Inspired Songs used in Worship                                                                     by Jack Kettler

“Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In this study, a positive presentation is made that the inspired Psalms are appropriate for worship in the Churches of God. At times in Church history, this was a prevailing position. Today it is a minority view. There are many biblical texts that are relevant. In this, study Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 will be the focus of attention.

“Addressing one another in psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart to the Lord with your heart.” (Ephesians 5:19)

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom (σοφίᾳ), singing psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16)

How do we understand Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Septuagint? R. Scott Clark explains:

At the top of the Psalms in the LXX were titles or superscriptions. Those superscriptions described each Psalm; they categorized the psalms in four classes or groups:

ψαλμοῖς [Psalms] (2-8, 10-14, 18-24, 28-30, 37-40, 42-43, 45-50, 61-67, 72, 74-76, 78-84, 86-87, 91, 93, 97-100, 107-109, 138-140, 142)

[συνεσις; understanding (31, 41, 43-44, 51-54, 73, 77, 87-88, 141)]

υμνος [Hymns] (5, 53-54, 60, 66, 75)

ωδη [Ode/Song] (3, 17, 29, 38, 44, 47, 64-67, 74-75, 82, 86-87, 90-92, 94-95, 107, 119-133)”

Three of those four superscriptions or categories should seem familiar. Paul invokes them in Colossians 3:16.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom (σοφίᾳ), singing psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Arguably, even though the nouns for “wisdom” or “understanding” are different, we can say that here Paul invokes not just three of the categories but all 4: wisdom, psalms, hymns, and [Holy Spirit-given] songs. He says virtually the same thing in Ephesians 5:19.

Addressing one another in psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart….” (1)

Using the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint), Dr. Scott establishes that psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are interchangeable. 

In the Songs of Zion, author Michael Bushell gives specifics on the use of the three terms throughout Scripture that refer to the Psalms:

Psalmos…occurs some 87 times in the Septuagint, some 78 of which are in the Psalms themselves, and 67 times in the psalm titles. It also forms the title to the Greek version of the psalter…. Humnos…occurs some 17 times in the Septuagint, 13 of which are in the Psalms, six times in the titles. In 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Chronicles, and Nehemiah there are some 16 examples in which the Psalms are called ‘hymns’ (humnoi) or ‘songs’ (odai) and the singing of them is called ‘hymning’ (humneo, humnodeo, humnesis)…. Odee…occurs some 80 times in the Septuagint, 45 of which are in the Psalms, 36 in the Psalm titles… In twelve Psalm titles, we find both ‘psalm’ and ‘song’; and, in two others, we find ‘psalm’ and ‘hymn.’ Psalm seventy-six is designated ‘psalm, hymn and song.’ And at the end of the first seventy two psalms we read ‘the hymns of David the son of Jesse are ended’ (Ps. 72:20).” (2)

Is it unusual to use three seemingly different words that can mean the same thing? 

J. W. Keddie explains the triadic expressions in Scripture:

The Bible contains many examples of triadic expression.  For example: Exodus 34:7- “iniquity and transgression and sin”; Deuteronomy 5:31 and 6:1 - “commandments and statutes and judgments”; Matthew 22:37 - “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (cf.  Mk. 12:30; Lk. 10:27); Acts 2:22 - “miracles and wonders and signs”; Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 - “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” “The triadic distinction used by Paul would be readily understood by those familiar with their Hebrew OT Psalter or the Greek Septuagint, where the Psalm titles are differentiated psalms, hymns, and songs. This interpretation does justice to the analogy of Scripture, i.e. Scripture is its own best interpreter.” (3)

For the interchangeable usage of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs former Westminster professor, John Murray provides another profitable entry.

John Murray explains how to understand psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs:

“Why does the word pneumatikos [spiritual] qualify odais and not psalmois and hymnois?  A reasonable  answer  to  this  question  is  that pneumatikais qualifies  all  three  datives  and  that  its gender (fem.) is due to attraction to the gender of the noun that is closest to it. Another distinct possibility, made particularly plausible by the omission of the copulative in Colossians 3:16, is that “Spiritual songs” are the genus of which “psalms” and “hymns” are the species. This is the view of Meyer, for example. On either of these assumptions the psalms, hymns, and songs are all “Spiritual” and therefore all inspired by the Holy Spirit.  The bearing of this upon the question at issue is perfectly apparent. Uninspired hymns are immediately excluded.” (4)

Historical and confessional perspective on psalm singing from an excellent international musician:

“The councils of Christ's bride over the centuries have commanded the singing of God's songs and at the same time prohibited singing the songs of men in worship. As early as the Council of Laodicea held around AD 364, the universal church of Christ declared in Canon 59 “No psalms composed by private individuals nor any uncanonical books may be read in the church, but only the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments.” This means it was as wrong to read from the Apocrypha in the public worship of God, as it was to sing a song from men's imaginations (man created hymns and praise and worship rather than the inspired Psalms of the Bible). The General Council of Chalcedon (from which we get the Definition of Chalcedon) adopted the canons of the Council of Laodicea in AD 451 again prohibiting the use of uninspired songs in the worship of God.”  

“The councils of Christ's bride over the centuries have commanded the singing of God's songs and at the same time prohibited singing the songs of men in worship.” 

As early as the Council of Laodicea held around AD 364, the universal church of Christ declared in Canon 59:

“No psalms composed by private individuals nor any uncanonical books may be read in the church, but only the Canonical Books of the Old and New Testaments.” 

“Then in 1547 the Westminster Confession declared the Biblical view of the regulative principle of worship, “But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”

“In the following list of those acts that are acceptable worship to God is “...the singing of psalms with grace in the heart.” No songs of men are included but only the songs of God. For the third time in the history of the church spanning some 1200 years of time, the church has declared the worship of God in song to be exclusively the inspired Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of the Bible.” (5)

Church Fathers on Psalm singing:

“I believe that a man can find nothing more glorious than these Psalms; for they embrace the whole life of man, the affections of his mind, and the motions of his soul. To praise and glorify God, he can select a psalm suited to every occasion, and thus will find that they were written for him.” - Athanasius, Treatise on the Psalms, 296-373 AD

“The Law instructs, history informs, prophecy predicts, correction censures, and morals exhort. In the Book of Psalms, you find all of these, as well as a remedy for the salvation of the soul. The Psalter deserves to be called, the praise of God, the glory of man, the voice of the church, and the most beneficial Confession of Faith.” - Ambrose 337-397AD

“The Book of Psalms is a compendium of all divinity; a common store of medicine for the soul; a universal magazine of good doctrines profitable to everyone in all conditions.” – St. Basil of Caesarea 330-379 AD

Reformation leader, John Calvin on psalm singing: 

“Now what Saint Augustine says is true, that no one is able to sing things worthy of God unless he has received them from Him. Wherefore, when we have looked thoroughly everywhere and searched high and low, we shall find no better songs nor more appropriate to the purpose than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit made and spoke through him. And furthermore, when we sing them, we are certain that God puts the words in our mouths, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.” - John Calvin, Epistle to the Reader, Genevan Psalter (1542)

In line with the ancient Church and Reformation leader, John Calvin, G.I. Williamson persuasively addresses the sufficiency of the Psalter for worship:

“Let us suppose, for a moment, that the Old Testament book of Psalms was not adequate as the vehicle of praise for the New Testament church. Is it not self-evident that, if this really was the case, the first to realize it would have been our Lord? Our Lord did realize that there was a need for a new sacrament. That is why He instituted the sacrament of His body and blood that we call the Lord’s Supper. Yet on the very occasion that He did this, He led His disciples in the singing of a psalm out of the Psalter. And, according to all the evidence that I have seen, the apostle Paul followed his Lord’s example. He did not, himself, write new songs. What he did was to instruct both the Ephesians and the Colossians to sing the pneumatic [spiritual] psalms, hymns, and songs that they already had—something they could easily do because they had the Psalter in their Septuagint version of the Bible. The apostles were inspired men. If there had been a deficiency in the book of Psalms, which they inherited in the Old Testament Scriptures, then they would surely have been quick to realize it. [30] And, realizing it, they certainly could have done something to remedy the deficiency. They could even have given us a book of inspired New Testament songs. But they did not do so. So the argument that new eras of redemptive revelation always bring forth new songs of praise is simply contrary to historical fact.

“[30] Much present day argumentation for uninspired songs is based on the presumption that the Psalter is deficient as the song book of the church of the new covenant. Very different was the view of Calvin, who wrote:

“I have been accustomed to call this book I think not inappropriately, ‘An Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul’…In short, as calling upon God is one of the principal means of securing our safety, and as a better and more unerring rule for guiding us in this exercise cannot be found elsewhere than in The Psalms, it follows, that in proportion to the proficiency which a man shall have attained in understanding them, will be his knowledge of the most important part of celestial doctrine….It is by perusing these inspired compositions, that men will be most effectually awakened to a sense of their maladies, and, at the same time, instructed in seeking remedies for their cure…There is no other book in which there to be found more express and magnificent commendations, both of the unparalleled liberality of God towards his Church, and of all his works; there is no other book in which there is recorded so many deliverances, nor one in which the evidences and experiences of the fatherly providence and solicitude which God exercises towards us, are celebrated with such splendour of diction, and yet with the strictest adherence to truth; in short there is no other book in which we are more perfectly taught the right manner of praising God, or in which we are more powerfully stirred up to the performance of this religious exercise….here there is nothing wanting which relates to the knowledge of eternal salvation.” (Calvin’s Preface to his Commentaries on the Psalms, pp. xxxviii & xxxix)

The Scottish Reformer, John Knox, echoes the same sentiment: “…there are no songs more meet than the Psalms of the prophet David, which the Holy Ghost has framed to the same use, and commended to the Church as containing the effect of the whole Scriptures, that thereby our hearts might be more lively touched…” (John Knox works, Vol. 4, pp. 164-166).” (6)

Psalms, Hymns and (Spiritual) Songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). A Quick Survey by Rev. Martyn McGeown:

“The book of Psalms uses three words to describe the songs in the Psalter (in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament).

These are ψαλμὸς (“psalm”), ὕμνος (“hymn” [song of praise]) and ᾠδή ("ode" [song]).

In addition, “hymn” in either its noun or verb form is found in Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26 (Jesus and His disciples sang a “hymn” from the Hallel Psalms, Psalms 113-118, as all agree), Acts 16:25 (Paul and Silas “hymned,” in the dark prison at Philippi, Psalms that these Jewish men had memorized) and Hebrews 2:12 (a quotation from Psalm 22:22).

Therefore, if the Colossians and Ephesians were looking for hymns to sing they had an abundant supply in the Psalter of the Old Testament. The word “hymn” must not be defined as modern people define it but we must allow Scripture to define words for us.


Psalm 6:1 To the chief Musician [lit. “to the leader in hymns”] on Neginoth upon Sheminith, A Psalm of David. O LORD, rebuke me not in thine anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure.

Psalm 40:3 And he hath put a new song [lit “a new hymn”] in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD.

Psalm 54:1 To the chief Musician [lit. “to the leader in hymns”] on Neginoth, Maschil, A Psalm of David, when the Ziphims came and said to Saul, Doth not David hide himself with us? Save me, O God, by thy name, and judge me by thy strength.

Psalm 55:1 To the chief Musician [lit. “to the leader in hymns”] on Neginoth, Maschil, A Psalm of David. Give ear to my prayer, O God; and hide not thyself from my supplication.

Psalm 61:1 To the chief Musician [lit. “to the leader in hymns”]  upon Neginah, A Psalm of David. Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.

Psalm 65:1 To the chief Musician, A Psalm and Song of David. Praise [lit. “a hymn”] waiteth for thee, O God, in Sion: and unto thee shall the vow be performed.

Psalm 67:1 To the chief Musician [lit. “to the leader in hymns”] on Neginoth, A Psalm or Song. God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us; Selah.

Psalm 72:20 The prayers [lit. “hymns”] of David the son of Jesse are ended.

Psalm 76:1 To the chief Musician [lit. “to the leader in hymns”] on Neginoth, A Psalm or Song of Asaph. In Judah is God known: his name is great in Israel.

Psalm 100:4 Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise [lit. “with hymns”]: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.

Psalm 119:171 My lips shall utter praise [lit. “a hymn”], when thou hast taught me thy statutes.

Psalm 137:3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth [lit. “a hymn”], saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

Psalm 148:14 He also exalteth the horn of his people, the praise [lit. “hymn”] of all his saints; even of the children of Israel, a people near unto him. Praise ye the LORD.


Psalm 4:1 To the chief Musician [lit. “to the leader in psalms”] on Neginoth, A Psalm [lit. “a song (ode)”] of David. Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness: thou hast enlarged me when I was in distress; have mercy upon me, and hear my prayer."

In addition, Psalms 18, 29, 39, 45, 48, 65-69, 75-76, 83, 87-88, 92, 108, 120-133 are all called songs or “odes” in their titles. The titles of Psalms 67 and 76 contain the three words (psalm, hymn and song) together.

So, it ought to be clear what Paul meant (and what the Colossians and Ephesians understood) by “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).” (7)


The texts considered from Ephesians and Colossians are not problems for the psalm-singing churches. As seen, the words psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are used interchangeably and are referring to the psalms. In addition, as seen, the Bible contains many examples of triadic expression similar to the Ephesians and Colossians texts.   

An objection:

On occasion, it has been said that you are not singing the psalms unless you are singing them in the original Hebrew. This argument about singing in Hebrew sounds similar to the Muslims saying you are not reading the Koran unless you are reading it in Arabic.

Counter questions:

Is your pastor reading the Word of God, unless it is done in the original language? If not, how can it be justified not to read the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek?

Are the psalm-singing churches in sin by using only the psalms? Are they missing out? Missing out on what is a rejoinder. Is there something superior to the psalms? What would that be? What is the songbook that Jesus used?

The Real Issue, Biblical Sufficiency:

The Reformed Churches are committed to the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. The Psalms are Scripture. Therefore, the Psalms are sufficient. Since the Psalms are sufficient, the psalm singing churches are not missing out.

Do pastors in psalm-singing churches have more opportunity to exposit and offer commentary on the Word of God? Since the psalms are the Word of God, it is normal for the pastor to offer commentary on the psalm-scripture before the psalm is sung.

Without a doubt, there have been some extraordinary human songs composed. The human songs that are faithful to Scripture could be converted into sermons and be profitable. Human composed songs can be used outside of worship. For example, Christmas caroling. Christmas caroling would be similar to street preaching.       

In closing:

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at:


1.      R. Scott Clark, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs in the Septuagint

2.      Michael Bushell, Songs of Zion, (Norfolk Press, Norfolk Virginia), pp. 217-218.

3.      J. W. Keddie, Why Psalms Only? (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Crown and Covenant Publications), p. 7.

4.      John  Murray, Song  in  Public  Worship in Worship  in  the  Presence  of  God,  (ed.  Frank J.  Smith and David C. Lachman, Greenville Seminary Press, 1992), p. 188.

5.      Quoted in, How are these Psalms different? By Calvin Jones

6.      G.I. Williamson, The Regulative Principle of Worship, Ordained Servant, vol. 10, No. 4, p. 74.

7.      Rev. Martyn McGeown, Psalms, Hymns and (Spiritual) Songs,

For more Study:

A Concise Case for Exclusive Psalmody

Exclusive Psalmody: A Biblical Defense Brian Schwertley:

Psalms or Hymns in Public Worship by Rev. H M Cartwright

Exclusive Psalmody – Traditional or Scriptural? By Rev. Gavin Beers 

A Special Exegesis of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 by Prof. John McNaugher

By Writing “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” Did Paul Really Mean, “Psalms, Psalms and Psalms?” By Stewart E. Lauer

Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) 

Singing the Songs of Jesus: Revisiting the Psalms

Christian Focus Publications

Published in 2010

By Michael Lefebvre

Reviewed by Jack Kettler

Singing the Songs of Jesus by Pastor Michael Lefebvre is a book that delivers on its promise to help the church to revisit the Psalms. Modern day evangelicals often ask, “What would Jesus do?” More to the point, what did Jesus do? During the days of His incarnation, Jesus worshiped His Father, the God of Israel. One of the ways God is worshiped is through songs of praise. What songs did Jesus sing, when He worshiped the Father? The answer to this question is one of the tasks the author takes on in this book.

Pastor Lefebvre draws attention to Biblical material that is often passed over when studying the history of Israel relating to worship. At every point in the history of redemption, Israel's leaders sang songs before God and the people. The significance of this is often overlooked. Pastor Lefebvre does a remarkable job in chronically how King David was directed by God to oversee the task of creating a songbook for the people of Israel to be used in worship. David’s task involved writing songs, overseeing other composers such as Asaph, organizing choirs and musicians. After David, Solomon continued the task of completing Israel's songbook.

The preeminence of the king in Israel's worship of God was an important practice. Not only did David direct the people singing songs in worship, this pattern also applies to David's Greater Son, who is the Lord. Jesus is our King and is seated at the right hand of the Father. The apostle Paul makes the statement that during worship we are seated with Christ in heaven, specifically; “and made us sit together in heavenly places” Ephesians 2:6. Jesus, our King, is enthroned at the Father's right hand, and we, through our union with Him, are led in heavenly worship by the King Jesus; “Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” Hebrews 2:12.

The author makes the case that Jesus, our Kingly choirmaster in the heavenly, leads us in singing praises to the Father. Pastor Lefebvre succeeds not only showing that the Psalms are profitable for doctrine, but they also testify of Christ. They are in fact, the songbook Jesus used to worship the Father. The Psalms were composed for Jesus as our perfect King and song leader.

In this brilliant work, Michael Lefebvre calls the church to once again to sing the songs of Jesus. If the church heeds this call, it will be blessed indeed. It should be the heart's desire of every believer to conform to Christ in all of our thoughts and deeds. Inevitably, this must also involve conforming in how we worship. Hence, the primary songbook for the church should be the “Songs of Jesus.” This book aims to restore the songs composed for Jesus to their rightful place in His Church. This edifying book should be in the home of everyone who calls himself or herself reformed.

“Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian Church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer (End of review)