Exegesis of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16

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Exegesis of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16

 

 

by Neil R. Lightfoot

 

I have been asked to do an exegesis of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. I welcome

this opportunity, but first I need to say a few introductory words about what I am

attempting to do.

 

“Exegesis,” generally speaking, refers to an explanation of a text. More

specifically, it is a critical interpretation of a text by the use of linguistic and historical

tools. As applied to a portion of Scripture, exegesis seeks to arrive at the original

meaning of a passage. In other words, what did the text first mean to its first readers?

When, for example, Paul wrote his letter to the church at Colossae, it was to be read in

the hearing of the congregation (Colossians 4:16). What did the letter mean at that time

and place, to those who first heard it read in their public assembly? If only we could

have been there! Exegesis, as far as possible, attempts to place us there in order that we

might understand the texts in the light of their historical circumstances and problems. We

today often make the mistake of reading the Bible through our twentieth-century glasses

(our own situation and struggles) instead of through first-century eyes. No wonder we

inject all kinds of ideas into the text that were never originally there.

 

Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 are close parallels, and it is necessary to treat them

together. Colossians and Ephesians may be referred to as companion letters, since each in

thought and style is similar to the other. About two-thirds of Colossians is parallel to

Ephesians; and Ephesians, which is longer, reflects about one-half of Colossians. Both

letters, for example, speak of the “fullness” of God and of Christ (Ephesians 1:23; 3:19;

4:13; Colossians 1:19; 2:9); of Christ as the head of His body, the church (Ephesians

1:22-23;Colossians 1:18); of redemption as “the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7;

Colossians 1:14); of Christians “rooted” in Christ or in His love (Ephesians 3: 17;

Colossians 2:7); and so forth.(1) But, of course, there are distinct differences in the two

letters, largely because Colossians is polemical and deals with a specific false teaching

that was rearing its ugly head among the Colossian Christians (see esp. chap. 2). Yet

both letters, particularly Ephesians, reveal the prayerful and thankful spirit of Paul the

prisoner, for both sound praises in the highest to God and to Christ. “Christ in all, Christ

above all.”

 

The passages at hand both occur in sections on the new life in Christ. The word “walk”

(peripatein, often translated as “live,” “lead a life”) is the key word. Christians once

walked in the way of sin (Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 3:7), but now they “walk as

children of light” (Ephesians 5:8; cf. 2:10; 4:1,17; 5:2; Colossians 1:10; 2:6; 4:5).

Another key word is “wisdom.” The false teaching at Colossae had an “appearance of

wisdom” (2:23), but real wisdom and knowledge are in Christ (2:3; Ephesians

1:9,17; cf. 3:10). Christians, therefore, are to be filled with this “spiritual wisdom”

(Colossians 1:9; cf. 1:28; 3:16) and are to “walk in wisdom” (Colossians 4:5).

In a short paper it is impossible to give an extended exegesis of these grand passages on

singing. So I propose to sketch their meaning in context, and then by way of further

explanation to raise several relevant questions and to offer some concluding observations.

The verses leading to Ephesians 5:19 present a series of contrasts on wise and unwise

actions. The main thoughts of verses 15-18 may be represented as follows:

 

Look carefully how you walk

Not as unwise men, but as wise

(Do not waste time, implied), but make the most of it

Do not be foolish, but understand the Lord’s will

Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the Spirit

 

The structure shows that foolish people are characterized by wasting their time and by

being drunk with wine. On the other hand, the wise are those who use their time to the

fullest—the days are evil—and learn to comprehend what the will of the Lord is. The

wise also are those who are filled with the Holy Spirit; that is, they experience the

fullness that the Spirit imparts. It is important to notice that “be filled with the Spirit” is

passive. Some people go around trying to pump themselves up with the Spirit, not

remembering that the filling of the Spirit is a blessing that comes only from God.

“Be filled with the Spirit” is the leading thought of verses 19-21. The main ideas of these

verses may be represented as follows:

 

Be filled with the Spirit

Speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

Singing and

Making melody to the Lord with all your heart

Giving thanks to God in the name of Christ

Submitting to one another in reverence for Christ.

 

The structure shows that five present participles amplify the imperative, “be filled with

the Spirit.” To put it another way, the effects of being filled with the Spirit are speaking

in songs, singing, making melody, giving thanks, and submitting. “Submitting to one

another. . .” provides a concluding statement of general application and a transition to the

next paragraph.

 

Ephesians 5:19f. wonderfully fits in with a letter that gives itself so much to the exalted

praise of God. A supreme manifestation of being filled with the Spirit is that Christians

address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. “To yourselves” (heautois) is

reciprocal in force and is used in the sense of “one another,” as in “forgiving one another”

(Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13) and having “love for one another” (1 Peter 4:8).(2)

Speaking to yourselves” (KJV), although possible, is open to misunderstanding, as

though one communes with himself. Older commentators (Trench, Lightfoot, etc.)

carefully distinguished between “psalms,” “hymns,” and “spiritual songs,” but now it is

widely accepted that there is scarcely any difference of meaning in the terms. The

Septaugint uses these terms rather indiscriminately, as do Philo and Josephus.(3) Bauer-

Arndt-Gingrich defines each term generally as a “song of praise.”(4) “Psalms”here does not

refer to the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament, but to Christian songs of praise, as in 1

Corinthians 14:26.(5) If it is asked why Paul uses three equivalent terms for songs of praise,

the context supplies the answer. Being “filled with the Spirit” (v. 18) and “giving thanks

always for everything” (v. 20) bracket “psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs” in verse

19, and thus Paul seems to be heaping up terms in an overflow of his spirit in divine

praise.

 

“Singing” and “making melody” is to be understood similarly. William Tyndale, known

as “the father of the English Bible,” coined the expression “make melody.” Attaching

approximately the same meaning to the two words, he could not very well translate

“singing and singing”; so he chose the alternative, “synginge and makinge melodie.” The

Greek word for “make melody” is psallo. Since its meaning has been much disputed, it

deserves attention later. Suffice it to say now that psallo occurs here in Ephesians 5: 19

and in four other places in the New Testament, Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15

(twice), and James 5:13. In these four instances psallo c1early means “sing” or “sing

praise,” and is so rendered by the various translations.

 

The singing of which Paul speaks is a matter of the heart. In ancient times some believed

that silence was the ideal of worship; Philo, for example, speaks of songs of praise that

were to be offered not audibly but by the invisible mind.6 Some people today say that

they simply “sing in the heart!” But Paul obviously is not referring to silent worship. One

cannot “sing” only in the heart, nor is it possible to “address one another” in songs of

praise and remain silent. Paul’s expression “in your heart” (en te kardia) is not the same

as “from the heart” (ek tes kardias). “In your heart” however, might mean “with the

heart”; thus the Revised Standard Version translates, “with all your heart,” that is,

heartily, enthusiastically. But this rendering does not fit in with Paul’s use of “heart”

(kardia) elsewhere in Ephesians and Colossians, where in the nine other instances Paul

consistently employs “heart” for the inner person, the inmost self. Besides, Colossians

3:16 has “in your hearts.” Is there really a difference between “in your heart” in one

passage and “in your hearts” in the other? Indeed, the immediate context in Colossians

helps to explain what Paul means. Colossians 3:15 says, “let the peace of Christ rule in

your hearts!” Verse 15 has “in your hearts” (en tais kardiais), verse 16 has “in your

hearts” (en tais kardiais). As Christ’s peace is to become the ruling principle, Paul says,

“in your hearts,” that is, within you, so, Paul says, “sing in your hearts,” that is, sing

within you. Paul’s teaching, then, in both Colossians and Ephesians is that the innermost

depths of one’s being must also participate in worship to God. The outer song of the lips

is to be accompanied by the inner song of the soul.

 

Colossians 3:16 presents further similarities and differences. Again, wisdom is

fundamental: teach and admonish “in all wisdom” (v. 16). But the key word in the

Colossian parallel is “thankful,” which occurs in three consecutive verses (vv. 15,16,17;

cf. Ephesians 5:20). The leading thought of Colossians 3:16f is, “Let the word of Christ

dwell in you richly”; and the main ideas can be represented as follows:

 

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom

Teaching and

Admonishing one another

In psalms, hymns and spiritual songs

Singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God . . .

Giving thanks to God the Father through him (Christ).

 

The structure gives prominence to four participles, three of which are directly connected

with the indwelling word of Christ, with the other forming part of a concluding statement

of general application and being transitional. “The word of Christ” may refer to “the

teachings Christ gave”; but more probably it denotes “the teachings about Christ,” the all

sufficient word centered in Him, previously referred to as “the word of the truth of the

gospel” (1:5). That word is to live in the Colossians “richly” and abundantly. As it does,

by means of their hymns they are to teach and admonish one another. This is a strong

command for mutual ministry in song along the lines of mutual edification as in 1

Corinthians 14:26ff.

 

It is possible to take the participles here an din Ephesians as imperatives, for this is rather

common in Koine Greek.(7) But this breaks up the flow of Paul’s thought; “filled with the

Spirit” is closely related to “speaking to one another” and the indwelling “word of Christ”

to “teaching and admonishing one another.” It is also possible in Colossians 3:16 to

translate “singing with grace” (“in the realm of God’s grace,” “on the basis of His grace,”

etc.), but the context of thanksgiving argues for “singing gratefully,” “singing with

thankfulness.”

 

These are the classic passages in the New Testament on singing, and it is remarkable how

many enigmas they pose to translators and skilled exegetes. It is not surprising, then, that

these passages often raise certain questions for us today. I want to deal briefly with some

of these questions; and because they are controversial, I will try to address them in the

kindest way possible.

 

1. Is the singing in these passages congregational or individual? This is often asked

about various passages, and answers are not always easy to give. We forget that

this sort of questions would scarcely arise in the first-century church. We should

remember that most of the New Testament letters were written to churches and

were read to assembled congregations. Yet in response to the question one needs

to ask: When today do Christians generally address one another in songs of

praise? Under what circumstances so they teach and admonish each other in these

songs? Usually this takes place in the worship assembly. So it was in the early

church. While teaching certainly occurred outside the assembly, Christians taught

and admonished one another in the assembly.(8) Of course, this is why Christians

were not to neglect the assembly because this is where exhortation took place

(Heberews 10:25). Practically all recent scholarly research on this point

understands Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 to refer to congregational

worship—Schilier, Rengstorf, Behm, Preisker, Delling, Lohse, M. Barth, Bartels,

R. Martin, Moule, etc.(9) At the least, it can be said that these passages on singing

reflect the scene of the primitive church in worship.

 

2. What and how did the early church sing? They sang not in harmonious parts,

but probably in responsive-type singing. Perhaps Romans 11:36 is an example of

responsorial singing, with the congregational “Amen!” In the early centuries of

the church the ideal of praise was koinonia, singing in unison.

 

3. Does ‘the mention of “spiritual songs” mean that these songs were inspired by the

Spirit? This is possible, but if so, this cannot refer to ecstatic tongue-speaking

because Ephesians 5:17 clearly says, “understand what the will of the Lord is.”

But “spiritual songs” more likely distinguishes songs as to “sacred and profane,”

and even as to “pagan and Christian.”

 

4. What is the meaning of “make melody”—psallo? I do not at all want to be

argumentative here. I will simply summarize the most. up-to-date research on the

question.

 

a. Lexicons. The standard New Testament lexicon is Baurer-Arndt-Gingrich.

Unfortunately, this lexicon has occasioned confusion. The first edition of Arndt-

Gingrich, in 1957, said of psallo: “in our lit., in accordance w. OT usage, sing (to

the accompaniment of a harp), sing praise” (p. 899). But the second edition, in

1979, correcting many errors of the first edition, reads:  in our lit., in according with OT usage,
sing, sing praise
. . . In the LXX ps. freg. means “sing,” whether to the accompaniment of a harp
 or (as usually) not (psalm 7:18; 9:12; 107:4 al). This process continued until ps. in Mod.

Gr. means “sing” exclusively. . .it is likely that some such sense as make

melody is best here. Those who favor “play” . . . may be relying too much

on the earliest mgn. of psallo (p. 891).

 

b. Theological wordbooks, etc. It is important to notice that of the many articles

by various authors in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, every

artic!e that so much as touches on the meaning of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians

3:16 consistently explains the passages simply in terms of “sing,” “sing praises.”

G. Delling wrote the articles on psallo and related words. Speaking at first of

“singing and making melody,” he says:

 

The expression adontes kat psallontes in v. 19b.underscores v. 19a. The

combination of verbs in this order is found in the OT, Ps. 26:6;

56:8;104:2, 107:2. The literal sense “by or with the playing of strings, “

still found in the LXX, is now employed figuratively (VIII, 498-99).

 

Schlier wrote the article on ado (“sing”). Discussing its use in the New Testament, he

says pointedly: “There is no distinction from psallein in Ephesians 5:19.”(10) In other

words, Schlier says that “sing” and “make melody” are used interchangeably. But this

cannot be true if psallo here means “play with an instrument.” Thus the one verb “sing” in

Colossians does service for the two verbs “sing” and “make melody” in Ephesians. (11)

The evidence indeed could be multiplied. (12) But are there not other authorities that define

psallo differently? If so, why? Yes, sometimes one can find something to the contrary.

This happens, I believe, for the reason already noticed in the new Arndt-Gingrich: “those

who favor ‘play’. . .may be relying too much on the earliest mgn. of psallo.” I add two

other reasons: (1) too frequently a term is defined by its root meaning, but a word should

be defined by its use, and (2) no matter what a word can or does mean elsewhere, the

important thing is what it means in a given verse in context. Contextually here, and

according to New Testament usage, psallo means “to sing,” “to offer praise.”

 

In conclusion, let me try to put all of this in perspective. I want to state clearly that I do

not believe that this is the most vital of all topics. The most important question in all the

world is, “What do you think of Christ?” This is the crucial question that every person

must answer for himself. On the other hand, I do believe that what we have considered

today is important. Some, indeed, do not understand this, for they regard it as a slight

matter. To the contrary; however, anything Scripture teaches on must not be looked upon

as minor. How can we submit to the Lordship of Christ if we do not listen to Scripture? It

is not just the use or non-use of the piano or organ in worship. What is involved here is

the larger principle of how the New Testament teaches us on any subject. If the New

Testament requires immersion for the forgiveness of sins, can baptism be something less?

If in the New Testament men are the elders of congregations, do we have the right to

appoint women as elders today? To ask these questions is but to answer them in the

negative. The first-century church met in worship and sang songs of praise. The New

Testament requirement to sing (adein, psallein) does not leave the option to sing and

play.

 

There is one point I have not developed thus far. Not only were early Christians to

address one another in songs, but these passages stress that their singing was to be

directed to God. Their praises were outward and upward, manward and Godward. The

church meets, therefore, to exhort and to offer praise. The Jerusalem temple and its

animal sacrifices are no more. In their stead, let us draw near God in worship with real

hearts (Hebrews 10:22). Let us continually offer up to Him a sacrifice of praise (Hebrews

13:15).

 

1On Eph.-Col. parallels, see the commentaries of T .K. Abbott (p.xxiii f.) and Wm. Hendriksen (pp. 5-32);

for a thorough treatment of Pauline style in these letters, see A. Van Roon, The Authenticity of Ephesians

(Leiden, 1974), pp. 192-212. Van Room defends the Pauline authorship of Ephesians.

2Heautois = the reciprocal allelois even in classical Greek and in the LXX. See Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, A

Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 2nd ed. (Chicago,

1979), 212. Hereafter referred to as BAG. cr. Blass-Debrunner-Funk, sect. 287; Robertson, 690.

3William Sheppard Smith in his Musical Aspects of the New Testament (Amsterdam, 1962) has an excellent

discussion of these terms (pp. 60-65).

4BAGm 891,836,895.

5See BAG,891.

6See J. Quasten, Music & Worship in Pagan & Christian Antiquity. Trans. by B. Ramsey (Washington,

D.C., 1983), 5]-55; also Smith, op. cit., 165f.

7See Moulton’s Prolegomena, 180-183; Blass-Debrunner-Funk, Sect. 468. Cf. NEB, TEV, etc.

8The word “admonish” (noutheteo) seems to have assembly connotations in such passages as 2 Thess. 3:15

and 1 Thess. 5:12, and probably also here.

9See the articles in TDNT, The New International Dictionary of NT Theology (hereafter, NIDNTT), the

commentaries, and the relevant works on New Testament worship.

10TDNT, I, 164.

11Smith, op. cit., 61.

12See K.H. Bartels, “Song, Hymn, Psalm,” NIDNTI, III, 668-676; also the books of G. Delling, C.F.D.

Moule, & R. Martin on New Testament worship.

 

—Abilene Christian University Lectures, 1988.

 

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