“Spiritual Songs” and our Corporate Worship: Some Thoughts on Ephesians 5:18-21

By James.B

The following is a brief excerpt from my book, Practicing the Power: Welcoming the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Your Life (Zondervan). Its focus is Paul's instruction in Ephesians 5:18-21, where he writes:

"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 your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:18-21).

A close look at this passage indicates that Paul envisions believers communicating truth and knowledge and instruction by means of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. But what's the difference, if any, between these expressions of worship? 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 (Luke 20:4224:44Acts 1:2013:33) 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 2:6-11Colossians 1:15-20, and 1 Timothy 3:16.

Why is the third expression of singing designated not simply as "songs" but as "spiritual songs" (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.

These are probably songs that we sing under the immediate prompting and infilling of the Holy Spirit. I have in mind spontaneous songs that break out unexpectedly in the midst of our worship. In other words, there is a difference between those songs that a worship leader rehearses and practices before we gather together (whose words appear on the screen), and the unplanned melodies and phrases and short choruses that break out spontaneously.

This interpretation 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, the words of which are either in the hymnbook or included in the liturgy. In these churches, 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 rein 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.

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.

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. Let's 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" (Real Worship, 137).

Not long ago one of the men in our church approached me with a concern. He was slightly uncomfortable with the way in which one of our worship leaders would spontaneously deviate from the song list and engage in free vocalization. His objection wasn't theological in nature. He had no qualms about what was being sung, as if it were unbiblical, but only that it was being sung while he perceived others to have disengaged. "They don't know what to do," he said. "So many of them just sit down." The incorporation of such "spiritual songs" in our time of corporate praise was obviously unsettling to him. He asked: "Why can't he do that when he's in his car or somewhere other than in front of hundreds of people who are attempting to follow his lead?"

That's not an illegitimate question. I suspect that not a few others were wondering the same thing. So at the first opportunity I seized the moment to instruct our people on what one should do when worship took this unexpected turn. I told them that one must resist disengaging, on the false assumption that this expression of praise is only for the benefit of the person singing and has nothing to do with anyone else. Instead, I provided several suggestions.

(1) Listen and Learn! Note again Ephesians 5:19a - "addressing one another" in "spiritual songs." Meditate on what is being sung. Focus on the words. Turn them over again and again in your mind. Ask the Spirit to quicken in your own heart the truth of what is being sung and to stir your affections with joy and love. Be open to being taught in those times of prophetic worship. The Spirit may well have prepared something uniquely and especially for you!

(2) Sing the same song. Listen for recurring phrases and the melody line and if it lasts long enough, join the singer in whatever "spiritual song" he/she is singing.

(3) Sing your own "spiritual song". Take whatever truth about God or Jesus the Spirit has awakened in your heart and put it in your own words, adapting it to the melody of the leader. It may be a short, simple phrase of praise or thanksgiving or proclamation or prayer. Those, such as yours truly, who possess the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, will often take advantage of such times to sing in tongues. This is surely what Paul had in mind when he made known his resolve to "sing praise with my spirit" (1 Cor. 14:15; see also Acts 2:1110:46).

(4) Pray. Use the time to intercede for yourself or others. Or perhaps take the truth of what is being sung and let that shape and form the content of your prayers. Turn their "spiritual song" into your own personal intercession!

(5) Give thanks (v. 20)! Spend time thanking God (either in prayer or in song) for all that he has done.

I hope this brief exhortation regarding the role of the Spirit in our worship has been helpful and encouraging. May we, as God leads, seize every opportunity to address one another through music in a way that is edifying and Christ-exalting.

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