Singing the Canonical Psalms (III)

Spiritual Songs

After showing in the previous article that the “psalms”, “hymns” and “songs” of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are different words for what we refer to as the canonical Psalms, we now continue our consideration of these two key verses:

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).

Qualifying the word “songs” in both texts is the adjective “spiritual”. “Spiritual” in the Bible means a lot more than religious; “spiritual” in Scripture means of, belonging to or determined by the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 speak of songs that are of the Spirit and the 150 Psalms are most definitely songs of the Holy Spirit. They are inspired or breathed forth by the Holy Spirit as His Word (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). Quoting Psalm 95:7, Hebrews 3:7-8 states, “As the Holy Ghost saith, To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your hearts”.

B. B. Warfield explains the word “spiritual” in Scripture:

Of the twenty-five instances in which the word 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 [of “spiritual”] is uniform with the one single exception of Eph. 6:12, where it seems to refer to the higher though superhuman intelligences [i.e., (evil) angels, who are “spirits” (cf. Ps. 104:4; Heb. 1:7, 14)]. The appropriate translation for it [i.e., “spiritual”] in each case is spirit-given, or spirit-led, or spirit-determined.1

All would agree that the adjective “spiritual” (“of the Spirit”) certainly qualifies the word “songs.” It may well also qualify “psalms” and “hymns”, as well as “songs”. This would fit with Greek grammar and the scriptural meaning of all three nouns.

At this point someone might say, “So the verse then means sing psalms, psalms and psalms”. To that we respond, “Yes! Have you never noticed that the Bible contains many such triplets?” The apostle Peter preached on the day of Pentecost that the Lord Jesus Christ was divinely approved by “miracles and wonders and signs” (Act. 2:22)—different ways of speaking of one thing: miracles! According to Exodus 34:7, God forgives “iniquity and transgression and sin”—again, different ways of saying essentially the same thing. The three nouns “psalms”, “hymns” and “songs” are used in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 because these are the three terms—the only three words—used in the Bible for the “spiritual” or Spirit-breathed Psalms, which God gave for His church to sing.

Other Points From Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16

There are various combinations used in the Psalter titles of the Greek Septuagint, the Old Testament of most of the early church. Twelve times we are told that one of the inspired odes is a “psalm” and a “song”, the first and third terms used in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. Twice a canonical Psalm is called a “psalm” and a “hymn”, the first two of the three terms used in these key texts. In the heading of Psalm 75, numbered Psalm 76 in the Septuagint, the words “psalm”, “hymn” and “song” are used—the precise three terms found in Ephesians and Colossians. This combination of “singing and making melody” in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” in Ephesians 5:19 is found in other places and in different forms in the Septuagint Psalter (e.g., Ps. 26:6; 56:8; 104:2; 107:2).2

With these inspired odes, Christians are well-equipped to fulfil the calling of “teaching and admonishing one another” (Col. 3:16). This is what we do in singing according to the Bible. This is part of the purpose of our sung praise—teaching and admonishing one another—as well as glorifying God and strengthening ourselves in our Rock.3

One of the words used in the Hebrew Psalm titles is “Maschil” which refers to teaching or instruction. All will agree that the rich content of the 150 Psalms gives us a lot of teaching. The more you sing the Psalms with the saints, the more you will realize that you are all “teaching and admonishing one another” by God’s holy Word.

Let us take Psalm 37 as an example: “Trust in the Lord, and do good”, “Delight thyself also in the Lord”, “Commit thy way unto the Lord; trust also in him”, “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself ”, “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil” (vv. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8). In the church’s corporate singing, we are “teaching and admonishing one another” with the infallible Psalms. Do we wish to teach and admonish in the church with fallible man-made hymns which can err and, in many instances, have erred?4

Colossians 3:16 speaks of “the word of Christ”. The Psalms are undoubtedly the Word of Christ since He authored them, for “the Spirit of Christ” spoke in the Old Testament (particularly the Psalms) of His “sufferings … and the glory that should follow” (1 Pet. 1:12). The Psalms speak of the Lord Jesus directly (e.g., Ps. 2) and by type, especially through David, the sweet psalmist of Israel, who is a great type of Christ, as the persecuted and glorious king (e.g., Ps. 16; 18; 22; 24; 41; 55; 68; 69; 110). God put David through his experiences to teach us about Jesus Christ’s sufferings and victory.5   Also the many references to the bloody sacrifices of the ceremonial law typify the oblation of the crucified Son of God (e.g., Ps. 22; 40; 51).6

Thus, by teaching and admonishing one another with God’s own Psalms, “the word of Christ” dwells in us “richly” (Col. 3:16), so that we enjoy covenant fellowship with the holy Trinity. Are man-made songs “the word of Christ”? Will the church be able to stand before God on the judgment day with their uninspired hymnals and say, “We sang the Word of Christ”?

Furthermore,   Colossians   3:16   says that we are to teach and admonish one another with these spiritual songs “in all wisdom”. Regarding the Psalter, God’s songbook, we can say with certainty that we teach and admonish “in all wisdom”, since it is authored by Christ who is the very wisdom of God (Pro. 8; 1 Cor. 1:24) and it reveals God’s wisdom. Is there any human hymn book that contains “all wisdom”? Moreover, Ephesians 5 states that singing God’s Psalms (v. 19) is a way of being “filled with the Holy Spirit” (v. 18). This is the connection between verse 18 and verse 19 in Ephesians 5! Singing “the Lord’s song[s]” (Ps. 137:4) is a divinely-given means to be filled with the Holy Ghost. This divine infilling has nothing to do with the “second blessing” experience touted by Pentecostalism but everything to do with singing the inspired Psalms!

In Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, it must also be noted that we are not called to write the worship songs. There are all sorts of spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament (e.g., Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10). There are six church offices in the New Testament: some extraordinary and temporary (apostles, prophets, and evangelists) and some ordinary and permanent (pastors, elders, and deacons). Yet there is no New Testament office for anyone to write the church’s songs, nor does the New Testament mention any gift of the Spirit for this.

But we do have this beautiful gift from God: the 150 inspired Psalms! Many of these spiritual songs were penned by David, who was gifted with the requisite grace as the one “anointed” by the “Spirit of the Lord” in his office as “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1-2). So we do not write a song; we sing a song and we sing “the songs of Zion” (Ps. 137:3).


1 Quoted in Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion (Pittsburgh, PA: Crown & Covenant Publications, 1999), pp. 90-91.

2 Bushell, Songs of Zion, p. 87.

3 Cf. “singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col. 3:16; cf. Eph. 5:19).

4 Cf. Angus Stewart, “Our Own Hymn Book Versus God’s Own Hymn Book: A Critique of the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster Hymnal” (


5 Other messianic Psalms include Psalms 45, 72, 89 and 118.

6 Melchizedek is another great type of Christ our priest spoken of in the Psalms (Ps. 110:4), as the epistle to the Hebrews explains at length (Heb. 5-7).


Written by: Rev. Angus Stewart | Issue 42