Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. ~ Colossians 3:16
Music is powerful. If I were to ask you to memorize a list of items, you might struggle; but if I were to put words to music and even make sure they rhyme a bit, chances are you’ll pick up on them quite quickly. After all, how often do we find ourselves driving down the road listening to the radio, mp3s, or a CD and a favorite song comes on and then we sing along? Even if not in a car, we will catch ourselves humming a tune while we work or singing as we shower.
Music moves us because it connects with us on a deeper level than just typeface on paper or a screen. The melodies engage our hearts and minds. And God intended this for us as he created us in his image and he is a God who sings (Zephaniah 3:17).
Echoing instructions from Ephesians 5:19, Paul told the church at Colossae that he wanted them to sing together. This was more than just humming a tune while cleaning house, Paul expected the church to sing in praise to God and to help each other know God’s word. Certainly our own personal devotions, as we hide God’s word in our hearts, help the word of Christ dwell in us richly but we are missing something wonderful when we don’t give ourselves to sing to one another as we sing to God.
Our songs are to be theological, meaning they are centered on God as he has revealed himself through his word; and our songs are to be instructive, meaning they aim to help each other know God better, learn more about God, and praise God together. This is why Paul connected God’s word and our singing with the ideas of teaching and admonishing.
Paul also said to sing a variety of songs. One of the sad things about church life in our culture is that we even have a division some have labeled the worship wars. If we’re warring over musical style, then we are worshiping the wrong thing—we are elevating ourselves and our tastes over a love for God and love for neighbor. Yet, we hear about churches splitting over musical styles and churches advertising traditional vs. contemporary vs. blended services. We seem to have forgotten what the Bible actually says about music.
God enjoys music from his people that employs a variety of instruments. Psalm 150 says:
Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! … Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
That is a variety of instruments! Obviously, if the musical talent in a church is limited and you have someone who can play the piano but no one who can play the drums, then you won’t get very far with a drum set. But if you have someone who can, then there is no reason to tell them they can’t.
God also enjoys a variety of song types. Paul listed psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (or possibly: songs of the Spirit). Most reputable commentators will say that we can’t be dogmatic about what each type means. After all, they didn’t have hymnals 2000 years ago like many churches do today, so the word hymn in the Bible is likely not what we think of hymn today. Even though we don’t know the exact specifics of each type, Paul’s use of three different words clearly indicates that he had a variety of music in mind.
I think it’s best to think of these listed types in this way: psalms refer to the Psalter or what we call the Book of Psalms from the Old Testament. There we find 150 songs and prayers that show a variety of length, focus, and emotion; yet each is also inspired scripture. Throughout Psalms you will find different terms that represent musical types; but God did not preserve the tunes themselves for us, only the words. So we are free to take the words of the Psalms and set them to a variety of tunes as people and churches continue to do today.
Spiritual songs or songs of the Spirit seem to be songs that the Holy Spirit continues to lead people to write. These are not inspired in the same way as the Psalms, meaning they are not scripture; but the Spirit leads people with the talent and the gifts to continue to craft songs based on the truths we find in scripture and the different ways we can apply these truths. These, then, would be the new songs we’re told to sing in Psalm 149:1and like we see described in Revelation 5:9 and 14:3.
Hymns, then, might be songs of tradition. These may have been new songs when the authors first wrote them, but now they’ve been passed around and sung by many. At the time Paul wrote Colossians, there was only a very short period for traditional songs to develop. Now we have centuries of them at our disposal. Some understand the word hymn as meaning song of praise, so it could also very well be these are like praise songs and praise choruses we sing today. Either way, it continues to speak to the variety that God loves.
God loves variety in the songs and music we use to worship him, and so we should love it as well. We should happily sing songs together, new and old and in various styles so long as they help us dwell upon the riches of Jesus and so long as they help us build up each other in our faith and lives in him.