Psalms, Hymns, and SPiritual Songs—Old and New

“With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”

Colossians 3:16 (NRSV)

“And sing, sing your hearts out to God!” (Colossians 3:16 from “The Message”)

Singing praises to God is as old as humankind. From the beginnings of our history, the people of God have gathered to praise God musically. Way back in Genesis 4, we find “Jubal, who was the ancestor of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” (Is that why churches historically are the keepers of pipe organs?) Paul’s admonition to the Church at Colosse is representative of the biblical understanding of using sung music to praise God: “Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” Let’s look at those three categories.

What are psalms? In the middle of the Bible we find the collection of 150 psalms, prayers for every moment, emotion, and occasion in life. This is our first hymnbook: a collection of the prayers of the ancient Hebrews, usually sung. Many of them were meant to be sung in gathered worship, some as calls to worship (like Psalm 100), some as the worshipers approached the place of worship (like Psalm 122), some as laments, and some as prayers of thanksgiving. All of life is present in the Psalms. A good hymnal will include many of the psalms in singable form. The new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God, has most of the psalms in musical form.

What are hymns? Hymns are generally songs of praise to God unfolding over several verses, with a logical progression. They tend to be more God-centered than personal. They often feature simple or elaborate poetry and interweave themes of the Scriptures. A good example is Martin Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is our God.” This hymn was loosely based on Psalm 46, but not as a paraphrase.

What are spiritual songs? Spiritual songs are usually briefer than hymns, with simple lyrics and tunes. But these songs are not simplistic: they touch on deep issues and concerns. They are brief, set to simple tunes, and very personal. Spiritual songs tend to be more personal than hymns. Both emphases are needed and hymns and spiritual songs often overlap. “Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine” has characteristics of both a hymn and a spiritual song. It is no wonder that people love singing it.

How are psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs chosen for our gathered worship? In most traditions of the Church, the pastors have the lead role in this, in consultation with staff musicians. The goal is to match the sung praises to the scriptures read and the sermon preached in a given service and expose the congregation to the great treasures of the worship music compiled over centuries and still being written today.

Pastors are wise to balance the well-known with the not yet well-known, the old and the new, classic music and contemporary music, but always to make selections that honor God’s word read, proclaimed, and experienced.

What is the role of a hymnal? In some ways, a hymnal sets the tone for a congregation’s worship. Glory to God is not a perfect hymnal—there are no perfect hymnals!—but it is very impressive in its breadth and variety; it honors our shared tradition and enlarges upon it. It includes psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in a seamless way. It has nine indexes at the back that help us to find good selections for any Sunday’s scriptures and themes. Glory to God also gives brief notes at the bottom of each psalm, hymn, and spiritual sing, helping us to know more about what we are singing.

Hymnals serve us well, but we are not limited to them. We are free to use psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs from other sources, as well as those coming from our own congregation. The goal is to praise God with heart, voice, instrument, and spirit—to worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:23)

Finally, what is the role of the choir? First, it is help the great choir—the congregation—sing joyfully and enthusiastically. Second, it often offers more specialized music to God on our behalf. The same is true for instrumentalists. They offer their God-given gifts and sometimes considerable training back to God. Our choirs and instrumentalists are never looking to entertain or impress the rest of us, but to help all of us praise God, the source of all music.

A wonderful newer hymn, “When in Our Music God Is Glorified,” summarizes this paper well:

“When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried: Alleluia! Alleluia!”

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