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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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lxxviii. ψαλμός, ὕμνος, ᾠδή.

All these words occur together at Ephes. 5:19, and again at Col. 3:16; both times in the same order, and in passages which very nearly repeat one another; cf. Ps. 66:1. When some expositors refuge even to attempt to distinguish between them, urging that St. Paul had certainly no intention of classifying the different forms of Christian poetry, this statement, no doubt, is quite true; but neither, on the other hand, would he have used, where there is evidently no temptation to rhetorical amplification, three words, if one would have equally served his turn. It may fairly be questioned whether we can trace very accurately the lines of demarcation between the “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” of which the Apostle makes mention, or whether he traced these lines for himself with a perfect accuracy. Still each must have had a meaning which belonged to it more, and by a better right, than it belonged to either of the others; and this it may be possible to seize, even while it is quite impossible with perfect strictness to distribute under these three heads Christian poetry as it existed in the Apostolic age. ᾎᾼσμα, it may be here observed, a word of not unfrequent occurrence in the Septuagint, does not occur in the N. T.

The Psalms of the O. T. remarkably enough have no single, well recognized, universally accepted name by which they are designated in the Hebrew Scriptures (Delitzsch, Comm. üb. den Psalter, vol. ii. p. 371; Herzog, Real-Encyclop. vol. xii. p. 269). They first obtained such in the Septuagint. ψαλμός, from ψάω,Etym. Note. 33 properly a touching, and then a touching of the harp or other stringed instruments with the finger or with the plectrum (ψαλμοὶ τόξων, Euripides, Ion, 174; cf. Bacch. 740, are the twangings of the bowstrings), was next the instrument itself, and last of all the song sung with this musical accompaniment. It is in this latest stage of its meaning that we find the word adopted in the Septuagint; and to this agree the ecclesiastical definitions of it; thus in the Lexicon ascribed to Cyril of Alexandria: λόγος μουσικός ὅταν εὐρύθμως κατὰ τοὺς ἁρμονικοὺς λόγους τὸ ὄργανον κρούηται: cf. Clement of Alexandria (Poedag. ii. 4): ὁ ψαλμός, ἐμμελής ἐστιν εὐλογία καὶ σώφρων: and Basil the Great, who brings out with still greater emphasis what differences the ‘psalm’ and the ode or ‘spiritual song’ (Hom. in Ps. 44): ᾠδὴ γάρ ἐστι, καὶ οὐχὶ ψαλμός· διότι γυμνῇ φωνῇ μὴ συνηχοῦντος αὐτῇ τοῦ ὀργάνου, μετ᾽ ἐμμελοῦς τῆς ἐκφωνήσεως, παρεδίδοτο: compare in Psal. xxix. 1; to which Gregory of Nyssa, in Psal. c. 3, agrees. In all probability the ψαλμοί of Ephes. 5:19, Col. 3:16, are the inspired psalms of the Hebrew Canon. The word certainly designates these on all other occasions when it is met in the N. T., with the one possible exception of 1 Cor. 14:26; and probably refers to them there; nor can I doubt that the ‘psalms’ which the Apostle would have the faithful to sing to one another, are psalms of David, of Asaph, or of some other of the sweet singers of Israel; above all, seeing that the word seems limited and restricted to its narrowest use by the nearly synonymous words with which it is grouped.

But while the ‘psalm’ by the right of primogeniture, as being at once the oldest and most venerable, thus occupies the foremost place, the Church of Christ does not restrict herself to such, but claims the freedom of bringing new things as well as old out of her treasure-house. She will produce “hymns and spiritual songs” of her own, as well as inherit psalms bequeathed to her by the Jewish Church; a new salvation demanding a new song (Rev. 5:9), as Augustine delights so often to remind us.

It was of the essence of a Greek ὕμνος that it should be addressed to, or be otherwise in praise of, a god, or of a hero, that is, in the strictest sense of that word, of a deified man; as Callisthenes reminded Alexander; who, claiming hymns for himself, or suffering them to be addressed to him, implicitly accepted not human honours but divine (ὕμνοι μὲν ἐς τοὺς θεοὺς ποιοῦνται, ἔπαινοι δὲ ἐς ἀνθρώπους, Arrian, iv. 11). In the gradual breaking down of the distinction between human and divine, which marked the fallen days of Greece and Rome, with the usurping on the part of men of divine honours, the ὕμνος came more and more to be applied to men; although this not without observation and remonstrance (Athenaeus, vi. 62; xv. 21, 22). When the word was assumed into the language of the Church, this essential distinction clung to it still. A ‘psalm’ might be a De profundis, the story of man’s deliverance, or a commemoration of mercies which he had received; and of a “spiritual song” much the same could be said: a ‘hymn’ must always be more or less of a Magnificat, a direct address of praise and glory to God. Thus Jerome (in Ephes. 5:19): ‘Breviter hymnos esse dicendum, qui fortitudinem et majestatem praedicant Dei, et ejusdem semper vel beneficia, vel facta, mirantur.’ Compare Origen, Con. Cels. viii. 67; and a precious fragment, probably of the Presbyter Caius, preserved by Eusebius (H. E. v. 28): ψαλμοὶ δὲ ὅσοι καὶ ᾠδαὶ ἀδελφῶν ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς ὑπὸ πιστῶν γραφεῖσαι, τὸν Λόγον τοῦ Θεοῦ τὸν Χριστὸν ὑμνοῦσι θεολογοῦντες. Compare further Gregory of Nyssa (in Psalm. 100:3): ὕμνος, ἡ ἐπὶ τοῖς ὑπάρχουσιν ἡμῖν ἀγαθοῖς ἀνατιθεμένη τῷ Θεῷ εὐφημία: the whole chapter is interesting. Augustine in more places than one states the notes of what in his mind are the essentials of a hymn—which are three: 1. It must be sung; 2. It must be praise; 3. It must be to God. Thus Enarr. in Ps. lxxii. 1: ‘Hymni laudes sunt Dei cum cantico: hymni cantus sunt continentes laudes Dei. Si sit laus, et non sit Dei, non est hymnus: si sit laus, et Dei laus, et non cantetur, non est hymnus. Oportet ergo ut, si sit hymnus, habeat haec tria, et laudem, et Dei, et canticum.’ So, too, Enarr. in Ps. cxlviii. 14: ‘Hymnus scitis quid est? Cantus est cum laude Dei. Si laudas Deum, et non cantas, non dicis hymnum; si cantas, et non laudas Deum, non dicis hymnum; si laudas aliud quod non pertinet ad laudem Dei, etsi cantando laudes non dicis hymnum. Hymnus ergo tria ista habet, et cantum, et laudem, et Dei.’1 Compare Gregory Nazianzene:

ἔπαινός ἐστιν εὖ τι τῶν ἐμῶν φράσαι,
αἶνος δ᾽ ἔπαινος εἰς Θεὸν σεβάσμιος,
ὁ δ᾽ ὕμνος, αἶνος ἐμμελής, ὡς οἴομαι

But though, as appears from these quotations, ὕμνος in the fourth century was a word freely adopted in the Church, this was by no means the case at an earlier day. Notwithstanding the authority which St. Paul’s employment of it might seem to have lent it, ὕμνος nowhere occurs in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, nor in those of Justin Martyr, nor in the Apostolic Constitutions; and only once in Tertullian (ad Uxor. ii. 8). It is at least a plausible explanation of this that ὕμνος was for the early Christians so steeped in heathenism, so linked with profane associations, and desecrated by them, there were so many hymns to Zeus, to Hermes, to Aphrodite, and to the other deities of the heathen pantheon, that the early Christians shrunk instinctively from the word.

If we ask ourselves of what character were the ‘hymns,’ which St. Paul desired that the faithful should sing among themselves, we may confidently assume that these observed the law to which other hymns were submitted, and were direct addresses of praise to God. Inspired specimens of the ὕμνος we meet at Luke 1:46-55; 68-79; Acts 4:24; such also probably was that which Paul and Silas made to be heard from the depth of their Philippian dungeon (ὕμνουν τὸν Θεόν, Acts 16:25). How noble, how magnificent, uninspired hymns could prove we have signal evidence in the Te Deum, in the Veni Creator Spiritus, and in many a later possession for ever which the Church has acquired. That the Church, brought when St. Paul wrote into a new and marvellous world of heavenly realities, would be rich in these we might be sure, even if no evidence existed to this effect. Of such evidence, however, there is abundance, more than one fragment of a hymn being probably embedded in St. Paul’s own Epistles (Ephes. 5:14; 1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:11-14; cf. Rambach, Anthologie, vol. i. p. 33; and Neale, Essays on Liturgiology, pp. 413, 424). And as it was quite impossible that the Christian Church, mightily releasing itself, though with no revolutionary violence, from the Jewish synagogue, should fall into that mistake into which some of the Reformed Churches afterwards fell, we may be sure that it adopted into liturgic use, not ‘psalms’ only, but also ‘hymns,’ singing hymns to Christ as to God (Pliny, Ep. 10:96); though this, as we may conclude, more largely in Churches gathered out of the heathen world than in those wherein a strong Jewish element existed. On ὕμνος from an etymological point of view Pott, Etymol. Forsch. vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 612, may be consulted.

ᾨδή (== ἀοιδή) is the only word of this group which the Apocalypse knows (5:9; 14:3; 15:3). St. Paul, on the two occasions when he employs it, adds πνευματική to it; and this, no doubt, because ᾠδή by itself might mean any kind of song, as of battle, of harvest, or festal, or hymeneal, while ψαλμός, from its Hebrew use, and ὕμνος from its Greek, did not require any such qualifying adjective. This epithet thus applied to these ‘songs’ does not affirm that they were divinely inspired, any more than the ἀνὴρ πνευματικός is an inspired man (1 Cor. 3:1; Gal. 6:1); but only that they were such as were composed by spiritual men, and moved in the sphere of spiritual things. How, it may be asked, are we to distinguish these “spiritual songs” from the ‘psalms’ and ‘hymns’ with which they are associated by St. Paul? If the ‘psalms’ represent the heritage of sacred song which the Christian Church derived from the Jewish, the ‘hymns’ and “spiritual songs” will between them cover what further in the same kind it produced out of its bosom; but with a difference. What the hymns were, we have already seen; but Christian thought and feeling will soon have expanded into a wider range of poetic utterances than those in which there is a direct address to the Deity. If we turn, for instance, to Herbert’s Temple, or Vaughan’s Silex Scintillans, or Keble’s Christian Year, in all of these there are many poems, which, as certainly they are not ‘psalms,’ so as little do they possess the characteristics of ‘hymns.’ “Spiritual songs” these might most fitly be called; even as in almost all our collections of so called ‘hymns’ at the present day, there are not a few which by much juster title would bear this name. Calvin, it will be seen, only agrees in part with the distinctions which I have here sought to trace: ‘Sub his tribus nominibus complexus est [Paulus] omne genus canticorum; quae ita vulgo distinguuntur, ut psalmus sit in quo concinendo adhibetur musicum aliquod instrumentum praeter linguam; hymnus proprie sit laudis canticum, sive assâ voce, sive aliter canatur; oda non laudes tantum contineat, sed paraeneses, et alia argumenta.’ Compare in Vollbeding’s Thesaurus, vol. ii. p. 27, sqq.; a treatise by J. Z. Hillger, De Psalmorum, Hymnorum, et Odarum discrimine; Palmer in Herzog’s Real-Encyclopädie, vol. v. p. 100, sqq.; Deyling, Obss. Sac. vol. iii. p. 430; Lightfoot On Colossians, iii. 16; and the art. Hymns in Dr. Smith’s Dictionary of Christian Antiquities.


1 It is not very easy to follow Augustine in his distinction between ‘psalm’ and a ‘canticle.’ Indeed he acknowledges himself that he has not arrived at any clearness on this matter; thus see Enarr. in Ps. lxvii. 1; where, however, these words occur, ‘in psalmo est sonoritas, in cantico laetitia‘: cf. in Ps. iv. 1; and Hilary, Prol. in Lib. Psalm. §§ 19–21.

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G5215,G5568,G5603.]

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