Reconsidering Ephesians 5:19 (Sept-Dec 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Clyde Symonette
September – December, 2010

Accompanied or A Capella?

Part I: Historical Context

The words of Scripture have meaning only as they are used in context. How we interpret a passage of Scripture must be informed by the larger historical and cultural setting. That setting shapes and informs the communicator, what is being communicated, and the perceptions of those receiving the communication. If the historical context is not understood, then an incorrect interpretation is likely to be injected into the interpretation process.

In other words, reading the Scriptures with 21st Century eyes likely will result in incorrect (albeit innocent) injections of modern views into the text. If a message is directed to a First Century audience, living in a First Century setting, doing the things that First Century people do, then interpreting the words directed to them without understanding the specific historical context will veil the original message.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia tells us,

The moment the student has in his mind what was in the mind of the author of the text when it was written he has interpreted the thought of Scripture.1

Let’s assume that we’ve been given one lecture where Paul will address any one of the great theological issues that arise from his writings. We can ask him to speak of his Third Heaven experience, to explain the much disputed doctrine of election, or to acquaint us with the people he addressed as an apostle to the Gentiles. Let’s assume further that we elect to pass over those issues and go for the big one — we ask him: “Paul, were you forbidding instruments when you wrote:

Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord?” (Ephesians 5:19)

Assuming Paul is able to get past the culture shock, and the unexpected priority we have given our question, he may say something like, “Oh that! Yes, I was addressing the Gentile issue of instruments in worship,” and he may go on to explain the issue to us, because what was general knowledge to Paul and the Gentiles is not for us.

Of course, the way we pose that very question to Paul today is through exegesis — the process of interpreting a text using historical and linguistic tools. A modern application should never be drawn from a passage unless its intended message to its specific readers is first understood.

To Whom Was Paul’s Letter Directed?

The first step of our exegesis is to determine the addressees of Paul’s letter. The following passages make the first step a simple one.

“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth…” (Ephesians 2:11)

“For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles” (Ephesians 3:1)

We can conclude with confidence that Paul’s letter was specifically addressed to Gentile believers.

To these Gentile Christians, Paul wrote,

So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. (Ephesians 4:17)

The lifestyle that Paul identified as Gentile has been cultivated over many centuries of paganism.

Who Were the Gentiles?

Although there’s evidence that Ephesians was a general epistle written to multiple congregations, Ephesus was at least one of those congregations. The history of the Ephesian church members is permeated with Greek paganism — socially, culturally, and religiously. Idol worship was weaved into the fabric of everyday life.

Now, when you think of idol worship, don’t think “golden calf”; think Artemis, Zeus, Hermes, and others. Don’t imagine that a few Gentiles participated in idolatry — idolatry was the Gentile way of life, and paganism is what Paul insisted the believers abandon.

Ephesus was the epicenter of the Greek world, a microcosm of Greek religious practices, and home of the temple of the Greek goddess Artemis.2 Life in Ephesus was dominated by the cult of Artemis.3

In fact, Ephesus was the setting for Luke’s depiction of Christianity’s collision with paganism (Acts 19). Luke tells of Demetrius, a silversmith, who was afraid that the preaching of the gospel was threatening the life of his business, which depended on the city’s worship of Artemis. He complained that Paul had “convinced” and “led astray” large numbers in Ephesus (vv. 24-26).

The members of the church were former idolaters. From their perspective, the worship of idols was neither extraordinary nor bizarre. Their families, childhood friends, coworkers, and next-door neighbors continued to worship the gods, while Gentile Christians struggled with the surrounding, dominant idolatrous culture in the same way modern Christians struggle with the world in which we live.

How would they who were accustomed to offering hymns and songs to idols have understood the statement:

Speak to one another with psalms (psalmos), hymns (hymnos) and spiritual songs (ode). Sing (ado) and make music (psallō) in your heart to the Lord?”

Would they have interpreted Paul’s statement as “Sing without clapping or using musical instruments in the worship service?” Hardly! The use of instruments is not the issue addressed.

The historical context suggests we should expect Paul to answer our question more like: “Oh, I was addressing the Gentile issue of instruments idolatry and its related revelries.” The Gentile believers’ struggle was with idolatry, because the Gentile psyche, cultivated in pagan social, cultural and religious practices, was steeped in idolatry.

When Paul says, “I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do,” he is implying that many were still living as the Gentiles did. When he writes, “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food, they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idols” (1 Corinthians 8:7), he is indicating that those believers were still affected by their former idolatry. How would those who struggled with idolatry have interpreted Ephesians 5:19?

Answer: “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord [not idols].” This passage is much more about whom to worship than what should or shouldn’t be playing while we worship.

Part II: Historical Definitions

Psalmos (ψαλμός)
Thayer defines psalm (psalmos) as “a striking, twanging; specifically, a striking the chords of a musical instrument; hence a pious song [i.e., a song devoted to God].”5 Further, in his definition of hymnos, Thayer described the psalm as “a song which took its general character from the O.T. ‘Psalms’ (although not restricted to them).”6 And BDAG7 says psalmos “in our literature” refers only to “songs of praise, psalms in accordance with OT usage.” Accordingly, the NT psalm was a pious song that was accompanied by a musical instrument —like an OT psalm.

In Christian writing, it’s hard to imagine that “psalm” in Ephesians 5:19 wasn’t specifically a reference to the OT Psalms (just as is true in the language of the church today), and even a cursory reading of the Psalms shows that many, if not most, were written for instrumental accompaniment, and many specifically urge that God be praised with instrumental music.

Hymnos (ὕμνοις)
Thayer defines hymnos as “a song in praise of gods, heroes, conquerors,”8 and BDAG defines hymnos as “a song with religious content, hymn/song of praise especially in honor of a deity.” This definition may shock 21st Century members of the Churches of Christ, but it speaks accurately to how the hymn was commonly understood by First Century Gentiles — particularly Gentile Christians.

Trench says, “It was of the essence of a Greek ὕμνοις [hymn] that it should be addressed to, or be otherwise in praise of, a god, or of a hero.”10 Trench is suggesting that, at its genesis, the hymn was not a song in praise of God, but gods.

So, here is what we know:

  • Hymns were offered to idols.
  • Gentiles were idol worshippers.
  • Paul tells Gentiles to sing hymns!

Did Paul open the door for Gentile believers to sing familiar hymns to familiar gods? How did the Gentiles who were struggling with idolatry know? They knew because Paul told them: he wrote, “Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord [not idols].”

Ōdēs (ᾠδαῖς)
Thayer defines ōdēs simply as songs. Some contend that ōdēs is exclusively non-instrumental. Is that true? Revelation 15:3 reads —

They held harps given them by God and sang [ado] the song [ōdē] of Moses the servant of God and the song [ōdē] of the Lamb: “Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord God Almighty.”

This passage demonstrates that First Century usage of the noun ōdēs and the verb ado did not demand an exclusively vocal definition.

Alongside ōdēs, Paul employs the qualifier “spiritual.” The qualifier indicates Paul’s desire to ensure that the Gentiles understood that he was instructing them to sing spiritual songs only. A song is defined as “spiritual” by its relationship to the Spirit — not pagan idolatry. It would be fair to say that the young Gentile church was caught up in the temptation to sing “unspiritual” songs.

Adō (ᾄδω)
Thayer tells us that the meaning of adō was common in every period of the Greek language (i.e., both Attic and Koine). It denotes: “To sing, to chant.”12 He says that as used intransitively, it means to sing or to chant to the “praise of anyone.” It could be used of praise of idols and/or praise of God.”

Big question — if you were an apostle to the Gentiles, instructing a Gentile church to sing hymns and songs, and this church, because of their pagan background, had grown up and lived in a culture that routinely sang to the praise of false gods and heroes, wouldn’t you be compelled to qualify your use of the word adō? Yes, you would; and that’s what Paul did. In addition to the “spiritual” qualifier, he wrote, “Sing (adō) and make music (psallō) in your heart to the Lord.”

Psallō (ψάλλω)
Psallō (make music) has amassed the focused attention of instrumentalists and non-instrumentalists alike, and Thayer’s definition has been a catalyst for much of the ongoing attention given to this word. At one end of the debate, instrumentalists suggest that Thayer defines psallō as: “To sing while playing an instrument.” At the other, non-instrumentalists routinely quote the phrase, “in the N.T. to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song” to suggest Thayer’s definition of psallō requires non-instrumental singing in NT use.

Did Thayer intend to define the NT use of psallō as preclusive of any instrument? We have already seen Thayer’s definition of the terms hymn, song, and sing. None of those exclude the instrument. So what instrument does his phrase “in the N.T. to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song” exclude? None.

What Thayer is telling us is this: Although the hymn has as “its leading idea” the praise of gods, heroes and conquerors, in the NT, it is used of praises of God alone. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary makes this point —

The term “hymn” is derived from the Greek word hymnos, which in classical Greek from Homer on means a song of praise in honor of the gods, heroes, and conquerors. In the NT it is used in reference to songs of praise honoring the God of Israel (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26; Acts 16:25).13

BDAG states that psallō, “in our literature in accordance with OT usage, to sing songs of praise, with or without instrumental accompaniment, sing, sing praise with dative of the one for whom the praise is intended.”14 The “dative” is an object of the verb.

Whether the songs are accompanied or unaccompanied is not determined by our understanding of psallō. Rather, Paul’s emphasis and point are that the object of the verbs “sing and make melody” is the one true Lord and not a pagan god or hero.

Additionally, in a recent issue of the Gospel Advocate, Dr. Everett Ferguson, long an ardent advocate for exclusively non-instrumental singing, writes, “Instruments are not excluded by psallō, but (if they are not included in the word) they are excluded by the principle of doing only what God commands in service to Him.”15 Thus, he concedes that there is nothing in psallō itself to suggest that Paul is commanding non-instrumental music only. Rather, Dr. Ferguson says, the argument must be based on the silence of scriptures and the resulting lack of authority (a topic that will be taken up by another author).

Conclusion
Ephesians 4:1 and 4:17 read, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” and “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do.” Paul is instructing former pagans how to conduct a life that is worthy of the calling they received. In doing so, his objective was to ensure that assemblies of Gentile believers were non-idolatrous — not non-instrumental or instrumental — because idolatrous singing could not be the fruit of the Spirit’s filling.

The command of Ephesians 5:19 begins “Be filled with the Spirit.” “Singing and making melody” are not commands. They are participles modifying the command. They explain to former idolaters how being filled with the Spirit will be shown in their lives — by singing praise to God (not idols).

Similarly, in Col 3:16, Paul is instructing Gentiles to sing “with gratitude” in their hearts to the Lord. Again, the participle “singing” modifies the command “Let the word of God dwell in you richly.” The result of being strong in the word will be singing “with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” The emphasis is on the end result, gratitude, not on whether the singing is accompanied. Neither of these passages focuses on the mechanics of worship.

Understood in light of its historical and literary contexts, Paul’s message to the Gentiles is this: In psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, from loyal, grateful, Spirit-filled hearts praise God alone.
___________
1 G. H. Schodde, “Interpretation,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), 1489.
2 F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 553.
3 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 199.
4 Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 194.
5 J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (New York: American Book Company, 1886), 675-676 (“Thayer”).
6 Thayer, 637.
7 Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William Arndt, & Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000) (“BDAG”), 1096.
8 Thayer, 637.
9 BDAG, 1027.
10 Richard Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (LXXVIII), (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1894), 297-298
11 Thayer, 679.
12 Thayer, 13.
13 M. Alfred Bichsel, “Early Christian Hymns,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992) , 3:350
14 BDAG 1096.
15 Everett Ferguson, “Missing the Meaning: A Review of Missing More Than Music,” Gospel Advocate (vol. 152, no. 9, September 2010), p. 33.
New Wineskins

Clyde SymonetteClyde Symonette, an evangelist and teacher, has been a student of scriptures for almost 30 years. He lives in Nassau, Bahamas with his wife Jacqueline and three children Angelica, Xavier and Madison. Clyde is preaching for the Westridge Church of Christ, Nassau, Bahamas, and a graduate of Barry University, Miami Shores Florida.

Clyde is in the process of completing work on his book Awakening Zion’s Song – Psalms in the New Testament Church. Clyde may be contacted at [clyde_symonette@yahoo.com].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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