Reading Sermons

Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs


Scripture Reading: Ephesians 5:1-21 and Colossians 3:14-17

Psalter Numbers:

372; all

409; all

430; all

256; 1-3


The two passages which we’ve chosen for our text have more to say about our singing, especially about singing as part of our public worship, than any other passage of the Word of God.   They tell us what to sing in the worship of God, how to sing, and why we sing, and they say some things about our singing that will probably be a surprise to  us.

Before we look at the two passages, however, let me remind you of the importance of our singing the praises of God, and worshipping Him in song.  The importance of such singing is clearly seen in the fact that singing will be the only part of our worship that continues in heaven.  In heaven we will not need the preaching of the gospel anymore for we will have the living Word of God Himself.  We will not need prayer in heaven for we shall have all our needs supplied and shall be forever in God’s presence.  We will no longer need the Scriptures and the reading of the Scriptures in heaven, for we shall then no longer see through a glass darkly, but face to face. But we will still sing forever the praises of God in the company of the angels and of the church made perfect.

That should show us that what our texts say about singing is not of minor importance, and so I call your attention to these two passages with the theme:


In connection with our theme we will be looking at three things.  First, we must understand what Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are.  In other words, we must know what is and what is not acceptable for singing in the worship of God.  Second, we must take note of the fact that when we sing these songs we are not only praising God, making melody in our hearts to Him, as the text says, but also speaking to one another, teaching and admonishing one another, as the Word of God says in Colossians 3:16.  Making melody in our hearts to God and speaking to one another is the two-fold place that our singing has in the church.  Finally, we must take note of some of things these passages have to say about the manner of our singing: that we sing as those who are filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18); that we sing from the heart (Ephesians 5:19), and that we sing with grace in our hearts to the Lord (Colossians 3:16).



Our viewpoint in treating these verses is going to be that “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” are all different descriptions of the Psalms, and that the Word of God in these passages requires the singing of Psalms and only the Psalms in worship.  These passages, then, teach what is sometimes called “exclusive Psalmody” — Psalms only in worship.  Exclusive Psalmody has always been the practice of the church and though lost in most churches today, must remain our practice as something required by God Himself.

It must be noted, however, that what the Word of God says in these two passages applies to the public worship of God by the church.  This is clear first of all from the fact that both Ephesians and Colossians are books about the church.  It is also clear from the fact that both passages speak of singing, not as something done in private, but in public: we speak to one another and teach and admonish one another in our singing.

I want to emphasize that: the Word of God in these passages requires us to sing only the Psalms in the public worship of the church.  What we do elsewhere is our own business and is not commanded in Scripture.  Though we may sing only Psalms in  public worship, we may, if we so desire, sing other songs in our private and family worship.  The Word of God nowhere forbids that.

A word of warning is in order, however.  It is my recollection that in our schools when I was growing up we sang almost all Psalter numbers, and the same was true at singspirations and other meetings.  That has changed. On many such occasions very few Psalms are sung and most of the singing is of other songs.  There is nothing wrong with that in itself, but I worry that as result of singing so many other songs, the Psalms will lose their place in our hearts and lives and in that way man-made songs will eventually replace the Psalms in the public worship of God as well.

Having said that, we need to see what the Word of God here in Ephesians and Colossians means when it talks about Psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs.  Most believe, of course, that the word “Psalms” here refers to the 150 inspired songs that are part of the Word of God in the Old Testament.  They believe, however, that the word “hymns” refers to man-made songs, like those of Isaac Watts, William Williams, Fanny Crosby, and others, and they believe that spiritual songs are either versifications of other passages of Scripture besides the Psalms, such as the Lord’s Prayer, or that they are another kind of man-made song, perhaps what are sometimes referred to as choruses.

It needs to be pointed out, though, that even if the text does allow the singing of man-made songs in addition to the Psalms, even then the church today does not really obey the Word of God in this passage, for in fact, most churches sing very few if any Psalms.  I recently picked up a couple of hymn books and counted: one had 78 Psalms out of 901 numbers, the other had only 11 out of 550 numbers that were Psalms, and even these are not always sung.  The Psalms are almost completely neglected and forgotten in favor of man-made songs.  That’s what happens when God’s Word in these passages is misunderstood and misinterpreted.

We must see that not only are the Psalms a part of what we must sing in the worship of God, but that they are all we may sing.  Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are not three different kinds of songs, some inspired and some man-made, but are all different words for the Psalms.

We can see that in the case of what are referred to here as songs when we turn to the Psalms themselves.  Even in our English version many of them are referred to as “songs.”  Psalms 67 and 68, for example, are described in their titles as “A Song or Psalm,” and so are many others.  That they are called “songs” refers to the fact that they are a special kind of Psalm which describes the history and experiences of God’s people.  Those are the “songs” that are being talked about in Ephesians and Colossians.

Also, when Colossians and Ephesians call them spiritual songs, that does not refer to their content, but to the fact that they are inspired by the Spirit of God, and are part of the Holy Scriptures.  Just as a spiritual man is one who is controlled and directed by God’s Spirit, so a spiritual song, is one inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Hymns, too, are not what we usually think of.  They are not man-made hymns, but a certain kind of Psalm, especially a Psalm of praise.  The word is found in the title of one Psalm, Psalm 145, which is called, literally, David’s hymn. The word “hymns” in Ephesians and Colossians, however, does not just refer to Psalm 145 but to all Psalms of praise.  Proof is found in Matthew 26:30 which tells us that when the last supper was finished and before Jesus and His disciples went out to the Garden of Gethsemanae, they sang a hymn.

The verse reads: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out to the mount of Olives.”  That’s Matthew 26:30.

What Jesus and the disciples sang was not “Amazing Grace” or “The Old Rugged Cross,” but one of the so-called “Hallel” or “Praise” Psalms that were always sung by the Jews at the Passover.  These “Praise Psalms” were Psalms 113-118, most of which begin or end with the words, “Praise ye the Lord.”  Probably it was the last of these, Psalm 118, which Jesus and the disciples sang, a Psalm that speaks of the sacrifice being bound to the horns of the altar (vs. 27), and which must have touched our Lord deeply.

Further proof, however, that hymns and spiritual songs are not man-made songs, but certain kinds of Psalms is found in Ephesians and Colossians.  Ephesians 5:18 speaks of the necessity of being filled with the Spirit in order to sing these songs, something that is not necessary if a person is singing is the word of man.  Even more important is Colossians 3:16, which tells us that when we sing these songs, then the word of Christ dwells in us richly, implying that these songs are the Word of God, not the words of men.  When we sing the words of Isaac Watts the word of Christ does not dwell in us, but when we sing the Psalms it does.

Indeed, the Psalms are the word of Christ in a unique and wonderful way.  All Scripture, of course, is the word of Christ, but the Psalms are that in a different way than the rest of Scripture.  They are the words of Christspeaking directly and personally — speaking as the one who was made like us in all things and was touched with the feeling of our infirmities.

That is so much the case, that Christ in His suffering on the cross did not need to find words to express what was in His heart but simply took His own words from the Psalms and used them.  Psalm 22:1 is the greatest of all examples.  In His abandonment during the hours of His deepest suffering He expressed His agony with the words He had already spoken through David in Psalm 22:1, “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?”

That the Psalms are called the word of Christ is an answer, therefore, to those who think that there is not very much of Christ in the Psalms, and that they are not really suitable for the New Testament church to sing.  Isaac Watts, for example, objected to the singing of Psalms on that basis, and claimed that because the Psalms had so little of Christ in them, there was more of the Spirit of God in his man-made hymns than there was in the Psalms.  He said, “I have sometimes hit upon the true intent of the Spirit of God in these verses farther and clearer than David himself could ever discover.”

The Psalms, then, are not merely God’s Word about Christ, but the very words of Christ Himself in all his life and experiences as a man.  When we sing them, and speak in them of our own experiences, our joys and sorrows, then we see that He was made like us in all things, the His experiences are ours and ours His.  For that reason alone, the church must sing only Psalms in the worship of God, as required in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3.

What is more, when we sing only the word of Christ, that is, only Psalms, then we avoid some of the great dangers of singing man-made hymns.

The first great danger of singing man-made songs is that we do not sing the whole counsel of God.  There are not many man-made hymns that sing of God’s wrath and judgments, for example; none that I know of that sing of Israel as the church, and the history of Israel as the history of the church; none that speak of God’s covenant and the promise of the covenant to be our God and the God of our children.  We avoid that danger of singing only part of the truth when we sing the Word of Christ in the Psalms.

We also avoid the danger of singing what is false.  Many man-made hymns and songs often teach error.  That’s true not only of those that are blatantly Arminian, such as “Jesus is waiting, O come to Him now, Waiting today, waiting today” but some that we ourselves sing.

Did you know, for example, that there is error in Luther’s Cradle Hymn, “Away in a Manger?”  The second line of the second stanza says, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.”  That is not only untrue but a denial of Jesus’ real humanity, that He was like us in all things, except sin.  As a baby, therefore, He must have bawled like any other when He was hungry or wet or ill.

And did you know that the man-made hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers,” is actually a Roman Catholic hymn — that the faith referred to is not the faith of our fathers, but the apostate faith of Romanism?  The second stanza of the song, never sung by Protestants, shows that.  It says:

                        Faith of our father, Mary’s prayers

                        Shall win our country back to Thee;

                        And through the truth that comes from God,

                        England shall then indeed be free.

We avoid such errors when we sing only the word of Christ and that means singing only Psalms.


We come then to the matter of the place that Psalm-singing has in the church and her worship.  Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 have something to say about that also.

We learn first of all from Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 that singing is worship, worship of God.  Perhaps that seems to us simply a matter of stating the obvious, but it is not so obvious as it first appears.  If singing is worship then both words and music must be appropriate for the glory of the great God, something that is not true of much church music today.  Much church music today is more appropriate for the stage or for a rock concert than for God’s honor.

That singing is worship also means that the main thing in singing is not how I feel, but that God be praised.  All too often the emphasis in singing is completely misplaced and the purpose of singing is found not in God but in the worshipper — that he or she feel good or be moved.  Because music has such great power to move us there is always a danger in the church that the real purpose of singing is forgotten.

That’s the first thing we must know when we talk about the place that singing has in the church and in her worship.  But that is not all.  We all know, I think, that singing is worship, or is supposed to be worship, but what we probably do not know is that in singing we are speaking not only to God but also to one another.  Colossians 3:16 tells us that we must be teaching and admonishing one another when we sing in the worship services!  We must be thinking not only of ourselves and of God, but also of others.  Did you know that?  Few of us do, I suspect.

What it all comes down to is this: singing, as part of worship, is a kind of holy conversation.  That is the essence and soul of worship.   In worship, God speaks to us as our God and we speak to Him as His people, but as part of that holy conversation that goes on in worship, we also speak to one other as fellow-saints and fellow members of the body of Christ.

 For this the Psalms are particularly appropriate because in them you have every aspect of that conversation which is at the heart of all true worship.  In the Psalms, God speaks to His people, they speak to Him, Christ speaks to them and to God, and they also speak to one another.  It would not be a bad idea to read through the Psalms with that in mind and take note of all the different parts of that conversation that are found in the Psalms.

That aspect of singing is almost completely missing in man-made hymns.  Most of them are simply the believer speaking to himself or about himself and only in a few does the believer speak to God.  In none that I know of does God speak to His people,  so that important parts of that many-sided conversation than goes on in singing, are missing in the singing of such man-made hymns.

This conversation that goes on in worship, even when we are speaking to one another, is not “small talk.”  We must teach and admonish one another and be taught and admonished ourselves when we sing.

That the Psalms teach much is beyond dispute.  One minister I know preached through every important doctrine of the Christian faith, using the Heidelberg Catechism as a guide, and used only the Psalms to prove all those different doctrines.  The Psalms teach every important doctrine of the Christian faith and teach, too, as the experiences and joys and sorrows of the believer..

Man-made hymns for the most part teach very little.  In spite of the fact that man-made hymns such as “Christ the Lord is risen today” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” are very beautiful, they actually teach very little.  Read them once without the music and you will see that, I think.  One would learn very little about the resurrection of Christ or about the everlasting covenant faithfulness of God from these man-made hymns, far less, at least, than one would learn from Psalm 16 or Psalm 89.

We must not only be taught in our singing, however, but also be admonished, that is, warned from sinful ways, and exhorted in all our fears and sorrows and trials.  When discouraged and afraid, I need to sing and hear the words of Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?  When burdened with guilt and sin, the words of Psalm 32:1 are my comfort, “How blessed is he whose trespass, hath freely been forgiven; Whose sin is wholly covered, before the sight of heaven.”  This, too, is seldom done by man-made hymns.

What is more, there is in the congregational singing of the church, encouragement above and beyond what I receive when I sing these Psalms by myself or to myself.  There is comfort in them even then, but ever so much more when I hear all my fellow believers confessing and singing the same thing and know that they are singing those words to me as I am to them.

There is even a very special encouragement and admonishing in the fact that I am singing with the Church of all ages — singing the songs that David sang in the wilderness and that the believers sang as they made their way to Jerusalem for the Lord’s feasts.  Then the church in all ages sings together as she shall also do some day in glory.



Having said all that, we have already said a great deal about our singing in the worship of God, but the two passages in Ephesians and Colossians have even more to say about the manner of our singing.  That, too, we must notice, at least briefly.

For one thing, these passages know of no other kind of singing in worship but congregational singing.  There is no warrant here or elsewhere in Scripture for choirs, solos, special numbers, and all the rest.  The singing described in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 is singing in which all the members of the church are speaking to one another, not singing in which only a few are speaking to the rest.

That means that every member of the church must participate in the singing and not neglect this aspect of worship, even if he or she think they do not have a very good voice, or cannot carry a tune.  That is not the important thing.  Also, because singing is congregational, the instrumental accompaniment, if there is such, must be subordinate to the singing itself and the music to the words.  Only in that way does our singing become the holy covenant conversation we spoke of earlier in which God and His people meet together and have real fellowship with one another.

In the second place, our singing must be spiritual.  By this we mean that it must be from the heart, as we read in Ephesians 5:19.  In our singing, in other words, we must take note of the words we sing and make them our own confession, and not just mouth the words or enjoy the melodies.  Indeed, as Ephesians 5:19 reminds us, that is the real melody that is pleasing to God.  He does not care if we can carry a tune — that is not the melody that pleases Him, but rather the melody that is played on the heart-strings of God’s people as they sing to Him the words He Himself has given them, making those words their own heart-felt words of praise, confession, adoration, supplication and joy.

So too, our worship must be thankful.  We must, Colossians 3:16 says, sing with grace in our hearts to the Lord.  Grace and thanks are the same word in Scripture and so to sing with grace in the heart is to sing thankfully. Whenever we sing we must sing in that way.  Even our asking for what we need in song and our confessing our sins in song is part of our thankfulness to God, for then, too, we express our complete dependence upon Him as the God of our salvation.

When we see that grace and thanks are the same word, then we see why singing is so important.  It is in the thanksgiving of His people that God’s wonderful grace returns to Him again and He is honored and glorified as the God of all grace.  Thanks really is God’s grace returning to Himself.  That is what singing is all about.

Only the Psalms, including those Psalms that can be described as hymns and songs, are appropriate for the singing of the church, therefore.  The words of weak and sinful men cannot accomplish all that singing is designed to accomplish.  Only the inspired and infallible Word of God in the songs He has given us — only the word of Christ — can teach and admonish, and be a pleasing melody to God, and express true thankfulness to Him, and be worship.  Let us not allow the Psalms to lose their place in our hearts or in the worship of God.

They will not lose their place when we remember one other thing, implied in our texts and stated in Hebrews 2:12.  When the Psalms are sung as the word of Christ, then not only do we sing Christ’s words and make them our own, confessing our oneness with Him, but then too, Christ Himself sings in the church as He has promised: “I will declare thy name unto my brethren; in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.”

That is wonderful and ought to be our great desire in singing — not that Isaac Watts or Fanny Crosby or Augustus Toplady be heard in the singing of the church, but that our great Redeemer, the One who gave Himself to God on our behalf, who ever lives to make intercession for us — that he be heard in and through our singing.  Then our singing truly will be blessed.  Then it will be worship.  Then, and then alone, it will be pleasing to God.


Hanko, Ronald

Rev. Ronald Hanko (Wife: Nancy)

Ordained: November 1979

Pastorates: Wyckoff, NJ - 1979; Trinity, Houston, TX - 1986; Missionary to N.Ireland - 1993; Lynden, WA - 2002


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