Canonical Psalms (2)
Rev. Angus Stewart
In the last article, we considered the uniqueness of the
Psalms, as the only canonical book that God has given to His
beloved church for her singing, before looking at many
passages that describe their use in the Old Testament. In
this instalment, we shall build on this foundation by
looking at Christ's use of the Psalms, the Psalms in the
Greek Septuagint and the three key nouns in a couple of
important New Testament texts (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
Their Use by Christ in His Earthly Ministry
It is practically
universally acknowledged that the Jews of Christ’s day sang
the Psalms. The canonical Psalms were sung at the temple, on
the way up to Jerusalem for the pilgrim feasts, in the home
Moreover, just about
everybody agrees that the Jews sang the Hallel (Hallelujah
or “Praise the Lord”) Psalms at the Passover (Ps. 113-118).
After His last Passover and the first Lord’s Supper, we read
of Jesus and the eleven disciples singing these inspired
songs: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into
the mount of Olives” (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26).
The Holy Spirit is
here telling us something very significant at this critical
juncture in Christ’s life. He is soon to be betrayed and
crucified for all the sins of all God’s elect. He has just
instituted the Lord’s Supper, a New Testament sacrament, in
place of the Old Testament Passover. This was the scene at
which He uttered these great words: “For
this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for
many for the remission of sins” (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24;
Luke 22:20). Then, Christ, the head of the
church, and the eleven disciples, the leaders of the New
Testament church, sang the Hallel Psalms.
Thus the Passover
passes away as merely an Old Testament observance (cf. I
Cor. 5:7) but Psalm singing passes over into the new
dispensation. Canonical Psalm singing is here united with
the Lord’s Supper, which is to continue until Jesus Christ
comes again in great glory on the clouds of heaven with His
holy angels (I Cor. 11:26).
Some time after the
completion of the book of Psalms and the inspiration of all
the other books of the Old Testament canon, the Hebrew
Scriptures were translated into Greek. Why was that? The
answer is that many Jews were scattered outside their
ancient homeland, especially throughout the eastern
Mediterranean. At that time, many people in the Roman Empire
spoke Greek, including the Jews. Over the years, the Jews
or, at least, many of them had lost the facility of reading
and listening to Hebrew. So a Greek translation of the Old
Testament, as we now call it, was produced about 200 BC.
This version, the Septuagint, was used in the synagogues of
the Jews. Most Jews and proselytes who possessed copies of
the Bible had this Greek translation. It was used for
memorization and teaching. In short, the Greek Septuagint
was the Bible of the church of that day.
So what about the Septuagint translation of the the Psalms? The
Sepher Tehillim (book of praises) in Hebrew became the Psalmoi in
Greek, which is known in English as the Psalms or the
Psalter. The Greek Psalm titles themselves contain three
words—and only three words—to refer to these Psalms as
material to be sung: psalmos (psalm), hymnous
(hymn) and oodee (song).
What happened when
the gospel spread from Jerusalem to Judah, Samaria and
beyond? The apostles, as we read in the book of Acts, went
first to the synagogue. God called His elect people from
their midst. These believing Jews and proselytes became the
nucleus of the New Testament church, with others joining
them. The Bible of these fledgling churches was the
The Three Key
Nouns in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16
Let us now look at
two key texts in this debate: Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians
yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing
and making melody in your heart to the Lord (Eph. 5:19).
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 (Col.
The question is, What
is meant by the three nouns: “psalms,” “hymns” and “songs”?
Even more basic is this query, How are we going to determine
what is meant by “psalms,” “hymns” and “songs”? Do we come
with our own preconceived view of what these words mean in
the twenty-first century evangelical scene or do we let the
historical and scriptural context determine what the apostle
Paul meant, and what the Ephesians and the Colossians would
have understood these terms to mean?
First, let us look at
the word psalmos or psalm. Almost everybody,
including singers of uninspired hymns, admits that the
biblical Psalms are meant. Psalmoi or Psalms is the
title of the longest canonical book in the Greek Septuagint
and our English Bibles. Psalmos is also found in 67
of the Psalm titles and 11 times in the Psalms themselves in
the Septuagint, as well as appearing frequently in the book
of Psalms in our English Bibles. This is clear and simple.
Second, to what do
the hymnoi or “hymns” refer in Ephesians 5:19 and
Colossians 3:16? In the last article, we looked at the
Hallel Psalms which Christ and his eleven disciples sang
after the Lord’s Supper, and we saw that the inspired Psalms
113-118 were called “hymns” (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26). In
Hebrews 2:12, Jesus Christ says, “I will declare thy [i.e.,
God’s] name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church
will I sing praise unto thee” or “will I hymn unto
thee,” with the verb in this last clause being a form of
hymnos. Moreover, this “hymn” is a quotation from Psalm 22:22.
In the Septuagint
translation, the word hymnos (hymn) is found in 6
Psalm titles and 7 times in the Psalms themselves. In II
Samuel, I & II Chronicles and Nehemiah in this Greek
version, there are some 16 places in which a Psalm is called
hymnos (hymn) or oodee (song) and its singing
is a “hymning” (from hymnos). A Jew called Philo (d.c.
AD 40-50) in Egypt frequently designates a psalm as
hymnos. It is, in fact, his usual word to refer to the
canonical Psalms. You and I in our age and culture would
call them Psalms, but Philo in his world and in his day
typically called them hymns. Likewise, Josephus, a Jew who
lived in the last two-thirds of the first century AD
repeatedly called a psalm a hymnos
Third, we conclude
with oodee or song used, for example, in the title of
Psalm 45: “A Song of loves.” The word oodee or song
is found in 36 of the Psalm titles in the Septuagint and 9
times in the Psalms themselves.
More remains to be
said about Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, including
their application, but this must await our next article.