The Fork in the Road: Eph 5:19 and the Psalms

[This is expanded from my Sunday comment. I thought this was important enough and novel enough to make into a post. This is the last post on instrumental music for a while.]

Bruce Morton, in his book Deceiving Winds – Christians Navigating the Storm of Mysticism, Leadership Struggles & Sensational Worship, cites three Psalms that Paul paraphrases in Ephesians 5:19. (I reach the opposite conclusion from Bruce. He has done difficult and important research on this topic and deserves credit for his scholarship but no blame for my conclusions. His conclusions may be found at this post.)

Does Eph 5:19 refer to Psalm 108:1?

(Eph 5:19 ESV) addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,

As Bruce points out, the parallel is particularly clear when you compare the Greek of the New Testament with the Greek of the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Old Testament often quoted by Paul.

The Psalms he refers to are —

Psalm 27:6b I will sing and make melody to the LORD.

Ps 57:7b-8a I will sing and make melody! 8 Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!

Ps 108:1b-2a I will sing and make melody with all my being! 2 Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!

The last two have express references to instruments. The first does not. In Eph 5:19, it certainly appears that Paul is paraphrasing the repeated phrase “Sing and make melody.”

All three are literally “I will sing (ado) and I will pluck (an instrument) (psallo) to the Lord.” The translation of psallo as “pluck” (an instrument) in the LXX is not controversial, but the LXX is centuries older than the NT, and psallo came to mean “sing” by the First Century — indicating neither the use nor absence of an instrument.

Eph 5:19 in Greek is —

sing (ado) and sing/make melody/pluck an instrument (psallo) to the Lord.

That Paul is referencing the Psalms is unmistakable.

What is the impact of the parallels with the Psalms?

Now, we can make this argument —

1. Paul clearly echoes these three Psalms.

2. Two of the three psalms have explicit references to instruments.

3. There are no explicit references to instruments in Ephesians, other than “in the heart” (en tE kardia), which is not “with the heart” but “in the heart.”

But …

4. Ps 107 LXX (= English Ps 108) refers to singing and playing “in (en) my glory (doxE).” The use of “glory” here sounds odd to Western ears, but “glory” refers to the nature of God, man is made in the image of God, and so the Septuagint translators use “glory” to refer to the psalmist’s truest, deepest self. Thus, English translations say things like “in my soul” or “in my inner being,” and these are also true to the Hebrew text.

But Paul could not say “in my glory” because —

* “Glory” would not sound to the Ephesian Greeks like “soul” or “inner being.”

* Paul carefully uses “glory” in his writings to refer to God’s presence and our celebration of God — not the inner being of the Christian.

And so Paul replaces “glory” with “heart.” But the passages are otherwise parallel: “in (en) my glory” and “in (en) your heart.”

5. The other Psalms don’t offer a similar parallel, so we conclude Paul was quoting Ps 108.

This is the Psalm in context (CEV) —

1Our God, I am faithful to you with all my heart, and you can trust me.
I will sing and play music for you with all that I am.

2I will start playing my harps before the sun rises.

3I will praise you, LORD, for everyone to hear;
I will sing hymns to you in every nation.

4Your love reaches higher than the heavens,
and your loyalty extends beyond the clouds.

The meaning of psallo

David plainly has instruments in mind. Not all translations pick up the sense of psallo plainly, but the meaning is conceded even by conservative members of the Churches of Christ, such as Wayne Jackson in the Christian Courier

The Septuagint (LXX) is a Greek translation of the Old Testament that dates from the 3rd century B.C. In this production, psallo is used to represent three different Hebrew words. The term may be used to denote simply the playing of an instrument (1 Sam. 16:16). It may bear the sense of singing, accompanied by an instrument (as certain contexts reveal – cf. Psa. 27:6; 98:5 – Eng. versions). Or, the word may refer to vocal music alone (cf. Psa. 135:3; 138:1; 146:2).

Following Jackson’s lead, we investigate the Hebrew text of the Psalm. The Hebrew word is uazmre, the root of which is zamar. Strong’s gives the definition —

A primitive root (perhaps ident. With zamar through the idea of striking with the fingers); properly, to touch the strings or parts of a musical instrument, i.e. Play upon it; to make music, accompanied by the voice; hence to celebrate in song and music — give praise, sing forth praises, psalms.

And, of course, Jackson cites Ps 27:6 — one the three parallels to Eph 5:19 — as using psallo in the sense of singing accompanied by an instrument. As Jackson notes, the context of these parallels makes the conclusion unmistakeable.

Is Paul rejecting instruments or endorsing instruments or neither?

So … does the fact that Paul omits the references to harps and lyres in Eph 5:19 imply that Paul is rejecting instruments? I don’t think so, for two reasons.

First, rabbis often quoted a portion of a passage in order to refer to the entirety of the passage.

To increase the impact of a statement, rabbis would quote part of a Scripture and then let their audience fill in the rest.

Ann Spangler & Lois Tverberg, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith, p. 38. Far from indicating that the omitted text does not apply, the omitted text often contains the very point the rabbi wants to make!

Second, Paul uses the very same Greek verbs for “sing” and “play music” found in Ps 108. The first word, ado, means “sing” (not a cappella and not instrumental, just “sing”). The second is psallo. And in the Greek of the Septuagint, it means “play an instrument” or “sing accompanied by an instrument,” and in Ps 108, the instruments are named: a harp and a lyre.

Now, Paul had other Greek verbs available to say “sing” with no implication of instruments. He chose to retain psallo even though he was willing to replace “glory” with “heart”. And if he was quoting a Psalm from the Septuagint, as Morton argues, he was using psallo in the sense in which David wrote it.

Just so, if I quote from the King James Version, I should normally be taken to be using his words in their 1611 sense — especially if I’m an Bible scholar. And Paul was an Old Testament scholar — trained under Gamaliel, one of the great rabbis in Jewish history.

So, if anything, this argues for Paul to be using psallo in its Septuagint sense, not in the koine (First Century) Greek sense, as it’s a quote — paraphrased only to shift the verb tense from middle to participle and to substitute “heart” for “glory.”

Does “with your heart” indicate the instrument being used?

“In your heart” does not mean that the heart is the instrument any more than “in my glory” in the LXX means David’s glory is his instrument. Some New Testament translations translate “in (en) your heart” as “with your heart,” but if I’m accompanying a song with a guitar, I’m playing the guitar, not playing with the guitar. Neither translation indicates that the heart is the instrument, and the LXX parallel refutes the argument entirely, in my view.

In Isaiah 38:20 LXX, the Septuagint refers to singing (not playing, that is, not with psallo as the verb) with a stringed instrument. “With” is meta not en. Paul is not saying that the heart is the instrument.

Of course, Ulrich Zwingli, one of the founders of the Reformation, did conclude that the heart is the instrument — but noticed that it says to “sing and play” with the heart, and so he concluded that the heart being expressly mentioned, the mouth is forbidden — and he required his congregations to “sing” silently! He was, of course, the inventor of the Regulative Principle. Apply the “gopher wood” and “Nadab and Abihu” arguments here, and that’s the conclusion you reach.

Might psallo mean sing?

Might Paul have used psallo in its First Century sense of “sing”? No. Compare —

(Young’s Literal) Eph 5:19 speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

to

(Young’s Literal) Eph 5:19 speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and [singing] in your heart to the Lord

It seems very unlikely that psallo is used in its First Century sense here. He meant whatever David meant.

Does “speaking” exclude instruments?

No. Young’s is correct to translate as two parallel participles: speaking/singing and making melody. But it would be a mistake to suggest that “speaking” so modifies the second clause that only vocal worship is permitted. Rather, we should recognize that this is a typical Hebraic parallel. Dennis Bratcher writes,

Recognizing parallelism as a poetic feature can sometimes aid in understanding or interpreting a passage.  For example, the use of parallelism usually means that the message of the text is in the larger passage and its overall point or impact rather than individual words or single lines.

In short, you can’t read Hebrew parallels like legislation. Rather, two parallel phrases should be read as two perspectives on the same thing. Consider the now familiar Ps 108 —

1 My heart is steadfast, O God!
I will sing and make melody with all my being!
2Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
3I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.

We have the parallels: sing/make melody and harp/lyre and give thanks and sing praises — all different ways of saying the same thing, with each phrase giving a different emphasis or perspective. Each line enriches the other lines. David’s thought isn’t only those things that are simultaneously thanks and praise and awakening all at once. Rather, David will do it all! The concepts overlap but don’t limit each other.

Just so, in Eph 5:19, the first line — “speaking to yourselves” — emphasizes the horizontal nature of this worship. The songs will speak to the others present. We sing to encourage and instruct those among us. The second line — “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” — emphasizes the vertical element as well as the internal element of our worship. It’s multiple perspectives on the same thing.

Therefore, “speaking” doesn’t limit what can be done. It is, rather, part of the nature of our worship — and that fact strongly argues against the old saw: “It doesn’t matter what the members think; only God’s opinion matters!” Not so. God says, through Paul, that part of the purpose is to speak to each other — and what we say and how well we say it to one another therefore matters.

Does Paul command that we use instruments?

Does Paul therefore command the use of instruments? Well, as I’ve said before, grammatically, it’s not a command. Rather, it’s a description of how being filled with the Spirit impacts a Christian.

Moreover, as many people have argued many times, this passage certainly speaks of times when Christians are together (“speaking to yourselves”), but it’s not limited to the Sunday assembly. The point is that this is how Christians behave when they are filled with Spirit instead of being drunk — especially at an event when drunkeness might occur, such as a common meal.

My conclusion, therefore, is that these Psalms, far from arguing for strictly a cappella music, strongly compel an interpretation that Eph 5:19 is permissive of the use of instruments.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to The Fork in the Road: Eph 5:19 and the Psalms

  1. Reggie says:

    Excellent, inquiring, thorough exegesis of these passages relating to this question. About the best that I have read. Thanks for your efforts here as always.

  2. cthoward says:

    Very good thoughts and study put into this. I believe you are right that it is a fairer treatment to say that Paul is addressing everyday Christian behavior and attitude rather than giving guidelines for corporate worship.

    One correction, though. You make an argument several times from this statement: “in (en) your heart.” You seem to be saying that since Paul used en, meaning "in," that Ephesians 5:19 cannot mean "making melody with your heart." I could be wrong, but I have checked several times and do not find Paul using en for the Ephesians passage…though he does for the Colossians 3:16 parallel. In Ephesians 5:19 Paul says, "psallontes te kardia." Te, of course, is the definite article, but it is in the dative, locative, instrumental (ha!) case. That means, then, that the phrase could be any of the following: "making melody in / with / from / toward the heart."

    In other words, "making melody with the heart" is a valid translation. But, I believe your emphasis on the Psalm 108 parallel is appropriate. Even if the translation is "with," the point of the phrase is that we make music in sincere praise to God, not that this is a regulative commandment making the heart the only valid instrument.

    Besides, it is awfully hard to speak to one another in song if we have to "sing" silently 🙂

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  4. Clint Cleveland says:

    I think it is a noble thing to study God's word and to let it dwell in our hearts richly, and I appreciate men willing to study this. However, the simplicity of the gospel should never be downplayed. In the old testament or under the old covenant starting in Exodus, instrumental music was mentioned in numerous books and mentioned numerous times within those books. But when Christ was given all authority in Matthew and the first century church or new covenant was established in Acts 2 shortly after Jesus's death on the day of Pentecost, from there on out you do not see instrumental music being mentioned or used. Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16 are certain in the fact that we as the body of Christ are to teach, admonish, speak, sing and make melody in our hearts to the Lord. I'm not saying there is not debate on whether instrumental music is right, because it very well could be. However, it is not mentioned under Christ and his authority, and there is not clear distinction that instrumental music was ever used in the first century church, so why do it? We may stand before God on Judgement Day and he say it was totally ok the entire time to worship me with instruments, but he very well could say it was not ok, because the only instrument that is mentioned after the Hebrew word "psallo" is the heart. Since the heart is the only instrument, without any doubt, that we are commanded to use in worship to God, then that is all I can do with a good conscience towards my Lord. I hope and pray that this encourages each one that reads this to truly think about this matter and understand the simple gospel of Jesus Christ. God is not the author of confusion but of peace (1 Cor). I pray that God blesses each person in their walk with him!-Clint

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Clint,

    Take a look at my series of posts under Instrumental Music. I'd give you the link but the website is down for maintenance. Just go to the homepage for the blog, hit Ctrl-F, and search for "instrumental." It'll show right up.

  6. R.J. says:

    "Psallo came to mean “sing” by the First Century — indicating neither the use nor absence of an instrument."

    Why is Kittel the outlier in claiming psallo by the first century strictly changed to unaccompanied singing when nearly every other lexicographer simply renders the verb(koine Greek use) "To sing or chant"?(just curious)

  7. R.J. says:

    Ops wrong guy. I meant W.E. Vines 1951 word expository of 1 Corinthians. Not Kittel.

  8. Jay Guin says:

    RJ,

    I have W. E. Vines Expository Dictionary in my lap. He says of psallo —

    primarily to twitch, twang, then, to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, and hence, in the Sept., to sing with a harp, sing psalms, denotes, in the N.T., to sing a hymn, sing praise …

    Nothing here about the singing being unaccompanied.

  9. R.J. says:

    O I know. It's just in another post-humorous book(not a lexicon) attributed to him he say's…

    "In the New Testament simply to praise without accompaniment of an instrument"

    I'm wondering if he really said that or did some of his kinsmen(Plymouth Brethren) insert that last clause in there. The commentary was released 2 years after he died in 1951.

    Your thoughts?

  10. Jay Guin says:

    RJ,

    Wayne Jackson asserts in the Christian Courier (http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/829-psallo-and-the-instrumental-music-controversy) that Vine wrote in a 1951 book —

    The word psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument with the fingers, or to sing with the accompaniment of a harp. Later, however, and in the New Testament, it came to signify simply to praise without the accompaniment of an instrument (1951, p. 191 – emp. added).

    (There is no emphasis added in the material quoted by Jackson, so he obviously copied this from somewhere else and not from the original.)

    Jackson does not share with us the source of this quotation. I've found only one other reference to the quotation on the Internet, and it also fails to offer a citation. It may well be copied from Jackson's work, or vice versa.

    If Vine actually said this, you'd figure it would be all over the internet. There are countless Church of Christ articles online citing W. E. Vine regarding psallo, and so far as I can find, only two cite to this unnamed book.

    Even if there were to be true (and it may be), there's been considerable research since 1951 on the use of psallo — and no Greek scholar would seriously argue that psallo meant unaccompanied singing in the NT.

    There are people who took a course in Greek who would argue this, but this is simply not a tenable position among scholars. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of psallo being used in First Century Greek literature with reference to instrumental accompaniment.

  11. R.J. says:

    Thanks,

    Is there an in-depth coverage of such terms as psallo, ado, psalmoi, hymnos, and ode being used in the first century?

  12. aBasnar says:

    Maybe not really in-depth, But we have one example, where the Lord sang with His disciples:

    Mat 26:30 And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (= Mark 14:26)

    Here we have the word ???????

    Adam Clarke adds:

    As to the hymn itself, we know, from the universal consent of Jewish antiquity, that it was composed of Psa_113:1-9, Psa_114:1-8, 115, 116, Psa_117:1-2, and 118, termed by the Jews ??? halel, from ??????? halelu-yah, the first word in Psa_113:1-9. These six Psalms were always sung at every paschal solemnity.

    I think this is interesting, because the Lord and His disciples obviously sang the tradtional Psalms here; the they did it a.cappella, as Adam Clarke explains:

    ?????????? means, probably, no more than a kind of recitative reading or chanting.

    By no means meant to be exhaustive, but just as a side remark: Singing Psalm a-cappella was not uncommon at all.

    Alexander

  13. Jay Guin says:

    RJ,

    An in-depth review of the more recent scholarship on psallo et al. may be found in Danny Corbitt's book, available on line at http://missingmorethanmusic.com/

    I'd also suggest some articles recently published at New Wineskins — http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&fi_http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&fi_http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&fi_

  14. aBasnar says:

    But when you read Dabnny Corbitts Book, you have to read the sources he quotes in their context – this sometimes reveals a quite different picture than he paints. Esp. concerning the Odes of Salomo and Clement of Alexandria. I have a hard time recommending this book, but rather agree with Bruce Morton's conclusions in "Deceiving winds".

    Alexander

  15. R.J. says:

    Could it be all three datives at the same time?

    Pure Dative=For the benefit of the whole of them. Being filled in spirit, you just can't help but bless others through the full range of religious expression(psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs), and ultimately glorify God!

    Dative Locative=Intrinsic, in the heart, from the depths of their inner most being. God hears the heart

    Dative Instrumental=By means of; sincerely, heartily. The voice and instrument(if employed) are both vain unless the soul is engaged.

    But what keeps the heart from being the musical instrument is the personal pronoun umen(humun). Which is in the genitive case which denotes source and possession(of, from, concerning).

  16. R.J. says:

    Had Paul referred the heart as a musical instrument, he would've either:

    1. Left out the personal pronoun.

    or more likely,

    2. Had a linking verb between "singing/making music" and "your heart."(e.g. strings, flute,). for instance:

    Singing and making music with [the strings of] your heart(the words ta χορδα?ς would have to be added for that).:D

    singing and making music with [the flute of] your heart(the aulos).

    Thing is, there is not one place in the NT documents that makes the heart or spirit the ethereal music maker that old testament physical instruments only foreshadow.

    Furthermore no instrument(in the pages of the old covenant) points to Christ as the substance(reality) of their temple music.

  17. R.J. says:

    Actually the singing and music making are conjoined with the same modifier(in your heart) and thus the heart is not an instrument but the sphere or source of expression.

    Filled with the living words of God, we will be worshiping God and edifying others from the depths of our innermost being.

    However we do that(with or without instruments) is completely irrelevant to this passage. I hope this helps you.

    God bless, R.J.

  18. Price says:

    Well, at least we know that when we get to heaven, God is going to have the harps playing !! I hope none of us complains… Jay…good work on this…I know it gets way past tedious but every time we add something new to the discussion more of what may actually be the Truth is revealed….that's a good thing !! It has to be very difficult at this point for most rationale people to conclude that IM is "prohibited" by scripture…AND that as a matter of choice it is neither "commanded." Don't you love how God allows us the freedom to express ourselves in sincere worship from the talents and abilities He has given us to do so !!

  19. R.J. says:

    Since heart(Hebrew Libbi and Greek Kardia) and glory(Hebrew kevovdi Greek Doxa) are paralleled, it means David's soul is firm and thus he will sing and make music from the depths of his innermost being-That is his spirit, the best of him-something no animal has nor can express like we humans can.

    and yes David's voice, harp, and lyre is his way of doing just that.

    Here's and excerpt regarding the Hebrew phrase "truly my glory" from The Treasury of David.

    "it is my glory to be immortal and not a mere brute which perisheth, therefore my inmost life[being] shall celebrate thy majesty."

    Albert Barns concurs,

    "The "tongue" would indeed be the instrument of uttering praise, but still the reference is rather to the exalted powers of the soul than to the instrument. Let all that is capable of praise within me, all my powers, be employed in celebrating the goodness of God."

    and Adam Clark,

    "And what is to be understood by glory here! Why the soul, certainly, and not the tongue; and so some of the best critics interpret the place."

    Many Hebrews regarded their liver as the seat of their thoughts and emotions and thus the glory or honor of man.

    Genesis 49:9; psalms 16:9 30:12; 57:8; 108:1

  20. Jay Guin says:

    Thanks for that information, RJ.

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