Palms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation , but 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 5:18 – 19 NASB Revised)

I have read these verses many times over the years and have often wondered why Paul used the words he chose. I mean, just what is the difference between a hymn and a spiritual song? And what, exactly, is a psalm? Is it another word for a song? Is it a poem? A prayer? What?

So I decided to find out what the words meant. Not what we might think they mean now, but what they meant to Paul and those in Ephesus who heard his letter read. And it turns out that their meanings are much different than the way they are used in churches today and therefore what I have always thought the words meant.

So what did I find? Well, the Greek words are very interesting. Because most translations try to use a single word (what is known as a “word for word translation”) we have lost some interesting nuances that English just can’t convey with a single word. To say the same things in English can sometimes take a whole sentence. So let’s look at each word in turn, and I will end with my best attempt at putting it all together so we can see what the Ephesians might have understood Paul to have written in his letter to them.

The first word I looked up was “speaking” and it means “uttering intelligible sounds, talking, speaking”. So whatever it is we are to do, it must be understandable to those who are listening to us. That is rather straight forward so let’s move on to the next word.

Paul says to speak or talk to each other (he actually said “themselves” or as we would say in English “yourselves”) first using psalms. So we need to know what he means. Are we supposed to be able to make up poems on the spot to use to talk to each other in church? I don’t know about you but if that is what he meant than I guess I won’t be talking to anyone in church any more! I can’t make up a poem even if I’m given days – or even weeks – to work on it, so there is no way in the world I would be able to carry on a conversation using poetry. So I checked the lexicon to see what Paul was saying. And that is where I got my first surprise. Here is basically what a psalm is: “The striking or twanging of a chord from a musical instrument, or to pluck or hit the strings of a musical instrument to play a chord.” So a psalm is actually instrumental music. It could be just instruments playing a song, or it could be the music played as background to a poem or other “reading”, but it actually refers to the instrumental part of the music not the vocal part.

So how do we get a whole book of the Bible that is called “The Psalms”? I believe it is because these prayers and poems were written specifically to be either sung or read to musical accompaniment. If you read the “headings” of many of the Psalms (what some translations call verse 1 and others almost ignore) you will find that the specific music that is to be played while the Psalm is being read or sung is indicated. It is too bad that those songs have been lost, it would be interesting to hear the “Psalms” the way they were originally intended to be heard.

And then there are hymns. Today we tend to think they are “old” songs, ones that are “traditional” and by that we usually mean ones that are always played on an organ, only people over 70 know all the words to them, and are written using language that hasn’t been in daily use for 300 years. However, that is not what the word meant when Paul used it. A hymn is a “praise song to gods, heroes, or conquerors”. There can be a “religious” nature to the piece of music, but that is not required for it to be a hymn. I’ve always been led to believe that hymns by their very nature are always religious, but it turns out they can be secular as well! However, as used here by Paul, it is definately “religious” and would therefore mean a praise song to Yahweh.

Finally we get to “spiritual songs”. This one turns out to be rather easy. The word translated as “songs” is the generic word for songs, any song – religious or not. Classical symphony music or drinking songs. It doesn’t matter, it covers them all. So it is the word translated as “spiritual” that designates just what kind of songs Paul is talking about. And that word literally means “of the spirit”. Paul is referring to songs “of the spirit (or Spirit)” or “spiritual”. It turns out that these two words, at least, can be translated into English easily after all. However, we need to remember that Paul is not telling us what style of music to use, rather he is telling us what the nature of music should be. He is not saying it can only be classical music, or it can only be praise songs. He is not saying what kind of instruments may or may not be used. Nor is he saying how old or new the songs must be. What he is saying, however, is that they must be songs whose content is clearly in line with Biblical truth and are therefore “spiritual” or “Spirit led” (or “Spirit inspired”) songs.

Psalms – instrumental music; hymns – may or may not be “religious” in nature; songs – generic songs, only spiritual because that is how Paul designated them. Not quite what you were expecting either? Doesn’t seem to make a super “spiritual” list after all does it? But it is the list Paul used, and that is what the Greek words really mean. So those are the types of songs we are to be using to speak to each other, and Paul gives them ALL spiritual meaning, even instrumental music.

Then after telling us we should be speaking to each other in psalms, hymns, etc., he goes on to say we are to also be “singing and making melody” with our hearts to the Lord. So just what does he want us to do? Well, the word translated as “singing” happens to mean just that, singing. However, making melody is a bit harder to express completely in English and it also turns out to be a surprise. Making melody means: “To pluck or twang the strings of a musical instrument. To play a musical instrument.” Interesting isn’t? Instrumental music is just as valid as vocal music when used to praise God! That is a bit different than what many in the church claim today isn’t it? I have even heard people claim it is impossible to worship God with an instrumental song – that if it has no words it can not praise God. And yet, here is Paul, telling us to play musical instruments “with our heart[s], to the Lord!” So it seems that the Apostle Paul believed it is possible to praise God with instrumental music.

One reason I have often heard for “outlawing” instrumental music in church (instrumental accompaniment is just fine as are piano and organ pieces) is that it is “just the musician showing off.” My question is, “What exactly is the difference between a singer doing a solo and an instrumentalist doing one?” Yes, the singer is (usually) using words but I have heard lot of vocalist who do a whole lot of “showing off” vocally. So how is that OK while a musician worshiping God by giving Him an offering of their instrumental music is wrong? And why is it OK to play piano or organ solos, no matter how much embellishment there is (showing off when anyother instrumentalist does it)? Personally, I think I will go with what Paul says, sing or play, as long as it is “of the Spirit” and “to God”. Once you start doing it for yourself I don’t care what you are doing, it is wrong – even if the WORDS are in praise or worship of God.

And we are are to do all this with our “heart” whatever that means. To the Greeks, the word means: Literally – “The heart, the organ that pumps blood throughout the body. Metaphorically – the center of the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental being.” So Paul wants all of this to come from inside us, from the very core of our being, and to be done with “everything we are”. In other words, this can not be done half heartedly, or with the attitude that “close is good enough, God sees what is in our hearts”. It must be done to the absolute best of our ability, we are to give it “everything we’ve got”. When we become Christians, we are to go “all in”, we are to give God everything, and Paul says that when we “sing and make melody” it to is to be “all in” also. We are to give everything we are to God in our music as well!

And something else, did you remember that these songs, no matter what kind, style, or method of presentation, are to be used to “speak to one another”? “Well,” I hear someone say, “that settles it, you have to use words so that means no instrumental songs after all!” Not so fast. Music, even (especially) instrumental music, can and does communicate emotionally. Can you listen to a “fugue” without feeling just a bit “down” or sad? Doesn’t surprise me, originally they were written as funeral processionals. Can you listen to the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” – even without the words being sung – and not smile, or at least feel like smiling? Or even dancing? That doesn’t surprise me either, the style of music used really is a dance – a sailor’s jig. So, yes, even instrumental music can be used to “speak” to someone else, to convey a message on an emotional level or even a spiritual level rather than an intellectual one.

And he wants us to do this to the “Lord”. The word “lord” is an interesting one. It means: “He to whom a person or thing belongs, master, owner, ruler, sovereign.” So for a believer that would be either Yeshua (Jesus) or Yahweh (God). And Paul reminds us that whether we are singing or playing, our music ultimately, is not for the people listening, but for God – the One we have surrendered our lives to.

No, I haven’t forgotten verse 18. It is much easier to understand so I started with verse 19. There are only three words that are hard to translate from Greek to English. The first is the word “drunk”. I was really surprised to find out that what Paul actually said was, “don’t drink to become drunk or intoxicated” with wine. So Paul isn’t against drinking, but he is against getting drunk, especially doing so intentionally. The reason he gives is that doing so leads to “reckless and extravagant expenditure, chiefly for the gratification of one’s sensual desires. It denotes a dissolute and profligate course of life.” All that in one word! Try saying that with just one English word! That is the word the translators chose to use “dissipation ” for. It doesn’t quite cover it completely does it? Instead of that we are to be filled with the Spirit.

What isn’t very obvious in English is this is a command. Paul is commanding his listeners to be filled with the Spirit. And there is one other thing to note. He is also telling them to be completely filled – literally filled to the full. It is only when we are “filled to the full” by the Holy Spirit, that we can sing songs and play our instruments without any vestiges of selfish indulgence being involved. If we are not filled by the Holy Spirit when we perform, then we will become proud when people complement us rather than giving God the glory for whatever happened. Our music will be for us rather than for God.

Oh, one other thing – why do I use “and also” when the translators use a single word – usually “and, also, or even, etc.”? (“And” in the NASB above.) The Greek word has both an additive component and a copulative or joining together meaning. So, the additive meaning – and; along with its copulative meaning – also. I don’t know a single English word that has that meaning so I use “and also” together in an attempt to better convey the complete meaning. I know it doesn’t sound like much of a difference, and it isn’t really, but it does change the meaning of the word just enough that “and” is not quite right, nor are any of the other choices – by themselves. You need to put a couple of words together to get the full meaning of the Greek word. I guess other ways you could say it is: It is this “plus also” that or this “plus with” that. But they seem a bit unwieldy don’t they? So – this “and also” that. In this case Paul is adding and including each of these instructions to and with what he has just finished telling his listeners to do. (Paul’s letters were read to the entire church rather than being read by each individual.) These are not just another line item on a list, but an integral part of a way of life Paul is telling his readers to live. They can not be taken one at a time, but must be taken as a whole. (Sorry, the rest of the instructions will have to wait for another time. Or, better yet, study them for yourself!)

And now to put it all together:

“And also, don’t drink to be intoxicated on wine, by which is reckless and extravagant expenditures on the gratification of selfish desires, but you must be completely filled by the Spirit, speaking to each other with instrumental music, and also praise songs to Yaweh, and also spiritual songs, singing and also playing your musical instruments with all your being to Yeshua who is your Sovereign.”


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