In Ephesians 5:19, 20 we read, “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In these two verses we gain a depth of insight in how being Spirit-filled should be manifested among God’s people. We learn that at the heart of this Spirit-filled expression is singing.
From the context of Ephesians 5:19, 20 we observe that singing has a two-fold purpose: (1) The worship of God; (2) The instruction of God’s people. Furthermore, singing has two audiences: (1) The People of Faith; (2) The Lord God Almighty. So Christians sing to one another, reminding each other about God’s nature, character, and acts in salvation history. But they also sing to the Lord as a way of offering heartfelt praise and thanksgiving to God for so great a salvation which has come to us through Christ.
Paul uses three musical terms to address the content of this Spirit-filled singing. First, there are psalms, a clear reference to the Psalter, the Old Testament song book of the people of Israel. Virgil Thompson’s paraphrased setting of Psalm 23, My Shepherd Will Supply My Need is a good example. Second, there are hymns, which are longer compositions containing a doctrinal formulation and used for catechetical purposes The hymnic portions of Philippians 2, Colossians 1, and 1 Peter 2 are likely examples of such hymns. The Canto Deo Festival Choir has just sung a classic hymn with Gilbert Martin’s magnificent arrangement of Great is Thy Faithfulness. And, then, thirdly, there are spiritual songs, which are odes or lyric poems sung in celebration and festivity. Music such as Moses Hogan’s Old Time Religion and Thomas A. Dorsey’s Precious Lord, Take My Hand are contemporary examples of such spiritual songs.
That people are to sing from their heart to the Lord is not a request that people sing with raucous emotion or uncontrolled feeling. Rather, ‘heart’ refers to the controlling center of one’s being. Paul is concerned with the integrity with which one sings not with the outer display. Words are not merely sung, they express the reality of life in the Spirit. May God grant us grace always so to live and so to sing.
Dr. Keith Wells is the Chaplain for Canto Deo and also a Professor at Denver Seminary.