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New Testament Instruction on Congregational Singing: An Examination of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 (Part 1 of 3)

Note: This post is the first of a three-part series. This post examines Ephesians 5:19, the next post examines Colossians 3:16, and the final post will offer some conclusions based upon the examination of these two passages.

The purpose of the discussion below is to examine Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 in order to apply these passages to how to worship with singing and music in a congregational assembly. After doing so, these passages will be compared and contrasted with one another to bring us to a greater understanding of both passages.

The reason for comparing and contrasting these passages is because they obviously overlap in many ways, in concept and terminology. Beyond just these two verses, Ephesians and Colossians parallel each other as whole letters in many ways, likely because they were written and delivered at the same time.1This being the case, whether in Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 or elsewhere, what Paul said in one letter, he more or less meant the same thing when he said something similar in the other.

Ephesians 5:18–19 (ESV)
18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,

Eph 5:18 gives the command to “be filled in the Spirit.” While Luke and Acts often record miracles that result from an individual being filled by the Spirit, Paul’s command to be filled with the Spirit here means to live in a way controlled by the Spirit, as the following context shows.

In Eph 5:19–21 there are five participles that are subordinate to the command to be filled with the Spirit and thus carry the command’s imperatival force (addressing, singing, making melody, giving thanks, submitting). The first three of these five involve how the church worships with singing and music in a congregational assembly.

The first participle, “addressing,” comes from laleō, a general word meaning “to speak or say.” More will be said later of the next two participles, “singing and making melody,” but suffice it to say for the moment that these participles indicate that the congregation’s “addressing” is in musical form. The audience of the congregation was the congregation itself—they were to address “one another.” Three terms follow that specify the content of their address—“psalms,” “hymns,” and “spiritual songs.” This brief list is likely not meant to provide an exhaustive categorization of what the church may sing as these terms overlap and can even be somewhat interchangeable. At the same time, examining the differences is instructive to understanding the range of what a church may sing together.

The term psalm (psalmos) can indeed refer to a psalm in the OT (cf. Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33) but may refer to a general song for the church as well (1 Cor 14:26). Implied in the use of a psalm is a number of literary features that one would find in the OT psalms—rhyme, assonance, consonance, meter, etc.

The term hymn (hymnos) is referred to only here and Col 3:16 and is general enough to be described as loosely as “a song with religious content.”2 When this term is used as a verb in the NT (hymneō), we see the eleven and Jesus singing a hymn at the end of the Last Supper (Matt 26:30; Mark 14:26), Paul and Silas singing hymns in prison (Acts 16:25), and the Lord Jesus singing praise to the Father in the midst of the congregation (Heb 2:12; cf. Ps 22:22).

The term song (odē) is used elsewhere only in Revelation to refer to the songs of the redeemed in heaven (Rev 5:9; 14:3; 15:3, 2x), and the content for two of these songs is given (Rev 5:9–10; 15:3–4).

In many translations (e.g., NASB, KJV, ESV), “songs” is the only noun in this list to be described by an adjective, “spiritual” (pneumatikos), which indicates that the Spirit is actively involved in each individual and the congregation as they sing these songs to one another. In the Greek, the feminine gender of “spiritual” matches only “songs” (both “psalms” and “hymns” are masculine). At the same time, “spiritual” technically falls after the list in the Greek in 5:19a, and the very wording and rhythm of 5:19a with 5:19b suggests that “spiritual” as a modifier is similar to “with your heart,” a description that modifies another list—“singing and making melody.” This being said, just as “singing and making melody” is to be done “with your heart,” so also not only “songs” but also “psalms” and hymns” were to be done in a “spiritual” manner, that is, as led by or filled with the Spirit (cf. Eph 5:18).3

Coming to the second participle, just as the term song is used only elsewhere in Rev 5:9, 14:3, and 15:3, so also “singing” (aidō) is used only in these same verses: “they sang a new song” (Rev 5:9), “they were singing a new song” (Rev 14:3), and “they sang the song of Moses…and the song of the Lamb” (Rev 15:3). These examples indicate what the verb means—to verbally sing with one’s mouth.

Similarly, the third participle, “making melody,” is from psallō, the verb form of psalm. While this verb could refer to using only one’s voice to “sing” (cf. Rom 15:9; 1 Cor 14:15; Jas 5:13), it can easily imply the use of instruments along with singing and in fact was often used to simply mean “to play a stringed instrument.”4 Given this range of meaning, it is no surprise to find that many of David’s psalms were sung vocally and involved the use of instruments (and specifically for him, a stringed instrument; e.g., Ps 33:1–3; cf. 2 Sam 16:16, 23). Other examples of singing in the NT cited above explicitly mention the use of stringed instruments as well (Rev 5:8–10, “each holding a harp…And they sang a new song”; Rev 15:2–4, “those…with harps of God in their hands…sing the song of Moses…and the song of the Lamb”).5

Just as the text indicated that the threefold psalms, hymns, and songs were all to be spiritual, so also the twofold singing and making melody were to be “with your heart to the Lord” (literal translation). “With your heart” describes the two participles just as “spiritual” describes the three forms of singing—whereas one is by the Spirit, so also the music is “with your heart,” that is, “the whole of one’s being.”6 Moreover, just as “addressing” was directed to “one another,” so also is the “singing and making melody” directed “to the Lord.” All three participles describe the activity of worship in song in various ways, and the congregation sings to one another and ultimately to the Lord, that is, the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 3:11; 5:20). We obviously sing to both the Father and the Son (cf. Eph 5:20–21), and according to Eph 5:18–19, we do so through the Spirit.

In summary, the Ephesians were to address one another as in psalms, hymns, and songs, all of which were to be done as filled with the Spirit. The content of this address was to be through singing and making melody as carried out with the whole of one’s person and directed to the Lord.

This 3-part series will continue next week by looking at Colossians 3:16.

Appendix: Chiastic Parallelism in Ephesians 5:19

What follows below is a diagram that brings out the chiastic parallelism of Eph 5:19. The English translation is a literal rendering of the Greek (UBS4). Several parallels can be seen. First, the verse begins with “one another,” which corresponds with “to the Lord.” Second, the series “psalms and hymns and song” corresponds to the series “singing and making melody.” Third, “spiritual” follows the first list (“psalms,” “hymns,” “songs”), and “with your heart” follows the other (“singing,” “making melody”), each indicating the means or manner as to how the list was carried out.

A1                    one another
B1                            in psalms and hymns and songs
C1                                                 spiritual,
B2                            singing and making melody
C2                                                 with your heart
A2                    to the Lord


A1                    ἑαυτοῖς
B1                             [ἐν] ψαλμοῖς καὶ ὕμνοις καὶ ᾠδαῖς
C1                                                 πνευματικαῖς,
B2                            ᾄδοντες καὶ ψάλλοντες
C2                                                 τῇ καρδίᾳ ὑμῶν
A2                    τῷ κυρίῳ,

About David Huffstutler

David pastors First Baptist Church in Rockford, IL, serves as a chaplain for his local police department, and teaches as adjunct faculty at Bob Jones University. David holds a Ph. D. in Applied Theology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His concentration in Christian Leadership focuses his contributions to pastoral and practical theology.

  1. A comparison of Eph 6:21, Col 4:7–9, and Phm 10, 17 allows for the conclusion that Paul sent three letters together (Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon) to their intended recipients through Tychicus and Onesimus. This being the case, if Ephesians and Colossians were written around the same time, it is not surprising to find similar content and structure from one letter to the other. []
  2. BDAG, s.v., “ὕμνος,” 1027. []
  3. Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (PNTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 396. See p. 397 for his explanation of the “chiastic relationship” between the related terms in Eph 5:19. []
  4. TDNT, s.v., “ὕμνος, ὑμνέω, ψάλλω, ψαλμός” 8:490–91. []
  5. Interestingly, Rev 14:2–3 describes the 144,000 as “singing a new song,” which “was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps.” A voice that sounds like instruments in the presence of the Lamb implies the approval of the latter (cf. Rev 14:1). []
  6. O’Brien, Ephesians, 396. []