Church Worship

How Do We Define Psalms, Hymns, and Songs from the Spirit?

How Do We Define Psalms, Hymns, and Songs from the Spirit?

“Speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” - Ephesians 5:19

There is no doubt that music is intended to be an essential component of our spiritual life. But what if we aren’t great at singing? What if we all like different types of music? What music was Paul referring to specifically? Do our ‘hymns’ correlate with the ‘hymns’ Paul was talking about?

The good news is that we don’t need to have the answers to these questions in order to encourage one another as Paul encourages us to.

I am a lifelong student of the Bible, of music and of literature. In fact, this may summarize my top three favorite things to engage with in my free time.

As an ordained minister who spent several years as a vocational worship pastor, I am pretty knowledgeable about the Bible, and specifically how it relates to worship and music. Good, theologically solid music has great importance for a singing congregation and for personal devotion.

As a longtime English teacher who taught high school for over a decade, I know quite a bit about writers like Shakespeare and the works that they produced.

Certainly, I don't know everything there is to know, nor do I claim to, but I have spent more time with these topics than most folks who haven't done these things for a living. But how does all this tie together, and what does it have to do with Ephesians 5:19?

What Does Shakespeare Have to Do with Worship?

"If music be the food of love, play on" - Twelfth Night (Shakespeare)

Because of these often-intersecting interests, I have been thinking on the current trend in our churches, and find a unique connection to Shakespeare, the Psalms and worship music.

Here's the thing: music has always been an important element of human society and culture, and it has from the beginning been an essential component of Christian worship. When we take a close look at any historical civilization, we find that there is some sort of music present, often used for worship or used for entertainment. Much like today, music was a common part of life in both Shakespeare's England and in the Kingdom of Israel at the time of David. Fittingly, the plays of Shakespeare and the words of Scripture are filled with songs and references to music.

Shakespeare's plays, as a product of their culture, make reference to or include over 2,000 songs. Each Shakespearean play had at least one song in it, and these were accompanied by musical instruments of the time, such as the lute, drums, and horns that were available in that time period.

The Biblical Psalms, written centuries before, would have been performed in much the same way. Psalms were accompanied by familiar instruments, typical of the time and place that they were written.

Music Without Melody

“I will sing of your love and justice; to you, LORD, I will sing praise.” - Psalm 101:1

The common thread I am drawing between the songs found in the Psalms and songs found in Shakespeare is that while they contain lyrics designed to be paired with music, the actual musical notation has not survived.

We continue to have the words, but we do not have the notes.

We have a lyric sheet but no chord chart.

We no longer have the ability to set a Biblical song or a Shakespearean play in front of a musician and ask them to play it. They can't.

We have no idea to determine what the actual melodies were, or what chords and harmonies may have been heard by those who knew these songs. A musician asked to play a Psalm from the Bible can make something up, but they can’t with any certainty play what the Psalmist played. These melodies have simply been lost to antiquity.

Why Does This Even Matter?

“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord, That David played, and it pleased the Lord” - Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

Although this popular song contends that King David knew of a ‘secret chord,’ there is no Biblical evidence that David knew any chord structures beyond the other musicians of his day. Yet whatever chords he did play, they remain secret to us only in that we don’t know what they were.

It is somewhat sad to think that the beautiful melodies of millennia ago will not be known again, at least this side of heaven.

The thing is, it ultimately doesn’t matter, and it may be for our own good.

Music from the Believing Heart

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.” - Colossians 3:16

The musical notation may be gone, but the lyrics, the inspired and holy words of God, remain 100% intact and available. The lyrics, after all, are the words of God, for God, and about God that continue to encourage us, draw us to Him, and lead us to be more like Him.

Knowing that God has kept His Word intact for us, even over thousands of years and multiple attempts to destroy or distort it, is in itself an amazing and miraculous fulfillment of His promise. While it stands out to me that he has not preserved the musical notation in a similar fashion, it tells me that we don't know the actual music because we don't need to know it. He has given us all we need to know Him. Being a creative God, he wants us to be creative as well, and to sing a new song.

The power of God comes through His Word alone.

The inspiration is in the lyrics.

Sadly, many churches today continue to battle over music. And that is nothing new. Battles over music in the church date back to a few decades after the ascension of Christ.

The good news is that when we look beyond the debate over what constitutes a hymn or a spiritual song, we can learn to make a melody not just from our lips, but from the heart.

It is from a heart of service, a heart of joy, and a heart overflowing with the riches of God’s Word that we encourage one another, lift God high in worship, and find a place of unity and fellowship.

He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in him. - Psalm 40:3

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/freedom007

Jason Soroski is a homeschool dad and member of the worship team at matthias lot church in St. Charles, MO. He spends his free time hanging out with his family, exploring new places, and writing about the experiences. Connect on Facebook or at