A Special Exegesis of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16
Prof. John McNaugher, D. D., LL.D., Allegheny, Pennsylvania, USA
As even a glace at their contents shows, the epistle to the Ephesians and that to the Colossians are closely alike. About half of the verses in the former have parallels in the latter, and there are other resemblances as well. This twinship is explained when it is remembered that the two letters were written at the same time and to communities similarly circumstanced. Among the coincidences in thought and language are to be numbered the texts under study, which almost repeat each other.
Turning to these duplicate exhortations, it appears at once that they are of peculiar interest in that they yield a glimpse of the simple worship of primitive days … True, the question has been raised whether they have to do with worship at all, whether Paul is not touching merely upon the intercourse of believers in their family life, at their love-feasts, their social gatherings, and other meetings, and suggesting mutual edification by song. On this mooted point the common verdict is that the main, though not exclusive, reference is to the stated services of the public assembly, which seem to have been of a free and elastic nature. That worship, as well as joint instruction, is in mind is indicated by the concluding words in each citation—“singing with grace in your hearts unto God,” “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”
With the foregoing inquiry answered, it may be added as beyond doubt that all the resources of the early church as regards her treasury of sacred song are embraced in the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” here mentioned. In the three terms the inventory is evidently complete. Here then are classical passages which must be consulted in connection with any investigation into the hymnology of the apostolic period, passages which have a decisive bearing, therefore, on what compositions may be employed properly in the ordinance of praise.
As to their meaning, there has been pronounced disagreement. The advocates of uninspired songs in worship look on them as strongholds, arguing therefrom that in the age of the apostles the Psalter was supplemented by new lyrics, and that therefore, as a necessary consequence, the legitimacy of the modern hymn is established. Some writers on this side declare themselves in a very dogmatic way, dismissing lightly the idea of contradiction. On the other hand, it is alleged that there is no cause for supposing that Paul’s “hymns and spiritual songs” were anything different from the canonical Psalms, and that there is no license here for the use of other devotional pieces than the Psalms in the worship of God. The latter is the view which will be upheld in this exegesis. It challenges the opposite interpretation as being but a surmise, and offers a series of substantial reasons for its own correctness.
To begin with, it should be realized that present usage as regards the debated terms plays no part in fixing their sense. One can be misled by the seemingly familiar phraseology, and think forthwith of the hard and fast distinction now made between Psalms and hymns. But we are deciphering what was penned in A. D. 61 or 62, long centuries before any of the uninspired productions in the hymnals of today were extant. In order, therefore, to make these lines intelligible, we must transport ourselves back into that past to which Paul and his readers belong, and there undertake our exposition with open-mindedness and cautious discrimination.
As an approach toward identifying the poems intended by these designations, there is clear evidence at hand that all of them were divinely inspired, indicted under the extraordinary influence of the Holy Spirit. Preliminary to what is deemed decisive proof, certain considerations which go to make this important claim a strong probability may be adduced.
1. First, in these verses the direction given is not to prepare or provide songs of praise, but only to sing them. On this we must be permitted to insist. But in the absence of an express warrant for so doing, would not these Asia Minor Christians have been chary about writing original hymns for rendition in worship, when the Psalter, written on the mountain-tops of inspiration, and full of the things of God, was everywhere, as is allowed, a congregational handbook? Is it likely that any, self-advised and unaided, would have had the temerity or the desire to attempt such an innovation?