Billy: In Ephesians 5:19, the Apostle Paul mentions "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs." What do you make of these designations? Do they have meaning for today?
Adoration Songbook: Well, we have a "not so short" answer for you. We hope it helps.
The musical forms mentioned in your question refer to three types of song. (Colossians 3:16 contains the same three song-types.) "Psalms" is the most easily defined as the word undoubtedly refers to singing from the book of Psalms found in the Old Testament. In regard to "hymn", the term likely describes a New Testament era song of praise written about Christ. Perhaps it also included "theological" teaching. (The Greeks and Romans also used this term when describing a song of praise to one of their great leaders or gods!)
In the New Testament, the words "psalm" and "hymn" occur additionally in the following places:
Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26: Jesus and His disciples sing a "hymn" before going to Gethsemane. (This "hymn", in reality, refers to a Psalm sung during the Passover meal).
Acts 16 25: Paul and Silas were singing "hymns" in the jail at Phillipi.
1 Corinthians 14:26: Paul, in describing worship, mentions that when the church is assembled, each worshipper should have a "psalm" to sing.
James 5:13: The writer of this book, probably the brother of Jesus, tells his readers that when they are happy, they should sing a "psalm".
(Although not actually described as a "hymn", many scholars believe that various passages in the New Testament, such as Colossians 1:12-16 and Philippians 2:5-11, were used as hymns in the early church.)
Billy: But, you ask, what is a "spiritual song" and why is it only mentioned in Ephesians and Colossians?
AS: This is where many academic types are in a quandary. While many scholars have varying opinions, no one knows for sure. Some say "spiritual songs" refers to a spontaneous or ecstatic vocal utterance, that is, singing in tongues. While others believe that it referred to any vocal song that expressed spiritual truth. Since the term appears in only two places, its meaning is open to debate.
What’s important is that in the New Testament, singing is always used in relation to praising God. While some will debate whether "hymns" in the New Testament really are talking about the singing of Psalms, or that "spiritual songs" are related to the charismatic movement of today, it’s important to remember the following:
The human voice is the most beautiful and expressive of all instruments. The various tones, inflections and moods are almost limitless. And because it is a "human voice" it can "communicate" as no other form of music.
Regardless, then, of whether you are singing "psalms, hymns or spiritual songs", praising God is the object of our vocal efforts. And as Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 make crystal clear, God wants that song to come from a heart controlled by His Spirit.