“Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs”

by Glenn Conjurske

A number of years ago a Charismatic acquaintance of mine asked me why I don’t sing any spiritual songs. I was totally at a loss to know what he could mean, but told him that I do sing spiritual songs, and have a whole hymn book full of them. “No,” he said, “those are hymns.” He then gave me to understand that the Scriptures speak (Eph. 5:19 & Col. 3:16) of three different kinds of songs—-hymns being those which are found in the hymn book, psalms being those which are taken from the Scriptures, and spiritual songs being the modern choruses. I was rather amazed that anyone could seriously hold such an arbitrary view of the passage of Scripture, but at the time attributed it to this individual’s pride and shallow thinking. I have since learned, however, that this notion did not originate with him, but is (with some variation, it may be) very widely held in the Charismatic movement, and among some neo-evangelicals.

The interpretation is, of course, a new one. It did not exist a generation ago, and could not have then existed, for these so-called psalms and spiritual songs did not then exist. The same shallow and worldly church which gave birth to the music invented the interpretation.

And if this is what is meant by “psalms and spiritual songs,” I frankly avow that I do not sing them, nor do I allow them to be used in the work which God has given me to do. I have a number of good reasons for refusing them, and no reason at all to adopt them.

To begin with, that kind of music is a departure from the old paths. This new music is of a completely different kind than that which has been used for generations in the real church of God. I fully understand that this does not necessarily make it wrong. Some old paths need to be departed from, for they are wrong, or defective. But before we depart from the old paths, we ought to have good and compelling reasons to do so. There are no such reasons to depart from the hymns of the old hymn books. Though for various reasons many individual hymns are unworthy of the place which they hold in the churches, the kind of hymns found in the old hymn books are every way sufficient—-many of them being deep in thought and spiritual experience, beautiful in music and in poetry—-and satisfying to spiritual souls, as they have been for many generations.

But lo! the modern worldly church—-the modern Charismatic and Neo-evangelical movements—-cannot be satisfied with the solid spiritual food which has fed the spiritual for many generations. They are hankering for something new and different and contemporary. Therefore they must abandon the old hymn books as far as they dare (and many of them have abandoned them altogether, and really despise them), and put in their place these modern “psalms” and “spiritual songs.” What we have here is a deliberate departure from the old paths, on the part of modern movements which are determined to depart from the old paths, and which generally despise them.

But some will argue that whatever the origin of this kind of music may have been, there are good people who use it, yes, and good people who produce it, too. No doubt. But those departures from the old paths do not proceed from the Spirit of God, but from the world and the flesh, and the fact that some good people are carried away in the stream does not change the character of it. There are good people who are led into every kind of mistake under the sun—-into shallow and unsound doctrines and practices of every description. But God has not sent me to argue in favor of every mistake into which good people may fall. It is my business rather to go and teach them better. The movements which have produced such music, and which generally use it, are sinister in origin and injurious in tendency, and the presence of some good people in them does not change their character.

The origin of the new kind of music is the only reason which I need for refusing it, but its character is additional reason. Here I shall say but little of the modern choruses, which came into being with modern youth movements in the church. They are a little older than the so-called “psalms,” and in music are not nearly so great a departure from the old paths, though their words are usually shallow. I turn my attention to the “psalms” or “Scripture songs,” as they are sometimes called. In music they are a complete departure from the old paths in which the church of God has walked for many generations. It is modern folk music, patterned after the music of the world—-and after the most shallow sort of music which the modern shallow age has produced. Most of it that I have heard hardly deserves to be called music at all, for one of its most obvious features is that it has little or no musical structure. This, of course, is necessary and inevitable, for it is music designed to be sung with prose rather than with poetry. The world has been driven to this kind of music, by a generation which is unable to write poetry. I have seen enough to sicken me of modern poems, some of which have won national poetry contests, and which are not poems at all, but only poorly written prose. The music, of course, to which such poems are sung must be as lacking in musical structure as the poetry is in poetic structure. And when the church has determined to sing prose, it has of course been driven to the same kind of music—-which is hardly music at all, but just a string of notes.

An excellent article on “Hymnology,” which appears in the 1859 and 1860 issues of Bibliotheca Sacra, begins with the following statement: “A GOOD Hymn Book must be a good manual of religious experience. The Ideal of a perfect Hymn Book is that of a perfect expression of the real life of the church, in forms perfectly adjusted to the service of song. It excludes, on the one hand, lyric poetry which is only poetry, though it be on sacred themes; and, on the other hand, it is equally unfriendly to devotional rhymes which, though truthful, are so unworthy in respect of poetic form as to degrade the truths they embody; and yet again, it rejects, as unbecoming to the sanctuary, those religious poems which are both true to the Christian life and unexceptionable in their poetic spirit, and yet are of such rhythmic structure as to be unfit for expression with the accompaniment of music.” It never occurred to the church of that generation to attempt to sing words with no poetic structure at all. Right or wrong, this is a complete departure from the old paths in which the church of God has walked for centuries. It necessitates the introduction of a completely different kind of music, and a kind which is decidedly inferior to the old kind.

One of these “psalms” I have heard which actually had some musical merit, and some musical structure, however loose. We heard it played on the piano (not sung), and my wife picked up the music and began to play it herself. Of the words we knew nothing, but my wife wrote to a friend who had been present when we heard it played, and asked her for the words. She wrote them out and sent them, but we found it impossible to put the words and the music together. I was pretty sure she had sent us the words to a different song, but my wife found another friend who knew the song, who showed her how to put the words and the music together. How was this done? Very ingeniously—-though very unnaturally. The words of course must be wrested from their normal and expected cadence. Those whose taste has been vitiated by familiarity with the shallow music of the modern world, or its imitation in the modern church, may have some relish for this, but I have none. Give me “The God of Abraham Praise,” or “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”—-without the postmillennialism of the fourth verse. I have since seen the modern song in a collection of “the very best” for “praise and worship,” and from that source I learn that it is intended to be sung as a round! And this is worship? No—-it is modern fun-and-games Christianity.

The man who first introduced me to these “psalms,” more than twenty years ago, told me that they were “just little ditties,” and that is the most apt description of them which I have heard. A dear friend of mine, who is a former Charismatic, tells me that the music to one of the most popular of the “spiritual songs” in her Charismatic group was written by a five-year-old child, and this was boasted of as a marvelous thing.. But she adds, “Almost any five-year-old could have written it.” And this is another evil of the whole business. It is not only a reflection of the extreme shallowness of the modern church, but an encouragement to that shallowness. Every babe and novice, who have no ability whatsoever for it, are set to ministering the word or writing music, and thus shallow pride reigns supreme, and the church is filled with shallow and unsound books which ought never to have been written, shallow sermons which ought never to have been preached, and shallow whatnot under the name of “psalms and spiritual songs.” People who could write neither music nor poetry to save their lives can dash off these “spiritual songs” in five minutes, and often claim that they have received them by divine inspiration, too! Well, it is certain enough that they have put no sweat or tears into them. It is high time for those who have drunk of the old wine to stand up and say, “We have no desire for the new: the old is better.”

So much for the music. When we come to speak of the words, we shall of course be regarded as perverse if we have anything negative to say, for the words are from the Bible, and many of them even from the King James Version. And this is always the triumphant argument of the advocates of this modern music: “Surely you cannot object to the words, for they are Scripture.” Well, no doubt they are, but then they are very often Scripture misunderstood, misapplied, and wrested from its context. Even in their words most of them are “just little ditties”—-a verse or two that will make you feel good, while the rest of Scripture is ignored, and neither sung, nor preached, nor lived. Another dear friend of mine recently told me that she was once quite taken by a “Scripture song” on the words “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.” She went to her Bible to find the words there and read them in their context, and found the words immediately following to be, “therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” Then the real truth of the matter dawned upon her: they would never sing that part.

My first introduction to these “psalms” came about in connection with a group of which a woman was the leader. I went to one of their meetings, which was a picnic. After the eating was finished, they began to “sing psalms.” I observed that much of what they sang was entirely without spiritual understanding, as for example in continually applying scriptures prophetic of the millennium to the present time. I sat and listened for some time, until they sang from the forty-seventh psalm, “For God is King of all the earth; sing ye praises with understanding. God reigneth over the heathen.” I then ventured to speak up, and pointed out that they were singing about “singing with understanding,” and yet obviously had no understanding of the things which they sang. I tried to point out the real meaning of the scriptures, and how incongruous it was to apply them to the present evil age. The woman in charge replied, “That’s your theology: we’re going to sing psalms.” This same group, by the way, always spoke contemptuously of theology. I lent one of the men Wesley’s Appeal—-a moving and powerful book, full of the spirit of Christianity—-but after reading a little, he returned it to me, asking to be excused from “theology”! I fail to be impressed when such movements boast that what they sing is Scripture.

Beyond that, I emphatically affirm that the Bible was never intended by God to be the church’s hymn book, any more than it was intended to be a creed, a collection of sermons, or a systematic theology. It is no way suited to be any of those things. It is the quarry whence we draw the foundation stones and building blocks for all of those things, but the Bible in itself is none of them. A man of God will quarry out those building blocks and build with them. Martin Luther says, “He that has but one word of God before him, and out of that word cannot make a sermon, can never be a preacher.” What would be thought of a man who stood up to preach, and did nothing but quote Scripture? You would say, it was not a sermon at all, but only a feeble attempt at preaching by a man who had no ability to preach. So exactly it is with these modern psalms and Scripture songs. They are feeble attempts to produce hymns, on the part of those who have no ability to do so—-no ability to write either poetry or music.

Some will contend, however, that though the rest of the Scriptures were never intended to be sung, the book of Psalms was so intended. I grant it, and you gain nothing by it. For if the Psalms were intended to be sung, they were intended to be sung entire, and not “just little ditties” extracted from them here and there. Why do these folks not sing whole Psalms? But further, if the Psalms were intended to be sung, they were intended to be sung by the Jews, not by the church. You may sing the entire book of Psalms, and never once voice the word “Father,” nor ever the name of Jesus Christ, nor ever mention the cross, the precious blood of Christ, the gospel, the cause of missions, or anything distinctively Christian.

Here, then, I take my stand. There is no reason at all to depart from the deep and soul-satisfying wells of song from which the church of God has drawn for many generations. If we must have more of it, let us have more of the same sort—-if indeed the church of our day can produce it. The new are not to be compared to the old. I am not saying there is no good in them. There is some good in the modern versions of the Bible also, but they are not to be compared to the old. There is good in them, but not enough good, and those who understand what the issues are would never dream of replacing the old version with the new ones, or even of setting them side by side on a level. There is no reason to do so. The old is not perfect, but it is better. And so with the old hymns also.

But some will no doubt ask, if the modern Charismatic interpretation of Ephesians 5:19 is not the true interpretation of the passage—-if that is not the proper distinction between “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”—-what is? To that I give the same answer I have always given, long before I ever heard of the modern interpretation: I don’t know! I don’t know that there is any distinction intended, and if there is, I don’t know what it is, any more than I can tell you how to distinguish between “prayer and supplication.” And if we look to the real scholarship of the church, we shall come to just the same result—-they don’t know either. The sanest of them usually avow that they don’t know what the distinction is, or don’t believe any distinction is intended. Those who attempt to make a distinction are not very successful, for we get just about as many interpretations as there are interpreters.

John Gill (an eighteenth-century Baptist) contends that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” correspond to three Hebrew terms which are used as titles of David’s psalms, and that these terms, therefore, all three of them, refer to the Old Testament book of Psalms. (See his commentary on Eph. 5:19).

Adam Clarke (a Methodist) writes in his commentary, “We can scarcely say what is the exact difference between these three expressions,” yet goes on to suggest that psalms are those of David, hymns “extemporaneous effusions in praise of God uttered under the influence of the Divine Spirit, or a sense of his special goodness,” (whatever that may mean), and songs “premeditated and regular poetic compositions”—-the reverse of the modern interpretation.

S. T. Bloomfield says in his Greek Testament, “It should seem that by yalm. [psalms] we are not to understand the Psalms of David only; but also the compositions of those persons who had the spiritual gifts. …such yalmoiV [psalms] differed in no material respect from u{mnoi [hymns]. … How far the w/jdaiV pneum. [spiritual songs] differed from both is not clear.” Yet he ventures to suggest, “The difference seems to have been, —-that the two former celebrated the praises of God in strains adapted to be sung in chorus; while the w/jdaiV [songs] were poems on some religious subject, and it is probable were usually only recited; or if sung, sung as our solo anthems.”

Henry Alford says in his New Testament for English Readers, “in psalms (not to be confined…to Old Test. hymns; see I Cor. xiv.26; James v.13. The word properly signified those sacred songs which were performed with musical accompaniment,—-as hymns without it: but the two must evidently here not be confined strictly to their proper meaning)”—-that is, no such distinction is here intended. “Songs” he calls “the general name for all lyrical poetry.” If this is so, then “spiritual songs” is the proper designation for the old hymns, and not for the “little ditties” which the modern worldly church calls spiritual songs.

Charles Ellicott says in his commentary, “In a passage so general as the present, no such rigorous distinctions seem called for; yalmoV” [psalm] most probably…denotes a sacred song of a character similar to that of the Psalms…; u{mnoV” [hymn], a song more especially of praise,…wj//dhVV [song], a definition generally of the genus to which all such compositions belonged.”

Much more to the same effect might be rehearsed, but this is enough. Three things may be observed in these comments. 1. Among those commentators who venture to make a distinction between these terms, there is no agreement as to what that distinction is. 2. None of them ever so much as dreamed of the distinction which is so confidently made by modern evangelicals and charismatics. 3. They are generally uncertain as to what the distinction is, or even that any distinction is intended.

But alas, our lot is cast in a shallow and unspiritual age. And alas again, that portion of evangelicalism which has the least depth and the least spirituality speaks with the most confidence as to the meaning of this passage of Scripture, and contends for an arbitrary distinction, which was never heard of before the present generation, and which has nothing in it to recommend itself to sound judgement. Let them sing their modern music if they will, but to claim that the Bible authorizes it—-or commands it—-this is too much.

Glenn Conjurske