Thanks to Adam B. who posted on the Puritanboard a chart that stimulated this post. The chart has been modified slightly by numbering the Psalms to conform to the Septuagint (LXX).
According to tradition, based on the letter of Aristeas, the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the second half of the 3rd century BC. It is called the “Septuagint” (LXX) because legend has it that it was translated by 72 scholars in 72 days. Whatever one makes of the story or even the quality of the translation (it varies from book to book) “the importance of the Septuagint,” says NT scholar Stanley Porter, “cannot be underestimated.” He continues by noting that the “Septuagint constituted the set of sacred writings for early Christians….” The first-century (apostolic) church used the LXX more than any other form (translation) of the Old Testament. The NT writers, under the inspiration of the Spirit, quoted one OT book, from the LXX, more than any other: the Psalms. Of the Psalms the most quoted is Psalm 110. We cannot doubt that the NT church was familiar with the 150 Psalms.
At the top of the Psalms in the LXX were titles or superscriptions. Those superscriptions described each Psalm, they categorized the psalms in 4 classes or groups:
- ψαλμος [Psalms] (2-8, 10-14, 18-24, 28-30, 37-40, 42-43, 45-50, 61-67, 72, 74-76, 78-84, 86-87, 91, 93, 97-100, 107-109, 138-140, 142)
- [συνεσις; understanding (31, 41, 43-44, 51-54, 73, 77, 87-88, 141)]
- υμνος [Hymns] (5, 53-54, 60, 66, 75)
- ωδη [Ode/Song] (3, 17, 29, 38, 44, 47, 64-67, 74-75, 82, 86-87, 90-92, 94-95, 107, 119-133)
Three of those four superscriptions or categories should seem familiar. Paul invokes them in Colossians 3:16.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom (σοφίᾳ), singing psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Arguably, even though the nouns for “wisdom” or “understanding” are different, we can say that here Paul invokes not just three of the categories but all 4: wisdom, psalms, hymns, and [Holy Spirit-given] songs. He says virtually the same thing in Ephesians 5:19.
addressing one another in psalms (ψαλμοις) and hymns (υμνοις) and spiritual songs (ωδαις πνευματικαις), singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart….
There is disagreement among OT scholars about the authenticity of the superscriptions, i.e., do they date to the origin of the Psalms or were they added later, but there seems to be little doubt about their antiquity. What matters for this discussion is that they were an established feature of the Scriptures as received and used by the NT church. The LXX or other Greek translations of the Psalms would have been familiar to the NT church and would have influenced the reception of the Psalter in the NT period.
When we seek to determine the meaning of the expression “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” in Colossians 3;16 and Ephesians 5:19 we cannot do so without reckoning with the high probability that the NT authors would have been familiar with these pre-existing categories. If Paul was invoking familiar categories of Psalms known to his readers, then, on analogy with the usage of other OT texts, e.g., the repeated quotation of and allusion to Psalm 110, the author expects the readers (or hearers) to understand that this is an invocation of more than just the verse quoted or to which allusion is made.
If Paul is invoking familiar (to them) categories of Psalms then we cannot assume that “hymns and spiritual songs” are either non-canonical or or uninspired songs or a license for the creation and use of the same. Our problem, of course, is that as we receive the Psalms in our English Bibles we do not see these superscriptions (headings or titles). Even in the modern critical editions of the LXX the superscriptions are noted by relegated to a footnote. So, in that way, our experience of the Psalter is different from that of the NT church. We cannot, however, read our experience back into that of the NT church. If we are to understand Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 we must discover what those apparently formulaic expressions meant in their original context. The form of the Psalms in the Septuagint, including the superscriptions, would seem to be useful, even important as we seek to understand them properly.
This argument isn’t, in itself definitive for what the church should do today but it does help frame the question and push us toward the answer. If Paul was invoking familiar categories that pre-existed the NT church by 250-300 years then we must account for that in our interpretation and application of these two passages.