Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs


By Wayne S. Walker

     We know from the New Testament, and can infer from later writings of church leaders, that Christians of the first century did sing in their worship, but we do not know precisely what songs they sang or exactly how they sang them. Some have thought that their singing may have possibly sounded more like chanting.  Also, it is thought by some that the singing of the early church may have reflected two influences, in addition to any direct revelation from God through inspired teachers. The first of these influences was the Hebrew Psalms of Old Testament temple rites, and the second was Greek hymns composed in honor of their gods, heroes, and famous men.   It is possible, then, that these two influences may have suggested to primitive Christians a style in which songs of praise to Christ might be sung.   However, all we know for sure is that they were told to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as we read in Ephesians 5.19 and Colossians 3.16.


     The Old Testament Psalms were sort of like the hymns that God gave the people of Israel to sing.   Some of our hymns are based on the Psalms, and a lot of songs that are not drawn directly from the Psalms often use language taken from the Psalms.  Even Martin Luther’s great hymn “A mighty fortress is our God” reflects the thought of Psalm 46.  During the early Reformation, the majority of songs sung by the Reformed and British churches were metrical versions of Old Testament Psalms, such as “All people that on earth do dwell,” based on Psalm 100, made by William Kethe, and taken from the Anglo-Genevan Psalter of 1561, and “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want,” a rendering of Psalm 23 sometimes attributed to Francis Rous from the Scottish Psalter of 1650, which are both still popular.

Others have set their hands to rendering the Psalms in various forms, such as John Milton with his “Let us, with a gladsome mind” taken from Psalm 136; Joseph Addison with his “The spacious firmament on high,” a paraphrase of Psalm 19; and Isaac Watts with his Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament including “O God, our help in ages past” based on Psalm 90.  Still others include such well-known hymn writers as James Montgomery, Robert Grant, Henry F. Lyte, John  D. S. Campbell, and even American gospel song composer William J. Kirkpatrick with his “Hallelujah! Praise  Jehovah” using Psalm 148.

However, I am not convinced that when Paul mentioned “psalms” in connection with hymns and spiritual songs he was necessarily specifying the Old Testament Psalms, although they would no doubt be included.  It is reasonable to conclude that the term could well refer to any meditative and reflective songs that would partake of the nature and character of Old Testament Psalms.  Some have suggested that other religious songs which paraphrase passages of Scripture besides the Old Testament Psalms might well fall into this category.  Examples of this might include George W. Doane’s “Thou art the way” drawn from John 14:6, and of more recent vintage, Thomas O. Chisholm’s “Great Is Thy faithfulness” with echoes of Lamentations 3:23.


     The dictionary says that our English word “hymn” means “a song of praise, adoration, thanksgiving, etc., especially one sung at a religious service.”  We sometimes speak of songs like “My country, ‘tis of thee” and “O beautiful for specious skies” as national or patriotic hymns because they are songs of praise about our country.  The word translated “hymn” in the New Testament is defined by W. E. Vine as “a song of praise addressed to God.”  The term was often used by secular Greek writers to denote songs sung in praise to their gods and heroes.  Nowadays, many people use the term “hymn” to refer to just about any kind of religious song.  However, hymnologists make a technical distinction between hymns and gospel songs, usually with the latter having a chorus and the former having none, though some make the distinction based on content and musical style.

Using these criteria, Frederick Faber’s “Faith of our fathers” looks like a gospel song because it has a refrain after each stanza, but it is usually classified as a hymn.  On the other hand, Philip P. Bliss’s “Almost persuaded now to believe” and Adelaide Pollard’s “Have Thine own way, Lord” have no chorus but are almost always categorized as gospel songs.  Other bases for making a difference between the two have been suggested, but the fine line is sometimes rather blurred.  As suggested previously, up until around 1750 almost all singing done in English speaking churches was from the Psalms.  Interestingly enough, it was the non-conformist Isaac Watts who first popularized “hymns of human composure (e.g., “Alas, and did my Savior bleed;” “Come we that love the Lord;” and “When I survey the wondrous cross”).

Since then, we have had English hymn writers like Charles Wesley (“Jesus, lover of my soul”), John Newton (“Amazing grace”), William Cowper (“There is a fountain filled with blood”), Henry F. Lyte (“Abide with me”), Charlotte Elliot (“Just as I am”), and Reginald Heber (“Holy, holy, holy”).  There have been Welsh writers like William Williams (“Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah”); Scots writers like Horatius Bonar (“I heard the voice of Jesus say”); and Irish writers like Cecil F. Alexander (“All things bright and beautiful”).   And of course American writers from Timothy Dwight (“I love Thy kingdom, Lord”) and Ray Palmer (“My faith looks up to Thee”) to Maltbie Babcock (“This is my Father’s world”) and Henry van Dyke (“Joyful, joyful, we adore thee”); along with a host of others, have written hymns by which we can sing praises to God.

Spiritual songs

      The word translated “song” in the New Testament is the source of our English word “ode” and according to Vine “was the generic word for a song; hence the accompanying adjective ‘spiritual.’”  Thus, a spiritual song would be one which expresses spiritual truth by which we can teach and admonish one another.  Most of what we call “gospel songs” would fall into this category.    Although I have not seen anyone else who has affirmed this, my study in the history of religious music has led me to conclude that the modern gospel song was basically introduced by composer and publisher William B. Bradbury, with such favorites as “My hope is built on nothing less” with words by Englishman Edward Mote, and “He leadeth me, O blessed thought” with words by American Joseph H. Gilmore.

It is certain that Bradbury introduced to the world the “queen of gospel song,” Fanny J. Crosby.  Who can tell how many hearts have been comforted by her gospel songs, such as “A wonderful Savior is Jesus, my Lord;” “Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!”; “Safe in the arms of Jesus;” “Tell me the story of Jesus;” “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine;” “Thou, my everlasting portion;” “Praise Him, praise Him!”; and “Jesus is tenderly calling thee home”?  Originally, what today are identified as “gospel songs” were published in Sunday school songbooks and intended primarily for children.  However, the popularity of Fanny Crosby’s works resulted in the inclusion of gospel songs in regular church hymnals.

The crusades of revival evangelist Dwight L. Moody and his song leader Ira D. Sankey also did much to popularize the gospel songs which they used and published in their books.  Many others in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, like Will L. Thompson with “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling,” and Charles H. Gabriel with “When all my labors and trials are o’er,” have added gospel songs to our repertoire.  Most recent songs written by those associated with churches of Christ are in the form of gospel songs, including Tillit S. Teddlie’s “Worthy art Thou,” “When we meet in sweet communion,” and “Heaven holds all to me.”  And good brethren are constantly working to give us new expressions of praise and devotion to God in song.


     As one studies the history of religious music intended for congregational singing, especially that in English speaking churches, he will see the progression of psalms from around 1550 to 1750, through the classic hymns from 1750 to 1850, to the gospel songs from 1850 to nearly 2000.  Yet, while a majority of the selections in most of our song books today are gospel songs, we still have many hymns and quite a few psalms.  Hymnologists are now noting the passage from the primacy of the typical gospel song to the more contemporary “praise and worship song.”  It is only natural that as time goes on, many older songs will fall into disuse and newer ones will take their place.  Yet, we must always make sure that what we sing in worship can meet the qualifications of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”

—taken from Biblical Insights; January, 2015; Volume 15, Number 1; pp. 24-25


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s