“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” - Colossians 3:15-17
In Colossians 3, we who are believers in Jesus Christ are given the directive to respond to God’s story with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Once more, in Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul gives a similar directive, saying:
“Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” - Ephesians 5:17-20
Here, Paul contrasts the experience of drunkenness with that of getting our fill from the Spirit. Rather than earthly pleasure, he commands us to seek our pleasure — or even “over-indulgence” — from the Spirit. And just like getting drunk on wine leads to negative things, getting your fill from the Spirit brings forth goodness and praise to God.
It’s easy to lump these categories of songs together, saying, “Yes, sing praises to God.” But the repetition of these specific three terms turns our attention to the distinction between Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
Psalms are probably the easiest to differentiate. We know there is a whole, long book of Psalms in our Bible. What makes the poems and songs that fill those pages different from “Amazing Grace” or any contemporary worship song you sing today is that the psalms are 100% God-breathed, inspired words. This means a psalm could be defined as “a song that Old Testament authors wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, contained within the book of Psalms.” The Church can still sing psalms today. There are obvious examples, like Matt Redman’s “Better is One Day”, where the lyrics come directly from Psalm 84:
“How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints…” - Psalm 84:1-2a
“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere…” - Psalm 84:10a
Others take specific concepts from the inspired psalms and rearrange the words, keeping the heart of the psalm present, like Shane and Shane’s take on Psalm 84 (from “Psalm 84 (I’m Home)”):
How lovely are Your dwelling places?
Your Holy Spirit here in us
O how I love to sing Your praises
One day with You would be enough
Using some of the same words and concepts as “Better Is One Day”, Shane almost builds onto Redman’s song as he moves on to the second half of verse 10, which says, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God…” (Ps 84:10b). We sing the powerful line, “In the doorway of my Father’s house I’m home.”
These words and pictures come straight from the book of Psalms, and when we sing them, we are doing just as Paul directed. This is an essential direction from Paul, because New Testament Jews typically sang the Psalms in their tradition. The word translated “psalms” is inarguably referring to those 150 poems or songs found near the middle of your Bible. Jesus and many New Testament authors quote these psalms. Therefore, Paul asserts that this tradition is one the Church should maintain as a continued response to God.
If you grew up in the Church, you have probably heard, sung, and perhaps even memorized a few hymns from the book in the back of the pew. But when Paul refers to hymns, is he talking about that book? Or you may have heard a musical definition of a hymn that required a specific structure of verses and refrains in order for it to be a “true hymn.”
Paul’s audience in the book of Ephesians are Greek Christians who may not be as familiar with the Psalms as a Jew would be. However, when Paul speaks of hymns, he refers to a type of music Greek Christians would recognize. In pagan cultures, hymns were often used to eulogize their gods, while Christians would use hymns to exalt the name of Christ. In his commentary on Ephesians, New Testament scholar Harold Hoehner defines a hymn as “generally poetic material that is either recited or sung, many times in praise of divinity or in honor of one of the gods.”
We can apply that definition of a hymn to what Paul describes in Ephesians 5. He is not suggesting that we should be singing or reciting anything to anyone but the One True God. However, we can see that Paul is telling the Greek Christians that they can use songs from their culture to exalt the name of Christ and recognize the glory of God.
We can gather that hymns are, unlike psalms, not written by divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit. However, the hymns we should sing are filled with Scriptural truth and sound doctrine. Hymns are a fantastic outlet for doctrine to be recited and proclaimed, like declaring the holiness of God or recognizing God as trinitarian. We can tell each other that God is three in one by singing a hymn:
“Holy, Holy, Holy
Lord God Almighty
God in Three Persons
These truths about God are immutable, revealed through the story God unfolds in the Bible, and they can and shouldbe passed down from generation to generation. Perhaps Paul makes this distinction to show that different cultures can worship God in different ways. Or maybe Paul was leaving room to continue writing songs about God regardless of how we express our thoughts based on geography, language, culture, or style preference. That way, from generation to generation, we are able to pass down new articulations of old truths to ensure that we are praising God “in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
After the Last Supper, Jesus and His disciples are seen singing a hymn together — a beautiful representation of how we should worship God corporately as believers.
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. - Matthew 26:30
The last distinction is much more vague. A “spiritual song” would indicate that the song has a more personal element to it. Not only are you singing a song to God, but you are singing it from your spirit. While psalms are the perfect inspired word of God, and hymns are used to recite doctrinal truth, spiritual songs offer believers the opportunity to express their personal responses to God.
A spiritual song would be retelling the grace, mercies, and miracles of God from the singer's point of view. These songs would be more personal to who we are as individuals or specific communities, and informed by how God has revealed Himself in our lives.
When you hear the term “spiritual songs,” it’s no surprise that the songs from African-American Christians are the first to come to mind. From oppression endured in slavery, African-Americans brought forth songs to express their pain and remind one another of the hope that they had in God’s deliverance. Even after the end of slavery in the U.S., as the same community continued to endure racism for generations, those songs became vessels for sharing testimonies with one another and future generations. One classic example is “Wade in the Water,” which says:
“My Lord delivered Daniel well
Daniel well, Daniel well
Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel well
Then why not every man?”
If God delivered Daniel, why wouldn’t he deliver us? This song from their spirit came during an incredibly painful time of oppression and is a perfect example of what a spiritual song can convey.
The beauty of a spiritual song, much like the raw and authentic examples from the Bible, is that we are able to bring our individual and collective experiences to God. That includes our questions and fears, but also our hopes, stories of rescue, and joys. Songs from our spirit might not always end in resolution (like Psalm 88) when we come to God in a time of hurt, without clarity of the outcome of overwhelming circumstances.
My church in Dallas, TX lost our building to a tornado in 2019. In that time, a song emerged as a rallying cry to remember that God is a “Mighty Conqueror” who still has more to come for us despite the physical setback. This proclamation of God’s deliverance of His people and His coming return was a spiritual song we could all sing together in the midst of difficulty.
Consider your own life and congregation. Are you singing psalms? That is, are you singing words directly from Scripture? Are you singing hymns — songs of doctrine that declare who God is that have come from previous generations and will endure long past your voice? Lastly, are you singing spiritual songs, proclaiming where God has moved in your personal life and how He has shown His love? We must, as a Church, let the Holy Spirit motivate our actions, and we should respond to God by singing Him our praises.