“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.” (Colossians 3:16)
“Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;” (Ephesians 5:19)
One day, as I was in a Sunday School preparatory class, we talked on the subject of worship (which we of course know also entails singing), and we had Uzza and the Arc of Covenant for a case study. The event which saw the end of Uzza. This was to inform us that worship has to be according to God’s pattern and not the way we wished. I came to realise as we studied along that in Uzza’s heart, there was no contempt for God. I suppose there was deep reverence both for God and the Arc of His Covenant, but because the children of Israel were doing the right thing the wrong way, God struck him dead. As we studied, the thought came to my mind, in worship, what defines spiritual songs? I asked it in the class, but someone tried to reduce it to just music genre. Which of course we know it is not. Just like in the case of Uzza, the state of our hearts in respect to reverence for God is important but showing reverence through obedience according to how he has commanded is equally important. Desiring to sing spiritual songs is good, but we must define it according to scriptures lest we die a spiritual death while thinking we’re doing the right thing.
After this, I did a little online survey with this question, “Please what defines spiritual songs?” I also referred to the two scriptures above for consideration in answering this question. However, I got only likes, no comment except one comment which in the end was no comment at all. Not receiving any response, I surfed the net but what I found was ridiculous. Someone even wrote that our singing of spiritual songs can be sometime morbidly likened to drunkenness. Another trying to differentiate between hymn and psalms said, “psalms are inspired by the Holy Spirit while hymns are not.” To him, hymns are just Christian poems. It is funny, if not sad, how we’ve let such an important question go without an answer and how okay we could be to have it remain without an answer. I couldn’t go from article to article reading such horrendous errors in search of an answer, so I sought to consider this important question and come up with an answer that would be valid both scripturally and in agreement to reason. My findings is what I present to you in this article.
The person who commented (the only comment I got) on my online survey suggested that what is sung in church can define what spiritual music is. That is to say spiritual songs are songs sung in the church. However, while that is true in an ideal case, considering church practice in today’s church can’t help us in defining spiritual songs, because some churches allow only hymns, while others allow songs with more rhythm, while yet some others go all the way to allow hip-praise (aka gangster-praise). The practice of one church condemns the other, so church practice of today can’t help in defining spiritual songs.
Before we go too far into this considerations, what is most important to understanding what defines a spiritual song can be well observed in the two key verses of this article (Colossians 3:16, and Ephesians 5:19). We can easily perceive through these scriptures and other texts that psalms and hymns are so similar that they can be used interchangeably. As a matter of fact, the definition of psalm among few others is “a hymn.” So we can be sure that they are very much similar if not entirely the same. The similarities in the first two mentioned types of songs informs us also that the third, “spiritual songs,” ought also to be very much similar to the first two mentioned, if not entirely the same. For who can argue that psalms and hymns are not themselves spiritual songs? So by the understanding we have about the spiritual songs of hymns and psalms, we may derive a more accurate understanding of what makes a song spiritual, for they must of necessity be similar to hymns and psalms, if not entirely the same. This, I suppose, is the best way by which we can safely derive the true characteristics of spiritual songs, and thus the definition.
Before we go into trying to draw out the characteristics of spiritual songs, we must make it absolutely clear that spiritual songs are not entertainment music with Christian sympathy. Spirituality is diametrically opposite to entertainment or amusement. It is either you are seeking entertainment and not spiritual edification, or you’re seeking spiritual edification and not entertainment. Edification profits the spirit, but entertainment profits the flesh. The Bible clearly says, “For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” (Galatians 6:8). While we most definitely can not equate entertainment music to feasting with devils (for indeed there are many non spiritual music that are not bad), we must be wise enough not to characterise them as spiritual just because they’ve got Christian sentiments in their wordings.
Christians of today need to understand fully well that while entertainment is not bad in itself, entertainment worship, or doing spiritual things in an entertaining way is not only bad but evil. A.W. Tozer pointed out that entertainment worship is as evil as bead counting done by the Roman Catholics. So we must make sure we don’t sow to the flesh. Not being able to do spiritual things without a desire for entertainment is a serious symptom of a deadly spiritual disease. As a matter of fact you’re already spiritually dying, but are on the life support of entertainment. If you go on this way without changing your ways, you’d still die anyways. If you feel this symptom that you just can’t do anything spiritual without entertainment, please flee to Jesus for healing. As always, when you go to him, it is always you who has to do all the changing of ways, not him. “He is the Lord, he changeth not.” Go to him in repentance, ask him to revitalise you, and be ready to change your ways.
Now, in singing hymns and psalms, is it for entertainment that we have it sung (rather than spoken) or is it for edification? It would be easy to say also, “well, even in singing hymns people get entertained, so if the song I listen to entertains me and also has words of Christian sympathy in its lyrics, what could be wrong with it?” Now you need to know that hymn and psalms are not meant to entertain and they can’t entertain. Yes they can be enjoyed but they can’t entertain you, for entertainment must have amusement. This would be a bit tricky to be able to fully explain for there are feelings here that can seem similar but are yet far apart. This is because the spirit feels many things in common with the body. It can rejoice, it can be satisfied, it can be starved, it can be bored etc. For this reason, it would be hard to differentiate the feelings we get from spiritual songs and entertainment songs.
However, we must know that while hymns fills its lovers with joy so also does entertainment its listeners. But the difference is that hymns, by edifying the spirit brings joy to the spirit of its singers and listeners, but entertainment songs also brings happiness to the listeners and singers, but externally and not to the spirit. We can see in the Bible, how feelings could be very similar, yet very far different and apart. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27). Jesus acknowledges here that the world can as a matter of fact give peace, but the peace that he gives is that which is felt in the spirit, while that of the world is founded on external things. But they both give people a feeling of peace. So also spiritual songs gives joy, but not as entertainment giveth.
To go further in differentiating spiritual feelings from fleshly feelings, Paul wrote saying, “I am exceeding joyful in all our tribulation.” (2 Corinthians 7:4). So even tribulation makes him joyful. Most definitely, this joyfulness is not attached to anything external, but is that which is felt deep in the spirit. There are joyfulness that a person can feel that also are not felt in the spirit but are feelings attached to external things. Jesus also rejoiced in the spirit (Luke 10:21) and this is opposed to rejoicing for external things, e.g. passing an exam, gaining promotion, etc. That is how the difference between enjoying hymn, psalms, and spiritual songs is to being entertained. They may have some similarities, but they’re far apart. The spiritual man enjoys hymns because it edifies his spirit while the carnal man enjoys entertainment because it gratifies his flesh.
If hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs were entertaining, why then can’t some people enjoy it? Some even say we’re singing burial songs. Why is it so if not that they’re carnal? And it takes the spirit of a spiritual person to be edified and rejoice in being edified.
Yes, people can learn to enjoy hymns without being spiritual, or maybe they were brought up that way to enjoy hymns. As there are always counterfeits of true virtues, so also the virtue of enjoying hymns has its counterfeits.
Whether or not there is a counterfeit, spiritual songs are definitely not entertainment music with Christian sympathy. When you listen to a song, ask yourself if that song edifies you. Sincerity is needed to answer aright. Should you insincerely say a song edifies you when in truth it does not, you’d be doing yourself harm. But he that is spiritual really knows the songs that stirs in him those spiritual yearning that drives a man into deeper devotion to God. The song that does this is spiritual.
Next, a spiritual song, when listened to, must of necessity produce the fruit of the spirit. Principally love, and every other thing that comes with it. It is written, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22 – 23). So if it is spiritual it must produce these. It must produce Love, not lust. Joy, not sadness. Peace, not trouble. Longsuffering (patience), not haughtiness. Gentleness, not rowdiness nor violence. Goodness, not naughtiness nor meanness. Faith, not unbelief. Meekness, not pride. Temperance, not looseness.
Also with these virtues of the fruit of the Spirit must come all other Christian virtue from the self same spiritual songs. Christian virtues such as soberness (1 Peter 4:7), contentment (1 Timothy 6:6-8), purity (1 John 3:3), integrity (Matthew 5:27, James 5:12), boldness (Ephesians 6:18-20), devotion and piety (Deuteronomy 6:5), zeal (Revelations 3:19), God-centeredness (Isaiah 45:22), fortitude (2 Timothy 2:3), hope (Romans 8:24), modesty (Philippians 4:5), gratitude (Colossians 3:15), simplistic trust (Jeremiah 17:7), circumspection (Ephesians 5:15), etc. The songs that produces these in our lives are spiritual indeed. The songs that negates any among them or work against them in anyway is unspiritual and devilish.
It is not just to have negatives of Christian virtues such as lust that makes a song unspiritual but even that song that does not foster these virtues or the yearning for them, but rather diminishes them in us (while being supposedly neutral, i.e. not promoting vices itself) is still unspiritual. For example, a song may not encourage you to be promiscuous, but it makes you to be less zealous. A song may not encourage you to steal and may even shun it, but makes you to be less God-centred to become self-centred. Such songs are unspiritual and detrimental to our walk with God. All the negatives of these Christian virtue we can see in most secular songs. In many so called gospel songs also we can see them in a mild way. One virtue that so many so called gospel songs negate is that of a sober mind. A truly spiritual song must be completely void of these negatives and only produce and foster the fruit of the spirit and all other Christian virtue.
When the question of what defines spiritual song is raised, it is not that we cannot tell or at least have a hint of what spiritual song is in essence, but we may not yet define it with words. Definition in words is very important because this would be the guide to everyone willing to engage in the good practice of spiritual singing. It is just like I pointed out in my article titled “THE IMPORTANCE OF EXAMPLE TO LEARNING,” that we may understand something as simple as “come,” but may not be able to define it easily in words. The same case here, but the things people were writing in their articles about spiritual songs (such as psalms being inspired by the Holy Ghost and hymns not) just completely batters even the previous knowledge (though vague) we had about spiritual songs down to the ground. Even without careful consideration of the subject, such statements makes the Christian mind to laugh. But contrary to these people, listen to the words of someone who has understanding speak on the subject: Hezekiah Butterworth wrote in the introduction of his book titled, “The Story Of The Hymns And Tunes,” saying, “It is natural to speak of hymns as ‘poems,’ indiscriminately, for they have the same structure. Imagination makes poems, devotion makes hymns… In short to be a hymn, what is written must express spiritual feelings and desires. The music of faith, hope and charity will be somewhere in its strains.” So the thing I’d like to pick in his words are these, “Imagination makes poems, devotion makes hymns.” I’d also like to go ahead to add that creativity makes songs, revelation makes spiritual songs.
From both key verses above, we know that psalms, hymns and spiritual songs can be sung for ourselves to teach and admonish us. Speaking refers to everything that can be done through normal speech. So when it is written, “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord;” (Ephesians 5:19), we therefore know that all things done by speaking to the edification of the brethren can be done in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We can also sing prayers to the Lord just as we sing praises and worship. However, all these must be done by the leading of the Holy Ghost.
This also brings to the fore the importance of understanding if a song is to be truly spiritual. For what is the essence of speaking if what is being spoken is not understood? So when we’re told in Ephesians 5:19, “speaking to yourselves…” we know that understanding is key to spiritual songs. The psalmist also wrote, “For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.” (Psalm 47:7). This also should inform us that we must do everything possible to ensure that what is being song is understood by the singers and listeners. Whether this is by singing from a book, pamphlet, screen, etc. Ease of understanding is a key characteristic of spiritual songs.
Hymns is of necessity an inspiration of the Holy Ghost. The book of Hezekiah Buttrworth I quoted above titled, “The Story Of The Hymns And Tunes,” also speaks of how hymns were written and the tunes were composed. You can see the Holy Ghost’s inspiration through all those stories.
Many writers got the wordings of their hymn by a direct revelation from God. Others, not by a direct revelation, but still by inspiration of the Holy Ghost through a life of deep devotion and piety. For example, listen to the history of the hymn, “My Faith Looks Up To Thee,” by Ray Palmer:
Ray Palmer wrote these lyrics upon receiving a vision of Christ shortly after his graduation from Yale University, while working as a tutor at a New York school. However, he kept them to himself until meeting Lowell Mason on a street in Boston, Massachusetts. When Mason asked him to write something for a new hymnal, Palmer dug out his old notes and produced these lyrics, written two years earlier. After taking the lyrics home and reading them, Mason composed this tune. Several days later he saw Palmer again and said: “You may live many years and do many good things, but I think you will be best known to posterity as the author of My Faith Looks Up to Thee.”
It should be therefore well accepted that true hymns, whether by direct revelation, gratitude for perceived good, inspiration in the study of the word, expressions of devotion and spiritual yearnings, etc. are all inspired by the Holy Ghost.
There are of course many hymns that are not written by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Some are just a product of people being creative. Others are even by workings of devils. A good example of hymns that are not inspired by the Holy Ghost are those of Later Days Saints, and Romish hymns with Romish sentiments. So not everything that is sung like a hymn or psalm should be considered spiritual, but the spiritual man can discern them.
Lastly, the very tunes themselves must be that which edifies the spirit and produce or foster Christian virtues. It may be hard to understand why or if it were possible for mere tunes to do this. I cannot say how, but I know spiritual tunes themselves (without words) edifies the spirit and both produces and fosters Christian virtue. I heard a song in Igbo (a Nigerian language not mine), but though I knew not what was being said, yet in me, I felt this form of deep revival though I didn’t have the slightest idea of the wordings. I also listened to Von Himmel Hoch as performed by AM Classica, and how wonderful it was to the spirit. It was so heavenly. Many other tunes on their own speak revival and Christian virtue into your life. Sometimes I think that such tunes are what would accompany a saints as he ascends to his eternal abode on high. How to know them is that they are good (even without any wordings) for devotional contemplation, meditation, communing with God, and they naturally tune your heart Heavenward. Also, listening to them produces and fosters the fruit of the spirit and other Christian virtue. A spiritual song must be sung to such tunes.
Though a spiritual song must be sung to such tunes, I don’t know if it were right to sing to tunes of non Christian songs but tunes made in a rather Christian way. I like singing some hymns to the tune of Parting Glass. I know it is not a Christian song so to speak. All I know is that it is a traditional Irish song (though I saw a comment claiming it were Scottish. Can’t say) but there are no real Christian convictions in the lyrics, yet singing Christian hymns to its tune seems powerful to me. Yet I cannot say if it were a wrong practice. Off course I don’t mean that Christian songs should be sung in any way to clearly unchristian tunes or rhythm. I once saw on tv a “Christian” music video titled, “Find Me In The Church.” This music took everything from the music of 50 Cent titled, “Find Me In The Club,” and merely changed the wordings to have Christian sentiments. This is not what I’m talking about, but rather if it were good to sing Christian hymns to tunes that are fashioned after church styled music, as we ought to know that most composers of hymn tunes also had tunes to some rather secular themes.
I’d be happy if someone could give us, out of scripture and reason, a definite Yes or No to whether or not it were right to sing Christian hymns to such tunes. We may find other tunes like this which are good, but I do not encourage it or endorse such practices. We still need a clearer definite answer. So, do it at your own risk.
In the course of writing this article, I found the topic to be very interesting, and to be beyond what can be covered in few articles. For this reason, I’d make out time to compile a full book for a detailed discuss on the subject. I hope also that by the time I’m through with the book, I may have had a definite answer as to whether it were right or wrong to sing or even write Christian hymns to the tunes of church styled, yet secular, music. But for now, this is how far I’d go.
—Summary and Conclusion—
“… We speak before God in Christ: but we do all things, dearly beloved, for your edifying.” (2 Corinthians 12:19)
“Let all things be done unto edifying.” (1 Corinthians 14:26)
- Spiritual songs are not entertainment songs with Christian sentiments.
- The church practice of today is inadequate to define spiritual songs.
- Spiritual songs must be characterised by the characteristics of hymns and psalms.
- MATHEMATICAL PROVE: If Psalm = Spiritual Song, Hymn = Spiritual song, and Psalm = Hymn, what is a spiritual song?
- Psalms and hymns are products of devotion, not imagination. So also all other spiritual songs must be products of devotion, not imagination.
- Psalms and hymns are a product of revelation, not creativity. So also must all other spiritual songs be products of revelation, and not creativity.
- Understanding is key
- The tunes must also be spiritual.
Some virtues that spiritual songs stir: soberness, contentment, purity, integrity, boldness, devotion and piety, zeal, God-centeredness, fortitude, hope, modesty, gratitude, simplistic trust, circumspection, the fruit of the spirit, etc.
Thank you very much for reading.
Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you very dearly for the gift of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We thank you for taking the lead in singing hymns yourself to show us how you appreciate the gift of singing you gave us. Dear Lord, we ask today that you help us to do this most sacred practice of singing spiritual the very way you want it to. Help us to have deep reverence for you deep in our hearts as well as in all our deeds through obedience in Jesus’ name. Amen.