hooper in his book, Church Music in Transition, takes the position that the term "psalms" refers primarily to the book of Psalms in the Old Testament. He believes that we have been commanded to sing the psalms of David that are applicable to Christians. This viewpoint is based on the assumption that all of the religious psalms of the Jews can be found in the Old Testament, and it further assumes that Christians did not compose any psalms of their own. This view does not harmonize with the facts of history. The Interpreter's Bible Dictionary, Volume 2, page 667, points out that psalms were written by Jews long after the famous book of the Old Testament was completed. Why did Jews continue to write psalms if the only psalms used in worship were the psalms of the Old Testament? The fact that psalms were in continual creation is evidence that the Jews did use some psalms in their worship not found in the Old Testament. Furthermore, Hooper's view does not harmonize with the facts of the New Testament. I Corinthians 14:26 uses the word "psalm." That psalm does not refer to the work of David. The Psalm in this text is a psalm revealed to a Christian by the Holy Spirit. In this text the psalm would be a newly composed utterance and not a traditional religious song (Ralph P. Martin in Vox Evangelica, p. 10).

Many sectarian writers have taken the position that a psalm is a religious song that is sung to the accompaniment of instrumental music. The word "psalm" does have a literal definition, "to pluck" and at one time it did refer to the "plucking of harp strings," but an instrument is not the only thing a singer can pluck (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, page 675). A singer can "pluck the strings of his heart" by singing to God from his heart.

This is the kind of plucking the New Testament commands. In Ephesians 5:19 Paul commanded you to "make melody in your hearts unto the Lord." The word "melody" is the same Greek word that is translated "psalms"; therefore, the literal concept of "plucking" is to be found in this word "melody" just as it is to be found in "psalm." For this reason we must conclude that our psalms must come from only one source; — the heart — and not the instrument.

A psalm is a sacred song directed unto the Lord. It can be a song that was written by David or one that is written by another composer. I Cor.14:15 indicates that the words of the Holy Spirit that we now have in the New Testament are to regulate the contents of these sacred songs. Even if we do not sing one of David's songs, we usually sing in David's lyrical style; for most of our psalmists today write in the lyrical style that David used.


Those who believe that "psalms" are Old Testament creations also say that "hymns" are New Testament creations. Since we have proven that psalms are not exclusively from the Old Testament, then this concept of a hymn cannot be correct.

It is difficult to distinguish between a psalm and a hymn. In Mark 14:26, the word "hymn" is used to refer to the psalms of David. The Jews in Christ's time had a tradition of singing Psalms 113-118 as a part of the pass-over observance. That part of the book of Psalms was called the "Hallel"; so, this usage of "hymn" means the Hallel. Philo was a Jewish writer that lived contemporary with Jesus. In his writings he also used the word "hymn" in reference to David's psalms. (W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Volume 2, page 241). Such evidence as this (and other evidence) has led Gerhard Delling to conclude that a psalm and a hymn are completely synonymous and that no distinction can be made between them (See his recent book, Worship in the New Testament).

Others find it difficult to believe that Paul would use two words in this fashion without implying some kind of distinction. If any distinction can be made between a psalm and a hymn, it must be a distinction of style and not basic content or purpose. "Psalm" was the term chosen by Jews to describe their concept of singing to God. "Hymn" was the term chosen by the pagan Greeks to describe their concept of singing praise to their gods. The Bible could not possibly be implying that the Lord wants us to sing pagan worship songs; for such a view would be completely out of harmony with the New Testament teaching on pagan worship (I Cor. 8-10). But this diverse background does give us an indication as to why Paul used two different terms to refer to the same basic concept. Gentile Christians in Bible times who had not been proselyted to Judaism before becoming Christians would be more acquainted with the hymn than with the psalm. Some of the technical styles of the Gentile's hymn were evidently adapted to the will of God and used acceptably in worship to God. There may have been a time in history when Christians recognized a distinct difference in the styles' of psalms and hymns, but such a distinction is difficult to make from today's song books that we use. The lyric style of David has profoundly influenced many of the songs that we sing today. In this way we could say that we do sing "psalms" today. The musical theory of the ancient Greek hymns have also influenced our music of today. Our diatonic scale and concept of musical notation was born out of the ancient Greek work in the field of music. However, if we today were to attempt to distinguish a psalm from a hymn, we could not do so in the basis of music because we use the same type of music for all our songs. Our distinctions would have to be made on the basis of lyric style. Some recent song book editor's have attempted to make such a distinction (See, Sacred Selections for the Church, by Crum).

Spiritual Songs

"Song" is a very general term. If that word is used alone it can imply any kind of a song. Some modern denominations have grown weary of their traditional music and have brought rock and roll music and jazz into their worship. If the Bible only commanded us to sing "songs," then we would have a hard time condemning those people that brought such innovations into worship. But the word "spiritual" prefaces "song," and that term limits "song" to a specific kind of composition.

Vine takes the position (Op. Cit., Vol. 4, page 64) that "spiritual songs" were songs dictated to men by the Holy Spirit (e.g. I Cor. 14:26). If Vine is correct in his judgment, then we cannot sing such songs unless we either receive a special revelation of the Spirit or find a collection of Spirit-directed songs in the New Testament. We have neither special revelations nor a New Testament collection, and yet we are still commanded to sing spiritual songs!

Some have made the following distinction between hymns and spiritual songs: A hymn, they say, is a formal composition, and a spiritual song is spontaneous. In other words, a spiritual song is one that we compose "on the spur of the moment" and then stand before the audience and sing it to the others present. This viewpoint resembles the "holiness" concept of worship. The fruits of such efforts could only be mass confusion. Since decency and order are prime principles of Christian worship (I Cor. 14:40), this interpretation must be wrong.

A more accurate definition of a spiritual song can be derived from the text of Col. 3:16. We are to "teach and admonish one another" with these songs that we sing. Some psalms are instructive, but many are more worshipful than instructive. Some hymns are instructive, but most are worshipful. But spiritual songs contain more instruction than praise. I Cor. 2:13 and Col. 1:9 indicate that the term "spiritual" can refer to religious teaching and admonition; so, it would be consistent to say that a spiritual song inspires people to live the Christian life and to learn more about Jesus.


The Interpreter's Bible Dictionary, Volume 2, page 668, indicates that early Christians continued to write psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, long after the close of the apostolic period of the first century. Many of these compositions have been lost in the ruins of time, but a recent discovery has unveiled a collection of Christian songs that date back to the second century A. D. This collection of songs carried the general title, "Odes of Solomon." This title would be similar to the titles found on our modern hymnals, (e.g. Christian Hymns, Number Two). This precedent was not condemned by our Lord nor was it opposed by the apostles; so, we today should lend our encouragement to those disciples who endeavor to create psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs for our worship to the Lord and admonition to our brother.