Colossians 3:16 talks about music in the local church. It says we are to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” But what are these three types of sacred music?
1) The Psalms
That seems simple enough. It refers to the 150 songs in the Old Testament book of Psalms. But did you know that for a time many were convinced that was all the church should sing? In the eyes of some, writing new hymns was like trying to add to the Bible–which would be sinful. John Calvin believed that. But it is a point on which he and Martin Luther (a hymn writer himself) took opposite views.
In 1696 Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate collaborated to produce a new metrical version of the Psalms “fitted to the tunes used in churches.” Fine. But they had the boldness to include, in a supplement, sixteen new hymns. This caused an uproar! On one occasion, Tate was visiting a friend when the time came for family devotions. The maid explained her refusal to take part, saying indignantly,
“Sir, as long as you sung Jesus Christ’s Psalms, I sung along with ye; but now that you sing Psalms of your own invention, ye may sing by yourselves!”
It was a teen-aged Isaac Watts (1674-1748) who finally turned the tide in this debate. He argued that if churches sang only the psalms of the Bible, they were missing the great truths of the New Testament, about the life of Christ, His death and resurrection, as well as other crucial subjects. Finally, his father, a deacon in their church, told him to go ahead and see what he could do. With that, Watts began turning out a hymn a week for years. Through his life, he wrote about 600 of them! It is for his valuable contribution to sacred music that Watts is known as the Father of English Hymnody.
Bottom line: “Psalms” are the Psalms of the Bible. And perhaps, for our purposes, we could broaden the category to include any portion of Scripture set to music.
2) Hymns and Spiritual Songs
The distinction between hymns and spiritual songs is less clear. It has been suggested that the hymns may have been congregational numbers and the spiritual songs were solos, but that is not a widely held view.
Look again at Colossians 3:16. “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.”
Notice the phrases I’ve put in italics. Most likely, what we have with these two classifications is the difference between “to the Lord” songs and “one another” songs. Selections that are called hymns are more particularly addressed to the Lord Himself, in praise or prayer. Spiritual songs (now commonly referred to as gospel songs) are songs of teaching and testimony in which we address one another.
Some examples may help to make it clearer.
- Hymns: My Jesus, I Love Thee (talking to the Lord); How Great Thou Art; Great Is Thy Faithfulness.
- Gospel Songs (or Spiritual Songs): What a Friend We Have in Jesus; All the Way My Saviour Leads Me; Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus (meaning, Let’s you and I do that).
Often there’s not a hard and fast division. Some songs do both. For example, the hymn Praise the Saviour, Ye Who Know Him is clearly addressing our fellow-Christians. But a later stanza of the hymn turns to the Lord with a prayer, “Keep us, Lord, O keep us cleaving / To Thyself and still believing.”
In the nineteenth century, gospel songs were also commonly called Sunday School songs. An early pioneer in this style of hymnody was William Bradbury (1816-1868), who provided tunes for songs such as He Leadeth Me, and Sweet Hour of Prayer. These “Sunday School songs” had a strong evangelistic emphasis, and taught basic truths of Christian experience. They were often simpler in vocabulary, making them accessible to all, including children. But it is not right for purists such as Louis Benson to disdain them as unworthy. Their endurance speaks to the place they have found in the hearts of many believers. We need both, hymns and gospel (or spiritual) songs, just as the Scripture says.
Determining the exact terminology to be used–hymns or gospel songs–is not that important. In fact, the word hymn is commonly used for both. Many times, when we call a piece of music a hymn we simply mean it is a sacred song. In this blog, the term hymn will be used frequently in that generic sense. But even if we don’t classify each song in its technically correct category, there is an important point to be made here.
With some of our songs we talk to God, and with others we talk to one another. And there should be some kind of balance of both types in our singing. Remember, the Lord is present when we meet in His name (Matt. 18:20). Shouldn’t we speak to Him? How would you like friends and family to throw a party in your honour, and then spend the evening talking to one another and never talk to you! Let’s make use of the best of both.