April 14, 2017

So, What is a "Psalm," Anyway? (Psalms part 4)

The answer to that question can get far more complicated than one might think. The simple definition is that a psalm is a song of praise to the Lord. Now one might ask,"Simple enough - what's complicated about that?"

Oh my, here we go...

We are about to embark on an adventure of history, music theory, theology, and etymology.

Previously, we discussed the original Hebrew title of the book of Psalms: Tehellim or Praises in English. So where do we get the word, “psalm?” Again we must investigate one of the original languages of the Bible; this time it’s Greek.

“But wait! The Psalms are in the Old Testament! I thought the Old Testament was written in Hebrew!”

And you would be correct. However, by the time of Jesus, what we today refer to as the Old Testament had been translated into Greek, the common language of the day. The Greek word psalmos is the source of our English word, psalm. In the Greek OT, psalmos is used to translate at least three different Hebrew words which refer to songs of praise. In English translations, we call all of them psalms. In the journey from Hebrew to Greek to English, it is easy for certain shades of meaning to get lost in translation.

“OK then, that’s where the word comes from, but what does it mean?”

Another excellent question! On the surface, it would appear that psalmos means simply: “a song of praise”. This definition is not incorrect, but it is incomplete. Let’s examine the usage of this word in the New Testament.

In Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, the Apostle Paul uses three musical terms:“psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Some have explained the use of these three separate terms as generic, vague descriptors of praise music. I do not subscribe to this point of view. It seems unlikely that Paul (or his scribe) would needlessly waste words on redundant generic terms. We know that Paul was a well-educated man – that he studied under Gamaliel, one of the most renowned Rabbis at the time. One can easily assume that Paul would know the specific meaning of each term, and that he used each word on purpose. The most plausible reason Paul would use these same three terms in two separate epistles is that each word refers to a specific genre of music.

Let’s start with the last of the terms: spiritual songs. We should actually be quite familiar with this type of music, as many contemporary Christian songs would fall into this category. A spiritual song deals with issues of our spiritual lives, though it may or may not make specific references to God. I Need a Miracle by Third Day would be one such example. There is no evidence that Paul was referring to spiritual songs as music used specifically in formal worship services, though they may have been used in that manner. A spiritual song might be accompanied by an instrument, but not necessarily so.

So what about hymns? The Greek word humnos does specifically refer to songs of worship with direct reference to God. This word is the origin of our English word, hymn. Hymns, as we all know, are commonly used in formal worship services. Like spiritual songs, hymns might or might not be accompanied by instruments.

It is generally accepted by scholars that lists in the Bible are commonly ordered according to the relative importance of the items listed.  Assuming this practice to be reasonable, one could infer that “psalms” were (and still are) the most important genre of praise music, at least in Paul’s mind. A psalm, like a hymn, is worship music with direct references to God intended for use in formal worship services.

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Furthermore, the root word in Greek refers specifically to music which uses instruments (particularly to the striking of an instrument or the plucking of strings). This is an often-overlooked truth that ruffles feathers among certain denominations! Some believe that musical instruments should not be used in worship services, but an accurate and complete understanding of the meaning of psalmos reveals that quite the opposite is true. Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament, lists music which without a doubt included instruments as the most important type of praise music!

Incidentally, Psalm 150 makes it clear that the use of all types of instruments is not only acceptable, but actually encouraged in worship music. Translations vary with regard to the names (and types) of the specific instruments, but the following examples are reasonable.

Psalm 150, King James Version (KJV), with my own [expository comments].

Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power.
2 Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet [brass instruments]: praise him with the psaltery and harp [keyboards/strings].
Praise him with the timbrel [percussion] and dance [yes, dance!]: praise him with stringed instruments and organs [strings, woodwinds - "organ" often translated as "pipes" in other translations].
Praise him upon the loud cymbals [percussion]: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals [percussion].
Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.

And that, brothers and sisters, is what a “Psalm” is.

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