My Fifth Major Argument Against Exclusive Psalmody

by | Jul 30, 2014 | Exclusive Psalmody

My treatment of exclusive psalmody would be incomplete if it did not deal with the key texts of Ephesians 5:19-20, Colossians 3:16-17, and their mention “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”

Fifth, the best interpretation of Ephesians 5:19-20 and Colossians 3:16-17 leads to the conclusion that Paul was not thinking strictly of the Book of Psalms in this passage or even of inspired songs.

In order to illuminate the proper interpretation of these parallel passages it will be well to set forth plainly the major tenets of the interpretation of them provided by exclusive psalmodist.

First, the exclusive psalmodist affirms that the phrase, “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” refers to the book of Psalms.  It is common for them to point out that each of these three words is used frequently in the Psalms.  In this exegetical point they are, absolutely correct.  A quick count shows that 76 of the 99 uses of psalm occur in the LXX and GNT occur in the Psalms.  13 of the 34 uses of hymn are in the Psalms.  44 of the 95 uses song occur in the Psalms.  Murray argues that “when Paul wrote “psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs” he would expect the minds of his readers to think of … the Book of Psalms.” (Worship in the Presence of God, 187)  Similarly, Frank Smith asserts that these words “refer specifically to the material of the Psalter.”   (Worship in the Presence of God, 206).  Schwertley similarly defends this position in his Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense.

Second, the exclusive psalmodists argue that the modifier, spiritual, in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 refers to these songs (and possibly also the psalms and hymns) as inspired.  Spiritual means inspired in this passage for the exclusive psalmodist.  Schwertley in Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense follows Murray who says:  “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.”  (Worship in the Presence of God, 188).

Having set out these two pillars of the exclusive psalmodist interpretation of these passages, we may place over against them the proper interpretation.

As to the meaning of “spiritual” in this passage, we must say immediately that it is highly improbable that it has the meaning of inspired.  The word, spiritual, never occurs in the LXX, but occurs 26 times in the New Testament.  According to the Gingrich lexicon in Bibleworks it has the meaning “pertaining to the spirit.”  In Ephesians 6:12 it is used in the phrase “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens.”  In this case it means, therefore, pertaining to evil spirits.  In the other 25 cases it is used of matters related to the Spirit of God and thus means having to do with the Spirit of God.  It is used of spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet. 2:5), a spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5), a spiritual gift (Rom. 1:11), the law being spiritual (Rom. 7:14), spiritual benefits (Rom. 15:27), spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:13; 9:11), spiritual people (1 Cor. 2:13), the spiritual man in contrast to the natural man (1 Cor. 2:15; 3:1), spiritual food and drink from a spiritual rock (1 Cor. 10:3, 4), spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12:1; 14:1), spiritually gifted people (1 Cor. 14:37), spiritual (that is, resurrection or glorified) bodies (1 Cor. 15:44, 46), a spiritual person in contrast to a Christian who has fallen into serious sin (Gal. 6:1), spiritual blessings (Eph. 1:3), and spiritual understanding (Col. 1:9).

The above survey is sufficient to show how vastly varied is the use of spiritual in the New Testament.  Most of its uses have nothing to do with being inspired.  Only in a few cases is there even a tangential relationship to the idea of inspiration (1 Cor. 12:1; 14:1; and 14:37).  Thus, while it is possible that the word, spiritual, may be associated in a few cases with the idea of inspiration, the idea that it means or may be translated inspired is simply wrong.  Furthermore, in the passages under discussion there is every reason to doubt such a meaning.

The meaning of “spiritual” in Ephesians 5:19 must be connected with the reference to the call to Christians in verse 18 to go on being filled with the Spirit.  Verse 19 is directly connected to verse 18 by means of instrumental participle “speaking” at the beginning of verse 19.  Cooncsequently and assuredly, since being filled with the Spirit does not mean or in any way connote being inspired, this context directly implies that the meaning of spiritual in verse 19 is not inspired.

Similarly, the parallel language in Colossians 3:16 calling for Christians to allow the word of Christ to dwell in them richly is not calling them to be inspired.  Thus, the call spiritual songs is not a call to sing inspired songs.

The first pillar of the exclusive psalmodist interpretation of these key passages is thus broken.  It is not probable at all that spiritual here means inspired, but rather and much more probably that it means resulting from the filling of the Spirit.

The second pillar of the exclusive psalmodist position is that the phrase “psalms, hymns, and Spiritual songs” refers specifically to the Old Testament Book of Psalms.  Against this view a number of powerful objections can be lodged.

First, the Book of Psalms is never elsewhere in the New Testament referred by such language.   Note the following four examples.

Luke 20:42 “For David himself says in the book of Psalms, ‘THE LORD SAID TO MY LORD, “SIT AT MY RIGHT HAND'”

Luke 24:44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”

Acts 1:20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO ONE DWELL IN IT’; and, ‘LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE HIS OFFICE.’

Acts 13:33 that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘YOU ARE MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN YOU.’

Second, it must be observed that the article is missing in this passage before each of the three words supposed to refer to the Book of Psalms.  While the absence is not definitive, in this case it appears to make the reference a general reference to psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs and does not suggest a specific reference to the Book of Psalms.

Third, the assertion that these words are specific references to the Book of Psalms is troubled by the use of the word, spiritual, to modify song.  It would appear that the exclusive psalmodist position would require that each of the three words be a specific reference to the Psalter.  The word, spiritual, however, is not used in the Old Testament and certainly not in the text of the Psalms.  If song is a specific reference to the Psalter, why is it necessary to add the word, spiritual?

Exclusive psalmodists argue that the word, spiritual, may define all three words.  This may be grammatically possible.  (But not likely, spiritual is feminine agreeing with songs, but not with psalms and hymns.)  Nevertheless, the problem pointed above remains.  Why does the word, spiritual, (or inspired as they argue it means) need to be added if psalms and hymns already refer to the Book of Psalms?

But, in fact, there is a much more likely reason for the addition of the word, spiritual.  Psalms and hymns both refer to divine songs, that is, songs of praise to God.  Songs does not have this religious reference in itself.  (For that reason, it is unlikely that it specifically refers to the Book of Psalms.)  Because songs does not have this religious meaning in itself, it was necessary for Paul to add the word, spiritual, to make clear the kind of songs he had in mind.

Fourth, it is unlikely that the words refer specifically to the Book of Psalms because a the Bible records other worship songs by these names.  Jeff Smith in his unpublished Essay on Exclusive Psalmody says:

… there are worship songs in the Bible written both before and after the book of Psalms. Read Ex. 15, Num. 21:17; Deut. 32; Judges 5, and you’ll find worship songs that were never incorporated into the book of Psalms. And in the N. T. you’ll find the same thing, for example, in the book of the Revelation. Not only that, in 1 Cor. 14 we seem to have reference to songs that were given under the immediate influence of the Spirit and are not recorded in the Bible at all. Granted this was in the context of the exercise of revelatory gifts that I believe have ceased to function in the church since the completion of Scripture. However, it still appears to be an example songs sung in the church other than from the book of Psalms.

Fifth, if Paul wanted to refer songs other than those contained in the Psalter these are the only words he could have used.  Pastor Jeff Smith is again helpful here:

… the three words Paul uses in our text are the only three words for songs of any kind in Biblical Greek. In other words, if Paul wanted to refer to a variety of songs and not just to the O.T. Psalter, these are the terms he would have to use. While, on the other hand, certainly if he wanted to emphasize an exclusive use of the O.T. Psalms he could have simply said, “speaking among yourselves from the Psalms”. He could have referred to the Psalms as an exclusive reference to the canonical psalms. That construction is often used in the N.T. with reference to the book of Psalms. But he doesn’t do that.


Let me sum up in this my final post in my series on the subject of exclusive psalmody.   First, let me rep[eat my love and respect for the brethren who hold exclusive psalmody.  They are among my most beloved brothers.  Second, let me nevertheless my deep concern that their views not become prevalent among those who hold the important Reformed doctrine of the regulative principle.  Exclusive psalmody runs so contrary to basic instincts of the Christian heart and life that I fear that its prevalence would bring (as it has brought) disrepute and suspicion on the regulative principle itself.  Third, let me review my arguments against exclusive psalmody.

First, the exclusive psalmodists themselves do not actually sing inspired psalms. 

Second, we are commanded to worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24), that is, we must worship in the light of gospel fulfillment and not Old Testament shadows.

Third, we are commanded in Scripture to sing new songs in keeping with the progressive revelation of God’s redemption.

Fourth, exclusive psalmody is out of accord with the requirements God makes with regard to other parts of worship.

Fifth, the best interpretation of Ephesians 5:19-20 and Colossians 3:16-17 leads to the conclusion that Paul was not thinking strictly of the Book of Psalms in this passage or even of inspired songs.

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