In his epistles, Paul speaks of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). His list categorizes three musical types: (1) psalms, which are inspired songs of the covenant, (2) hymns, which are ecclesiastically-shaped doctrinal songs, and (3) spiritual songs, which are distinguished from both. In this context, then, what is meant by “spiritual songs?” To put that question another way, psalms and hymns are also spiritual, so what sets this third category apart from the others?
Apart from Pauline literature, when “song” is used elsewhere in the New Testament, it twice refers to the “new song” of glory (Rev. 5:9, 14:3). In a third instance, the Apostle John does not mention psalms and hymns as Paul does, but uses “song of Moses” and “song of the Lamb,” both of which harken back to the covenant — i.e., the Torah and the Promise-Fulfilling Messiah. While there are a few hymn (υμνος) references (Mt. 26:30; Mk:26; Acts 16:25, 1 Cor. 14:26), “songs” (ωδη) in the New Testament are described with two adjectives: new and spiritual.
In the New Testament, there appears to be a parallel between the “new song” mentioned by John and spiritual songs mentioned by Paul. These are not totally separate from one another. The “new song” of glory is inspired not by human ingenuity, but by the Spirit of God. Likewise, spiritual songs of the Church are not ancient artifacts, but fresh songs that embrace the present and envision the future. In other words, the Spirit inspires both John’s “song” and Paul’s “song.” (It’s not surprising that John would use “new” rather than “spiritual,” considering his theological emphasis upon renewal, as evident by 9 references to “new” in Revelation.)
The Old Testament includes 7 references to “new song.” In every case, new songs celebrate God’s renewing work. From “He put a new song in my mouth” (Ps. 40:3) to “sing to the Lord a new song… all the earth” (Ps. 96:1), these songs express a forward-looking, eschatological dimension. That is to say, new songs reveal an inner longing for renewal that will ultimately come at the end of time. Isaiah’s mention of “new song” makes this especially clear as he calls all of creation to praise (Is. 42:10).
Likewise, the Spirit inspires songs that look ahead to the future. In Scripture, the Spirit points to the eschatological fulfillment of God’s promises. The Prophet Joel depicts the Spirit as marking the end times (e.g., Joel 2), and Paul also describes the Spirit as the seal of the covenant. (For more information, see Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence, chapter 12.) Thus, “Spirit-inspired” songs do not merely celebrate God’s past work, but possess an eschatological dimension as well.
Why does this matter? To begin with, “spiritual songs” should not be limited to a musical style — such as a gospel tune or an ad-libbed chorus. They are expressive songs, bubbling up from within us, and we must not lose sight of their theological function. Spiritual songs reflect the Spirit’s work within us, as we are being sanctified — moving closer and closer to glory. As such, the Holy Spirit inspires us in increasing measure to sing new songs to the Lord.