Ephesians 5:18–19 says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (ESV). Colossians 3:16 continues that idea: “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.” So what is the difference between psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and how are they to be used?
The book of Psalms is the collection of songs written under the direction of the Holy Spirit (Mark 12:36; 2 Peter 1:21) by ancient Jewish leaders such as David, Moses, and Solomon. These inspired songs were part of the Hebrew Scriptures and used in corporate worship. The word psalm means “praise.” Although many of the psalms are cries for help, laments over Israel, or questions about God’s plan, the major theme in all of them is worship. Even when the psalmist was crying out his questions or frustrations to the Lord, he usually ended with a call to praise God in spite of everything (Psalm 42:11; 43:5; 71:13–14). The psalms have a timeless quality and are as relevant to our lives as though they were written yesterday. Many people find great comfort in reading or praying the psalms when they have difficulty finding adequate words to express their hearts to God. We can encourage, challenge, and extend comfort to ourselves and others by memorizing and sharing a psalm. Many of our modern worship songs are based on the psalms, and when we sing them, we are singing God’s Word.
A hymn is a song that gives praise, honor, or thanksgiving to God. Unlike psalms, hymns are not written by divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit and are not considered part of Scripture. However, the best ones often incorporate portions of Scripture and are filled with rich doctrinal truth. Hymns are often metrical poems arranged to be sung corporately. Even in Jesus’ day, hymns were part of Jewish worship. After the Last Supper, Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn (Matthew 26:30).
The term spiritual songs is more general. Believers are to express their faith in song—but not just any song; Scripture indicates the songs of believers must be “spiritual.” That is, the songs of the church deal with spiritual themes. They might not directly praise God, but they will teach a doctrine, encourage the body, or prompt others toward love and good works. A spiritual song might express the joy of one’s salvation, revel in the grace of Christ, or exalt the greatness and power of God—in short, a spiritual song can communicate a wide variety of sacred themes.
From Psalms to Revelation, the Bible encourages us to “sing a new song to the Lord” (Psalm 96:1; 144:9; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9; 14:3). Psalm 40:3 says, “He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.” A new song is one that arises from the spirit of a person whose heart overflows with adoration for God. Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians about music is preceded by the command to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18). When we are filled with the Spirit, then psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are the natural expression of our hearts. A Spirit-filled person is a singing person. One clear indication that a person is filled with the Holy Spirit is a natural desire to sing and praise God. Musical ability has little to do with it. God created us to find great spiritual expression through music (Psalm 135:3; Judges 5:3). Scripture is filled with music, and God delights when we use what He created to worship Him (Deuteronomy 31:19; Psalm 33:2; 149:3).
Music finds its highest purpose when used as a tool to extoll the greatness of God. It can console, encourage, teach, and even admonish those who are away from God. Music is a biblical way of expressing our worship of the Lord. Spiritual music gives voice to our joy and adoration unlike anything else. Whether a psalm or a hymn or a spiritual song, the purpose of music is to glorify God, and He wants us to use this gift as a means of worshiping Him.