After numerous predictions that He would be delivered up to the Jewish leaders and then handed over to the Romans to be crucified, Jesus shocked His disciples during the last supper that it would be one of them who would betray Him. Matthew also notes of particular significance that evening His institution of the Lord’s Supper. He then reports that after singing a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives, where God’s promises to the Jews would immediately unfold. For the hymn they sang was the remaining Hallel Psalms 115-118, which all Jews would have been completely familiar having sung them regularly all their lives, and which ended with a clear description of God’s salvation that Jesus was about to accomplish. Although a number of other things happened that evening and Jesus taught many other things that were recalled especially by John many years later, Matthew’s purpose was more apologetic than pastoral in presenting Jesus as the promised Messiah whom the Jews were collectively rejecting at the time he wrote.
In Eph 5:19 and Col 3:16 Paul encourages his readers to teach and admonish one another not only with such hymns as that which Jesus sang with His disciples before going out to the Mount of Olives, but with psalms and spiritual songs. What is the difference between these? Notice that whereas song is a more general term (from the Greek word oide, from which we get our word ode); psalms and hymns are more specific. The word for psalm originally referred to the striking of chords of a musical instrument; see 1Sa 16:18 where the LXX uses the word to describe David’s skill in playing the harp or lyre. Psa 71:22 LXX uses the word for giving thanks or praising God with instruments of psalmody; the writer then uses a related verbal form (psallo) to say he would sing to God with the harp. The root meaning of this verbal form also means to cause to vibrate by touching. Like the Hebrew word it translates, it came to refer to making melody with either one’s voice or a musical instrument. Hence, the verse can be understood either as singing with one’s voice while accompanied by the harp, or as playing the instrument to God; i.e., making the instrument to sing. Similarly, Psa 98:5 may be translated, “Make melody (psallo) to the Lord with a lyre, with a lyre and the sound of a psalm (psalmos).” Amo 5:23 LXX says literally that God will not hear the psalm of your organ, referring to a musical instrument. See also Job 21:12, 30:31 where our English flute and its Hebrew equivalent was referred to as a psalm by the LXX, and Psa 81:2 KJV where instrumental accompaniment is also connected to a psalm. Psalms referred to in the New Testament (1Co 14:26, Eph 5:19, Col 3:16) would have reflected the character of the Old Testament psalms and likewise have been understood to carry the connotation of musical accompaniment. We should remember that the Psalms were written largely by David, and David was a psalmist not because he was a poet who spoke or sang, but because he psalmed on the lyre.
Hymns were more specifically a song of praise; cf. Jdg 16:24, 1Ch 16:9, 2Ch 23:13, 29:30, Isa 12:5, 42:10, Act 16:25, Heb 2:12 where our English words sing praises translates the same verb translated in Mat 26:30 as sang a hymn, and that would be translated most literally as hymned. “While the leading idea of psalmos is a musical accompaniment, and that of hymnos praise to God, oide, is the general word for a song, whether accompanied or unaccompanied, whether of praise or on any other subject. Thus it was quite possible for the same song to be at once psalmos, hymnos and oide,” (Thayer’s Greek Lexicon). See also Pro 1:20 and 8:3 and the verses that follow where the LXX has Wisdom, the personification of which is found in Christ, not just shouting or crying out in the public spaces of men, but hymning; i.e., singing aloud as praise to God the great truths by which men might be saved.
Considering the prophetic and theological truths found in the Hallel psalms that the Jews hymned to God as a part of their regular worship, what do these things teach us about the importance of singing for communicating the great and often deep doctrinal truths of Scripture? How does the theological depth of the hymn Jesus sang with His disciples compare with what many Christians today think of as a song of praise? Cf. 1Co 14:15. In what way is the emotion and spirit of a song often able to carry truth deeper into the hearts of people than the cold, sterile logic of an intellectual argument? What does this remind us about the nature of man being more than just intellectual, but emotional, spiritual, and social? Whereas we in western culture tend to exalt the intellectual aspect of man over the other parts of his nature (perhaps because it allows us a greater control of the world that we love?), should we necessarily suppose that those other parts are less important? Or is not every part of his being important because God made him that way for a reason? So again, how important is the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to our worship of God?