Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs: How Shall We Worship?

WORSHIP. What a beautiful term! It’s literally proclaiming the worthiness of God alone. This is done in a variety of ways such as prayer, meditating on the Word, and in the Lord’s Supper. Yet, one of the most common forms of worship is undeniably through the singing of praises. Growing up in a Baptist church, it was common to see the morning’s

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songs pre-selected with the matching hymn number being displayed on the wall for all to follow along. When I was in Japan, instead of hymnals, we had an overhead projector and sang more contemporary worship songs. I never questioned it, nor did I feel the need to. It wasn’t until much later in life that I was confronted with the concept of psalter-only worship (i.e. psalm-only worship). It was being presented as the only biblical form of singing in worship. I was told it was the only way to be in line with the Regulative Principle of Worship, meaning worship in accordance with revealed methods found in Scripture, and all other methods are unacceptable. Was there anything to this position? Had I been worshiping incorrectly my whole life? Was psalm-only worship the only acceptable means of singing before God in a state of worship?

After much study, I have to admit I’m not convinced at all. In fact, I’m actually convinced of the contrary: that it’s highly biblical to sing other songs so long as they’re sound in doctrine. For those who may be either skeptical, or simply intrigued, please follow along with my reasoning:

speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:19, NASB)

The words used are psalmos (G5568), hymnos (G5215), and ode pneumatikos (G5603/G4652), in the phrase psalmos kai hymnos kai ode pneumatikos.

Psalmos, while being a composed musical piece, is used exclusively in the New Testament to refer to the Old Testament psalms.

Hymnos is a song of praise to gods, heroes, and conquerors. Though, we can rest assured Scripture is speaking of songs about God. He alone is the true conqueror and hero over death and life. The only other use of this word is in Colossians 3:16, where they use the exact same phrasing as Ephesians 5:19.

Ode pneumatikos simply refers to a song of praise in general. Not only do we hear of these being sung by believers in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, we also see John speaking of a new song being sung in Revelation 5:9 (w/ lyrics included).

I think that gives more than enough evidence to show that a corporate body of believers sang Old Testament psalms, hymns of a conquering God, and spiritual songs of praise to God. Yet, some may still be unconvinced. The common challenge is that each of those meanings are found in the totality of the 150 psalms of Scripture. This claim is typically accompanied by the assertion that Paul is simply using three different descriptors and uses for the psalms. Aside from the very definitions of the words used, we can’t ignore the fact that there is a new song that has yet to be learned (as per Revelation 5:9). Those lyrics aren’t in the psalms, though the idea of there being a new song is alluded to in Isaiah. I just don’t see how the meanings of the Greek words, combined with the fact that there is still another new song yet to be learned (as per Revelation 5:9), possibly leaves room for the interpretation of it as being psalms, psalms, and psalms, all of the Old Testament variety. For those who feel this “new song” is merely referring to the change of one’s nature, we also see Isaiah 42:10 speaking of singing a new song here on earth. It’s clearly a direction to sing of His praises. Yet, it’s a new song of praise coming from our regenerated nature, and not an existing psalm. As stated earlier, Revelation 5:9 even gives the reader the lyrics. If one were to take those lyrics and create a song, it would be fully in accordance with Scriptures, though it’s found in not one Old Testament psalm.

Expounding upon what has already been stated above, ode pneumitakos is spiritual songs of praise while “ode” (by itself) is just a song in general. Hymnos is also used in pagan Greek music when referring to their gods, heroes, and conquerors. Realistically, much of what we refer to as modern hymns would likely fall under ode pneumatikos more than hymnos. While some (not all) psalms may have characteristics of hymnos and ode pneumatikos, they’re also clearly differentiated as being their own category. It’s not merely a matter of three descriptors of one word, but three different categories of song-based worship.

The only way to go psalm-only is to have an idea ahead of time, spiritualize the meaning of words by ignoring their actual meaning, and throw out the normal reading of the text. Simply put, psalm-only is a man-made idea that can’t even be executed properly (in accordance with the Regulative Principle of Worship) because it’ll always be merged with uninspired music and be outside of the original composition and intention.

To say psalm-only singing is the only thing in accordance with the Regulative Principle of Worship is actually inconsistent with the very nature of it. The psalms are structured and composed pieces of music. They had a specific tune and music written for them. Considering that music is lost, we’re left with only the lyrics. Thus, the only way to sing them is to either apply the lyrics over an existing well-known tune (ironically, usually a hymn) or create our own. Considering this wouldn’t have been the way they would’ve done it when they were written, it’s a manipulation of music and a justification of inspired/uninspired hodgepodge in the name of abiding by the Regulative Principle of Worship. The only way to avoid this inconsistency would be to strictly read them or, perhaps, do it in the manner of a Gregorian chant. But that then violates Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 where we’re told to sing them.

The alternative is that we don’t try to shoehorn uber-spirituality into it and, instead, understand that psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs were three different things, with three different meanings, though some psalms incorporated elements of the other two in its structured musical composition.

Aside from a proper understanding of psalmos kai hymnos kai ode pneumatikos, I feel the argument I’ve presented (which is also a historic argument in line with the Chapter 22.5 of the 2LBCF) is far more sound than the counter-arguments. Ultimately, if you still feel your convictions are telling you to stick with the psalms, I’d urge you to follow your conscience in faith (Romans 14:22-23). For all others, take comfort in the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs as you sing praises to the Lord!

The reading of the Scriptures, preaching, and hearing the Word of God, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord…are all parts of religious worship to God, to be performed in obedience to Him, with understanding, faith, reverence, and godly fear; (Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Chap. 22, para. 5)

~Travis W. Rogers

Published by Travis W. Rogers

Travis W. Rogers is a diligent student of the Word and faithfully served in the U.S. Navy from 2000 - 2020. From 2008-2017, he served as Protestant Lay Leader aboard several warships and led others in their spiritual walk, sometimes joining forces with a Chaplain. It has been his deepest desire to see others come to the knowledge of truth and experience a deeper walk with God. To date, he has written three books, all available on Amazon. (https://www.amazon.com/Travis-W-Rogers/e/B006F5O0P0)

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