Singing the Canonical Psalms (II)

In the last article, we considered the uniqueness of the Psalms, as the only canonical book that God has given to His beloved church for her singing, before looking at many passages that describe their use in the Old Testament. In this instalment, we shall build on this foundation by looking at Christ’s use of the Psalms, the Psalms in the Greek Septuagint and the three key nouns in a couple of important New Testament texts (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

Their Use by Christ in His Earthly Ministry

It is practically universally acknowledged that the Jews of Christ’s day sang the Psalms. The canonical Psalms were sung at the temple, on the way up to Jerusalem for the pilgrim feasts, in the home and elsewhere.

Moreover, just about everybody agrees that the Jews sang the Hallel (Hallelujah or “Praise the Lord”) Psalms at the Passover (Ps. 113-118). After His last Passover and the first Lord’s Supper, we read of Jesus and the eleven disciples singing these inspired songs: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26).

The Holy Spirit is here telling us something very significant at this critical juncture in Christ’s life. He is soon to be betrayed and crucified for all the sins of all God’s elect. He has just instituted the Lord’s Supper, a New Testament sacrament, in place of the Old Testament Passover. This was the scene at which He uttered these great words: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20). Then, Christ, the Head of the church, and the eleven disciples, the leaders of the New Testament church, sang the Hallel Psalms.

Thus the Passover passes away as merely an Old Testament observance (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7) but Psalm singing passes over into the new dispensation. Canonical Psalm singing is here united with the Lord’s Supper, which is to continue until Jesus Christ comes again in great glory on the clouds of heaven with His holy angels (1 Cor. 11:26).

The Septuagint

Some time after the completion of the book of Psalms and the inspiration of all the other books of the Old Testament canon, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek. Why was that? The answer is that many Jews were scattered outside their ancient homeland, especially throughout the eastern Mediterranean. At that time, many people in the Roman Empire spoke Greek, including the Jews. Over the years, the Jews or, at least, many of them had lost the facility of reading and listening to Hebrew. So a Greek translation of the Old Testament, as we now call it, was produced about 200 BC. This version, the Septuagint, was used in the synagogues of the Jews. Most Jews and proselytes who possessed copies of the Bible had this Greek translation. It was used for memorization and teaching. In short, the Greek Septuagint was the Bible of the church of that day.

So what about the Septuagint translation of the the Psalms? The Sepher Tehillim (book of praises) in Hebrew became the Psalmoi in Greek, which is known in English as the Psalms or the Psalter. The Greek Psalm titles themselves contain three words— and only three words—to refer to these Psalms as material to be sung: psalmos (psalm), hymnous (hymn) and oodee (song).

What happened when the gospel spread from   Jerusalem   to   Judah,   Samaria and beyond? The apostles, as we read in the book of Acts, went first to the synagogue. God called His elect people from their midst. These believing Jews and proselytes became the nucleus of the New Testament church, with others joining them. The Bible of these fledgling churches was the Septuagint.

The Three Key Nouns in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16

Let us now look at two key texts in this debate: Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord (Eph. 5:19).

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 (Col. 3:16).

The question is, What is meant by the three nouns: “psalms,” “hymns” and “songs”? Even more basic is this query, How are we going to determine what is meant by “psalms,” “hymns” and “songs”? Do we come with our own preconceived view of what these words mean in the twenty-first century evangelical scene or do we let the historical and scriptural context determine what the apostle Paul meant, and what the Ephesians and the Colossians would have understood these terms to mean?

First, let us look at the word psalmos or psalm. Almost everybody, including singers of uninspired hymns, admits that the biblical Psalms are meant. Psalmoi or Psalms is the title of the longest canonical book in the Greek Septuagint and our English Bibles. Psalmos is also found in 67 of the Psalm titles and 11 times in the Psalms themselves in the Septuagint, as well as appearing frequently in the book of Psalms in our English Bibles. This is clear and simple.

Second, to what do the hymnoi or “hymns” refer in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16? In the last article, we looked at the Hallel Psalms which Christ and his eleven disciples sang after the Lord’s Supper, and we saw that the inspired Psalms 113-118 were called “hymns” (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). In Hebrews 2:12, Jesus Christ says, “I will declare thy [i.e., God’s] name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” or “will I hymn unto thee,” with the verb in this last clause being a form of hymnos. Moreover, this “hymn” is a quotation from Psalm 22:22.

In the Septuagint translation, the word hymnos (hymn) is found in 6 Psalm titles and 7 times in the Psalms themselves. In 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Chronicles and Nehemiah in this Greek version, there are some 16 places in which a Psalm is called hymnos (hymn) or oodee (song) and its singing is a “hymning” (from hymnos). A Jew called Philo (d.c. AD 40-50) in Egypt frequently designates a psalm as hymnos. It is, in fact, his usual word to refer to the canonical Psalms. You and I in our age and culture would call them Psalms, but Philo in his world and in his day typically called them hymns. Likewise, Josephus, a Jew who lived in the last two-thirds of the first century AD repeatedly called a psalm a hymnos or hymn.

Third, we conclude with oodee or song used, for example, in the title of Psalm 45: “A Song of loves.” The word oodee or song is found in 36 of the Psalm titles in the Septuagint and 9 times in the Psalms themselves.

More remains to be said about Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, including their application, but this must await our next article.

Written by: Rev. Angus Stewart | Issue 41