by Bob Burridge ©2015
We can easily take for granted the place of music in our every-day lives. We can listen to recorded music by our favorite performers almost any time. It’s available in our cars, in our homes, and as we take walks or ride our bikes. Digital music streams to us from radio stations, cell-phone towers, and satellites. It comes over the internet, on CDs, or mp3s we can copy to use on all our devices. With the right speakers or earbuds the digitally reproduced sound we have become used to is hard to distinguish from what you would hear live in the recording studio or concert hall.
It wasn’t always this way. I remember playing those big 78 rpm vinyl records, and listening to crackly music on an old vacuum tube AM radio. Then came the smaller 45 rpm records, FM, Hi-Fi, stereo, reel-to-reel tapes, 8-track tapes, and cassettes.
Before my time there were player pianos which got their start in 1896. Edison cylinders could be purchased which started after his invention of sound recording in 1877. Starting in 1796 there were music boxes thanks to the inventive work of Antoine Favre, a watchmaker in Geneva.
Going back before that there was only the music you could produce live. There have been performing groups as far back as history records. If you wanted music at home, somebody had to sing or play an instrument. Mothers have for ages lulled their children to sleep with quiet songs. Families would sing together in the evenings and on special occasions. Even in the earliest of biblical times music was important in people’s lives.
God made us able to respond to musical sounds, and to appreciate pitch, melodies, harmonies, rhythms, and timing. We hear sounds set in different timbres. Music has an effect upon the emotions and the mind. We become conditioned to associate different musical genres with moods and attitudes. It can whip the soul into a frenzy of abandonment drawing us into unbridled responses. It can soothe us when troubled, or make us think of distant places.
It’s no wonder that such a powerful thing is often mentioned in Scripture. It would be wonderful to have a recording of David’s music as he soothed the troubled soul of the wicked king Saul. How great it would be to have a CD of the worship music of David’s Tabernacle after the introduction of music to corporate worship.
In Colossians 3:16 we get a look at how God intends us to use music for his glory.
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
The word order in the best Greek manuscripts is a little different. It puts “the word of Christ” first because it’s the central focus. That’s the emphasis of what encourages us in this verse. A more literal translation is a little stiff in English, but would read this way:
“The word of Christ, let it indwell among you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, spiritual songs in thankfulness, singing in your hearts to God.”
The word of Christ is the real source of the encouragement spoken of here. The main goal of the verse is that this word should dwell among us richly in all its wisdom. To reach that goal, we are to teach and admonish one another. One way we can do that is through the use of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Notice that it’s not the musical elements in the songs that encourage us. God in his sovereign wisdom did not give equal musical talent to everyone, but all believers can grow through the ministry of song.
The word of Christ should be present among us. This is the central theme of this verse. The Christian needs the presence of the word of Christ. It should be living in the midst of God’s people. There it directs us, encourages us, and keeps us from sin. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”
One of the things that marks out the Christian as different, is his use of the word of God in directing his daily living. His Bible is not just a devotional book, or text book. It is not an idol, or a good luck charm to have around. To him it’s the living word of his loving Lord. It’s the center of his worship, and is evident in his home. It’s learned by his children, and remembered when there is tension in the family. It governs his decisions, and sets boundaries around what he thinks, says, and does. He makes sure he knows what it says, and that he tries to love and obey it in every area of his life. He wants others to know what it says, so he speaks of it often.
It should dwell richly among us. Christ’s word dwells among us as a rich treasure. Nothing in all the earth is as vital to us as the Word of Christ. Yet there are few things which are at times treated as if they were more optional.
You’ve probably seen cars thick with dust or pollen where some mischievous passerby uses his finger to write the words “wash me” in the grime. Is the dust on your Bible so thick you could write the words “read me” in it? I don’t mean literal dust, but is there evidence of neglect that can be seen by the eyes of God?
Christ’s word involves godly wisdom. This is not the kind of wisdom where we imagine things which impress us as being intelligent and well informed. It’s what the God who made us commands and tells us in his word. It’s the liberating truth of the gospel way of living.
When we use the word of Christ, believing that God will honor all his promises, it will make a difference in our lives. God’s promises are what bring us real comfort in times of deep spiritual need.
The way we wisely apply this word of Christ is by teaching and admonishing one another. In this two-fold duty we establish Christ’s word among us.
We are to be teaching one another.
The first qualification for a teacher is that he needs a clear and organized understanding of his subject. Sadly, some modern models for education see the ability to communicate and influence lives as the first element of being a teacher. But a skilled communicator who is confused or misinformed effectively transfers that confusion and misinformation to the students. No education has taken place, only a dangerous spread of ignorance and error.
If we are to help those around us learn the word of Christ we need to know and understand what the word of Christ says. There is no short-cut. The teacher must first be a student and learn the subject to be taught. After that, the communicating part can begin. We need to develop the skill of humbly passing on what we know about Christ’s word. We need to explain it clearly, and be a good example of it in our lives. Teaching is far more than formal lessons. It’s the whole process of helping others as they learn.
We are also to be admonishing one another
The word “admonish” is commonly used today with negative overtones. It often implies a harsh scolding, or a lording it over someone as their moral superior. Too often human pride gets in the way of trying to help others struggling in sin.
In the Bible, the word has a much richer and more positive meaning. The Greek word “nouthetein” (νουθετειν) is the one translated as “admonish” here in verse 14. It is used 11 times in the New Testament. By looking at those uses we see that the Bible uses this word for loving brotherly admonition.
Biblical admonition treats others with respect, not with a critical attitude of fault finding or belittling. It treats others as if we really care for them as members of our own family who may be in danger. We take the danger seriously and want them to look at the cause of their problems, not merely at the symptoms.
1 Corinthians 4:14, “I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children.”
2 Thessalonians 3:15, “Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”
Ephesians 6:4, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
In these verses the words “admonish,” “warn,” and “instruction” all translate “nouthetein”.
This admonition is the tender guiding of someone we value as if they were our own child or brother. It’s not done as people would usually treat an enemy. It’s done lovingly, humbly, not with arrogant scolding or judgmentalism.
We often call this approach to counseling “Nouthetic” based upon the Greek word for admonishing. In this loving way we deal directly with sin and help believers to be encouraged to grow in Christ-likeness.
Biblical admonition is done patiently with those who are weak in their Christian understanding and commitment. 1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.” The Greek word translated as “admonish” is this same word “nouthetein”.
The goal of biblical admonition is to make others complete in the Lord Jesus. Colossians 1:28 says, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Again the word for “warning” is “nouthetein”.
God’s revealed word is the sure foundation for helping one another. After commenting on the Old Testament story of Moses and Israel, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. ” The word “instruction” is “nouthetein”.
Biblical admonition is persistent, and is often done with tears. When Paul addressed the Elders of Ephesus he said in Acts 20:31, “Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.”
To become complete in Christ we need to be taught and admonished with all wisdom. We need to hear what God has told us in his word. If we don’t get a good education in God’s word we will be spiritually immature. If we aren’t regularly involved with the church family and its ministries, we will lack the loving admonitions of sermons, Sunday School lessons and friends.
Biblical teaching and admonition can even be done with songs.
We are told to encourage one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Of course it’s not the music that has this admonishing effect upon our souls. God never recorded even one note of music in his word for his people to use. It’s God’s truth in the lyrics that teach and admonish us. Music provides a medium that helps us learn and appreciate the words. But it’s the words of the music by which we teach and encourage our children, or sing to ourselves or with friends. The words of our songs should be soundly based upon God’s word.
The lyrics used for admonition and in worship should be subjected to the same careful crafting that a pastor puts into the content of his worship sermons. There are many songs, even some in popular hymnals, that seem to be biblical but horribly abuse the biblical texts. Some take verses out of context to make points God never intended. Others teach very wrong lessons that contradict God’s truth as revealed in Scripture. We need to learn those which accurately and encouragingly report the promises and truths of the Bible.
Paul uses three different words for the songs we should use in building up one another. The words have large areas of overlap as used in the Bible. They are not three completely distinct kinds of songs. But at the same time, Paul obviously believed he needed all three words here.
Our word “Psalms” comes from the Greek word used here: “psalmois” (ψαλμοῖς)
It’s believed that the root of this word originated as describing the sound made by touching the strings of an instrument. It then came to be used for songs which are sung to musical accompaniment. When the Jews started using Greek, they used this word for the book of songs in Scripture. In Hebrew, there are several different words used for the songs in that book. Since those who believed the Bible were already using this word in a technical sense, Paul probably was making reference to the collection of what we know as the Psalms of the Old Testament. They were used regularly in worship, at festivals, and as songs of personal worship.
The word “Hymns” also comes from the Greek word here: “humnois” (ὕμνοις)
The ancient Greek hymns were songs sung in praise of heroes or about their pagan gods. They were directly addressed to them, and recounted their great deeds and character. It’s logical that when songs were written in praise of the God of the Bible this word would be the most fitting one in their language.
When Jesus came as the Promised Messiah, new songs were written to expand the Psalms of the Old Testament. They needed to include the great work of redemption in Christian worship.
Augustin, writing in the 4th century, said there were three basic qualities of a hymn: it had to be sung, it must be praise, and it must be addressed to God. Certainly the Psalms of the Old Testament would fit in this category too. But the additional hymns of the early church included more than just those inspired songs.
Then Paul mentions Spiritual Songs: “odais pneumatikais” (ᾠδαῖς πνευματικαῖς)
The Greek word for song here is “odae” (ᾠδή) from which we get the English word “ode”. Not all songs, or odes, were spiritual in nature, so Paul includes the modifier “spiritual” to show the difference. Odes were a more broad class of songs. They were not just direct praise addressed to God or about his glory. The ancient Greek odes were about battles, the harvest, holidays, and every day life. Very likely these “spiritual odes” were the popular songs composed to teach about the gospel, to give personal testimonies, and to encourage believers as they struggled with sin and lived out in the world. Certainly the Psalms and Hymns can help in this way too. But the addition of this third word here seems to show us there was a wider use of music. These were likely not so much used in direct worship, as they were to cheer up, to encourage, and to teach one another.
But how does singing help establish the word of Christ among us?
By writing our lessons in lyrics with rhythm, and rhyme, or with other agreeable sounds, and by singing them, we fix them better in our minds, and we use the power of the gift of music itself to set an appropriate emotional tone. The songs from our Sabbath worship should stay with us all week long. Songs sung by families in their private worship times can fill their hearts and homes all day. Songs used in our personal moments alone with God cheer the heart.
We should not rely upon just the musical part to stir us emotionally. The real power of such songs is that they make the word of Christ dwell among us richly. Therefore they should be centered upon the praise of God, and should tell us about God’s glory, nature, and what he has done. The lyrics should be as carefully composed as a sermon.
Sadly, there are poorly written lyrics to some hymns and spiritual songs. Some are written by unbelievers, false teachers, and poor Bible students. Some hymns present false promises, and mis-applied Bible quotes. We would not tolerate a cult leader or poorly trained bible student teaching us from the pulpit, but some might grant him a place in our hearts and worship through their music.
Good songs on the other hand can help us cope with the common temptations and discouragements we face as Christians. They can teach us important Bible verses and the doctrines of Scripture. As powerful teachers, they must be carefully prepared and selected for content and effect. They should cause you to be singing “with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
Take an inventory of the songs that are a part of your life. What kind of songs do you sing during the week? What comes to mind when you sing? What tunes do your children hum or sing while they play and work? Do they know songs that re-enforce the promises and principles of Scripture? Do you know such good music and sing it yourself?
In biblical times Christians didn’t have recorded sermon or books. Scrolls were expensive. Copies of the Scriptures were rare. To learn and to be admonished by the word during the week, they often used songs.
Today music continues to minister to us during the week. Probably little shapes our moods and attitudes daily as much as music. This does not mean that all your music has to be about salvation, or be taken from Bible texts, or even mention God directly. Even the biblical book of Esther doesn’t mention God. But He’s there. God has something to say about every area of life. Psalm 24:1 “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,”
Christians fall in love, therefore they can enjoy love songs. They can laugh, so they sing humorous songs. Believers can weep and hurt, so they might sing about the blues. Christians may long for the Old Mill Stream or amber waves of grain. As far as we know David soothed Saul’s troubled soul with instrumental music, not always with lyrics.
But the music you listen to regularly should not conflict with the Bible’s message. It should not imply that God is unimportant or not needed. It should never promote immorality or disrespect of others. All kinds of music can violate this principle: Rock, Rap, Country, Opera, Classical, Easy Listening, and so on.
On the other hand, how much of the music you listen to regularly helps you learn the word of Christ? Does it encourage you with biblical admonitions?
If not, you’re missing the one of the means for spiritual strengthening recommended here in God’s word. If instead you let humanistic music shape your life and attitude, you are subtly being influenced by its outlook on life and morality. What about the music you let your children listen to? What kind of world-view is it encouraging in them?
God’s word says you ought to be taught and effected by the Word of Christ among you. It can, and should, come to you effectively in the music you hear and sing with one another. This vital tool for Christian growth should not be neglected.
Let the Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs have their work among us. Sing them as you drive or ride in the car. Sing them as you work around the house or in the yard. Sing them as you fix dinner or work on the car. Let them provide a good atmosphere in your home that honors God. Sing them quietly in your heart while you wait in lines, or walk on the beach.
May the word of Christ dwell more richly among us in all wisdom. That is our hope. That is God’s promise!
Note: Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.