By Arnfield P. Cudal
Having read Rob Slane’s article, “Why the church needs to sing the Psalms,” and the article, “Why the church needs to sing (or a least speak) the Hymns,” the answer to the next question, “What are spiritual songs?” becomes more needful. The question now is not about whether these spiritual songs are from the Bible, since it has been determined that they are Scripture, but like the psalms and the hymns, we want to know what and where they are and what purpose they serve?
The Apostle Paul refers to the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” collectively, yet as three different song-types, placing “hymns and spiritual songs” together on equal parlance to the Psalms. By their inclusion in the Canon of Scripture, we know that the Psalms are inspired (God-breathed). Other songs of the Bible such as the inspired doxologies of praise (hymns) of the Old and New Testament, and including those spiritual songs composed by Miriam, Deborah, David, and Mary, etc., are all considered God-breathed. In addition, there are songs which are composed by God Himself – revealed and dictated directly to the transcribers (writers like Moses and John), and not only are such divine-composed songs unique in that God wrote the songs Himself, but they parlay important characteristics and insight as to their function and purpose. So, what is a spiritual song?
‘Spiritual song’, from the Greek word hodais (‘song’) and the antecedent pneumatikos (‘spirit’), is a category of songs which are “of or in the realm of the spirit.” Since God and his Word is spirit, spiritual songs are therefore God’s Word. Hodais is used five times in the New Testament: twice by the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16), and the other three exclusively in Revelation (5:9-13; 14:3; 15:3-4). The songs in Revelation are examples of God-composed songs.
We think of song as having both text and music. Even though we know that the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, by virtue of their constitution, are portions of Scripture endowed with musical properties, meaning that these songs, by Ancient Near-East practice and tradition, have been set to instrumental music or intoned (chanted) as heightened speech, the Bible also considers certain passages which are poetic, prosodic, or containing literary structures such as strophes, parallelisms, etc., to be ‘songs’. With regard to the music itself, we see that music possesses the following components: ethos (emotion and expression), semiotic (sign), syntactical (structural), sentic (touch), mnemonic (memory), and representational (mimēses) attributes, which, when utilized as an ancillary means for conveying Scripture, become a medium, a convention of expression.
Indeed, the Bible speaks of various melodies which have been used with these passages. The superscript to Psalm 22, for example, “to the tune of Aijeleth Hash-Shahar: The Hind of the Dawn,” along with its accompanying performance designation ‘for conducting’ indicates that this particular passage is a musically infused text of Scripture, either sung or accompanied with music. The profusion of musical notation (te’amim) in the Te’hillim (poetic books of the Bible) indicate that the Bible is a melodious compendium of psalmodic and prosodic books. Note, however, that while the texts (cognitive aspects) of the song have been preserved in Scripture, the melodies themselves elude Biblical interpretation.
As we see, though music can be an important element, even an integral component of the text, we note that the Bible emphasizes the cognitive (Gk. gnosis = knowledge) aspects. In focusing on the God-composed songs in Revelation, we are proffered insight as to what spiritual songs are:
The Spiritual Songs of the New Testament
The first reference of “song” (hodais) is in Revelation 5:9 – 13:
(Rev 5:9) And they sung a new song, saying,
Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;
(Rev 5:10) And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.
(Rev 5:12) …Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
(Rev 5:13)…Blessing, and honour, and glory, and power, [be] unto him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.
This song describes four beasts, twenty-four elders, and a host of angels singing at a future event. The lyrics (text) composed by God have been dictated to John, and are prophetic and ascriptive in content. We see that God is the composer of this song since He prescribes both beasts and angels the ability to sing the perfect words ascribing praise to Himself. Notice how the verse begins with, “and they sung a new song, saying.” While we tend to think of the word “saying” as analogous to “speaking,” “saying” here is used to indicate that “this is what the text of the song says.” Since singing is a way of intoning the text, we can therefore understand this to mean that this song will indeed be sung, and not just spoken.
The second use of “hodais” is in Revelation 14:3:
And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred [and] forty [and] four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.
Here, the lyrics have yet to be revealed. On this occasion only the 144,000 will be permitted or taught to sing this song; no other person or beast can learn it. This passage assumes God as song composer and instructor since no other being can know or teach the 144,000 except God himself.
The final instance of “hodais” in the New Testament is Revelation 15:3 -4:
(Rev 15:3) And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous [are] thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true [are] thy ways, thou King of saints.
(15:4) Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for [thou] only [art] holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.
The similarity between the song of Revelation 15:3-4 and the original song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43) is apparent. The Deuteronomy 32 song conveys strong admonition and warning to Israel while also speaking of a Righteous Judge and Redeemer. This passage is a prophetic song about the Redeemer, revealed to us in this age, and will be revealed to the Tribulation Saints as the Lamb. In Revelation, this “song of Moses and the Lamb” fulfills God’s promise of vengeance, judgment, and retribution as described in Deuteronomy. Displaying similar verse and structure, the song in Deuteronomy is re-sung as a “new song,” serving as an antiphon, as renditions between the Old and New Testament.
What does the Bible consider a “new” song?
The song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32:1-43) was dictated by God in a pillar of cloud before the Tabernacle and composed by God as “a witness for me against the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). God instructed Moses to write the song and teach it to the children of Israel. The children of Israel, however, attributed this song to their teacher, Moses, who soon afterwards bade them farewell and ascended Mt. Nebo to die.
Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32: 3 – 4:
Because I will publish the name of the Lord:
ascribe ye greatness unto our God.
He is the Rock, his work is perfect:
for all his ways are judgment:
A God of truth and without iniquity,
just and right is he. (italics mine)
Song of Moses and the Lamb in Revelation 15:3:
Great and marvelous are thy works Lord God Almighty;
Just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints
Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name?
for thou are holy:
for all the nations shall come and worship before thee,
for thy judgments are made manifest. (italics mine)
The similarities lead to the following conclusions: First, the “song of Moses” is composed by God prophesying about the Lamb, thus it is referenced in Revelation as the “song of Moses and the Lamb.” Second, the Song of Moses is re-sung as a “new song” on the occasion of its new setting – the Great Tribulation – as a recapitulation, a recalling of the God’s deeds and admonitions to his people, and for the commencing of His judgments and vengeance.
Also in Deuteronomy, God’s judgments are “just and right,” and in Revelation, His judgments are “just and true.” Both songs reference “His name and judgments published and made manifest.” The truth concepts in these “new” songs do not change. God’s Word is immutable, yet on the occasion of this new setting, Scripture is recalled. Hence, new songs are essentially Scripture re-cited or restated. In the case of the Revelation 14:3, “as it were a new song” indicates a recapitulation, or “recap” of a Psalm, perhaps a hymn of the Old Testament.
Before the canon of Scripture was completed, God spoke directly to his prophets. And just as God, by direct-revelation, taught Moses a song, we see in the Book of Revelation that God teaches His creatures previously-dictated songs and recites or remakes them into new songs. In the case of Revelation 14:3, words are yet to be revealed to the 144,000, and whether its contents will be a recitation of a particular passage of the Bible or not, we are not told. Yet whatever word will proceed from the mouth of God at that time will be His inspired Word.
Some of the more well-known new songs of the New Testament are the canticles from the first two chapters of Luke listed here in their Latin names: the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Benedictus (Luke 1:68 – 79), Gloria (Luke 2:14), and Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). These songs recorded in the New Testament are reminiscent of Old Testament canticles. The Magnificat or Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), is an example of a new song, a conglomeration of Old Testament song-texts:
My soul doth magnify the Lord. (Psalm 34:2,3)
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. (Psalm 35:9; Habakuk 3:18)
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things: and holy is his name. (Psalm 71:19; 126:2,3)
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. (Genesis 17:7; Exodus 20:6; 34:6,7)
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. (Psalm 98:1; 118:15; Isaiah 40:10)
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; (Isaiah 41:8, Psalm 98:3)
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever. (Genesis 17:19; Psalm 132:11, Genesis 17:7)
Mary, after hearing the news from the angel Gabriel, broke out in a spontaneous outpouring of praise. And from within her heart came that which had taken deep-imbedded residence: the Word of God.
Function of a spiritual song (example: Deuteronomy 32)
The spiritual song in Deuteronomy 32 exhibit the following actions
- Reproves (1)
- Exhorts (2)
- Upbraid (4)
- Reprimands (5 – 6)
- Reminds (7 – 9)
- Chides (10 – 15)
- Reprimands (15 – 18)
- Scolds (18 – 22)
- Warns (23)
- Threatens (24 – 26)
- Contrasts (27 – 29)
- Cautions (30 – 34)
- Assures (35 – 40)
- Foretells (41 – 42)
- Fulfills (43)
The Deuteronomy 32 song is replete with God’s forewarning and admonishment. Therefore, the Apostle’s injunction to “be filled with the spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), and to have the “word of Christ indwell you richly” (Colossians 3:16), and especially to be “admonishing each other… (Colossians 3:16)” pointedly asserts that spiritual songs not only hold the same eminence and Scriptural ascendancy as the psalms and hymns, but they are the ‘logos’, the word(s) of Christ. Having been revealed through direct and plenary inspiration, the psalms, hymns, and spiritual Songs as the word of God are therefore “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
The purpose of spiritual songs
The spiritual songs exampled here parlay functions and characteristics the Apostle Paul deemed important and therefore emphasized: speak, teach, and admonish yourselves with them. First, the Psalms teach us how to live, so the Apostle Paul is saying, “teach” them. Second, Hymns of the Bible teach us about who God is, so Paul is saying, “speak” them. Third, Spiritual Songs declare to us what God wants to tell us, so Paul is saying, “admonish ourselves and each other” with them.Perfects our praise
More than half of the Bible is composed of songs, and there are many different types. Many songs indicate some type of music accompaniment, vocal and instrumental; other songs are distinguishable by their literary structure and display characteristics which are that of poems, strophes, parallelisms, and structured writing; others are simply presented and identified by the writer (e.g. Deuteronomy 32). While some songs are psalmodic, hymnic, poetic, and prosodic, all are spiritual. In all instances, spiritual songs instruct us and provide for us the perfect texts to properly render praise and adoration to God. Re-offering God’s own Word to Him is the highest, most absolute, and infallible form of praise.Reminds us of God’s righteousness
When we learn the spiritual songs of the Bible, we are reminded of God’s resolve and righteous determination. In addition, we are impugned by God’s righteous holiness, yet are encouraged by His promises of mercy and redemption. We are thus exhorted to live our lives according to His commandments.Reprimands, warns, threatens, condemns
Contrary to our prevailing expectation of what “spiritual” songs are, which we might immediately associate with non-canonical, sentimental, eros-imbued love songs, or songs carrying the label simply for its genre-based designation, in reality, are quite the opposite. Spiritual songs of the Bible are foreboding, instructing us on how to live righteously, goading and propelling us toward the narrow, less-travelled, unpopular, but right path. We see that spiritual songs, and in particular God’s own-composed songs, reprimand, warn, threaten, and even condemn.Regenerates, transforms, renews
Again, the idea that the Apostle Paul could have included human-composed, non-canonical songs (e.g. hymns and spiritual songs), in light of what we’ve discovered, is inconsistent with the thrust of his message. The Apostle is not saying “let the words of Christ indwell you richly” while advocating songs which are contradictory to the spirit of truth. Especially in light of songs which carry the ‘Christian’ label today, yet having little to do with God’s word, it is only the true words of Christ contained in the Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of the Bible that carry the substance and power to regenerate, transform, and renew.Teaches us to fear God
In knowing the songs of the Bible, we begin to grasp with reverential awe and godly fear the truths and principles contained in God’s Word. The Apostle Paul gave the injunction that spiritual songs in the form of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs indwell our hearts richly. And just like Mary, Zachariah, and Simeon, by their example – filled with the Word and controlled by the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to live a holy and righteous life.Helps us with our personal worship
The crux of what the Apostle Paul describes as the believer’s true worship is to live or “perform” a holy life (Gk. latreia – a priestly service of maintaining cleanliness, holiness). Worship is not about the music, but all about a mandate which our Lord Jesus Christ imparted to his Church: that “your hearts (be) unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 3:13), and to “present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable worship” (Romans 12: 1).
The Old Testament’s best known psalmist, David, and the New Testament’s most prolific hymnist, Paul, concur: “Thy Word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee (Psalm 119:11).
Next, what moves us to sing and make melody? Is it the music…or the word?