God Commands You to Sing

Sometimes it’s helpful to look at a familiar passage in an unfamiliar way:

“Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-21, ESV)

We sometimes think that this passage is about alcohol—that it teaches a strict avoidance of alcohol or puts “the Spirit” and “wine” at odds with one another. It doesn’t. If we look carefully, it’s only teaching the avoidance of drunkenness. But the bigger issue is that the passage is not about alcohol at all. Paul mentions wine in order to contrast the state of drunkenness with the state of being filled by the Spirit.

The contrast is fitting. In both cases, a person is being controlled by something external to himself. A drunken person is so out of control that he behaves like an idiot. A person who is filled by the Spirit is so out of control that her behavior is superhuman.

Sometimes we stop right there. We see that we are to be filled by the Spirit, but we don’t always ask what that looks like. So let’s ask. What does the person who is filled by the Spirit do? Paul gives us four descriptions in this passage of what the Spirit-filled person does: (1) he communicates, (2) he sings, (3) he gives thanks, and (4) he submits.

hymnalHere’s what I find interesting. So much of this description of being Spirit-filled revolves around music. Christians are to be “addressing one another.” How? By singing! Specifically, we are to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. It is probably unwise to make too sharp a distinction between each of these terms. But psalms are probably Old Testament psalms, likely accompanied by musical instruments; hymns are probably “poetic material that is either recited or sung” in praise to God (keep in mind that the hymns in our hymnals are relatively modern); and spiritual songs are probably songs that are spiritual, which means songs that spring from Spirit-filled hearts.[1]

So we are to be communicating to one another in song. Perhaps we could say that if the Christian life were a movie, it would be a musical.

But Paul has more to say about music. He continues by saying that we are to be “singing and making melody to the Lord” with our hearts, which literally means that we are to be “singing psalms and songs,” the same thing he told us to do in the previous phrase. It seems that Paul is repeating this for emphasis.

We might get hung up on the fact that Paul says that we are to sing “with our hearts,” he is not telling us to sing literally, just internally. But Paul is actually telling us where the music begins. It starts in the human heart, and is directed “to the Lord.” It’s conceivable that the music could remain in the mind and never be expressed audibly. But Paul’s statement that we are to be “addressing one another” in song tells us that our singing must at some point become audible.

We are rightly reminded from time to time that worship goes far beyond music. We shouldn’t equate our singing together at church gathers with worship, as though our acts of service and our thought lives are inadmissible as worship. But we also need to hear Paul’s emphasis here. If we are filled by the Spirit (which is a command we must obey), then we will be singing. We will also be giving thanks and submitting to one another, but we will be singing all the while.

God clearly cares about music, so we should as well.


[1]  Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 708-709.

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