Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs
Colossians 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs…

I. The Psalms of the Old Testament have no single and universally accepted designation in the Hebrew Scriptures. They first obtained such in the Septuagint. Psalm comes from a word signifying properly a touching, and then a touching of a stringed instrument with a plectrum, and next the instrument itself, and lastly the song sung with this musical accompaniment. It was in this latest stage that the word was adopted by the Septuagint, and to this agree the ecclesiastical definitions of it. In all probability the word here and in Ephesians 5:19 refers to the inspired Psalms of the Hebrew canon, and certainly designates these on all other occasions where it is met with in the New Testament, with the doubtful exception of 1 Corinthians 14:16. The psalms, then, which the apostle would have the faithful to sing to one another are those of David, Asaph, and the other sweet singers of Israel.

II. HYMNS. While the "psalm" by right of primogeniture, as at once the oldest and most venerable, occupies the foremost place, the Church of Christ does not restrict herself to such, but claims the freedom of bringing new things as well as old out of her treasure house, a new salvation demanding a new song. It was the essence of a Greek "hymn" that it should be addressed to, or be in praise of a god or a hero, i.e., a deified man, as Callisthenes reminded Alexander, who, claiming hymns for himself, or suffering them to be addressed to him, implicitly accepted divine honours. In the gradual breaking down of the distinction between the human and the divine which marked the fallen days of Greece and Rome, with the usurping on the part of men of divine honours, the hymn came more and more to be applied to men; although this was not without remonstrance. When the word was assumed into the language of the Church, this essential distinction clung to it still. A "psalm" might be a De profundis, the story of man's deliverance, or a commemoration of mercies received; and of a "spiritual song" much the same could be said; a "hymn" must always be more or less of a Magnificat, a direct address of praise and glory to God. in more places than one states the essentials of a hymn.

1. It must be sung.

2. It must be praise.

3. It must be to God.But though "hymn" was a word freely adopted in the fourth century, it nowhere occurs in the early Fathers, probably because it was so steeped in heathenism, so linked with profane associations, there were so many hymns to Zeus, Hermes, Aphrodite, etc., that the early Christians shrank from it. We may confidently assume that the hymns referred to in the text were direct addresses to God, such as Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; Acts 4:24, and that which Paul and Silas sang in the Philippian dungeon (Acts 16:25). How noble, how magnificent uninspired hymns could prove we have evidence in the Te Deum, in the Veni Creator Spiritus, and in many a later heritage which the Church has acquired. That the Church, brought at the time when St. Paul wrote into a new and marvellous world of realities, would be rich in those we might be sure, even if no evidence existed to this effect. Of such evidence, however, there is abundance (Ephesians 5:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-14). And as it was quite impossible that the Church, releasing itself from the Jewish synagogue, should fall into the same mistake as some portions of the Reformed Church, we may be sure that it adopted into liturgic use, not psalms only, but also hymns, singing them to Christ as God (Pliny, Ep. 10:96); though this we may conclude, more largely in Churches gathered out of the heathen world than in those wherein a strong Jewish element existed.

III. SPIRITUAL SONGS. Ὀδή is the only word of this group which the Apocalypse knows (Revelation 5:9; Revelation 14:3; Revelation 15:3). St. Paul, on the two occasions when he employs it, adds "spiritual" to it, and this, no doubt, because "Ode" by itself might mean any kind of song, as of battle, of harvest, or festal, or hymeneal, while "psalm," from its Hebrew use, and "hymn," from its Greek, did not need such qualification. The epithet thus applied does not affirm that these odes were Divinely inspired, any more than the spiritual man is an inspired man (1 Corinthians 3:1; Galatians 6:1), but only that they were such as were composed by spiritual men, and moved in the sphere of spiritual things. How are we, then, to distinguish these from the former two. If "psalms" represent the heritage of sacred song derived by the Christian Church from the Jewish, the "hymns and spiritual songs" will cover what further in the same kind it produced out of its own bosom; but with a difference. What the hymns were we have seen; but Christian thought and feeling will soon have expanded into a wider range of poetic utterances than those in which there is a direct address to the Deity. If we turn, e.g., to Herbert's Temple, or Keble's Christian Year, there are many poems in both, which, as certainly they are not "psalms," so as little do they possess the characteristics of hymns. "Spiritual songs" these might be fitly called; even as in almost all our collections of so-called "hymns" there are not a few which by much juster title would bear this name.

(Archbishop Trench.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

WEB: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord.

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