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A Special Exegesis of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16

By Prof. John McNaugher, D. D., LL.D., Allegheny, Pennsylvania, USA


As even a glance at their contents shows, the Epistle to the Ephesians and that to the Colossians are closely alike. About half of the verses in the former have parallels in the latter, and there are other resemblances as well. This twinship is explained when it is remembered that the two letters were written at the same time and to communities similarly circumstanced. Among the coincidences in thought and language are to be numbered the texts under study, which almost repeat each other.

Turning to these duplicate exhortations, it appears at once that they are of peculiar interest in that they yield a glimpse of the simple worship of primitive days … True, the question has been raised whether they have to do with worship at all, whether Paul is not touching merely upon the intercourse of believers in their family life, at their love-feasts, their social gatherings, and other meetings, and suggesting mutual edification by song. On this mooted point the common verdict is that the main, though not exclusive, reference is to the stated services of the public assembly, which seem to have been of a free and elastic nature. That worship, as well as joint instruction, is in mind is indicated by the concluding words in each citation—“singing with grace in your hearts unto God,” “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”

With the foregoing inquiry answered, it may be added as beyond doubt that all the resources of the Early Church as regards her treasury of sacred song are embraced in the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” here mentioned. In the three terms the inventory is evidently complete. Here then are classical passages which must be consulted in connection with any investigation into the hymnology of the Apostolic period, passages which have a decisive bearing, therefore, on what compositions may be employed properly in the ordinance of praise.

As to their meaning, there has been pronounced disagreement. The advocates of uninspired songs in worship look on them as strongholds, arguing therefrom that in the age of the Apostles the Psalter was supplemented by new lyrics, and that therefore, as a necessary consequence, the legitimacy of the modern hymn is established. Some writers on this side declare themselves in a very dogmatic way, dismissing lightly the idea of contradiction. On the other hand, it is alleged that there is no cause for supposing that Paul’s “hymns and spiritual songs” were anything different from the canonical Psalms, and that there is no license here for the use of other devotional pieces than the Psalms in the worship of God. The latter is the view which will be upheld in this exegesis. It challenges the opposite interpretation as being but a surmise, and offers a series of substantial reasons for its own correctness.

To begin with, it should be realized that present usage as regards the debated terms plays no part in fixing their sense. One can be misled by the seemingly familiar phraseology, and think forthwith of the hard and fast distinction now made between Psalms and hymns. But we are deciphering what was penned in A. D. 61 or 62, long centuries before any of the uninspired productions in the hymnals of today were extant. In order, therefore, to make these lines intelligible, we must transport ourselves back into that past to which Paul and his readers belong, and there undertake our exposition with open-mindedness and cautious discrimination.

As an approach toward identifying the poems intended by these designations, there is clear evidence at hand that all of them were divinely inspired, indited under the extraordinary influence of the Holy Spirit. Preliminary to what is deemed decisive proof, certain considerations which go to make this important claim a strong probability may be adduced.

1. First, in these verses the direction given is not to prepare or provide songs of praise, but only to sing them. On this we must be permitted to insist. But in the absence of an express warrant for so doing, would not these Asia Minor Christians have been chary about writing original hymns for rendition in worship, when the Psalter, written on the mountain-tops of inspiration, and full of the things of God, was everywhere, as is allowed, a congregational handbook? Is it likely that any, self-advised and unaided, would have had the temerity or the desire to attempt such an innovation?

2. Furthermore, had any of Gentile extraction exercised this liberty, would it not have excited strong protest among their Jewish brethren? The first converts to Christianity were generally Jews. These formed the beginnings of the churches in the towns and cities of the Roman Empire, and for a time they must have had prestige and privileged position. They brought with them from the synagogue the highly cherished Psalms, those Psalms which were associated with their holiest traditions, and which were known to have been meet for the Master’s use, and thereby doubly consecrated. Clinging to these with an inherited reverence, they must have resented vigorously an uninspired Gentile hymnody. The fact, therefore, that on the subject of praise there is not the slightest echo of discord or controversy in the Apostolic Church, indicates that there was no intrusion of any alien element.

3. Again, it is altogether improbable that hymnists, as measured by even human standards, could be found in the churches of this date. The Gentile members, within whose circle the search is confined, had been but recently rescued form the ignorance and pollution of heathenism, and they had immature, often faulty, understanding of religious doctrine. Their literary capabilities, too, must have been limited, for “not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, were called.” Indeed, the low social status of the early Christians was the standing reproach of hostile critics. All this being true, where are we to find the mellow piety, the spiritual discernment, the education, and the poetic genius and art which must be taken for granted if uninspired songs fit to be named alongside the Psalms are here in mind? Men who deny the genuineness of Ephesians and Colossians allege that the reference is to just such songs, and then proceed to conclude that for this very reason, among others, these Epistles betray themselves as later than the Apostolic era.
4. Moreover, if the Psalms of Scripture are intended by the word “psalms,” as is assumed for the present, it is quite unthinkable that Paul would link human compositions with those of the Spirit of God, and direct that they be used for the same end. It is true that in most hymnals the inspired and the uninspired are intermixed, regardless of the chasm in thought and tone which separates them. Occasionally, owing to more conservatism and a finer appreciation of the proprieties, this confusion is modified to the extent that the Psalms are kept together and assigned the first pages. But all of this is neither here nor there. We are interpreting Paul, and he had exact conceptions of inspiration. It was he who distinguished the Old Testament writings, inclusive of the “God-breathed” literature, clothed with inviolable sanctity (II Tim 3:16). It was he who described himself, an Apostle of the New Covenant, as receiving truth by divine revelation, and as giving it utterance “not in words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Spirit teacheth” (I Cor. 2:13). It seems incredible, therefore, that in this instance he should trample upon a distinction which elsewhere he guards jealously and put uninspired songs in competition with those inspired as having equal teaching worth.

What has been noticed thus far affords cogent grounds for the belief that the hymns and spiritual songs of our passages were all of inspired quality. The crowning demonstration of this, however, lies in the descriptive term, “spiritual” It matters nothing in the argument whether this adjective is taken as limiting each of the preceding words or not. There are those who think that it extends to the “psalms” and “hymns,” an opinion which is not out of harmony with Greek syntax. But, of course, there is no rule demanding this, and on the other hand, as will appear later, there is sufficient reason for restricting “spiritual” to “songs” alone. At the same time it reflects character on all the compositions of praise here specified. The three words may be synonyms, as we prefer to think, or it may be said with Meyer that the spiritual songs are the genus, of which the psalms and hymns are the species, or “spiritual songs” may denote the lowest class of a triple category. In any event, when the phrase “spiritual” is defined, it is certain that the “psalms” and “hymns,” no less than the “songs,” are duly characterized.

Now what is the import of the word? In answer to this pivotal question we affirm that the Greek original, which is pneumatikos, has no such latitude of meaning as “spiritual” has in English, and that it designates commonly whatever is immediately given or produced by the Spirit of God. It is construed thus by an overwhelming majority of critical authorities, including those of the greatest weight. A few special citations will not be amiss. Dr. Warfield, of Princeton, writes thus in The Presbyterian Review (July, 1880): “Of the twenty-five instances in which the word occurs in the new Testament, in no single case does it sink even as low in its reference as the human spirit; and in twenty-four of them is derived from pneuma, the Holy Ghost. In this sense of belonging to, or determined by, the Holy Spirit, the New Testament usage is uniform with the one single exception of Ephesians 6:12, where it seems to refer to the higher, though fallen, superhuman intelligences. The appropriate translation for it in each case is Spirit-given or Spirit-led, or Spirit-determined.” In The Expositor (Third Series, Vol. 4, p. 137), Dr. Warfield repeats himself substantially, and adds that this interpretation “is gradually becoming recognized by the best expositors.” Dr. Laidlaw, of the United Free Church College, Edinburgh, treating the term in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible, says that “everything pneumatikon, spiritual, is a divine product or creation.” Eadie, in his Commentary on Ephesians (see his comment on Eph. 1:3) remarks that pneumatikos means “produced by or belonging to the Holy Spirit,” and adds that this is “the ruling sense of the epithet in the New Testament.” Dr. Charles Hodge, in his Commentary on First Corinthians (see his comment on I Cor. 10:3), says: “one of the most common meaning of the word spiritual in Scripture is derived from the Spirit. Spiritual gifts and spiritual blessings are gifts and blessings of which the Spirit is the author.” The same position is maintained by such New Testament lexicographers as Cremer, Parkhurst, Robinson, and Thayer, and it is advocated in McClintock and Strong’s Encyclopedia.

Among others who comment on the word pneumatikos as it is found elsewhere in the New Testament and advance the meaning given are Barnes, Chalmers, Denney, Farrar, Fausset, Fronmuller (Lange Commentary), Gifford, Godet, Gore, Hort, Kling (Lange Commentary), Moule, Neander, Olshausen, Sandy, Schmiedel, Stanley, Moses Stuart, and Marvin R. Vincent. Coming to authorities on the passages under review, many of the more eminent and scholarly sustain the same exegesis and account these “spiritual songs” as inspired, “the productions of the Holy Ghost in the department of poetry.” See the New Testament lexicons by Cremer, by Robinson, and by Thayer. From commentators on Colossians or Ephesians we cite Alford, Beet, Braune (Lange Commentary), Cheyne, Cone, Dale, Eadie, Ellicott, Findlay, Maclaren, Meyer, Riddle, Salmond, and Tholuck. Hodge and Barnes are not included in this last list, and their adverse interpretation furnishes an instructive warning of how expositors may be swayed by personal inclination and practice. Dealing with the term in Eph. 5:19, Hodge writes thus: “This may mean either inspired, i.e., derived from the Spirit; or expressing spiritual thoughts and feelings. This latter is the more probable.” And yet in every instance, except this one, in which pneumatikos occurs in the New Testament Books on which he has commented, Hodge holds stoutly to the other idea of the word, and even here he is constrained to admit it as applicable. Barnes is guilty of the same fault.

The sum of our finding thus far is, first, that there is a body of strong presumptive evidence for the inspiration of Paul’s “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” and, second, that the adjective pneumatikos lifts them to this high level beyond peradventure, stamping them as written by poetically gifted men under the extraordinary impulse and guidance of the Holy Spirit. In keeping with such a conclusion is the following from an editorial in the North British Review, of Edinburgh: “It is probable that, while the miraculous influences of the Spirit continued upon earth, no uninspired songs were admitted into the public or private devotions of Christians” (Vol. 27, p. 195). Even if we went no farther it would appear, and we so assert, that in Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:15 there is not a scintilla of warrant for the use of humanly composed lyrics in worship. Though other inspired odes than those in the Book of Psalms should be countenanced in these passages, it were a bewildering feat of inference that would legalize therefrom the multitudinous hymnology of today, for this has been wrought out at the discretion, and according to the wisdom, of fallible men. Authorization for such an uninspired hymnology is imperatively required, but they labor in vain who seek it here.

To overcome this objection there are some of our hymn-singing brethren who claim that a hymn penned by a good man and embodying evangelical sentiment may be rated as “inspired.” Thus Dr. R. McCheyne Edgar, of Dublin, wrote recently: “His [the Holy Spirit’s] inspirations were not exhausted when the Canon was complete; and if he inspires prayers which have never been embodied in any prayer-book, canonical or otherwise, is it not reasonable to believe that He has likewise inspired the poets who have devoted themselves to sacred song, although their ‘spiritual songs’ never could be placed in the Canon?” (Progressive Presbyterianism, p. 144). Such a contention leads to the most perilous consequences, hiding a lurking, though an unconscious, infidelity. It strikes at the Scriptural doctrine of inspiration, confusing it with spiritual illumination, just as was done by Schleiermacher and his school. Inconsistent, as it is, with the faith of the Church universal, which has always made a marked distinction between the writings of inspired men and those of ordinary believers, it merits nothing but censure.

Estimating these “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” as all inspired, several conjectures remain open. The first is that Paul, having in mind the strange exaltation which pervaded the Apostolic Church, alludes to new miraculous songs improvised on the spur of the moment by those in a condition of inspired ecstasy; i.e., he alludes to a rhythmic form of the gift of tongues. This theory has no foundation, because:

1. A store of existing lyrics is presupposed in the language of these passages. Evidently Paul enjoins his readers to sing what was then accessible, and does not intimate unknown, non-existent odes, yet to be extemporized. Moreover, the “psalms” referred to were in existence, and the drunken songs of heathen feasts which stand in antithesis in one of the contexts (Eph. 5:18) were ready-made. Why not these “hymns and spiritual songs” also?

2. There is no proof that lyrical endowments were among the grace-gifts, the charismatic activities, of the Pauline churches.

3. Paul said of the gift of tongues that it did not edify the Church except under certain limitations (I Cor. 14:1-33), and, therefore, so far as instruction was concerned, he must have depreciated kindred outbursts of feeling voiced in song. Here, however, he urges what is of prime value for teaching and admonition (Col. 3:16).

Since ecstatic impromptus are not to be thought of, let us turn to another theory, viz., that inspired songs original to the age and prepared for general use by the Apostles or other supernaturally gifted men are referred to. This also is baseless and untenable.

1. There is no recorded divine commission in the new Testament constituting hymnists, nor is there any promised help of the Holy Spirit in a lyrical direction.

2. Among the diversities of gifts bestowed in rich measure at the outset of the present dispensation there is no mention of that of sacred poesy, and yet in Old Testament times hymn-making was just such a gift.

3. There is unbroken silence in the New Testament regarding the actual making of such odes. The formation of an inspired hymnology was a most important occurrence in the former economy, so that it is signalised in the Old Testament. We might reasonably expect, therefore, that there would have been some hint at least of a similar phenomenon in the Apostolic Church, and the more because the long-standing ordinance of psalmody would have been altered thereby.

4. Not one such hymn, nor yet a single authentic vestige of one, has been preserved. There are no canticles in the Third Gospel, though hasty writers speak of the “hymns of the Nativity.” The songs of the Apocalypse are not quotations from a hymn-book, but integral parts of the Apocalypse itself; they belong to the visions which John saw as he was swept away into the heavens. The assertion that there are hymnic fragments scattered over the New Testament rests on sheer conjecture, a little euphonious Greek being all that can be cited. Dean Howson, commentating on the conjecture that a certain passage in Romans is a lyric quotation, says: “The fact that the passage can be broken up into a system of irregular lines, consisting of dochmiac and choriambic feet, proves nothing; because there is scarcely any passage in Greek prose which might not be resolved into lyrical poetry by a similar method; just as, in English, the columns of a newspaper may be read off in hexameters (spondaic, or otherwise), quite as good as most of the so-called English hexameters which are published” (Coneybeare and Howson, Life and Epistles of St. Paul, Vol. 1, p. 195). Of an alleged Apostolic hymnody a recent critic so competent as Eduard Reuss, of Strasburg, has said that it “cannot be proved from the doubtful traces which have been adduced as evidence therefore [i.e., for it]” (History of the New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 162). There being no relics of an Apostolic hymnody extant, the presumption is strong that there never was such a hymnody. Had extra-Psalmodic hymns and songs of inspired origin been current in the early Church, they could not all have perished.

5. As Cheyne states in The Encyclopedia Biblica (Article on Hymns), the language of Paul presupposes a stock of songs which were known by heart and easily rose to the lips. Is it supposable that within a generation after the death of Christ a collection of Apostolic odes coordinate with the Psalms had crystallized into shape, and that these were familiarly known in the churches of Asia Minor, which were less than ten years old?

Reviewing the argument, surely it may be held as a moral certainty that in the infant Church of the New Testament there was no creation of inspired hymns for social worship. Even though, however, the opposite was admitted, the fact must still be faced that such productions were short-lived and are lost beyond recall. The matter, therefore, would remain precisely the same as to us, for no human composures can replace what were “God-breathed.”

The ground is now cleared for insisting that the praise-songs of these twin passages are those of the Psalter alone. As a counterpart to the interpretations which have been negatived, it is susceptible of absolute demonstration that the three terms were applied to the Psalms of Scripture long before Paul wrote, and that this usage was universally prevalent in the church of his day. For the proof of this we rely chiefly upon the Septuagint. The Jews of the Dispersion, not only in Egypt, but in Western Asia and Europe, spoke Greek habitually. During the third and second centuries B.C. there was made in their interest the Greek Version of the Old Testament styled the Septuagint (LXX), so called form the legend that it was executed by seventy translators. Its use spread rapidly, and at the dawn of the Christian era all Hellenistic Jews read their Bible through this medium. Philo of Alexandria, the best representative of the Hellenist, depended wholly upon the Septuagint, and Josephus, himself a Palestinian Jew, cites it more than he does the Hebrew. Accordingly, the heralds of the gospel found this Version ready to their hand, and it went with them wherever Greek was understood. Just as the New Testament was written in Greek for Greek-speaking peoples, so the Old Testament, the only Scriptures of the early Apostolic period, was circulated through the Church in the Greek dress of the Septuagint. That the Apostles were well acquainted with this translation and commonly used it is shown in that two-thirds of their Old Testament quotations are from its pages. Turning to the recipients of these letters, it is granted that the Christians in Asia Minor were predominantly Gentile, and yet, as Ramsay has proved (See The Church in the Roman Empire and St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen), Jews were numerous in this region, particularly in the Graeco-Asiatic cities, and the Book of the Acts makes it plain that they and their proselytes were the nuclei of the churches there planted. (See Acts 13:14, 14:1, 16:1, 3, 19:8, 10). This alone guarantees that the Septuagint was in ordinary use in these communities. And even though a Jewish element is shut out from the reckoning, the Gentile Christians at Ephesus, Colossae, and elsewhere could have read the Scriptures in that Version only which was in general currency, and which had received Apostolic sanction. It follows that the Psalter-songs, which, it is almost unanimously admitted, were an integral part of their worship, and which were chanted to their Greek music, must have been from the translation of the Seventy.

Consulting this great Version, the most cursory reader will find, first, that there is a steady recurrence of these three designations, “psalms,” “hymns,” and “songs,” in the formal titles to the compositions of the Psalter; second, that the terms “hymns” and “songs,” with their related verbs, occur again and again in the text or body of the Psalms; and, third, that the same terms are employed frequently in the historical Books, both canonical and apocryphal, with reference to the Psalter. Besides the caption of the entire Psalter, which is “Psalms” (psalmoi), it is well known that most of these inspired odes have headlines of their own. In sixty-seven of these the word “psalm” (psalmos) appears, in six the word “hymn” (humnos), and in thirty-five the word “song” (oodee), the same Greek words used in the passages before us. Still further: “psalm” and “song” are conjoined twelve times, and “psalms” and “hymn” twice. In the heading of the Seventy-Sixth Psalm all three terms stand side by side, just as here, and the heading of the Sixty-Fifth Psalm contains “psalm” and “song,” while in the first verse the composition is spoken of as a “hymn.” It is noteworthy also in these compound inscriptions that our terms interchange easily, and that “hymn” is written repeatedly in the plural, suggesting that in the estimation of the Seventy it was applicable to all the poems of the Psalter. There are such various phrasings as “a psalm of a song,” “a song of a psalm,” “a psalm, a song,” “in psalms a song,” “in hymns a psalm,” “in hymns, a psalm, a song.”

Turning from the titles of the Greek Psalter, the terms “hymn” and “song,” with their cognate verbs and substantives are interspersed freely through the text as well of its odes, being descriptive of these compositions. Three citations out of sixteen will suffice. The Fortieth Psalm, third verse, runs: “He put into my mouth a new lay, a hymn (humnon) to our God.” At the close of the Seventy-Second Psalm there is the line, “The hymns (hoi humnoi) of David, the son of Jesse, are ended.” This colophon may apply to the entire preceding collection, Psalms 1 and 72, inclusive, as Perowne contends, or it may have been attached to some group of Davidic Psalms incorporated in the Psalter. In either case it shows that the LXX. Translators comprehended Psalms indiscriminately and collectively under the name “hymns” (humnoi). Again, in Psalm 137:3 we read: “There they who took us captive demanded of us words of songs (oodoon), and they who led us away said, Chant us a hymn (humnon) out of the songs (ek toon oodoon) of Zion.” Here the word “songs” (oodai) covers all the Psalms, and a “hymn” may be selected at random from these “songs.”

When we pass form the Psalms themselves to the historical Books of the Septuagint, the terminology is identical. In II Samuel, I Chron., II Chron., and Nehemiah there are sixteen instances of this, and in them the Psalms as a plurality are called “hymns” (humnoi) or “songs” (oodai) indifferently, and the singing of them is called “hymning” (humneoo, humnoodeoo, humneesis). In the Apocryphal books of the Septuagint, likewise, sometimes considered an appendage to the Old Testament, sometimes a part of it, the same sustained usage catches the eye at least ten times, as will be seen by examining The Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, and the First and Second books of Maccabees.

This then is the multiplied and cumulative witness of the Septuagint, Paul’s Bible and the Bible of the Asia Minor churches. Does it not point indubitably to the conclusion that the Apostle intends nothing but the Greek Psalter when he employs the three denominations it had worn so long, and which would recur readily to every mind? And here it is worthwhile to observe again his injunction. He does not tell those addressed to make psalms, hymns, and songs, but to use such as they had, and with which they are assumed to be conversant. And what were these? What in the circumstances could they have been, in the thought of either the writer or the readers, but that divine system of lyrics known by these three ancient titles, and which, so far as history reveals, was the only compilation of sacred songs known by any name? Let it be supposed that the Book of Psalms alone had been used in the Christian Church up to the present, that it had taken root in the affections of the people, and that in the Authorized Version of the Bible and the popular praise-manuals its one hundred and fifty odes were styled psalms, hymns, and songs. Suppose next that a pastoral letter was dispatched to our congregations, advising the people to let the word of Christ dwell in them richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. What would be understood by the exhortation? The question answers itself. But these were precisely the conditions among the churches of Asia Minor. According to the principles of historical criticism, therefore, the evidence is ample and decisive that these passages reproduce the technical Psalter designations of the Septuagint.

As against successful dissent, notice that authorities are practically unanimous that in the first of the three words the Psalter is referred to, either exclusively or chiefly. Reuss and others count it inconceivable that the word “psalm” (psalmos) should have a wider sense anywhere in the New Testament. So Dr. Alexander, Bishop of Derry, Bloomfield, Eadie, Hodge, Lathrop, Lightfoot, Maclaren, Oehler, Olshausen, Reuss, Salmond, Stier, Tholuck, and most commentators. It being settled then that the Apostle in penning the word “psalm” had definitely before him the Psalter in its Greek dress, how is it possible to deny fairly that the terms which he conjoins with “psalms” are limited to that customary application of them to the Psalter which is testified to by the Septuagint? In such a grouping, coordinated with “psalms,” and without any new use of them being hinted, how could they have been diverted from their stereotyped meaning?

Our position, already well fortified, receives striking confirmation outside the Alexandrian Version. Philo, the learned Jewish philosopher, writing during our Lord’s life and immediately after (died AD 40), never once uses the word “psalm” or its compounds in connection with his many quotations from the Psalter, but always “hymn” (humnos) or one of its compounds. This leads Cheyne to surmise that Alexandria had a special edition of the Greek Psalter with “hymns” (humnoi) as its running title (Bampton Lectures for 1889, p. 12), while Edwin Hatch accounts for Philo’s practice on the theory that “hymns” (humnoi) was the older designation of the Psalms (Essays in Biblical Greek, p. 174). Flavius Josephus, the celebrated historian, who represent Jewish Hellenistic literature in the generation which followed Philo, tells how “David composed songs (oodas) and hymns (humnous) and alludes repeatedly to the psalms as “hymns.” The New Testament itself, elsewhere than in these passages in Ephesians and Colossians, agrees unmistakably in the same witness. In Matt 26:30 and Mark 14:26 it is recorded that after the institution of the Supper our Lord and His Apostles “hymned” or “sung an hymn” (humneesantes). All grant that what Jesus is thus described as singing on that sad night was the second part of the Passover Hallel, Psalms 115 and 118 inclusive, and yet the Evangelists call this the “singing of hymns.” Let it be noted that these Gospels echo the established habit of the church at the time when they were written, and that they and our two Epistles belong to the same decade.

And now, massing what has been gleaned from the Septuagint, from the eminent Hellenistic authors named, and from the new Testament itself, it is indisputable that during Apostolic days, in both Jewish and Christian circles, it was the custom to refer to the lyrics of the Psalter as “psalms,” “hymns,” or “songs” indifferently. So fixed, indeed, was this that it persisted in the early Greek fathers and in the second–century Greek versions of the Old Testament, that of Aquila, that of Theodotion, and that of Symmachus.

According to the interpretation of these passages here upheld, the different terms are taken as synonyms. This is certainly true in the Septuagint, where “psalm,” “hymn,” and “song” interchange promiscuously, where in fact the same Hebrew noun is translated “hymn” and “psalm,” and where, in the plural as here, each word is an appellation for the whole Psalter. (The word neginoth is rendered “hymns” in the inscriptions of Psalms 6, 54, 55, 61, 67 and 76, while in the inscription of Psalm 4 it is rendered “psalms.”) Even some who do not find in these New Testament terms an exclusive reference to the Psalter appreciate that they are synonymous, though the admission is damaging because of the generally accepted signification of “psalm” (psalmos). (Lightfoot on Colossians 3:16 says, “It is quite possible for the same song to be at once psalmos, humnos and oodee.” Orello Cone says that these “three terms are essentially synonymous, and the slight shades of meaning between them are not easily definable.”) That the poems of the Psalter answer in reality to each on of these terms is patent. As Dr. J. Addison Alexander said of them, “They are all not only poetical, but lyrical, i.e., songs, poems intended to be sung” (Introduction to his commentary on the Psalms). They are psalms also, for their original rendition was with instrumental accompaniment. And they are hymns in that they are intrinsically religious, embodying adoration, thanksgiving, confession, and supplication to God. So pronounced is their hymnic character that they have received the designation of “hymns” continuously from the first. The old Hebrew name of the Psalter, that of the Rabbins and subsequently that of the Talmud, was Sepher Tehillim, “Book of Praises,” or, as it might be paraphrased, “Hymn-Book.” Then comes the early Greek usage, Biblical and extra-Biblical, already rehearsed. Succeeding centuries maintain the practice, as is seen in the Apostolical Constitutions and in the words of such Fathers as Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Eusebius, Hilary, Athanasius, Jerome, Augustine, and Cassian. Testimonies from the Middle Ages might be multiplied at great length, but Bede, “the Venerable,” gives their gist when he speaks of the whole Psalter as called “Liber Hymnorum” by universal consent. Thereafter, through the Reformation period and down to modern times, the Psalms are spoken of incessantly as hymns. And to-day, in spite of the popular cleavage between psalms and hymns, all our dictionaries, such as Webster, the Century, and the Standard, identify the psalms as hymns, scholarly writers (such as Ewald, Stanley and Robertson Smith) describe the Psalter as “a hymnal,” “the hymn-book of the Second Temple,” or “the hymn-book of the Reformed Churches,” and Psalms are stitched into collections of human compositions and labelled “hymns” with the rest.

Against the ascribing of these three terms to the Psalter it is urged that “songs” (oodai) has an attributive in the word “spiritual” (pneumatikai) which is novel, and which forbids dependence on the Septuagint in the exegesis of these passages. It is not “psalms, hymns, and songs,” we are told, but “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” The objection is plausible, but it shrinks to the vanishing point and becomes a verbal quibble when the context in Ephesians is noted. The Greeks, the Asiatic Greeks particularly, were devoted to music. Song and jest, stimulated by the wine-cup, were the entertainment of the social hour, and often these were coarse and wanton. Their very religious festivals included the orgies of Bacchus and Venus, where vile phallic songs were a feature. In contrast with this wicked revelry Paul tells his readers to enliven their gatherings with the joy which the Spirit of God imparts, and to express themselves in songs which He has inspired. The answer, therefore, to the objection raised is that, while the terms “psalms” and “hymns” were marked out as consecrated, the term “songs” had become peculiarly besmirched in heathen parlance, and the Apostle adds the word “spiritual” to differentiate Christian song from all else and brand the opposite, which he has in mind, as earthly, sensual, and devilish. (Chrysostom opposes to this hai satanikai oodai, “Satanic songs.”)

With the occasion of the word “spiritual” cleared up, it is submitted that the propriety of its application to the Psalms cannot be gainsaid. That they are the fruit of the inspiration of God, hailing form men energized by the Holy Spirit, is reiterated in Scripture (II Sam. 23:2; Matt. 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 4:25; Heb. 4:7; 5:5-6), and is evinced in the treatment accorded them by our Lord and His Apostles. In truth, their inspiration is perceptible, tangible. The Book carries on its front the divine image and superscription, and it is not exaggeration to say that it is the most conspicuous product of the Spirit in the bounds of the Canon. Here we abandon the defensive, and contend that this praise volume is absolutely unique in that of its lyrics alone can it be predicated that they are “pneumatic,” or “spiritual,” songs. Among existing hymnals there is not another in all the world which contains such songs, except as they have borrowed from the Psalter.

Again, it has been asked, Is not this triple enumeration redundant if the Psalter is made the only reference in the three terms? Why such multiplication of titles? In reply, note:

1. If there is any difficulty here, it is reduced but little by those who oppose us in the interpretation of these passages. They do not find three kinds of praise, as consistently they should do, but they stop with a twofold classification, for notwithstanding all attempts there has been failure in distinguishing “hymns” and “spiritual songs.” They are able to isolate the “psalms” by themselves, but the “hymns” and “spiritual songs” remain fused and confused. As between unifying the reference of two terms and that of three, the difference is not great. If there is tautology in the one case, there is also in the other.

2. It is common in Scripture to call the same thing by different names in close connection, this in order to give a fuller and more emphatic description of it by specifying its various aspects. Paul himself resorts frequently to such cumulations (Ex. 34:7; Lev. 16:21; I Kings 6:12; I Chron. 29:19; Ps. 19:7-8; 119 [throughout]; II Cor. 12:12; Col. 1:9; II Thess. 2:9; I Tim. 2:1; Heb. 2:4).

3. As a matter of fact, Paul’s Psalter gave the Psalms these very titles, sometimes in combinations, and twice in the triple combination of these verses.

4. These precepts in Ephesians and Colossians have a lively and urgent context, and it is in keeping with this to suppose that their heaping of terms is, as Dr. S. D. F. Salmond says, with a view to rhetorical force.

Another objection advanced against our interpretation is, that had the Book of Psalms been meant exclusively, the definite article would have been prefixed to the three words. This article-argument is quickly met.

1. In the Greek Psalter itself the article is not used in connection with any one of these three titles, not even with the prefatory psalmoi.

2. Paul may have meant the words to be taken qualitatively. This is favoured in Ephesians, where there is a tacit contrast with bacchanalian songs.

3. In New Testament Greek, as well as in classical, the article is often omitted before appellatives which denote a well-known object (see Winer’s New Testament Grammar, seventh edition, section 19), and it has been demonstrated already that these three titles were attached to a historical system of praise well known to the Apostles and the Asiatic Churches.

Our exegesis of these passages now nears completion, but it must still be verified as satisfying the demands of the double context. Consider, first, the relation in the Colossian passage between the indwelling of “the word of Christ,” and contain it. As to the phrase, “the word of Christ,” occurring here only, a documentary or literary conception of it is improbable. Let it be taken generally as the teaching of Christ, the body of truth by which men are made wise unto salvation, and furnished completely unto every good work. And now, we ask, does not the Psalter gleam and glow with the saving doctrines of Christianity? Does it not, beyond the four Gospels, reveal “the mind which was in Christ Jesus?” Were the rest of the Bible destroyed, would it not preserve an exposition of the way of life sufficiently clear to save a fallen race? Is it not a true instinct which has led publishers to bind up the Psalter with the new Testament as being manifestly of kindred nature? It was Augustine, the illustrious Latin Father, who said that “the voice of Christ and His Church was well-nigh the only voice to be heard in the Psalms.” Bengel spoke of the Psalter as “a remarkable portion of the Scriptures, in which the subject of Christ and His kingdom is most copiously discussed.” More recently, Franz Delitzsch, the great German exegete and Hebraist, wrote: “There is no essential New Testament truth not contained in the Psalms” These testimonies will stand. Christ faced Himself in the Psalter; nor did He “see in a mirror, darkly;” and His Apostles, judging by the scores of their quotations, found in its odes the Messianic and evangelical element in abounding measure. The Psalter reference in these three terms conforms, therefore, to the requirement of the context, so far as concerns the phrase, “the word of Christ.” Can the same be said of any rival reference? Can any pleader for uninspired hymnody maintain that in it there is a comprehensive presentation of “the word of Christ” equal to that in the Book of Psalms? It was none less than Dr. James H. Brookes, of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, who said a few years ago: “It is difficult in any ordinary hymn-book to find a dozen hymns that are in accord with the word of Christ.”

Once more. By these psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs the Colossian Christians are told to “teach and admonish one another.” But since it is the usual manner of the Apostle to refer his readers to Scripture for instruction and admonition, and since for these ends he draws heavily upon the Psalms in his Epistles, the divine praise-book is suggested at once as his only thought. Certainly, it is hymns of a definitely dogmatic, instructional type which are presupposed. And it is just here, in perceptive power and in doctrinal substance, that the Psalter hymns tower splendidly above all others. The Psalter may be religion, and not theology, as it is sometime put, but nevertheless it has a thoroughly didactic character that is unapproached and unapproachable by lyrics uninspired.

Thirdly. In Ephesians the “speaking one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is the sequel of being “filled with the Spirit.” Instead of the excitement of strong drink, be God-intoxicated through the infilling of the Spirit, and give vent to your joyous emotions in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. So runs the exhortation. Here again, how exactly the Bible songs correspond to such a connection. Receive the fullness of the Spirit, and then pour out your souls in the hymns of the Psalter, indited as they all are by the Spirit and redolent of His holy inspiration. The Pneuma and His own pneumatic Psalm: what God hath joined together in this passage let not man put asunder.

The last clause in each passage is worthy of a moment’s notice. In Colossians, according to the revised text, the singing was to be “unto God” as the Object and Auditor of praise, not to Christ distinctively and exclusively. This, as all are aware, is emphatically true of the Psalms, which, though full of Christ, and specializing Him over and over again, do not forget His organic unity with god in the essence of the Divine Being. The parallel in Ephesians reads “to the Lord;” yet there, too, as verse 20 shows, Christ is looked upon as the Mediator through Whom the sacrifice of praise is offered to Him Who is the ultimate source of blessing, “God, even the Father.”

Summarizing the results of our exegesis, it has been determined—

1. That the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” of these passages included nothing that was uninspired, nor any compositions newly inspired in the Apostolic Age.

2. That they are all embraced in the Book of Psalms, this finding being based upon the impregnable testimony of the Greek Bible and Psalter used by Paul and the Pauline churches, upon the usage of contemporary Hellenistic writers, upon the witness of the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark, upon the conformity of the Psalter to this threefold characterization, and upon the fact that an exclusive reference to the Psalms satisfies every postulate of the context.

The alternative theory, though, as we believe, purely conjectural and arbitrary, has not been brushed aside in any cavalier style, for no statement in the process of exposition has been an over-statement, but has been attested substantially. If the exegesis now submitted be sound, it follows that the Apostolic Church employed the Psalms alone in the ordinance of worship, and that to restrict ourselves to them in this sacred exercise is a New Testament commandment.

Under the opposite interpretation, let it be noticed

1. That the Psalms still have the primacy, taking precedence of hymns and spiritual songs, and that most hymn-singing Churches ignore this by confining themselves to a human hymnology.

2. That the singing of uninspired hymns in worship is not barely permitted, but is explicitly prescribed, and is, therefore, binding—a contention which few would care to defend.


Among the authorities upholding the foregoing interpretation of these passages [Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19] may be mentioned the following: Clement, the celebrated Greek Father who presided over the Catechetical School at Alexandria (Paidagogos, book 3, chapter 4); Jerome, the most learned of the early fathers of the Latin Church (Com. on Eph.); Beza, the friend and ablest coadjutor of Calvin (Com. on Col.); John Owen, the prince of English divines in the seventeenth century (Preface to a metrical edition of the Psalms published in 1673 for use among the Independents and Dissenters of England); Jean Daille, d. 1670, a celebrated French Protestant minister (Expos. of Col.); Cotton Mather, d. 1728, the well-known New England author; Thomas Ridgley, a standard English writer on theology (Body of Divinity, edition of 1819, Vol. 4, p. 134); Jonathan Edwards, d. 1758, the noted American divine and metaphysician (Hist. of Redemption, Period 1, Part 5); John Gill, a learned Orientalist and Baptist theologian of the eighteenth century (Body of Divinity and Com. on Eph.); John Brown of Haddington, Scotland, professor of divinity in the Associate Synod of Scotland, d. 1787 (Dictionary of the Bible); William Romaine, an eminent author of the eighteenth century in the Church of England; Walter F. Hook, d. 1875, an Anglican dean and ecclesiastical historian (Church Dictionary); The Encyclopaedia Britannica, article on Hymns, by the Right Hon. The Earl of Selborne; William Binnie, of Scotland (The Psalms: Their History, Teachings and Use. London 1877); H. C. B. Bazely, of Oxford, England, d. 1883 (Biography); E. L. Hicks, Hon. Canon of Worcester, Church of England (Biography of Henry Bazely); Edmund Reuss, of Strasburg, the great Alsatian Protestant Theologian, d. 1891 (History of the New Testament); Taylor, for many years professor of Greek Language and Literature in Union College, Schenectady, N. Y. (The Bible Psalmody); Philip Schaff, of Union Theological Seminary, New York City, the distinguished Church historian, d. 1893 (Hist. of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, p. 463); and the late John A. Broadus, of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Com. on Matt.).


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