Commentary on Ephesians, 5:19

Ephesians 5:19

“18 And do not be drunk with wine, in which is riot, but be filled with the Spirit;
19 speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord;”

We now get to talk about something that is a rather touchy subject among Christians, and that’s music. For those who believe the New Testament doesn’t give any instruction about the type of music we should be playing in our local assemblies, I think Paul would have to wonder where that idea came from, because he talks about it in two different books, here and in the book of Colossians (Col 3:16). Furthermore, he provides some very clear instruction about how we’re to live as Christians leading up to this verse.

Let’s backtrack and revisit the context in which the instruction of verse 19 is given. Since there are so many verses, rather than typing them all out, I’ll just provide the reference and you can view them in your own Bible. Or you can simply wave the cursor over the verse and read it that way. I think all these verses need to be carefully considered when interpreting verse 19. Context is everything. I will also provide verses that follow verse 19, as well as verses from Colossians:

Eph 2:1,2
Eph 4:1
Eph 4:17,18
Eph 4:22,23,24
Eph 4:27
Eph 4:30
Eph 5:1
Eph 5:8-11
Eph 5:15-18
Eph 6:11,12

Col 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God.”

Col 1:9,10
Col 1: 13
Col 2:3-8
Col 2:20-23
Col 3:1,2
Col 4:4,5,6

Keep in mind that this covers merely the context in which this instruction regarding music is given. I could draw a lot more scriptures out of the New Testament in support of these, but we’ll keep it simple, as I think these are sufficient. Please don’t bypass the above verses, but really think about what Paul is saying in them before you consider what he says about music in verse 19. Again, context is everything. We should never try to understand a verse in isolation of the context in which it is given.

Having already given us clear instruction on the kind of life that should characterize those who are in Christ, he now addresses music. Some may respond and say that Paul doesn’t mention music here, only songs. But that’s not actually true, as we shall soon see. However, aside from that, considering the importance of musical instruments in Old Testament worship songs, I think we can naturally and safely assume that Paul had that mind as a normal part of singing our praises to the Lord. Furthermore, musical instruments have always commonly accompanied songs regardless of the genre. It’s just not reasonable that musical instruments are not to be considered in Paul’s instruction here (and in Colossians).

“speaking to one another”

I don’t believe Paul is referring to two people carrying on a conversation in song here. I don’t know about you, but I would feel a bit silly doing that. He’s obviously referring to the assembly of God’s people in the local church. When we sing songs of worship and praise to the Lord, we also speak to each other as well. I believe the idea here, is that when we sing to the Lord, we speak words of edification to one another. We’re blessed and encouraged and built up spiritually by the words and by the whole experience of our worship together. 

“psalms” (Gr. psalmos – 5568)

Commonly understood to refer to the psalms of the Old Testament.

Preceptaustin:  “Psalmos originally meant a touching, and then a touching of the harp or other stringed instruments with the finger or with the plectrum. Later it referred to the instrument itself, and finally psalmos became known as the song sung with musical accompaniment.”

Thus we know for certain that the type of music we play in our assemblies is to be considered in Paul’s instruction. 

“hymns” (Gr. humnos/hymnos – 5215)

Preceptaustin:  “Refers to a song of praise, a song in honor of God or generally to a song with religious content. It also came to mean praise to men. Whereas a psalm is the story of man’s deliverance or a commemoration of mercies received, a hymn is a magnificat, a declaration of how great someone or something is (Lu 1:46-55, 67-79; Acts 4:24; 16:25). It is a direct address of praise and glory to God.”

“spiritual”  (Gr. pneumatikos – 4152)

Preceptaustin:  “Means something like pertaining to the (divine) spirit, “belonging to the spirit”, “of the nature of the spirit”, and thus “pertaining to that which is spiritual.”

I think this is the most important word in this verse. There can be no doubt that Paul is using this word to speak of the spiritual as it relates to the Holy Spirit. He obviously is not using this term in the general sense, because this term can also be used to refer to evil, as Paul does in Eph 6:12. Thus spiritual songs are songs that are of the Holy Spirit and sang unto God in worship and praise.

Spiritual songs are therefore songs that are of a holy nature, and in contrast to that which is unholy and of the world. With this in mind, note what Preceptaustin says about spiritual songs:

“Songs (5603) (oide from aido = to sing, always signifying praise to God) is a generic term for any words sung or for songs in general, thus needing modification by “spiritual” in this context. The qualifier of “spiritual” was important because of the fact that the original use of singing among both believers and idolaters was in the confessions and praises of the respective gods.”

Also from Preceptaustin:

“Eadie writes that song or ode is a general term, and denotes the natural outburst of an excited bosom—the language of the sudden impulses of an Oriental temperament. Such odes as were allowed to Christians are termed “spiritual,” that is, prompted by the Spirit which filled them. But the psalms and hymns are already marked out as consecrated, and needed no such additional epithet.”

“melody”  (Gr. psallo – 5567)

Jamieson, Fausset, Brown:  “Greek – Playing and singing with an instrument.”

Preceptaustin:  “(psallo from psao = to rub or touch the surface, to touch lightly, twang or snap) means to play a stringed instrument or to sing a hymn. Musicians who play upon an instrument were said to pluck the strings. Psallo came to signify the making of music in any fashion. Because stringed instruments were commonly used both by believers and heathen in singing praises to their respective gods, it meant to sing, sing praises or psalms to God whether with or without instruments.”

Again we see that musical instruments were in Paul’s thinking when he wrote the words of this verse.

“with your heart to the Lord”

We’re to sing and play our musical instruments unto the Lord with sincerity of heart. It’s so easy to drift off when singing songs in church, or to simply go through the motions of saying words. We must guard against that and stay focused on the Lord, and make singing a sincere act of worship unto the Lord.


For Christians and pastors who think the New Testament doesn’t give any clear instructions regarding the style of music we should be playing in church, must have missed this passage. Only one short verse, but Paul provides some very detailed guidelines for music in the corporate gathering of God’s people.

Paul begins by saying, “speaking to one another.” That indicates that while our music and singing is unto the Lord, we’re at the same time providing spiritual edification to each other. I believe that consists of both the words we use and of the whole experience of our time of worship together.

If the words are going to edify, they have to have substance. There should be nothing shallow about the songs that we sing. Many people now days don’t like the old hymns of the faith, but what sets them apart from many of the songs today, is that they’re deep with substance and doctrine. Christian song writers today would do well to follow the example of the hymn writers of the past.

Paul also mentions singing psalms. This no doubt refers to the Old Testament Psalms. Every church should be incorporating the Psalms into their worship. I don’t believe this is a mere suggestion by Paul, but something we should actually be doing. It’s the duty of the Christian song writer to learn to put music to those psalms. I think it’s obvious that one reason those Old Testament psalms/songs were written was for the purpose of singing them in worship to the LORD.

The hymns that Paul mentions here are apparently general songs of praise. In today’s contemporary church, there is no shortage of songs of praise, especially the chorus type. Thus there’s no need for me to say anything more about this type of worship song. We’ve got this one down.

Where I want to focus most my attention is on spiritual songs. I believe Paul intended this to be used as a guiding principle for the style of music and songs that we use in the corporate setting. The message Paul wants to convey here, is that we must make sure that the music and the songs we sing are of a holy nature, as originating from the Holy Spirit, in harmony with the Spirit. 

The things of the Spirit are in contrast with the things of the flesh and the things of the world (Gal 5:16-25; Ro 8:3-14; Ro 12:1,2; 1 John 2:15,16). If you’ve been following along with me in this commentary on Ephesians, you know that Paul spends a lot of time instructing us on the type of lifestyle that is to characterize those who are in Christ. Paul makes it clear that we’re to be distinctly different from the world, because we are different. Thus the music we play in church is to be distinctly different from the music of the world. It’s to be distinctly holy or set apart unto the Lord. You can be sure that if music truly originates from the Holy Spirit, it will be distinct and set apart from the music of the world. 

Based on everything Paul teaches, I strongly believe that the worship music we play in church is to have a sound all of its own. It should be distinctly Christian. My wife and I happen to be in a church that has both a band and a small orchestra. The band is set off to one side, and the orchestra is set off to the other side. The blending of the two is beautiful, and in no way does it sound like the rock music of the world. It’s reverent and worshipful.

The combination of the two types of music provides a somewhat unique sound. It’s a sound that I would consider to be distinctly Christian. The drums are electronic, and so they’re able to keep the volume down so that they blend in with the rest of the musical instruments, rather than overpowering them like you hear in most churches today. Furthermore, the electric guitars are also toned down to blend in. Our church does it right. I believe they faithfully fulfill Paul’s instruction. I think they’re one church in a million that has found the proper balance in music. They could serve as a pattern for other churches. 

I don’t believe there’s anything sinful about any particular musical instrument. It’s how the instruments are used that makes them holy or unholy. I believe Christians and pastors have been deceived into believing that music is neutral, that no matter how it’s played, it’s neither sinful nor holy. I think that idea is one of the big lies in the church today.

What I see today in most churches is a deliberate attempt to look and sound like the music of the world. The band members look like the members of any other secular rock band, and the music they play sounds similar, and in perhaps most cases, sounds exactly like the secular rock music of the world. The idea is to provide a look and a sound that the people of the world can relate to. Since when are the people of the world suppose to be able to relate to anything Christian? Since when are the people of the world suppose to be comfortable in any Christian setting? It they are, I can assure you that those churches have gotten off course somewhere. 

Christians are “children of light” (Eph 5:8), and the unsaved are of the darkness of this world. There is no harmony or fellowship between light and darkness. It’s biblically wrong to try and blend the two. We’re to seek to be distinctly Christian in a distinctly anti-Christian world. 

I encourage you to really think about all the verses I provided in the beginning of this commentary. Read them in their proper context. I also encourage you to read my commentary on each of those verses in Ephesians. Be honest about what you’re reading. Can we honestly before God justify using the music of the world to worship Christ our King? Does Paul’s teaching really allow for such a practice? 

As I said, I don’t believe there are any musical instruments that are sinful in themselves, but it’s the way that they’re used. Balance is the key. We should do our best to avoid the extremes. At one extreme we have the loud rock music of the world, and at the other extreme we have churches that play only the piano and organ. We need to be sensible and seek a healthy balance between the two. The key point Paul wants us to walk away with regarding music, is that it should not imitate the world, but have a distinctly Christian sound. That’s something every Christian church should strive for. That’s where discernment comes in:

“Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Eph 5:17)

(Please read my commentary on this verse)

If you read all the places in the Old Testament where music is used in worship, it describes something similar to orchestra music. They used a lot of different musical instruments. That’s a biblical pattern for any church to follow. The more musical instruments the better. 

We can’t allow our personal musical preferences to determine the style of music we use in church, or based on what we think the unsaved (and Christians) want to hear. The church is not for the unsaved, but for followers of Christ. If the unsaved want to join us, wonderful! But we’re not to design our ministry around the unsaved. Church is for the gathering of God’s people for the purpose of worship, teaching, prayer, and fellowship. We must set aside our preferences and desire to please the world, and seek to be biblical and set apart from the world. The standards of the world are not to be the standard of the church. Our standard is the Word of God. It’s up to pastors and elders to take the lead, regardless of what the unsaved or the average Christian wants to hear.

Those who are “filled with the Spirit,” will walk according to the Spirit, and not according to the world. The Holy Spirit will never lead us in the ways of the world.