See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God.
– Ephesians 5:15-21 NKJV
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
– Colossians 3:12-17 NKJV
The Apostle Paul uses the phrase “psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes” twice in his epistles to exhort his hearers to faithful Christian living. In one instance, he employs it as a way for Christians to speak to one another as those filled with the Spirit alongside singing in our hearts to the Lord and continual giving of thanks. In the other instance, he employs it in a related manner as a way for Christians to teach and admonish one another as those richly inhabited by the word of Christ.
The expression “psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes” essentially refers to what we think of as the Book of Psalms or the Psalter. If you look at the Book of Psalms in an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, you see the headers of various psalms use the same terms Paul uses to the Ephesians and Colossians to indicate different genres of song.
If one were to be a scriptural maximalist, one could reasonably interpret “psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes” as genres to mean more than strictly the biblical Psalter. They’re able to mean other songs that we compose to enliven, teach, and admonish one another in the Faith. But if we’re to compose more such songs, we must ever be going to the Psalter that God inspired in order to learn from the Maestro how to write songs which are worthy of this purpose and his praise.
The Psalms and other assorted songs in the Scriptures are the teacher to which we turn to learn the robust language of proper prayer to God. If we seek to know how we could pray better than we do or find the words to express what heretofore has been inexpressible in our hearts, we must be full of the biblical Psalter.
“On that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,” says the LORD who does this thing.
– Amos 9:11-12 NKJV
The Apostle James quotes this vision from the Prophet Amos at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 to address the situation of the Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus Christ and have received the Holy Spirit. The Apostle indicates this prophecy is informative of the present epoch in which we live, i.e. after the First Coming of Christ and awaiting the Second Coming. The vision references another prior transitional period in the history of God’s people by invoking the tabernacle of David.
In the time of the Judges, the Israelites took the Ark of the Covenant from the Tabernacle at Shiloh and brought it into battle against the Philistines. But the Philistines captured it and took it into their land. They moved it from city to city as it plagued the inhabitants. And eventually, they sent it back to the Israelites.
The Ark was kept at Kirjath Jearim and separated from the Tabernacle through the reign of King Saul. In the time of King David, he sought to bring it to Jerusalem. It came as far as Nachon’s threshing floor, where Uzzah died touching the Ark. David then kept the Ark at the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months and watched as this Gentile was blessed. Then David brought the Ark to Jerusalem. There, he erected another Tabernacle of his own for it, independent of the Tabernacle of Moses. This remained the case until the Ark and the Mosaic Tabernacle were brought together in Solomon’s Temple.
We see in this story the blessing of God coming upon a Gentile living in the midst of the people of God as a signal of and connection with the establishment of David’s Tabernacle. In this, we see what the Apostle James saw in the Word of the Lord to the Prophet Amos regarding God’s reception and inclusion of the Gentiles in his people and his service.
We can also learn what bearing the Psalms have on that time as well as this time, because it was in that time that music became a part of the established worship of God. This was a Davidic revolution in worship. Under the prior Mosaic Levitical institution, worship was done in silence. In the Tabernacle, there were many essential sights and smells but few or no prescribed sounds. Song was a part of Israelite life, but not a part of Israelite worship. In additional to the offerings and sacrifices of animals that were made, David enacted the ministry of song before the Ark of the Covenant with what he conceived as “sacrifices of praise” offered to God. David developed and implemented a liturgical theology of songs that were conceived according to Levitical sacrificial liturgical theology. And worship in song carried forward into the Solomonic system at the Temple.
We find a fitting appropriation of the Psalms in the life of the Church at worship and in everyday living as we conceive of our worship and life as the sacrifices of God modeled upon the shadows of the Levitical order, which was patterned upon heavenly worship.
The traditional Christian liturgy acknowledges and adopts the sequence and logic of the Levitical order of service from cleansing (purification offerings), through consecrating (ascension and tribute offerings), to communing (sacrifices of peace). The Apostle Paul conceived of his Gospel labors as a sort of priestly ministry (Rom. 15:16). He called the bodies of believers as an ascension offering to God (Rom. 12:1-2 cf. Lev. 1) and himself a drink offering (Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6 cf. Num. 15; 28) being poured out on the ascension offering of the saints. The Levitical tools of the trade, knife and fire, are brought to bear upon us as the Word of the Lord divides and discerns us (Heb. 4:12-13) and the Spirit of the Lord transforms us (2 Cor. 3:18).
As surely as the initial Levitical liturgy of sacrifices and offerings informs our Christian worship and walk before the Lord, the revolutionary Davidic liturgy of psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes as sacrifices of praise and prayers likewise informs our worship and walk in faithfulness and holiness to the Lord.