Psalmois can't be understood figuratively. It has to refer to its classical meaning.


My question is regarding the use of instrumental music to worship God in relation to Ephesians 5:19. "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord". The view presented on your web site is that the noun "psalmois" is to be understood in a figurative sense of the plucking of the heartstrings.

The first part of the verse is dealing with our actions directed toward each other, while the second part of the verse deals with our actions as directed toward God. If the noun "psalmois" is used figuratively, how are the other Christians supposed to hear the plucking of our heartstrings? If you say that they are to hear it expressed through our singing, then it should have been used as an adjective, not a separate noun, to modify the way in which we are to speak in hymns and spiritual songs. The only way to distinguish the difference between "psalmois" and the other two words ("hymnois" and "odais") is the fact that "psalmois" can include the use of an instrument, otherwise there is no way for someone listening to us to tell the difference. If God didn't intend for it to have the literal meaning, then he would have had Paul use it as an adjective or left it out of the first part of the verse altogether. Remember that the text in the first part of the verse says that we are to speak to one another with in these three separate ways, not singing hymns or spiritual songs with the plucking of our heartstrings. Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs are three separate nouns that do not modify each other, thus a figurative understanding of "psalmois" is impossible. It is to be understood in in its classical, literal sense of instrumental music.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my points.


Your question illustrates how not to formulate a rebuttal. To formulate a good rebuttal, you first need to represent the position you are countering accurately. You will not find anywhere on La Vista's site the argument that that the noun "psalmois" means "plucking the heartstrings." Plucking is an action and thus would define a verb, not a noun. Second you attempt to construct a grammatical argument based on Ephesians 5:19 that slaughters the grammar of the statement given.

There are three main sources on La Vista's site regarding the meaning of the Greek verb psallo (and not the noun psalmois).

  • Psallo
    "There appears to be a virtual agreement on the first meaning that the word psallo had, long before Paul utilized it in the form psallontes in Ephesians 5:19. It is usually rendered there "making melody." But at the beginning it signified "to touch sharply, to pluck, pull, twitch, to twang" (Liddell and Scott). That which was touched, plucked, pulled, twitched or twanged could be almost anything. For instance, one might pluck the hair, twang the bowstring, twitch the carpenter's line, or touch the strings of a harp - and in every case could communicate the idea of doing so by use of the word psallo. Yet in each case he would show by other elements in the sentence or general context what the object of the plucking, twitching, twanging, or touching was. It was in no case inherent within the word itself what its object would be."
  • To Play, or Not to Play: That Is the Question
    "When we consider Colossians 3:16, we run into another problem. There Paul writes, "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God." The word "singing" there is not from "psalmos," but from "ado," which is clearly defined as "to sing," which has no history of the inclusion of instruments in its usage. So, why would Paul command the Colossians to sing without instruments, while commanding the Ephesians to sing with instruments? It doesn't make sense. We should also note that "ado" is used in Ephesians 5:19 as well, as they are "singing (ado) and making melody with your heart to the Lord."

    The truth is there was an instrument used the heart. Paul said they were to engage in "making melody with your heart." We use the colloquialism about something "plucking the strings of my heart" in referring to some emotional reaction. That's what they were doing when they were "singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.""
  • Can Musical Instruments be Used to Worship God?

In Ephesians 5:19, two words are used: psalmois (translated psalms) and psallontes (translated making melody). People will sometimes turn to a Greek dictionary, such as Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words and read: "psallo - primarily 'to twitch, twang,' then, 'to play a stringed instrument with the fingers,' and hence, in the Septuagint, 'to sing with a harp, sing psalms'" They then stop there and say, "See 'making melody' includes playing an instrument!" But the argument ignores something that Vine points out: Words change meaning over time.

"In classical Greek the verb psallo means 'to pluck, pull' in a very general sense, such as to 'pluck out a hair' or 'to pull a bowstring.' It is also used with a technical meaning to play a stringed musical instrument' on which the strings were plucked rather than struck with a mallet" [The Complete Biblical Library Greek Dictionary]

The original meaning of the word (roughly 500 to 300 B.C.), when referring to music, meant to play an instrument by plucking, such as a harp, guitar, or lyre. Notice that singing was not included in the classical definition.

"The usage of psallo in the Septuagint, however, introduces an expansion of its meaning. Twelve times it is used to translate Hebrew naghan, 'to play a stringed instrument,' in keeping with its technical use in classical Greek. However, nearly 40 times the Septuagint uses psallo to translate Hebrew zamar, 'to make music in praise to God.' This Hebrew word describes music made either by musical instruments or vocally, and thus can also mean 'to sing.' In some Old Testament contexts it is apparent that zamar/psallo refer to singing that is accompanied by instruments (cf. Psalm 66:4)." [The Complete Biblical Library Greek Dictionary]

So by the time the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament was done (around 200 B.C.), psallo had changed meaning to include singing with playing, playing alone, or singing alone.

"As a result, the meaning of psallo began to be extended to include 'to sing,' and by Modern Greek it had come to mean this exclusively." [The Complete Biblical Library Greek Dictionary]

Thus as time continued by, the broadened word became more specific, taking on the meaning of singing only.

"This gradual shift in meaning presents minor problems for understanding the use of psallo in the New Testament. It is widely agreed that the primary meaning in the New Testament is 'to sing' with at least the possible nuance of 'to sing with instrumental accompaniment.' Clearly no conclusions can be drawn solely from the lexical meaning of psallo as to whether instrumental accompaniment should be included with Christian worship in song."

In other words, the scholars agree that it means to sing, though some hold out that it might include an implication for using instruments.

Now, returning to Vine's Dictionary, most stop reading the definition too soon.

"Psallo, primarily 'to twitch, twang,' then, 'to play a string instrument with the fingers,' and hence in the Septuagint, 'to sing with a harp, sing psalms,' denotes in the New Testament, 'to sing a hymn, sing praise'; in Eph. 5:19, 'making melody.' Elsewhere it is rendered 'sing,' Rom. 15:9; I Cor. 14:15; in Jas. 5:13, 'let him sing praise'."

Vine gives the same record of the shift of meaning and states that in the New Testament the meaning is to sing (not play).

Thayer Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament makes the same distinction: "In the New Testament to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song."

In Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament: "Psallo originally meant to play on strings, then to sing with an accompaniment (Eph. 5:19), and here apparently to sing without regard to an instrument." Robertson again traces the same change of meaning. But notice that in Ephesians 5:19 he says the word means with accompaniment. I will return to this point later.

One of our problems is that we are almost 2,000 years later trying to figure out the nuances of a word used in another language. Everyone agrees the word means to sing, but some hold out that it is possible it could include instruments. Probably because they are uncertain as to when the change in meaning was completed. One solution to this problem is to see how people of that era interpreted the word.

  • "Christians who heard and read the New Testament commands to sing did nothing else but sing for 600 years." [Jim Massey, Psallo]
  • James W. McKinnon examined 150 references to Christian music up to the Middle Ages and found opposition to instruments 'uniform, vehement, and monolithic'.
  • Clement of Alexandria, about 195 A.D. "The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by whom we honor God, is what we employ. We no longer employ the ancient psaltery, trumpet, timbrel, and flute."
  • "The Greek word psallo is applied among the Greeks of modern times exclusively to sacred music, which in the Eastern Church has never been any other than vocal, instrumental music being unknown in that Church, as it was in the primitive Church. Sir John Hawkins, following the Romish writers in his erudite work on the History of Music, makes Pope Vitalian, in A.D. 660, the first who introduced organs into churches. But students of ecclesiastical archaeology are generally agreed that instrumental music was not used in churches till a much later date; for Thomas Aquinas, A.D. 1250, has these remarkable words: 'Our Church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.' From this passage, we are surely warranted in concluding that there was no ecclesiastical use of organs in the time of Aquinas." [McClintock and Strong's Cyclopedia, volume 8, page 739]

I have about 15 translations, all translate the word psallo as sing or making melody. Only one, the Amplified Bible, inserts "and instruments" in brackets in Ephesians 5:19, "Speak out to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, offering praise with voices [and instruments] and making melody with all your heart to the Lord."

What is fascinating is that psallo appears four times in the New Testament: Romans 15:9, I Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19, and James 5:13, but the Amplified Bible only insert this commentary of musical accompaniment in Ephesians 5:19. Another problem is that the added commentary is on the word ado, which all agree is vocal singing, and not on "making melody" (psallo). At best, this translation is misleading.

The reason for questioning psallo is that Paul says sing (ado) and make melody (psallo). The translators are looking for a reason for why Paul would say sing and sing. I believe it is a good question. There is an accompaniment to the second use of singing in Ephesians 5:19. There is something being played. The question must be asked is what is being played. The Amplified Bible says it is instruments, if we ignore the fact that they attached it to the wrong word.

Consider for a moment: When we say baptized or immersed, the words are actions but they do not describe, by themselves, the medium being immersed in. In the Bible, people are immersed in water, in fire, in the Holy Spirit. To know the medium, we have to examine the context.

In the same way, if I mentioned plucking, you would need to hear more as to what was plucked. It could be a chicken for all you know. "Making melody", some feel, includes the idea of plucking, strumming, or playing something. What is the object of this verb? What is being played? With what are we making melody? Even in English it is as obvious as it is in Greek we are making melody with the heart. When the object is specified, it is not reasonable to insert other things. You want to add instruments, such as an organ or a guitar? Then I want to add a chicken or a bow! At least both of mine can be plucked, you can't pluck an organ. But be aware that they are all additions because what is being played, the heart, is already in the text!

Thus, psallo is not being used figuratively. The meaning of the word is to sing at the time the New Testament was written, but Paul took advantage of its older meaning to say that it was singing that plucks the cords of the heart -- in other words, songs sung that stirred the emotions of the singers.

The list: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, are the kind of songs being song, not how they are sung. It is improper grammatically to use elements of a list in different ways. The first element cannot refer to how a song is sung while the next two elements refer to the types of songs. A proper song of worship can be based on one of the poems in the Bible (a psalm), it can be a song based on the text of the Bible (a hymn), or it can teach spiritual principles found in the Bible (a spiritual song).

Thus, "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord" (Ephesians 5:19), tells us:

  • The purpose: "speaking to one another"
  • The medium of delivery: "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs"
  • The method: "singing and making melody with your heart"
  • And the target of this worship: "to the Lord"