A STUDY OF MUSIC IN WORSHIP: PSALLO

When dealing with the subject of instrumental music in worship, many arguments are centered around the Greek word, “psallo.” There are only five occurrences of the Greek word “psallo” in the New Testament (See: Eph. 5:19; 1 Cor. 14:15 twice; Ja. 5:13; Rom. 15:9). Many articles and studies by members of the Churches of Christ have been done on this Greek word (just Google search the word “psallo” and you will see what I mean).

While I encourage you to do your own research and see for yourself, you will find the conclusion on these articles are all the same. What is the conclusion, you ask? The conclusion is that the word “psallo” during the time of the New Testament predominantly meant, “to sing.” After a personal and extreme in-depth study, I also came to the same conclusion. During the first century, the word “psallo” was predominately used as just another word for “sing.”

PSALLO MEANS “TO SING”

The true issue has nothing to do with whether or not the word “psallo” means “sing.” Anyone can appeal to lexicons and dictionaries and show that the word “psallo” means “to sing.” That is not the issue. The issue is whether or not the word “psallo” forbids instrumental music. Does “psallo” mean “sing only.” Is “psallo” a word that restricts the use of instrumental music?

The problem is that many members of the Churches of Christ have added a very important word to the definition. They have added the word, “only.” They have changed the definition and made the word “psallo” mean, “to sing only” or “to “sing without the accompaniment of mechanical instruments.” Contrary to this understanding, what we will find in our study is that the word “psallo” is not an exclusive word that forbids instruments neither does the word “psallo” mean, “to sing only.”

SINGING (PSALLO) DOES NOT FORBID PLAYING

While the word “psallo” can’t be used to command instrumental music, it also can’t be used to restrict its use. In fact, the Greek word “psallo” has never restricted the use of instrumental music.

In the Greek Old Testament (known as the LXX), the word “psallo” is used as a word which can include instruments (1 Sam. 16:16; 1 Sam. 16:17; 1 Sam. 16:18; 1 Sam. 16:23; 1 Sam. 18:10; 1 Sam. 19:9; 2 Kings 3:15; Psa. 33:3; etc.). This can be seen by the way it is translated in the Greek Old Testament (Judges 5:3; 1 Sam. 16:16; 1 Sam. 16:17; 1 Sam. 16:18; 1 Sam. 16:23; 1 Sam. 18:10; 1 Sam. 19:9; 2 Sam. 22:50; 2 Kings 3:15; Psa. 7:17; Psa. 9:2; Psa. 9:11; Psa. 18:49; Psa. 21:13; Psa. 27:6; Psa. 30:4; Psa. 30:12; Psa. 33:2; Psa. 33:3; Psa. 47:6; Psa. 47:6; Psa. 47:7; Psa. 57:7; Psa. 57:9; Psa. 59:17; Psa. 61:8; Psa. 66:2; Psa. 66:4; Psa. 68:25; Psa. 68:32; Psa. 69:12; Psa. 71:22; Psa. 71:23; Psa. 75:9; Psa. 92:1; Psa. 98:4; Psa. 98:5; Psa. 104:33; Psa. 105:2; Psa. 108:1; Psa. 108:3; Psa. 135:3; Psa. 138:1; Psa. 144:9; Psa. 146:2; Psa. 147:7; Psa. 149:3).

I studied every occurrence of the word “psallo” in the Greek Old Testament and above you will find an exhaustive list of every time the word “psallo” occurs in the Septuagint. It is important to note that the word “psallo”, itself, never forbids instruments and I can’t emphasize that point enough.

Some have argued that the only time the word “psallo” can authorize an instrument is if there is an instrument supplied on which to “psallo.” This is simply not true. In Psalm 33:3 the Bible says:

“Sing to Him a new song; Play skillfully (psallo) with a shout of joy.”

There is no mechanical instrument here modifying  “psallo,” yet it is still translated “play skillfully” in this context. Interestingly enough, “shout of joy” modifies “psallo.” If anything, translators could have easily translated this to be vocal music. Yet, Biblical language scholars translated it as, “play skillfully.” Every single mainstream translation translates the word “psallo” as “play skillfully” even though there is no mechanical instrument to modify psallo. While there are instruments mentioned in Psalm 33:2, those instruments are mentioned in the previous verse and do not modify “psallo.” Psallo stands alone in Psalm 33:3 and is still translated as “play skillfully.”

So what does all of this mean? It simply means that the word “psallo” doesn’t forbid instruments, even in the absence of instruments being mentioned.

Furthermore, examples of those living close to the time of Jesus such as Josephus and other Hellenistic Jews can be cited to show that they used the word “psallo” in such a way as to be able to include instruments:

“Although he strongly supports only a cappella singing, Ferguson acknowledges that in the first century ‘Hellenistic [Greek-speaking] Jews writing for Gentile audiences kept to the classical [instrumental] meaning of psallo. He gives the famous Josephus as an example of a Jew writing to the common Greek of the day who always used psallo for instrumental music” (Missing More Than Music, p. 28).

Regardless, the debate on whether or not “psallo” meant to play an instrument is frivolous for our cause because it doesn’t matter. If “psallo” is not a word that forbids instrumental music, then it cannot be used in attempts to condemn it’s use. “Psallo” is not a word that forbids instrumental music, therefore, it cannot be used in attempts to condemn it’s use.

The Greek word “psallo” didn’t forbid instruments in the Greek Old Testament and the Greek word “psallo” didn’t forbid instruments in the first century. Therefore, there is absolutely no basis for anyone to objectively argue that the word “psallo” (which never had forbidden instruments) somehow forbids instruments the five times it is used in the New Testament.

MUSIC IN YOUR HEART

In Ephesians 5:19, the Bible says that Christians are to sing and make melody in their heart (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Some argue that if the melody is to be made in the heart, then that would somehow forbid melody being made on a piano, a guitar or any other instrument. Some claim that the instrument that we are to pluck or play is the instrument of our heart strings, thus, excluding any mechanical instruments. This alleged argument holds no weight and should be dismissed for the following reasons:

First, the phrase “in your heart” in Ephesians 5:19 is an adverbial prepositional phrase which describes the manner of the action, not the method (Gen. 17:17; Josh. 14:7; Psa. 15:2; Prov. 3:5; Psa. 119:2; Lk. 2:19; Mt. 5:28; etc.).

“Things done from the heart, i.e., cordially or sincerely, truly” (Thayer, Joseph. Greek-English Lexicon, p. 325).

Paul is teaching Christians that they need to worship and praise God sincerely. What makes any action “dead” or “in vain” (whether it be an instrument or vocal music) is the heart from which it proceeds (Mk. 7:7-9).

“Whether with instrument or with voice or with both, it is all for naught if the adoration is not in the heart” (Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. 4, p. 405).

The idea is that the praise needs to come from the heart in order to be acceptable (Mk. 12:30; Mt. 22:37-38).

Second, the heart was an essential component with singing under the Old Law (Psa. 9:1; 57:7) which obviously didn’t forbid mechanical instruments (Psa. 57:7; Psa. 138:1; etc.). If they could use an instrument while singing in their heart, that means that singing in your heart doesn’t forbid an instrument. Singing in the heart has never forbidden mechanical instruments. The Bible teaches that it is possible to sing in your heart with the accompaniment of a mechanical instrument. Singing “in your heart” does not, nor has it ever, forbidden a mechanical instrument.

It also needs to be noted that Ephesians 5:19 says that both the singing (ado) and the melody (psallo) are to be done in the heart (see also: Colossians 3:16). If the phrase “in your heart” means inward and silent, then one is forced to conclude that the singing (ado) must also be inward and silent since it is to be done “in the heart.”  Whatever “in the heart” means with one action in Ephesians 5:19, it must also mean with the other. Therefore, if this reasoning were to be taken to its logical conclusion, it would forbid vocal praise since the singing is to be done “in the heart.” Therefore, according to this type of reasoning, the only authorized kind of singing would be “mental singing.” Clearly, that is nonsensical.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the Greek word combination that Paul uses in Ephesians 5:19 is “ado” and “psallo.” These two words are paired together multiple times in the Greek Old Testament and they never forbid instruments. The paring of “ado” and “psallo” can be praise without an instrument (Judges 5:3; Psa. 27:6; Psa. 68:4; etc.) or it can be praise with an instrument (Psa. 33:2-3; etc.). Therefore, one could acceptably “ado” and “psallo” to God with or without a mechanical instrument.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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