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The translation of Colossians 3:16 in the ESV is slightly different from the NASV. According to the former, our responsibility is one of “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in [y]our hearts to God.” As you can see, “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are to be sung by Christians. Well, of course one sings them! But I don’t think that’s what this verse is saying. Rather, I would opt for the NASV rendering, in which we are envisioned as “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Did you notice the difference?

Whereas both views are grammatically possible, I’m swayed by the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:19. There Paul exhorted the church. “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” Clearly, and indisputably, Paul envisions believers communicating truth and knowledge and instruction by means of these various forms of singing. It seems quite reasonable, therefore, that the same point is being made in Colossians 3:16. The “addressing” or “speaking” in Ephesians 5:19 is now defined as “teaching and admonishing” in Colossians 3:16.

Thus, in the NASV translation, Paul’s point is that the way the “word of Christ richly dwells” in our midst is by our teaching and admonishing one another WITH or BY MEANS OF psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. I realize that sounds odd to modern ears. The first question you may be tempted to ask is, “How does one teach someone else by singing to them? How can singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs admonish another believer?”

Those are excellent questions and ones that I think Paul wants us to ask. But before we give an answer, what’s the difference, if any, between “psalms” and “hymns” and “spiritual songs”? Some insist there is no difference between these items. But if he meant only one thing, what is the point of employing three different words? More likely Paul had a distinction in mind that’s important for us to note.

“Psalms” most likely refers to those inspired compositions in the OT book of that name. Luke uses the word in this way in his writings (20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33) and Paul encouraged Christians to come to corporate worship with a “psalm” to offer (1 Cor. 14:26). The word literally meant “to pluck” or “to strike or twitch the fingers on a string” and thus could possibly refer to singing with instrumental accompaniment (although we shouldn’t restrict it to that).

The word “hymns” would be any human composition that focuses on God or Christ. Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2 or the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 would qualify, as would Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1. Perhaps the most explicit examples would be the so-called “Christ Hymns” in Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and 1 Timothy 3:16.

Why is the third expression of singing designated as “spiritual” (although some contend that this adjective applies to all three)? Could it be Paul’s way of differentiating between those songs that are previously composed as over against those that are spontaneously evoked by the Spirit himself? Yes, I think so. In other words, “spiritual songs” are most likely unrehearsed and improvised, perhaps short melodies or choruses extolling the beauty of Christ. They aren’t prepared in advance but are prompted by the Spirit and thus are uniquely and especially appropriate to the occasion or the emphasis of the moment. I agree with Dunn that these may well be “songs sung under immediate inspiration of the Spirit” (239). He believes there was, in all probability, “a lively, spontaneous, charismatic worship (including glossolalia?) [that] continued to be a feature of the Pauline churches . . . , at least for the full length of his own ministry” (239).

If these distinctions are valid, Murray Harris would be correct in calling them, respectively, “songs from Scripture, songs about Christ, and songs from the Spirit” (169). This possibility strikes many as strange for the simple fact that, outside of charismatic churches, there are virtually no opportunities for expressions of spontaneous praise. The only songs permitted are those listed in the bulletin or liturgy. Singing is highly structured, orchestrated, and carefully controlled (but not for that reason any less godly or edifying). There is typically a distinct beginning and ending without the possibility of improvisation or free vocalization. People are expected to sing what is written in the hymnal or projected on a screen, nothing more and nothing less.

But Paul seems to envision a “singing” in which the individual is given freedom to vocalize his/her own passions, prayers, and declarations of praise. Although this may strike some as chaotic and aimless the first time it is heard (it certainly did me!), it can quickly become a beautiful and inspiring experience as the Spirit is given free reign in the hearts of Christ’s people. As the instrumentalists play a simple chord progression or perhaps even the melody of a familiar song, the people spontaneously supply whatever words are most appropriate to their state of mind and heart. As Dunn noted, this may well have involved singing in tongues (without being restricted to it), or what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:15 as “singing in the Spirit.”

On countless occasions I have been blessed and edified by what some have called “prophetic singing” (so called because it is believed the Spirit reveals something to the person who in turn puts it to music). Typically an individual who is part of a worship team is led by the Spirit into a spontaneous song that may well evoke another to respond antiphonally. Such “spiritual songs” can last a few seconds or several minutes. Often, what one person sings will stir up yet another with a similar refrain, which on occasion will lead back into a verse or the chorus of a hymn previously sung.

I can only hope and pray that those of you who have never been exposed to this form of worship will have opportunity to experience it first hand.

More important still is the fact that such singing, whether psalms, hymns, or spiritual songs, are designed not simply to extol God but to educate his people. By means of them we “teach” and “admonish” one another. Clearly Paul envisioned songs that were biblically grounded and theologically substantive, songs that both communicated truth and called for heartfelt consecration, repentance, and devotion to the Lord. It’s possible, as O’Brien has pointed out, that if Paul “had in mind antiphonal praise or solo singing for mutual edification in church meetings . . . then mutual instruction and exhortation could well have been possible” (209). Let’s also not forget that Paul is describing a situation far in advance of the printing press and hymnbooks. Thus these various expressions of singing were an invaluable means for transmitting and inculcating Christian truth.

Although many today may never experience a worship service that incorporates these elements in the way I described, the educational and convicting power in music and song cannot be denied. In his book, “Real Worship”, Warren Wiersbe wrote:

“I am convinced that congregations learn more theology (good and bad) from the songs they sing than from the sermons they hear. Many sermons are doctrinally sound and contain a fair amount of biblical information, but they lack that necessary emotional content that gets hold of the listener’s heart. Music, however, reaches the mind and the heart at the same time. It has power to touch and move the emotions, and for that reason can become a wonderful tool in the hands of the Spirit or a terrible weapon in the hands of the Adversary” (137).

All the more reason for us to be conscientious and biblically accurate in what we sing!

Singing of the Savior (even if off key),