One may assume from James 5:13 and 1 Corinthians 14:15 that the New Testament church was fond of singing, in fact, of singing psalms. James tells his readers, “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” In the Greek, the command is psalleto, to sing psalms. Paul tells the Corinthians, “I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.” Again the word for “sing” here is psalo. Whether these are references to the actual book of Psalms or not is not important ultimately; that they are references to songs at least similar to the book of Psalms is the issue.
The apostle Paul also referred to songs in the assembly of the church when he wrote to the Corinthians, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn…(I Cor. 14:26). The actual word used here is not “hymn,” but rather it is psalmon. Some have felt that this was an indication that the Corinthians opened their assemblies with a psalm, since psalmon begins a list here. Such an assumption may not be correct, but if that congregation did indeed open with a psalm, it would have been in agreement with the pattern for the synagogue service. Perhaps James 2:2 indicates that services of the early church were patterned after synagogue services. There James speaks of someone coming into their “assembly,” and the word used for “assembly” is synagogue.
The book of Psalms is quoted more frequently in the New Testament than any other Old Testament book. Jesus Himself quoted from the Psalms more than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Jesus and the apostles are recorded as singing only once, that being the hymn after the Last Supper. (Matt. 26:30 and Mark 14:22) Although it is called a hymn, most authorities agree that this was in fact the Great Hallel, Psalms 113-118, which was traditionally sung by the Jews after the Fourth Cup of Blessing in the Passover Meal. This being the case, the word “hymn” as used in the New Testament could be defined at least in some cases as a series of psalms linked together, or as a long psalm. Certainly this is at least a part of the definition.
After the Last Supper hymn, the next clear reference to hymn singing in the New Testament is found in Acts 16:25. Paul and Silas are in prison “praying and singing hymns.” In light of the definition of the hymn at the Last Supper. it is at least possible that Paul and Silas in fact sang several psalms. Hymn singing is again mentioned in Hebrews 2:12. There the writer quotes a psalm and says, “in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.” The actual term is hymneso se, “I will hymn thee”.
Revelation 5:9 mentions a new song to be sung in the Great Throne Room. This verse contains the third word used to describe singing in the New Testament, the Greek word ode. The passage does not necessarily describe what was happening in the early Church, but rather what would happen at the end of the age. Events at the end of the age do not necessarily describe the actual singing of the early Church.
We might do well to move on to a discussion of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. These are the most familiar and most often-discussed verses about singing in the New Testament. They read this way: “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, . . (Eph. 5:19), and, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and counsel one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Col. 3:16).
Both Ephesians and Colossians use all three terms of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. For the purpose of this study, the interest in this passage lies in Paul’s intended definition of these three terms.
The word PSALMS, psallo, originally meant to pluck, as in the string of a harp, hence, to sing to the accompaniment of a harp. And then to the making of music in general. Although this was not the original Hebrew title for what became known as the Book of Psalms, the title of “Psalms” came from the Greek translations of the Old Testament. Some have claimed that when Paul referred to psalms he was referring to new Christian compositions patterned after the Old Testament book, but most scholars agree that this term probably referred to the Old Testament book of Psalms itself. Without a doubt, the term psalms could mean the book of Psalms.
The word HYMNS, humnos, is a little more difficult to define. It seems that the emphasis of a hymn was not on musical accompaniment, as with the term but more on praise of God. This word could mean, as mentioned earlier, a series of psalms linked together, as in the Last Supper passage. Some scholars label as hymns the canonical Canticles or so-called “hymn fragments” of the New Testament. This is an interesting thought; however, since none of the “canticles” or “hymn fragments" of the New Testament actually claim to be music, it is difficult to be dogmatic on that definition. Some scholars have suggested that the term could be applied to poetry in general. Their suggestion would resolve the dilemma. There is some support for their view in that there is a strong relationship be¬tween poetry and music in Greece, and these letters were written to churches that no doubt had many converts who would be a part of Greek culture. Ambrose’s famous definition of a hymn sheds light on the post—apostolic view. He says that a hymn is a song containing praise of God. If you praise God, but without song, you do not have a hymn. If you praise anything which does not pertain to the glory of God, even if you sing it, you do not have a hymn. Hence, a hymn contains the three elements: song and praise of God.
The term SPIRITUAL SONGS is the most difficult of the three to define precisely. The Greek word is ode, and it is a generic word for “song.” In the New Testament ode is found only in the passages in Ephesians and Colossians and three times in the book of Revelation. (Revelation 5:9, 14:3, and 15:3) The Revelation passages are not very helpful in defining ode because in two of the three cases it is modified by the term anew,” “a new song.” In any case they are not very helpful because they are set in a future dispensation. The passages from Ephesians and Colossians are difficult because ode is modified by the term “spiritual” (spiritual songs). What does Paul mean when he specifies spiritual songs? Some have suggested that the word “spiritual” here refers to a song that is inspired by the Holy Spirit, in the sense that Scripture is inspired or God-breathed. Some have, in light of I Corinthians 14:15, seen this to mean outbursts of speaking in tongues, although that view is generally discounted by scholars. Could they be songs of the spiritual life? Could they be songs composed by spiritual men? Could they be freely composed hymns, inspired in the modern sense of being highly creative? Some have asserted that they might have been chants without words, melodies sung on just one syllable, called a melisma. The explanation that this author leans toward is that “song,” being a generic term, is qualified by the term ‘spiritual’ to clarify that the song is not to be just any pagan song, but a godly one. Possibly the term “spiritual songs” could also be referring to the Old Testament book of Psalms.
The Ephesian and Colossian congregations could possibly have used some kind of hymn book. Their being familiar with a common hymn book would explain some of the so-called hymn fragments which Paul uses elsewhere. Louis Benson believes that Paul used all three terms, “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” to connote an actual hymn book already being used by the churches. Such a hymnal would not be likely to be so well known so early, however. All three terms could as easily refer to the book of Psalms as they could to a common hymnal.