How the early church sang
Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. Eph. 5:19
What does this verse teach us about the songs we sing in church? First of all, it teaches us something about the content of the music the church sings. Everyone of these words that Paul uses – psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – were used to describe the Old Testament Psalms in the Septuagint, often in the titles of the psalms. Also, the word translated “making melody” in the KJV literally means “psalming,” and is an unmistakable reference to the Old Testament practice of singing the psalms.
Now, I don’t think, as some do, that this means the church should only sing the Old Testament psalms. But it does point to the Psalms as a model for the kind of songs the New Testament church is to sing. And when we look to the Psalms, we see that they were filled with doctrinal content as to the character of God and his redemptive purposes. They were not light and airy compositions with little or no doctrinal substance. Some of the very best descriptions of the nature and attributes of God come from the Psalms (take, for example, Psalm 145). The hymns that we sing today therefore need to have words that teach us something about God, that point our hearts and minds to truths about him. We will never worship God in spirit unless we also worship him in truth. The important thing is not whether a particular melody moves the soul, but whether the words which are carried upon the melody move the soul and heart. That is why I appreciate hymns like, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” or, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” These kinds of hymns point us to the greatness of our God, just like the Psalms of old. Again, just because a song moves you, does not mean it is worthy of the corporate worship of the church. You need to look at the lyrics. Do they point you to the God of the Bible? Do they teach you something about him? Do they reorient your heart toward God: Father, Son, and Spirit? Bob Kauflin, one of the great modern hymn-writers, makes this wise observation: “When our songs and prayers are dominated by what we think and feel about God and focus less upon who he is and what he thinks and feels about us, we run the risk of fueling our emotions with more emotion. We can end up worshipping our worship.”
Another thing instructive about the Psalms is the different ways they do this. Many of the Psalms are prayers which are sung directly to the Lord. We ought therefore to sing songs just like that. At the same time, there are also many Psalms (like Psalm 78) which are instructional and are directed to the people of the Lord. As the apostle put it, we sing to the Lord, and we sing to each other. There ought to be a sense in which truth is being preached to us when we lift up our voices in song. In this connection, the parallel passage in Colossians is enlightening: “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” (Col. 3:16). Here “teaching and admonishing” has replaced “speaking” in Eph. 5:19. By the songs we sing, we need to be teaching each other Biblical truth.
Finally, I think is instructive that the Psalms encompass the full range of human emotion, and I think we ought to allow space in our singing together for just that. In other words, if every song that the congregation sings together supposes that they are all on the mountain top with no worries, then something is wrong. There ought to be place for hymns like Psalm 42: “O why art thou cast down my soul/ and why so troubled shouldst thou be/ hope thou in God and him extol/ who gives his saving help to thee/ who gives his saving help to thee.” You may not be lamenting but someone else in the church may be, and it will not hurt you to sing a song that expresses the lament of their heart – after all, we are to weep with those who weep, and we can do this in song just as well as we can do it with tears. Psalm 88 sits right beside Psalm 89 in the canon, and I thank God for that.