Fire and Form: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

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Biblical Worship Music

Ephesians 5:18-20 NIV
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything,in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Colossians 3:15-17 NIV
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In contemporary spirituality, worship and music are too often thought of as synonymous.  They are not.  It is important to get a trans-cultural, trans-generational and trans-personal fix on what the Bible demands of our worship music.  If you are wondering how we can get such a view of worship, one that does not consider the cultural, the generational, or the personal preference of people, you should be because this is not the normal approach to music.  Music is culture, for heaven’s sake!


This is why the Scriptures provide us with truth in the realm of principles, not particulars.  One of the most frequently made blunders we make concerning worship is to assume that the music that moves us should move everyone.  We sometimes even act as if our preferences matched those of the Lord Jesus exactly or that the Holy Spirit can only use the music that we can appreciate or that the Father is only pleased by what pleases us.  This monumentally arrogant supposition is too often found among the most sincere and otherwise humble people who are living for the Lord to the best of their ability and want with all their hearts to please him.

It only make sense that biblical demands of our music must be adaptable to all times and all cultures.  The music of western civilization has been in a state of evolution parallel to that of western civilization itself.  Simply put, we would not recognize the musical language of King David as music at all most likely.  The actual sounds of the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” to which Paul refers would probably not please the contemporary western musical ear.  Like a scene from an early 1930’s Cecil B. DeMille epic film where Cleopatra enters Rome to the strains of 19th century music played on 20th century orchestral instruments, we “hear” our music when we read the Bible.   Our music is our music, nothing more and nothing less.  It is not David’s music or the apostle’s music or that of the early church or the middle ages or any other age of western civilization.  The same is true for eastern music or African music or island music.  These cultural expressions share very few elements.  They are each the product of their own histories and evolutions.  So the meanings of these three key terms are not cultural, generational or personal; they are theological.  They refer not to the sound or form of the music but to its content and intent, to its text and its context.

Content and Intent
These two elements of song qualify the piece or disqualify it for use in worship.  Obviously the content of worship music must be truth; the truth of God and the truth of man; God’s revelation of himself to us and our response to that revelation.  I often say that music is like a freight train; it moves powerfully down the tracks and you can load many different things into it.  As worship leaders, we need to freight our music with the Word of God and with sincere human heart-cries.  But, music is also always made with a purpose in mind.  Many times a song itself may be loaded with truth but the singer is not.  He or she is singing from a false motive, perhaps one of gaining attention or making an impression.  This false intention on the part of the singer affects the usefulness of the music in the hands of the Holy Spirit.  Can He exalt Jesus without lifting the performer up with pride?  The intent of the singer has hampered the song itself.

Text and Context
The text of the song, the words, form the heart of the song.  Does the song express opinion, testimony, complaint, lament, praise, adoration, petition or does it promote emotionalism, nostalgia, sentiment, poor theology or even untruth?  These are important questions and they are at the heart of the meanings of the three biblical terms we will examine in a moment.  Also, is the text of the song expressed well by the musicality of the song?  Musical language and textual language must support each other if the song is to hit its mark.  This is much more complex than such simple-minded notions that slow music is sad and fast music is happy.  It is the job of the song writer to match the language of the music with the feeling of the meaning of the words.  This is especially important for songs that are used in worship.  Context is also important.  Every song is presented after something and before something else.  Each worship leader operates within the confines of a church family culture.  These two things, the flow of the events of a service and the artistic/theological dimensions of the church body determine the context in which a song is presented.  In short, we must have the right song for the right moment if our music is to be used by the Holy Spirit to exalt the Lord Jesus, edify the Body and move decently and in order:  Text and Context.

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
Now let’s unveil these mysteries.  According to Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament words,

  • psalms are sacred songs with instrumental accompaniment.
  • Hymns are songs of praise addressed to God, and
  • spiritual songs are songs with a special touch of the Holy Spirit upon them.

I believe these definitions are as close as we can get the Paul’s intentions when he wrote these parallel passages.  We are much more familiar the definitions we have substituted:  Psalms are scriptures songs; hymns are old songs in books, and spiritual songs are the lively ones.  It will be most helpful to examine the biblical meanings.

What Is a Psalm?
Psalms are more than just the book of Psalms, although these are certainly included.  Psalms are sacred songs—songs set apart to God.  We can find them anywhere, in scripture or from composers, and in any style.  The important thing is they are for God, and they are about God—sacred.  Psalms are built on the pattern of the book of Psalms: real and revealing of God’s nature and man’s heart; proclamational of God’s glory and life’s enigmas; emotional and rational, repetitive and exhaustive, personal and congregational, joyful and sorrowful, a subject range that covers all of life.

Another important characteristic of biblical psalms is that they are designed to be accompanied by instruments—not recordings—instruments, played by instrumentalists.  Churches have become singer-centered, letting technology take the place of the instrumentalist.  This is far from the heart of God.  The Ephesians passage says, “sing  and make music”.  If we are to make our songs, “sacred” by setting them apart to God, we must be flexible, able to follow the flow of the Holy Spirit.  It takes living, breathing people to do that; instrumentalists and vocalists who are sensitive to the voice of God.  Pastors, music pastors, and worship leaders must take seriously the development of instrumentalists.  The first type of biblical song, the psalm, demands it.

What is a Hymn?
What musical term is more controversial in the church today than “hymn.” We can be sure that 50 to 100 year-old songs in a hardback book were not what Paul had in mind when he used the word “hymn.”  According to Vines, he meant songs of praise addressed to God.  We’ve already established that psalms are songs of praise.  The elevating difference about hymns is that they are addressed to God.  According to these parallel passages, all our singing and music making must be made to God, but hymns are addressed to Him.  In other words, biblically, hymns are songs of prayer.  There is a powerful dimension to a prayer that in sung buy a congregation.  When Jesus cleansed the Temple, he quoted Isaiah saying that the Father’s house would be a house of prayer for all nations. The word Isaiah used was the Hebrew word for hymn.  In other words, a mark of the house of God is that it is a place where prayers are sung.  In the synagogue prayers, usually from the Psalms, were chanted by the congregation.  This practice became a part of first century Christian worship and has continued through the ages.  As musical styles developed, songs of prayer developed as well.  This is one of the common factors of the historic hymns written since the Reformation and the contemporary songs of today’s praise and worship movement.  So many of the great songs are addressed to God, not to man; they are songs of prayer.  Compare My Jesus I Love Thee with I Love You, Lord.  The musical differences reflect the hundred years or so of musical tradition that separate them.  But the heart of each song is the same and each song is addressed directly to God.  This biblical understanding of hymns is essential to the process of bringing cultural and intergenerational peace to the church.

What us a Spiritual Song?
The power intensifies further with “spiritual songs.” Sacred songs with instruments addressed to God can also be touched with the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit’s power should be present on every psalm and hymn so what is the need of another genre?  To this point the Bible is instructing us in the use of composed songs. When worshipers begin to improvise their own musical expressions of worship, the Holy Spirit can breathe through an entire congregation to create a symphony of worship unique to that moment and place.  Many times the gifts of the Spirit will flow in these moments and the Lord will speak vital things to the fellowship.  This level of worship requires a knowledgeable, skillful, and willing congregation.  This doesn’t happen by accident.  It happens when the Holy Spirit opens the hearts of the singers and instrumentalists, who have a key role in releasing this song of the Lord, and the hearts of the leaders and people to this ministry.

For more on spiritual songs, go to:

So there you have it, the great trans-cultural, trans-generational, trans-personal plan of God.  Regardless of the musical language of a certain people in a particular place and a given time, the music God is listening for is full of truth, revelation and mystery.  It is about God not about us.  It is poured out willing to the Lord as prayer from a sincere heart.  Instruments accompany it and at times worshipers are released to improvise as the Spirit leads.  Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are the universal repertoire of the universal church.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer
F&F130 REVISED July, 2009

Fire and Form: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

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