Psalms, Hymns and “Spiritual Songs”

Word of the Week

March 6, 2021

Psalms, Hymns and “Spiritual Songs”


Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:16


I have attended . . .

a Primitive Baptist church service in North Carolina where the music was four-part harmony – with no instruments.

a Sunday service that featured hymns like “Amazing Grace” with choir, piano and organ.

a gathering where a worship team stood before a wall of constantly changing colored lights as giant speakers engulfed us in a wall of sound.

You hardly know what to expect when you walk into an unfamiliar worship service, and thoughtful Christians naturally wonder, “Are there any guidelines to help us evaluate our use of music?”  We recognize how much of the discussion hinges on cultural background and personal taste, but nothing replaces a solid foundation of divine revelation.  Does God say anything about music?

Unfortunately, archaeologists have not uncovered any sheet music or sound tracks from the first century, so we don’t know much about the sound of biblical music.  But the Bible does talk about music extensively.

Where can we start learning what Scripture says about music?

Let’s look this week at the three types of music that the apostle prescribed in his letters to the believers in Ephesus and Colosse.

He told the Ephesians to be filled with the Spirit, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).

In a parallel passage, he instructed the Colossians to let the word of Christ richly dwell within them, “with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in [their] hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

We should make it clear that there are not hard and fast boundaries between these three words; they overlap quite a bit.  In fact, all three are used in the Greek Old Testament in the titles of numerous psalms.  However, each word does have a flavor all its own.

  1. Psalm (Greek psalmos)

Our word psalm originally came from the Greek psallō, which meant “to pluck the strings” on an instrument like a small harp or lyre.  The earliest poems we have in secular Greek were performed by minstrels who would accompany their lyrics in this way.

David used a harp (1 Samuel 18:10) and it was natural to use psalmos to describe the Old Testament book of Psalms that served as the songbook of the Jewish people.  In the New Testament, psalmos normally referred either to the entire book of Psalms (Luke 20:42) or to a particular psalm (Acts 13:33).

Bottom line:  The early church used the book of Psalms in worship.  The words were inspired, so you knew the lyrics were right.

  1. Hymn (Greek humnos)

Several centuries before Christ, the ancient Greeks wrote poetry for use in religious liturgies devoted to their gods and goddesses.  One standard form was called a humnos, a song praising the deity, usually sung by a choir.

First century Greek-speakers would recognize humnos as a particular kind of song devoted to the praise of a divine being.  For Christians, it would be a song written in praise of God the Father or Christ the Son, not necessarily one drawn from the book of Psalms.

Bottom line:  The early church used more than just Psalms, including songs specifically written to praise God.

  1. Song (Greek ōdē)

“Ode” was a general term that could apply to all kinds of songs.  The Roman poet Horace was famous for his odes, which typically described a scene and then broadened into a meditation of the shortness of life.  Since the word could refer to almost any kind of song, Paul added the description “spiritual” to make clear the kind of song he had in mind.

This word leaves room for Christians to compose new lyrics and music.  In fact, it appears three times in the book of Revelation, where the hosts of heaven “sing a new song.”

Bottom line:  The early church composed a variety of songs to use in worship.

What do we learn from observing these three words?

First, there is room for variety.  Paul recommended the use of the familiar Psalms of the Old Testament, then broadened to include other songs of praise to God, and finally used an even broader word that could include any song of a spiritual nature.

Second, there is an emphasis on content.  Colossians tells us that all three types of songs are tools for teaching, not merely ways to pump up your emotions.

Third, music is an overflow of a life controlled by the Holy Spirit, according to Ephesians – not something that is generated artificially.  If the Lord is at the center of your life, singing should be the most natural thing in the world!


Study Hint:

In the discussion above, we mentioned a few specific passages where the words are used, but a complete study would deal with every reference where they appear.  In each case, we would check both the noun and its matching verb.  For those who would like to look at the other passages, here is a complete list:

  1. Psalms

Noun (psalmos) – Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16.

Verb (psallō) – Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; James 5:13

  1. Hymns


Noun (humnos) – Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16

Verb (humneō) – Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26; Acts 16:25; Hebrews 2:12


  1. Songs


Noun (ōdē) – Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Revelation 5:9; 14:3; 15:3

Verb (adō) – same as noun



Q:  I read in commentary that Christ’s command to “be dressed in readiness” in Luke 12:35 is a “perfect imperative.”  What is that?


A:  This phrase is the start of a parable.  Jesus was warning his hearers to be constantly ready for His return, just like servants whose master was returning from a wedding feast.  Smart servants would stay fully dressed with the lights burning so that they would be ready to open the door as soon as their master arrived.

“Perfect imperative” is not actually one of the standard forms that a Greek verb can take, but it’s a decent description of an unusual two-word combination. The first word is the present tense of the word “to be” spelled to show that it’s a command.  The idea is “You are supposed to be …!”  The second word is the perfect participle spelling of “dressed” or “girded up with your belt on.”  The perfect tense suggests a completed action with continuing results.

Put it all together, and you get this idea:  “Maintain a status where you have gotten dressed so that you will continue to be ready, no matter how long it takes for the master to arrive.”  Good words for those of us who are waiting for the Lord’s return!

Coming Up

Ephesians 4 tells us to walk in a manner worthy of our calling.  Next week we will dig more deeply into that concept of “worthy.”

©Ezra Project 2021

2 Responses

  1. I was interested to see that the word “hymn” is used as a verb in the Greek NT. I discovered “hymn” used as a verb in English in the little-known 6th verse of the hymn “O Worship the King”:
    O measureless Might! Ineffable Love!
    While angels delight to hymn Thee above,
    The humbler creation, though feeble their lays,
    With true adoration shall lisp to Thy praise.

    (“Lays,” another rarely used word, is Old English for “songs.” Poets love it because it’s one syllable and rhymes with “praise.”)

    1. Great observation! I suspect that there are quite a few places where older English uses words in a manner that is closer to the Greek or Latin usage that lies in the background.

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