Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Have you ever had that scary moment when your pastor comes up to you and says “Can we have a quick chat?” You hesitate but then say, “uh, okay” and then you both translate five steps towards the side of the room where he clears his throat a little, narrows his eyes ever so slightly and then says to you in a hushed tone: “Do you think we can do more hymns?”

This happened to a friend of mine lately. And I could sympathise with the dread he (my friend) felt.

Not because I don’t like hymns, mind you. By hymns, I assume that this pastor was talking about some of the older songs like “Amazing Grace”, “I Surrender All” and “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name”. I love those songs. I love their richness and their theological depth. But as an unskilled musician (should I even admit that?), I find these types of songs incredibly difficult to arrange successfully.

Even when skilled musicians do them, I don’t always like them. An example a few years back was the Passion album, Hymns Ancient and Modern. I felt that all the use of electric guitars and simplified power chords really took away some of the beauty and majesty of those “hymns”.

And actually, what are “hymns” anyway?

So this got me thinking and today, I want to begin a series on “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs” using as my texts the following key verses.

Firstly, Ephesians 5:18-20:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The second passage is Colossians 3:16:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

These passages seem to characterise the songs of the church into three distinct types: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

In this series, I want to explore this triptych and ask some of the following questions: are these three different types of songs or is Paul just using telescopic language to describe the same type of song expressed in three ways? Can we read these songs (as some often do) as representing historical eras in the church and if so, what of their significance? Should we go back to singing those old songs that my friend’s pastor was talking about?

Before I launch into some of these issues in my next few posts, I want to end this introductory post by sharing something which a friend of mine had posted on Facebook and I found quite amusing. It was about the difference between a “chorus” (which apparently those of us in charismatic circles like to sing) and “hymns” which are the staple of mainline churches. I found it pretty insightful. Enjoy!

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