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Psalms, Hymns And Spiritual Songs

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom,
teaching and admonishing one another
in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
Colossians 3:16

Many of us have our personal preferences for music. Some like jazz; some like rock; some like pop; some like classical; some like rap; some like country; some like contemporary; some like hip-hop; some like reggae; some like R & B (rhythm and blues) and so on.

To have our own preferences is human, but to impose our human preferences on others is not divine. Paul exhorted us to be singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord. With regards to the different styles of worshipping God, we always have this human tendency to equate our choices to be also God’s choices, and our preferences to be God’s preferences. Our prejudices against other genres of music have built thick walls of discrimination that separate us from the else in the Body of Christ!

Why do we desire something and detest others? The main reason is our culture, which is constantly being formulated through our upbringing, education, friends, media exposure, and interest groups etc. Like it or not, we have unconsciously brought our culture into the Church! It is clearly reflected in our worship! We find our personal identities as we express our styles in worship to God. There is nothing wrong with that. We cannot deny or despise who we are. The Lord loves to hear us just as we are. But the real problem herein is not our culture but the roots of our culture. The root word for "culture" is derived from the word "cult." A cult is a system of religious or spiritual beliefs, often misguided or unorthodox. Following a cult will be idolizing somebody or something extremely or excessively by giving them full devotion and attention at the expense of others.

God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9). We are to be rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17), and not in our culture. Our culture must be tested by the Holy Scriptures. The Word of God does not elevate one culture above another. All cultures must be evaluated according to God’s requirements for truth, righteousness, mercy and love. But, very often, many Christians choose to be slaves of their own cultures than to be slaves of their Christ! Their preferences of worship styles have resulted in many denominations and divisions within the Body of Christ! Many of these differences are theologically incorrect in the light of the Word of God!

Music is a powerful instrument that we use to communicate our hearts to God! Without music, the Church will be lifeless and boring. The sound of music vibrates the heart of the Church, filling the praises of God in His holy sanctuary. Even a lifeless sermon can be resurrected through the anointed songs of the Lord!

God is more concerned with our hearts than the forms of our expressions. True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth (John 4:24). True worship is beyond the songs and the music. It is the inner man that God is seeking for - a man after His own heart!

In the New Testament, God approves three primary forms of music, namely psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. (Colossians 3:16)

Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God. (Ephesians 5:17-21)

To understand psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, we need to understand that our Lord is the God Who was, Who is and Who is to come! Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever! The Lord is God in the past, He is still God in the present, and He will be God in the future! Some say that they are more interested in the God of the past. Some say that they are more interested in the God of the now. Some say that they are more interested in the God of the future. They are just partially correct, incomplete in themselves. Jesus Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 21:6). He is also Everything in between Genesis and Revelation! Without the past, we do not have the present. Without the present, we will not have the future!

Some traditional churches sing only hymns to the exclusion of the new choruses. Some charismatic churches sing only the new choruses to the exclusion of hymns. Some churches sing only spiritual songs, to the exclusion of psalms and hymns. But the Word of God exhorts us to express our praise and worship through all the three channels. It is "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs," and not "psalms, hymns or spiritual songs."

Paul wrote that we should teach and admonish one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Worshipping God is both individual and corporate. In individual worship, we can soak ourselves in the presence of the Lord with the exclusion of others. In corporate worship, we are not alone in our quest for His presence. As we assemble ourselves together to worship God, we edify each other as we learn about God! Singing praises to the Lord corporately reaffirms our faith not only to Him but also to each other. We draw strength not only from God but from one another as we approach the throne of God together. That’s why corporate worship is necessary and vital!

In the midst of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, there are different types of songs for various purposes, for example:

Type of Songs Purposes
Church to the Lost Evangelism, testimony, hope
Church to Church Encouragement, exhortation, edification
Church to God Repentance, restoration, refreshing, renewal, prayer
God to Church Divine love, prophetic word, word of knowledge and word of wisdom


Let’s define what psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are. To do so, we need to take a closer look at their original meanings from the Greek language in which they were written.

The Greek word used in the Pauline epistles for psalms is psalmos. It is defined as a set piece of music, a sacred ode accompanied with the voice, harp or other instruments. Collectively, it is the Book of Psalms. Some strict denominations believe that they should not use any musical instruments to accompany their songs in their churches. However, the very definition of a psalm refutes this ideology. I am not suggesting that their worship is not acceptable to God. I am merely saying that their theology of worship is incomplete.

Most of the Psalms were new songs sung by David the psalmist. He was both a musician and a singer. He established the importance of music in the worship of the Lord. He spoke to the leaders of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers accompanied by instruments of music, stringed instruments, harps, and cymbals, by raising the voice with resounding joy. He instructed these Levitical musicians to celebrate the journey of the Ark up to Zion (1 Chr. 15:16-24).

Asaph was appointed as the chief musician in charge of continual thanksgiving and praise (1 Chr. 16:1-7). The type of praise and worship was described in 1 Chr. 25:1-7. The musicians led the people in spontaneous worship and overwhelming outpouring of praise, especially at the glorious moments during the dedication of Solomon's Temple (2 Chr. 5:11-14). They were singing new songs to the Lord! Many of the 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms originated from this type of Davidic praise and worship. As such, we are exhorted to sing a new psalm unto the Lord! New psalms from our hearts of worship! Singing new psalms beyond the 150th!

In some of the psalms, there are header notes and instructions on how to sing them, and what musical instrument or tune to use, for example:

Psalm Header Notes / Instructions
Psalm 3 A Psalm of David when he fled from Absalom his son.
Psalm 4 To the Chief Musician. With stringed instruments. A Psalm of David.
Psalm 5 To the Chief Musician. With flutes. A Psalm of David.
Psalm 6 To the Chief Musician. With stringed instruments. On an eight-stringed harp. A Psalm of David.
Psalm 7 A Meditation of David, which he sang to the LORD concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.
Psalm 8 To the Chief Musician. On the instrument of Gath. A Psalm of David.
Psalm 9 To the Chief Musician. To the tune of "Death of the Son." A Psalm of David.

After the Babylonian exile, many Jews lived outside Israel, and could not participate in temple worship. Therefore, they set up synagogues for times of prayer and for the study of the Scriptures. They continued to sing the Psalms, and other portions of the Scriptures. As they did so, they developed a system of modes to sing their Scriptures and to chant their prayers.

Jewish worship was both vocal and instrumental. The sanctuary orchestra had different categories of instruments such as percussion, winds and strings. Horns, trumpets, cymbals, harps and lyres were used when the Ark was brought up to Mount Zion. Their continued use was reflected as they were being mentioned in the Psalms.

Jewish music greatly influenced the worship of the early church as all the apostles were of Jewish origin. While we cannot know today exactly how they sounded in the first century, recent research had confirmed that there was a great similarity between Hebraic music and ancient Christian chants.

Hebraic music incorporates several of the following characteristic features:

Feature Descriptions
Monophony Music that is written for only one voice or part. Ornamentation and instrumental accompaniment can create a nice harmony.
Modality Various musical motifs are used within a certain scale, each with its own function.
Ornamentation Enhancements are used to suit the skill of the performer.
Rhythm Hebraic music does not use the same regular beats of modern Western music . It has a more complex pattern and time structure.
Scale Hebraic music follows a generally diatonic melody, but with the use of quarter-tone intervals as well as whole or half tones.
Improvisation This is the practice of composing the music in the process of performing it. This skill is acquired through a long period of training and experience.
Antiphony In antiphonal music, groups of performers answer one another in statement and response. The congregation, as well as trained musicians, may be involved in the musical responses of the song.

The Psalms played an important role in Jewish worship. There are 116 direct quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament. The disciples of Jesus used them! They remained an important part of worship throughout Christian history! They are still being used in Jewish and Christian worship today. The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches have a systematic calendar to sing the Psalms, with a time cycle for the recitation of all or most of them over the course of one or more years.

There were three common ways to sing the Psalms in the early churches:

Antiphonal With two choirs alternate
Responsorial With soloist and choir alternate
Direct Sung by the choir or the soloist alone

In the early churches, any candidate for bishop was expected to be able to recite the entire book of Psalms from memory. They had often learned and mastered these skills during their time as a monk. Following the Reformation, many of the psalms were set and paraphrased as hymns. By the turn of the 20th century, the singing of psalms were mostly replaced by hymns in all church services.


The Greek word for hymn is humnos. Its meaning is to celebrate. It is a song of praise to God or to a saint or to a nation.

There are many records of hymn singing in the New Testament:

  • The Magnificat or The Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55)
  • The Benedictus or Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79)
  • The Nunc Dimittis or Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32)
  • Gloria in Excelsis (Luke 2:14)
  • Jesus and His disciples singing a hymn after the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26)
  • Paul and Silas were singing hymns in prison at Philippi (Acts 16:25).
  • Paul urged the Christians to give thanks to God in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
  • Paul quoted a song, "Awake, O sleeper" (Eph. 5:14).

Some scholars suggested that many passages in the Pauline epistles were based on early Christian hymns in praise of Christ, such as Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20 and 1 Timothy 3:16. Such hymns were composed to empower the teachings about the divine nature of Jesus as both Messiah and Lord. The Hosanna hymn about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem in Mark 11:9 was based on Psalm 118:26.

The hymns were climaxed in the Book of Revelation. In John's vision, songs of praise were continually sung before the throne of God as the dramatic events were being unfolded on earth. These hymns were sung to:

  • Declare the holiness of God (Rev 4:8)
  • Glorify the Creator (Rev. 4:11)
  • Proclaim the glory of the Lamb (Rev. 5:9-10; 5:12)
  • Extol both the Father and the Son (Rev 5:13; 7:10; 7:12)
  • Celebrate God's triumph over the enemies of His people (Rev. 11:15-18; 12:10-12; 19:1-3; 19:6-8)
  • Proclaim His greatness and justice (Rev. 15:3-4; 16:5-7)
  • Celebrate the defeat and fall of Babylon the Great (Rev. 18)

These hymns in the New Testament reflected the actual worship in the Church near the end of the first century. Besides opening a window to look into the future worship of God in eternity, they also paved the way into the development of Christian hymns for public worship.

Great hymns have been written through all ages of the Church, and is being written today and will continue to be written tomorrow. When Paul and John penned these verses about hymns, most of the songs in our hymnals had yet to be written. Through many hymn writers, the hymn books are now compiled for our use in the Body of Christ! These great historical hymns should not be ignored or neglected. Many of them are very worshipful, and have tremendous theological value.

As a hymn is also a song, we need to sing a new hymn to the Lord! We should not limit ourselves to the hymn books. We should tap into the freshness of the Spirit and sing a new hymn unto the Lord!

Spiritual Songs

The Greek word for spiritual songs is ode pneumatikos. It means the songs of the Breath of God. These spiritual songs are sung in the Holy Spirit or by the Holy Spirit. They are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and very often, spontaneous in nature. Sometimes, these spiritual songs are sung by the worshipper to God, and sometimes the song is sung by God through the worshipper. When God sings through a worshipper, He reveals His heart to His people with a prophetic message. This is done to bring edification, exhortation and comfort to the Church. These spiritual songs are to be sung in a language understood by the congregation.

What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. (1 Cor. 14:15)

Singing in tongues is part of the spiritual songs. In both individual and corporate worship, singing in the spirit and in the unknown tongues are encouraged.

For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries. But he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men. He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church. I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification. (1 Cor. 14:2-5)

If there is a prophetic word from the Lord that the Spirit desires to release to the Body, the spiritual song that was sung in an unknown tongue should be interpreted. If there is no interpreter, the worshipper sing only to God and no one will be able to understand him. In order to edify the Body of Christ, the spiritual song and its message must be clearly made known to the people of God so that they will understand and receive edification!

Some spiritual songs are known to be the songs of angels because of their mystical nature. But in the Gospels and the Book of Revelation, we noted that the words in the songs of the angels were clearly understood and comprehended by the people who heard them. They are not beyond human comprehension and understanding.

Spiritual songs are a foretaste of glory divine! Let’s sing them spontaneously as the Spirit of God breathes upon us!


Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are all great! We need to esteem and use all of them! Together they prepare our hearts to become true worshippers of God. They must all be done decently and in an orderly manner (1 Cor. 14:40).

To sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs requires us to have a greater cultural flexibility than we currently have. Through them, we can enjoy the various different ways of worship expressions. This paradigm shift requires unity in the midst of diversities. This is unity in the Spirit and not uniformity in the flesh. This new paradigm allows the contemporary-now-Christians to seek their historic roots of yesterdays, and have a blessed hope for their tomorrows! In silent reverence or in loud celebration, structured or spontaneous, let all things are done in order and in love!

Instead of affirming our own strengths and preferences, we must acknowledge and recognize the strengths and preferences of the others. As a result, our hearts will be enlarged, and we are able to enjoy the preferences and presence of others. Singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord.

The worship in the future will transcend all cultures! The evangelical churches will learn to sing spiritual songs; the charismatic church will rediscover hymns; and the traditional churches will sing a new psalm. Our cultural prejudices will be melted by His Spirit of love! Forever we will be singing His praises with all tribes and tongues - all peoples of all nations, languages, cultures, traditions, styles and preferences! Glorious worship to God! From eternity to eternity!

Written on:
6 September 2004