“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; c.f. Ephesians 5:19).
This post will briefly demonstrate that “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” refers to the Book of Psalms. Additional questions about singing other portions of Scripture or man-made songs in corporate worship will not be answered in this post.
The twenty-six Puritan signatories of the Preface to the 1673 London edition of the Scottish Metrical Psalter exemplify the correct understanding of the biblical phrase in question: “… to us David’s Psalms seem plainly intended by those terms of ‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,’ which the Apostle useth (Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16).” The signatories include John Owen, Thomas Manton, Matthew Poole, Thomas Watson, Thomas Vincent and William Jenkyn (see more Quotes on Psalm Singing).
Let’s briefly examine why they, and many others, so uniformly understand “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” to refer to the Book of Psalms. First we will note some places in Scripture which use synonymy, then we will zoom in to the use of synonymy in the book of Ephesians to help us understand the Apostle Paul’s use of synonymy with regard to the Psalms. Lastly, we will succinctly dig into why the Apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would use this synonymous language for his first century audience.
Scriptural Examples of Synonymy
Synonymy comes from two Greek root words which mean “with name” and is “the quality of expressing the same meaning by different words” (Webster). Holy Scripture commonly uses this figure of speech, such as:
Commandments, statutes, and laws (Gen. 26:5; c.f. Deut. 30:16)
Iniquity, transgression, and sin (Ex. 34:7)
Statutes, judgements, and laws (Lev. 26:46)
Commandments, and statutes, and judgments (Deut 5:31; 6:1)
Anger, wrath, and indignation (Psa. 78:49)
Heart, soul, and mind (Mat. 22:37; c.f. Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27)
Miracles, wonders, and signs (Acts 2:22)
Good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:2)
Signs, wonders, and mighty deeds (2 Cor. 12:12)
Supplications, prayers, intercessions (1 Tim. 2:1)
Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)
These are not examples of redundancy, neither do these terms represent separate parts of the thing, but each describes the whole with different emphases. While all of the individual words can be found referring to ungodly things (e.g. 2 Kings 17:8, “the statutes of the heathen“; false “signs and wonders” in Mark 13, etc.), that does not mean that when they’re all together they have no specific meaning. Etymology and range of word use cannot be considered alone, context is crucial, and when three terms are used in the above examples, synonymy is meant.
“Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” are all used in the Psalter referencing itself, so when used all together, it’s an obvious reference to the whole book. Taken independently they may refer to other things, given the context, but all together they refer to the book of Psalms, especially since they are called “the word of Christ” and “spiritual” (i.e. inspired) (Col. 3:16).
Synonymy in Ephesians
The book of Ephesians in particular uses synonymy multiple times to beautifully convey the the same concept:
“Far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come:” (Eph. 1:21).
“Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:” (Eph. 2:2).
“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;” (Eph. 5:19).
“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12).
Psalms, Psalms, and Psalms?
“In these passages (Ephesians 1:21; 2:2; 5:19; 6:12) we do not claim an ‘identical synonymy’ but a general synonymy with some distinction. The threefold appellation of the Psalter in [Ephesians] 5:19 does not mean ‘Psalms, Psalms, and Psalms’ but three designations of the Psalter, each with a nuanced emphasis. Psalms, the Hebrew word titling the Psalter itself meaning inspired praises; Hymns, the Greek term that still refers to the Psalter but includes the idea of joy and thankfulness; and ‘Spiritual Songs‘ still referring to the Psalter but emphasizing the Spirituality–the ‘drilling down into the heart’ of the inspired Psalter, because of its Divine Author. That each of these terms are used in the Greek titles of the Psalter underscores this synonymy, and these distinctions.”
Spiritual = Inspired by the Holy Spirit
BB Warfield explains that “spiritual” denotes the Holy Spirit:
“Of the twenty-five instances in which the word [pneumatikos] occurs in the New Testament, in no single case does it sink even as low in its reference as the human spirit; and in twenty-four of them is derived from pneuma, the Holy Spirit. In this sense of belonging to, or determined by, the Holy Spirit, the New Testament usage is uniform with the one single exception of Eph. 6:12, where it seems to refer to the higher though superhuman intelligences. The appropriate translation for it in each case is spirit-given, or spirit-led, or spirit-determined.”
The Presbyterian Review, Vol. 1, p. 561 [July 1880]; quoted in Michael Bushell, The Songs of Zion, pgs. 90-91
John Murray illustrates how the term “spiritual” qualifies all three terms, psalms, hymns, and songs:
“Why does the word pneumatikos [spiritual] qualify odais and not psalmois and hymnois? A reasonable answer to this question is that pneumatikais qualifies all three datives and that its gender (fem.) is due to attraction to the gender of the noun that is closest to it. Another distinct possibility, made particularly plausible by the omission of the copulative in Colossians 3:16, is that “Spiritual songs” are the genus of which “psalms” and “hymns” are the species… On either of these assumptions the psalms, hymns, and songs are all “Spiritual” and therefore all inspired by the Holy Spirit. The bearing of this upon the question at issue is perfectly apparent. Uninspired hymns are immediately excluded.“
John Murray, “Song in Public Worship” in Worship in the Presence of God, (ed. Frank J. Smith and David C. Lachman, Greenville Seminary Press, 1992), pg. 188.
Psalm Headings in the Septuagint (LXX)
Dr. R. Scott Clark beautifully summarizes the first century context of the phrase “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs“:
“The first-century (apostolic) church used the LXX [Septuagint] more than any other form (translation) of the Old Testament. … At the top of the Psalms in the LXX were titles or superscriptions. Those superscriptions described each Psalm, they categorized the psalms in 4 classes or groups: ψαλμος [Psalms], συνεσις; [understanding], υμνος [Hymns], ωδη [Ode/Song]. … Paul invokes them in Colossians 3:16. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom (σοφίᾳ), singing psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” … If Paul was invoking familiar categories that pre-existed the New Testament church by 250-300 years then we must account for that in our interpretation and application of these two passages.”
Thomas Manton1 explains that Ephesians 5:19 is referring to the Psalm titles in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint (LXX)) which was in use during the first century:
“The learned observe, these are the express titles of David’s Psalms, mizmorim, tehillim, and Shirim, which the Septuagint translate, psalmoi, humnoi, and odai, ‘psalms, hymns, and songs,’ [and] seem to recommend to us the book of David’s Psalms.”
Works, vol. 19, pg. 412.
Elsewhere, he elaborates that the individual terms denote the book of Psalms:
“If the practice of the apostles [e.g. Acts 16:25] may be interpreted by their instructions, the case will be clear. In Col 3:16 and Eph 5:19, Paul bideth us ‘speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’. Now these words (which are the known division of David’s Psalms, and expressly answering to the Hebrew words Shurim, Tehillim, and Mizmorim, by which his Psalms are distinguished and entitled), being so precisely used by the Apostle in both places, do plainly point us to the Book of Psalms.”
Works, vol. 4, pg. 443
To further understand how the first century audience would have understood the three terms we can briefly see how they are used elsewhere in the translation of the Old Testament that most Jews and Christians were using at the time:
“Among the psalm headings in the Septuagint the terms psalmos [psalms] and odee [song/spiritual song] occur together 12 times in a variety of formats: ‘a psalm of David, a song,”a song of David among the psalms‘, ‘a psalm of a song‘, and ‘a song of a psalm.’ Psalmos and humnos (hymns) appear conjoined twice as ‘a psalm of David among the hymns.’ Humnos seems to function as a collective term of some kind. In the Psalm headings it is used only in the plural, always as part of the phrase ‘among the hymns.’ Psalm 75 contains all three terms together. The heading for that Psalm reads: ‘For the end, among the hymns [humnos], a psalm [psalmos] for Asaph, a song [odee] for the Assyrian.’ Psalm 137:3 is especially interesting: ‘For there they that have taken us captive asked of us the words of a song [odeen], and they that had carried us away asked a hymn [humnon], saying, ‘sing us one of the songs [odeen] of Zion.’ The combination of singing and psalming, as in Ephesians 5:19, is found in other forms in several places in the Psalter (e.g. Psa. 26:6, 56:8, 104:2, 107:2).”
Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion, pg. 228.
Bushell gives more specifics on the use of the three terms throughout Scripture:
“Psalmos…occurs some 87 times in the Septuagint, some 78 of which are in the Psalms themselves, and 67 times in the psalm titles. It also forms the title to the Greek version of the psalter…. Humnos…occurs some 17 times in the Septuagint, 13 of which are in the Psalms, six times in the titles. In 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Chronicles, and Nehemiah there are some 16 examples in which the Psalms are called ‘hymns’ (humnoi) or ‘songs’ (odai) and the singing of them is called ‘hymning’ (humneo, humnodeo, humnesis)…. Odee…occurs some 80 times in the Septuagint, 45 of which are in the Psalms, 36 in the Psalm titles… In twelve Psalm titles we find both ‘psalm’ and ‘song’; and, in two others we find ‘psalm’ and ‘hymn.’ Psalm seventy-six is designated ‘psalm, hymn and song.’ And at the end of the first seventy two psalms we read ‘the hymns of David the son of Jesse are ended’ (Ps. 72:20).
Songs of Zion, pgs. 217-218.
“There is no more reason to think that the Apostle referred to psalms when he said ‘psalms,’ than when he said ‘hymns’ and ‘songs,’ for all three were biblical terms for psalms in the book of Psalms itself.”
 “A great deal has been made of a comment by Thomas Manton … in his commentary on James 5:13. He says ‘I confess we do not forbid other songs; if grave and pious, after good advice they may be received into the Church.’643 Advocates of uninspired hymnody claim on the basis of this comment that Manton favored the admission of uninspired hymns into the worship of the church. If read in context, however, it is difficult to see how this can be the meaning. he is either saying here that Scripture songs other than the Psalms may be admitted, or that he is not willing to be contentious on the matter if the church should choose to admit hymns. Just a few lines after the above comment, Manton says:
‘Scripture psalms not only may be sung, but are fittest to be used in the church, as being indited by an infallible and unerring Spirit, and are of a more diffusive and unlimited concernment than the private dictates of any particular person or spirit in the church. It is impossible any should be of such a large heart as the penmen of the word, to whom God vouchsafed such a public, high, and infallible conduct; and therefore their excellent composures and addresses to God being recorded and consigned to the use of the church for ever, it seemeth a wonderful arrogance and presumption in any to pretend to make better, or that their private and rash effusions will be more edifying. Certainly if we consult with our own experience, we have little cause to grow weary of David’s psalms, those that pretend to the gift of psalmony, venting such wild, raw, and indigested stuff, belching out revenge and passion, and mingling their private quarrels and interests with the public worship of God. But suppose men of known holiness and ability should be called to this task, and the matter propounded to be sung good and holy, yet certainly then men are like to suffer loss in their reverence and affection, it being impossible that they should have such absolute assurance and high esteem of persons ordinarily gifted as of those infallibly assisted. Therefore, upon the whole matter, I should pronounce, that so much as an infallible gift doth excel a common gift, so much do scriptural psalms excel those that are of a private composure.’644
Whatever Manton meant by the comment that he did not ‘forbid other songs,’ his views on whether or not uninspired hymns ought to be admitted into services of worship could hardly be stated more clearly. Like Calvin, he did not think that hymns should be placed on par with Scripture.
643. Thomas Manton, An Exposition of the Epistle of James (London: Banner of Truth, 1962), p. 442. It is worth mentioning that Manton understood the phrase ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs‘ in Colossians 3:16, to be a reference to the Biblical Psalms, cf. Thomas Manton, Works, Vol. 4 (Pennsylvania: Maranatha Publications, n.d.), p. 443.
Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion, pg. 282.
See also: Psalms or Hymns in Public Worship by Rev. H M Cartwright
Exclusive Psalmody – Traditional or Scriptural? by Rev. Gavin Beers
A Special Exegesis of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 by Prof. John McNaugher
Psalms, Hymns and (Spiritual) Songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16): A Quick Survey by Rev. Martyn McGeown