They sang unto the Lord (Exodus 15:1, 21) and taught and admonished one another in song (Deuteronomy 31:19; 32:44) in Moses’ day. They praised God in song in the days of the judges (Judges 5:1). David is often referred to as “the sweet singer of Israel”. He sang, “The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer… I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised so shall I be saved from mine enemies” (2 Samuel 22:1-ff). Numerous songs have a superscript indicating they are a song of David (e.g. Psalm 7; 18; 30; 65; 68; 108; 122; 124; 131; 133). He said, “I will sing of mercy and judgment; unto thee, O Lord, will I sing” (Psalm 101:1). He said, “I will praise thee with my whole heart: before the gods will I sing praise unto thee. I will worship toward thy temple, and praise thy name for thy loving-kindness and for thy truth” (Psalm 138:1-2). Jesus was a singer (Mark 14:26; Hebrews 2:10-12). Christians should also be singers (Acts 16:25; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13).
Types of songs
There are three types of songs which may be used in worship. We’ll notice each:
(1) Psalms (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). The word “Psalm(s)” appears nine times in the New Testament (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33; 13:35; 1 Corinthians 14:26; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13). Five of these occurrences clearly refers to the book of Psalms. Many believe that this is speaking of the Old Testament Psalms being used in worship. When we sing, “The Lord’s My Shepherd” we are singing a psalm. L.O. Sanderson said the term referred to “a song which took its general character from the Old Testament ‘Psalms’, although not restricted to them” (Gospel Advocate, July 26, 1956). Some of the most beautiful songs are songs whose words are derived directly from the scriptures themselves. Psalms can be read or quoted (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33; 13:35); Psalms could be sang (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13). The word can refer to singing without mechanical accompaniment (B.A.G., second edition).
(2) Hymns (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). This word refers to “a song of praise addressed to God” (Vine’s). It is a song “in honor of divinity” (B.A.G.). “How Great Thou Art” would be an excellent example of this type of song.
(3) Spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16). The key word is the adjective ‘spiritual’ which modifies the word ‘song’. this narrows the type of song to songs which deal with spiritual themes and spiritual matters. Not just any song will do (Top 40 hits, beer-hall songs, mere patriotic songs, etc.). We’re to sing songs which are of a spiritual theme. Examples of this are “Angry Words,” and “A Beautiful Life.”
No doubt many of our songs fall into more than one of these categories. However, these three words taken together help us to understand what type of songs we’re supposed to sing, and what type we are not to sing in worship of our God.
Type of Sounds
We’re to use language which is understandable (1 Corinthians 14:15-16). The fact that it is understandable language which is in view is also seen in the fact that it is language which is to teach and admonish (Colossians 3:16). We’re to be “speaking” one to another (Ephesians 5:19). True in figurative language the term ‘speak’ can refer to mere sound (cf. Revelation 10:4). However, the common usage is of understandable words. In fact, it is used in contrast with one who had a speech impediment (Mark 7:32-33). It is used of understandable language a multitude of times in Ephesians (Ephesians 4:15, 25, 31; 5:12, 32; 6:10) – is Ephesians 5:19 the exception? I find no reason to so conclude especially when Ephesians 5:19 is compared with Colossians 3:16 and 1 Corinthians 14:15-16. This would seem to eliminate mimicking mechanical instrumental music with the human voice, “Ah”s as in the background on one version of “His Grace Reaches Me”, “doo-ops”, “dum-dum-de-dum” and other such things from being included in Paul’s instructions.
Type of Interaction
Paul said, “speaking to yourselves…” (Ephesians 5:19, “teaching and admonishing one another…” (Colossians 3:16). The language is reflexive. “Kuhner states… ‘the reflexive may take the place of the reciprocal, in cases where it is readily perceived that several persons so perform anything together that the action appears reciprocal” (Raphael Kuhner, ‘Grammar of the Greek Language quoted in Dave Miller’s book, “Singing and New Testament Worship, p. 17). The reflective is used to emphasize corporate unity (ibid). Dave Miller says of the reflexive pronoun “the parties specified in the sentence must so engage in the action that they appear to be doing the action together” (Piloting the Strait, p. 212). Clearly, congregational singing fit’s the reflexive requirements.
Consider history. Chrysostom (c. 400) stated, “It was the ancient custom, as it is still with us, for all to come together and unitedly to join in singing. The young and the old, rich and poor, male and female, bond and free, all join in one song… All worldly distinctions here cease, and the whole congregation forms one general chorus” (F.W. Mattox, The Eternal Kingdom, p. 154). M’Clintock and Strong, “From the apostolic age singing was always a part of divine service, in which the whole body of the church joined together; And it was the decay of this practice that first brought the order of singers into the church (9:776). Coleman’s Ancient Christianity Exemplified, “The prevailing mode of singing during the first three centuries was congregational. The whole congregation united their voices in the sacred song of praise (Ancient Christianity Exemplified, p. 329-330, quoted in Dave Miller’s “Singing and New Testament Worship, p. 7-8).
Type of Heart
We’re told to be “singing with grace in (our) hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16 KJV). The term “grace” is used in different ways in the Bible. The word at times us used of thanks, or gratitude (Rom. 6:17; Heb. 12:28). We even use the term this way saying, “Let us give grace” referring to prayer). The New American Standard Bible renders the word “grace” in Colossians 3:16 “thankfulness.” Our singing should flow out of a genuinely grateful heart, a heart of thanksgiving. Our singing should not just be with lip and tongue but from the heart.
We’re to be “singing and making melody in (our) heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). Two things are to be done: (1) We are to sing. This is a physical act that can be heard (Acts 16:25). (2) We are to make melody in our hearts. What does this mean? Foy Wallace Jr. has written, “The Lexicons give the root meaning of “psallo” (root word of ‘making melod Melody – B.H.) to pull, rub, strike, or vibrate. The carpenter psalloes the carpenter’s line when he lets it go to make a chalk line. The archer psalloes the bow-string, pulls back the bow-string and lets the arrow fly. Pulling the hair and stroking the beard were psalloing of the hair and beard… in like manner a musician takes an instrument, strikes its strings or chords – that is psalloing, all right, on the instrument named; but it is not the instrument that makes the psalloing, but rather the act performed on it… it is ridiculous to make the object of a verb a part of the definition. Take the verb ‘lick’ for instance – lick what?… But lick a stamp – is the stamp a part of the definition of the verb ‘lick’? Certainly not. All right – psallo what? Well psallo the hair,… or a harp. Such would only be the object of ‘psallo’, not its definition. And since Paul said psallo the heart – that is the thing psalloed in worship, not a mechanical instrument… the heart is the object and the instrument of the psalloing… In the use of the Greek word ‘psallo’ in the New Testament, and its Old Testament correspondent, the Hebrew word ‘zamar’, whenever any particular instrument was intended, it had to be named in addition to the word… whenever the harp was intended, the harp was named, in addition to the word. So in the New Testament, the heart, not the harp, was the instrument connected with singing and Paul named it – the heart. He specified the instrument in addition to the word (Commentary on Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, p. 217 – 218). Hugo McCord wrote, “If it were literal, as it is in the Old Testament, one would expect to find literal instruments specified… But Ephesians 5:19 bypasses literal instruments and substitutes a figurative one ‘the heart’. As David plucked the literal strings of a harp, so Christians pluck the figurative strings of their hearts…” [The Spiritual Sword, vol. 21, (July 1990) quoted in “Why We Sing and Do Not Play” by Mark Swindall, p. 27]. We play our heart-strings unto God.
Let us say, “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart” (Psalm 9:1-f; 111:1). “Let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is the fruit of our lips giving thanks to His name” (Hebrews 13:15). “Praise the name of the Lord with song, and magnify Him with thanksgiving (Psalm 69:30). “Serve the Lord with gladness: Come before His presence with singing” (Psalm 100:2).
Our singing is both vertical and horizontal: (1) Vertically, we are singing unto the Lord (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16), God (Acts 16:25). This is our primary aim. (2) Horizontally, we are teaching and admonishing one another (Colossians 3:16). The songs we sing can be a powerful influence upon human ears. Mark Swindall has written, “Powerful singing impresses visitors… Christians who lack commitment can be stimulated to rededicated their lives to God… Enthusiastic singing gives the preacher a running start… emotional uplift may be a result of worship (Why we Sing…, p. 12-13). Music can soothe and soften even cruel and hard hearts (1 Samuel 16:23). “Singing together produces a sense of comradeship and community. It gives a feeling of family and knits our hearts together” (Buster Dobbs, 14th Annual Southwest Lectures, p. 214). The things we sing get in our heads and stay with us through the week (e.g. ‘Angry Words’).
Caution: Since it is the case that we are “teaching and admonishing” in song (Colossians 3:16), care should be given to use only songs which are true to what God’s Word teaches. Song leaders should pay very close attention to this. It is just as wrong to teach false doctrine by song as it is to preach false doctrine in a sermon. Some songs teach wrongly on the ‘end times’ (e.g. “Jesus is Coming Soon.” Notice esp. verse 2, “When these signs come to pass, nearing the end at last…”). Many songs express the idea of praying to Jesus (e.g. “Tell it to Jesus”; “Just a Little Talk With Jesus”). Some songs suggest a direct operation of the Holy Spirit (e.g. “Breathe on Me, Breath of God”). Some songs are unto the Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit (e.g. “Father, I adore You”; “Heavenly Father, We Appreciate You”; “Glorify Thy Name”). I find authority to sing to God, in context the Father [Romans 15:9 (this doesn’t refer to the Holy Spirit Romans 15:13); Hebrews 2:11-13 (this clearly refers to the Father John 6:37, 44-45); Acts 16:25]. I find authority to sing to the Lord, which in context is Jesus (Ephesians 5:19; cf. 4:4-6; Colossians 3:16-17). However, while recognizing the deity of the Holy Spirit, I find no passage in the New Testament which suggests we’re to be singing unto the Holy Spirit. Not all of the Psalms can be properly sang in our worship services. Those that are not in conflict with the teachings of the New Testament may be used. Those that instruct the worship of God with mechanical instruments of music should be avoided as songs. It causes confusion.