Ephesians 5:15-20

While Scripture abounds in references to music, it nowhere gives us a carefully reasoned discourse on the use of music in worship. The Old Testament Psalms record the poetic prayer and praise of Jewish worship, and remain a beautiful source for Christian song. The New Testament alludes briefly to music in the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles, and the Apocalypse vibrates with a great eternal psalm to the Creator-Redeemer Lord.

In this two-part series we will examine two New Testament instructions for hymn singing: Ephesians 5:15-20 and Colossians 3:12-17.


In this chapter, Paul encourages believers to live their beliefs, with all the fruits and graces of the Holy Spirit. They must make the most of every opportunity because the days are evil, and “understand what the Lord’s will is.” They are not to get drunk with wine, but instead be filled with the Spirit.

The apostle’s musical exhortation follows in verses 19 and 20:

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul here encourages believers to communicate spiritually with each other in poetic and musical modes—probably in settings that were spoken as well as sung.

The Greek text uses three different terms for “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Their meanings and uses overlap, however, so no distinction should be pressed too far. Psalmon (“psalm”) means a song of praise, originally with plucked instrument accompaniment. It may refer to the Old Testament Psalms, but the Greek term does not specifically say so. Similarly, humnon (“hymn”) signifies a song of praise, but its use suggests no precise kind of text or music.

The Greek for “spiritual song” is pneumatikos ode, an ode or lyric voicing spiritual adoration and aspiration, perhaps even personal testimony or exhortation. In Greek culture the ode demonstrated nobility of feeling and dignity of style. Poetically gifted believers may have composed and sung spiritual odes. These may have been spontaneous lyric effusions, and the term may imply both solo and corporate musical expression.

The three terms for “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” have one important trait in common: they connote upward praise and adoration of God in Christ for who He is and what He has done. And this praise includes minimal personal reference. How exhilarating is this objectivity of focus upon God!

The verb “sing” in verse 19 means to “sing an ode;” to “make music” (or melody) literally means to “psalm.” Perhaps Paul here uses “odeing” for the lyrics and “psalming” for the tune. In any case, he indicates that the song should involve both larynx and heart; in other words, the entire personality. Singing is both an outward act and an inward disposition, and the focus of our song is upward worship of the Lord. This singing to the Lord also becomes communication with one another; our praise to God can and should edify our fellow believers.

The paragraph concludes with a favorite Pauline thrust: “. . . always giving thanks to the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Greek for “giving thanks,” eucharisteo, suggests gratitude for grace bestowed. The same word describes Jesus’ giving of thanks as He instituted the Lord’s Supper, the Communion. The whole motive, mood, theme, and aim of Christian song is gratitude, thanksgiving to God.

Little wonder, “the father of the symphony,” Franz Joseph Haydn, who began his musical career as a chorister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and taught Beethoven, whose compositions include 108 symphonies and 88 choral works, said: “A religion without thanksgiving, praise, and joy is like a flower without perfume, tint or nectar. There may be such a flower, but surely no one would pluck it.” Asked why his church music was filled with gratitude and cheer, he replied, “I cannot make it otherwise. When I think of God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap.”


ONWARD CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924)

This hymn was written “in great haste, likely in less than 15 minutes” in 1864 for an annual children’s procession from one Yorkshire village to another. The new village clergy, Pastor Sabine Baring-Gould, wanted the children to sing while marching, could find no music that was suitable. He finally chose one of Haydn’s tunes, but it was not until 1871 that Arthur Seymour Sullivan composed this now famous marching tune.

This hymn has been sung on many important occasions. For example, on the Sunday morning of August 10, 1941 Winston Churchill was standing with Franklin Roosevelt on the deck of the British battleship Prince of Wales anchored in Plaentia Bay Newfoundland. On her quarter-deck a group of British and American sailors had gathered for church parade singing heartily with the sailors, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” On returning to England, Churchill broadcast to the British people: “When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men . . . of the same faith, . . . of the same ideals . . . I also saw in the words of this hymn the only hope of saving the world from measureless degradation.”

The words of this famous hymn written for marching children still inspire Christians to be an aggressive, unified body in advancing the mission of the Church.

SOLDIERS OF CHRIST ARISE by Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

This hymn is another of Wesley’s thousands of hymns first published in 1749. It was originally titled “The Whole Armor of God-Ephesians VI” with 16 stanzas, which later was divided into three separate hymns by his brother John. The Christian’s armor described by the Apostle Paul includes 6 important pieces—the belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, sandals of peace, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. It is no wonder then that this hymn has often been referred to as “the Christian’s bugle blast” for its strong call to arms.

Charles Wesley knew much about the Christian life as warfare. Many times both John and Charles were physically abused for their evangelical ministers. However, armed with Paul’s vivid description of the Christian’s spiritual weapons, they faced every situation with prayer and recognized that ultimately the battle is not man’s but God’s (2 Chr. 20:15).

The hymn is a musical encouragement to be “Strong in the Lord of hosts, and in His mighty power, who in the strength of Jesus trusts is more than conqueror.”

O, FOR A THOUSAND TONGUES by Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

Soon after their graduation from Oxford University, England, John and Charles Wesley sailed to America. In the new world they ministered to the rough colonists under General Oglethorpe in Georgia as well as evangelizing the Indians. The Wesleys soon became disillusioned with the situation and returned to England.

As they crossed the Atlantic, John and Charles were greatly impressed with the piety, vitality, and missionary zeal of a group of devout Moravians. When they returned to London they continued their association with them In the Aldersgate Hall. Here in May, 1738, both brothers had a spiritual “heart-warming experience.” They realized that despite their zealous religious activity, neither had personally known the real joy of God’s forgiveness. Thereafter, their ministry manifested a spiritual power previously unknown.

“O, For a Thousand Tongues” was written by Charles in 1749 on the 11th anniversary of the Aldersgate conversion experience. It was inspired by a chance comment by an influential Moravian leader named Peter Bohler, who expressed his spiritual joy in this remark, ‘Oh, Brother Wesley, the Lord has done so much for my life. Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Christ Jesus with every one of them” (See Ps. 150:6).

WORK FOR THE NIGHT IS COMING by Annie L. Coghill (1836-1907)

This hymn, which emphasizes the joy and dignity of Christian service, was written in 1854 by 18 year-old Annie Louise Walker. A year earlier she emigrated from England to Canada, and thirty years later in 1883 she married a wealthy merchant, Harry Coghill. The words of the hymn are an enlargement and emphasis on the words of the disciples, “The night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4). Her poem was first published in a Canadian newspaper and later in her own book, Leaves from the Back Woods. Mrs Coghill eventually attained prominence as a poet and author, producing several volumes which enjoyed wide circulation. She later returned to England and died in Bath, Somerset, on July 7, 1907 at age 71.

John Wesley once said, “Never be unemployed, and never be triflingly employed.” See your work as a sacred trust from God. Use this hymn as a musical reminder—“work when the day grows brighter” and “work in the glowing sun.”

Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.