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Sing with Understanding

“God is King over all of the earth; sing a maskil!”

(Psalm 47:8 {verse 7 in English Translations})


Once more, to drive the great Truth home, the psalmist proclaims that God is indeed the sovereign king over all of his creation — and he indeed is not done doing so! Surely it is true that we need to be reminded of this great truth regularly for though our words don’t betray or disbelief; our actions regularly betray that we do not believe this to be true. We act as if we are our own masters and kings, yet God is king and sovereign over all he has made.

There is something curious about the way some translations handle the final word of the psalm. The last term is the Hebrew word lyI…kVcAm (maskiyl). The term itself appears 13 times in the superscripts of the psalms identifying the type of song that a given psalm happens to be. In each of these cases, the term is usually left untranslated. This verse contains the 14th use of the term in the Hebrew Bible, yet here, most of our English Bibles seem to translate it in some way, whether it be rendered “a song of praise” or “sing with understanding,” it is being rendered in a way that it is never rendered any of the other times it is found in the Bible, which seems odd to me — hence here, as in the superscripts, I have left the term untranslated.

Leaving it untranslated, though, does not mean that the term does not communicate any valuable information. It is believed that lyI…kVcAm (maskiyl) is derived from the term lAkDc (sakal), which refers to having insight or understanding in a particular area. Arguably, one could state that these psalms labeled as Maskils are psalms of understanding or Truth (of course, that term can apply to all of the psalms) — and note, that this particular psalm is not listed as a maskil, it is only commanding us to sing a maskil.

I am afraid that one of the things that we have lost in our culture is a deep understanding for theology and for the theology of our hymns. While I do enjoy praise music and we incorporate it into our worship services, there is no question that the lyrics, while not necessarily bad, don’t teach a great deal of theology. Granted, it is true that many of our traditional hymns don’t teach us much either, but that statement cannot be consistently made across the spectrum of our hymnody — much of which is deep in the meaning it contains. In any case, many western believers have fallen into the trap of singing words without reflecting what it is that they are saying — often singing things that are entirely contrary to the way they live:

“I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love…”

“I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold…”

“Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to Thee…”

“Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take him at his word…”

“Righteousness, Righteousness, is what I long for…”

And the list goes on…

My point is not to condemn singing or the songs we sing…not for a moment! My point is that we fail to pay close attention to what it is that we are singing and we fail even more to attend our lives to living out the words of the songs we sing. If we sing words without understanding, is that of any value to us or interest to God? Loved ones, may we take the command of the psalmist to heart and indeed sing songs with our understanding as well as with our voices.

Psalms, Hymns, & Spiritual Odes (Colossians 3:16)

“Let the word of Christ dwell richly in you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing with psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes, in thanksgiving in your heart, to God.”

(Colossians 3:16)


This passage is the passage that has often been cited in the debate over what kind of music should be allowable in the worship of God’s people.  Some have argued that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” all refers to the singing of the Psalms from the Old Testament, but such a statement carries with it very little textual support.  Paul uses three distinct words in the Greek to express what he commends the Colossian church to be doing; he uses the term yalmo/ß (psalmos), from which we get the English word “psalm,” the term u¢mnoß (humnos), from which we get the English word “hymn,” and the word wˆjdh/ (ode), from which we get the English word “ode.” 

In Greek, the word “psalms” obviously refer to the 150 psalms which compose the book of the same name.  These psalms were used as part of the worship of God’s people in the Old Testament.  The word “ode” refers to those songs sung as part of the church liturgy and were not limited to the 150 Psalms; for example, Moses’ song in Exodus 15 is called an “ode” in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.  “Hymns” on the other hand referred to any song with religious content.  The very fact that the Old Testament is filled with hymns that are not part of the book of Psalms and the very fact that the New Testament is filled with song fragments should remind us that God never intended that his people limit worship to the 150 psalms found in the Old Testament.  In addition, the saints in heaven are described as singing “a new ode” (Revelation 5:9), implying that even in heaven, God’s people are continuing to compose new songs of praise to our God and King.  The reality is, there are not enough words in all of the languages of all of the peoples of the world, nor enough combinations of notes or instruments to adequately praise our God for who he is and for what he has done, and this means that every new generation of believers has an obligation to continue to add to the body of the hymnody for the glory of our Redeemer.  Oh, how heaven will be filled with song!  Let us look forward to that time as we sing praises to our God and King as well!

Beloved, what an important part singing praises to God has in the life of the believer, and note just how closely we see Paul connecting the singing of praises with the dwelling of Christ’s word in your heart.  This leaves us with a very important principle that marks a good hymn from a bad one.  Good hymns lead your heart into God’s word: they either contain scripture or are built upon scriptural truths.  Good hymns reinforce God’s word within you; good hymns point to God and His Word, not to the hymn or to the singer.  The singing of hymns, psalms, and spiritual odes is not an end in and of itself, but rather is meant to draw you more deeply into Christ and into his word—if they do this, no matter the tempo, the instrumentation, the longevity, or the pedigree, they are good hymns; if they do not draw you more deeply into Christ, they are wasting your time.

All glory, laud, and honor

To thee, Redeemer, King,

To whom the lips of children

Made sweet hosannas ring!

Thou art the King of Israel,

Thou David’s royal Son,

Who in the Lord’s name comest,

The King and blessed One!

-Theodulph of Orleans

A New Song!: Introduction



While we often think of the book of Revelation in terms of God’s judgment being brought upon his enemies, one of the major themes of Revelation is that of worship.  In fact, nearly half (24 of 60 uses) of the New Testament uses of the verb proskunew (proskuneo), which means “to worship,” are found in the book of Revelation.  It is a book that depicts both proper worship in heaven in the here and now and proper worship in heaven when all of the elect are finally gathered around the throne of Christ. 

With that in mind, Revelation is also a book that contains quite a few songs to the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (and especially to the Son for his redeeming work).  It is as if the Apostle John can’t help but break out in joyful song as he relates his theophany to us. 

In the church today, there are (and I expect will always be) debates surrounding the use of new hymns being used in the church.  Some churches even go as far as to exclusively sing the psalms, as God’s inspired songbook.  I think that singing the psalms is great!  I also think that singing the New Testament songs is a great thing to do (though in the New Testament we are largely only given fragments of the song itself)!  And, I think that the inclusion of songs in the New Testament sets a precedent that each generation should always be contributing to the body of hymnody.  Yes, that means that some hymns will pass into obscurity as new ones are added, but the best ones will not.  I can’t imagine a day when a company will print a hymnal without standards like “Amazing Grace”, “O For a Thousand Tongues,” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” 

The key that we have to keep before us is to be careful that the new songs teach good theology.  So much of the theology that we learn is from the hymns.  Hymns often touch us deeply and stick with us, thus helping to shape the way we think about God and the Bible.  One of the great things about the “tried and true” hymns of the faith is that they have been tried and tested by generations as to what they teach.  As a generation that is adding new songs to the hymnody of the church, it is our responsibility to weed through the good and bad hymns on the basis of what they teach about our Lord.

Jesus is worth a hundred thousand generations of hymns and more!  His glory is beyond the capacity of our language to convey!  And once this world passes away, we will have an eternity to try and properly praise his worth.  I look forward to that day.  But for now, even in our limited capacity, we should be giving our all to the joyful task of that praise. 

These two verses contain a fragment of a hymn that John witnessed the angels singing in heaven.  As I mentioned above, there is a lot of theology that is contained within our hymnody.  I thought it would be useful to look briefly at some of the theology that is taught within this wonderful hymn fragment.