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


(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.


5 Responses

  1. 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. 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 🙂

  3. […] So I’d just written this post interpreting Eph 5:19 in some detail. I thought I’d see what happens when I type in “Eph 5:19.” Here’s what happens – […]

  4. 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. 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.

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