Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

Words set to music are extremely powerful and influential. D. L. Moody said: “I believe that music is one of the most powerful agents for good or for evil.” Music with sinful words and messages pervade minds and influence hearts. Scripture encourages believers to “set their minds on the things of the Spirit” in Romans 8:5 and “on things above” in Colossians 3:2. Philippians 4:8 says, “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise, think about such things.” Considering these passages, it is clear that human minds are impressionable. Even music can influence one’s thinking and can prove quite harmful to any individual. Christians must guard their hearts and minds through prayer and listening to what is good.

Words are influential and can be used for good or evil. James 3:9-10 gives a reminder that a person’s mouth and words can both praise God and curse men. Words can either build up or tear down. God-honoring church music can impact faith in profound ways.

In Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, the apostle Paul exhorts believers to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God and one another. These three musical terms deserve to be looked at closely. The word psalm originally meant “a striking or twitching with the fingers (on musical strings) and a sacred song, sung to musical accompaniment.” This term, psalm, has historically been understood as the one hundred fifty psalms appearing in the Psalter and passages of Scripture set to music. The book of Psalms is filled with honest prayers, adoration, praise, and worship of God.

While the psalm is praise taken directly from Scripture, the hymn is a song of praise written by believers. The word hymn means “a song of praise addressed to God.” Songs of adoration and praise are mentioned in the Bible, beginning in Exodus 15 and concluding in Revelation 15. There is record of Jesus singing hymns with the disciples in Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26. Also, Paul and Silas sang hymns to God while in prison as seen in Acts 16:25.

W. Robert Godfrey, President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, says that most of the songs people today call the “old hymns of the faith . . . are actually hymns written in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” So, what did church music sound like long ago? How did the ancient church praise God in song? Godfrey admits, “The evidence to answer such a question is very limited and not really clear.”

W. Godfrey also pinpoints some overlap in the use of the words psalm and hymn: “The terms psalm and hymn have often been used interchangeably in some ancient writings and in the New Testament. In Matthew 26:30 we read that after the Last Supper, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn before they went out. That hymn was almost certainly Psalm 118. In 1 Corinthians 14:26 the reference to a psalm is most likely a song inspired by the Spirit in the Corinthian church.”

Although this can be confusing, one thing is clear: both psalms and hymns from any era are songs directed to God.

Worship music should involve not only psalms and hymns, but also spiritual songs. These are expressions of biblical truth that allow a congregation to address one another in song. This final category of spiritual songs is a general term that includes songs of personal testimony, encouragement, faith, and response.

The local church should not be afraid of these terms: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Christians often categorize church music by the groupings of praise choruses and hymns. Many today consider hymns the traditional, staple songs of deep truth that are found in classic hymnals. This is not necessarily the case. As seen earlier, the word hymn is defined as a song of praise to God. There are many songs in the hymnal that do not fit this description. For example, Tell Me the Stories of Jesus, In the Garden, and Stand Up For Jesus are typically known as hymns, but are not directed to God. These should instead be deemed spiritual songs. I would also argue that only songs of praise directed to God should truly be considered hymns. This would mean the worship song from Australia, Shout to the Lord, is more than just a worship chorus. It is a hymn and should be considered so. The local church should get a handle on these three terms and use them accurately.

Paul makes the declaration in 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing with the spirit and with the understanding also.” Church leadership should remember to inform their congregation about non-familiar terms or ideas, the history of hymn writings, Scriptural consistency, and application of the text. Warren Wiersbe says, “Our goal in singing is to lay hold of God’s truth and be nourished by it.” Song texts should be relevant and understandable to the audience. Worship music should assist, not distract, a congregation in worship of God.

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