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
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
fullestthe days are eviland 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
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
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
“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
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
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 Pauls 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 Gods grace, on the basis of His grace,
etc.), but the context of thanksgiving argues for singing gratefully, singing with
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
worshipSchilier, 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
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
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
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).
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.