Perhaps one of the most controversial words in the discussion of music in the church today is the Greek word “psallo.” In the 1923 Boswell-Hardeman debate on instrumental music, Boswell, who represented the Christian church, set forth the argument that instrumental music was permissible in Christian worship today because it was included in the Greek word “psallo.” Brother Hardeman argued that the word did not inherently include the instrument, but required the context to specify the instrument and that the instrument specified in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 was the “heart.” While we cannot cover the gamut of ancient literature in this short study, I would like to briefly look at the word “psallo” and its meaning.
The “Greek-English Lexicon” by Liddell and Scott is considered by most Greek students to be the authority for English word translation. Regarding the word “PSALLW,” the first (I) definition they write, which indicates the basic and most primary use of the word, is: “pluck, pull, twitch … pluck the hair … esp. of the bow-string … twang them … send a shaft twanging from the bow … a carpenter’s red line, which is twitched and then suddenly let go, so as to leave a mark.” The second (II) definition that Liddell and Scott give is as follows: “mostly of the strings of musical instruments, play a stringed instrument with the fingers, and not with the plectron ….” They also write, “2. later, sing to a harp” and they cite Psalms 7:18 and 9:12 in the Septuagint without qualification. But interestingly enough, they also point to Ephesians 5:19 and 1 Corinthians 14:15 but not without qualification. They qualify the word with the object of the “psalloing,” namely, “THi KARDIAi” (the heart) and “TWi PNEUMATI” (the spirit). They recognize that the word in the New Testament is used with fundamentally different objects than in the Septuagint. It is not merely the “psalloing” of the strings of a mechanical instrument, but the “psalloing” of the heart (Ephesians 5:19) and of the spirit (1 Corinthians 14:15). The instrument upon which we “psallo” is specified. It is the “heart” or the “spirit” upon which we play that is to accompany our singing to God.
This all points to the fact that “psallo” does not inherently involve the use of the mechanical instrument of music. The instrument had to be specified by the context in which the word was used. Certainly, the word may be used to refer to the mechanical instrument of music, and often was used that way in many contexts. However, when it came to the worship of the early church, the “psalloing” that they did was upon the heart and the spirit. The context particularly excluded the use of the mechanical instrument by focusing upon the heart and spirit as the instrument. It is for this reason that early Christian writers held to the necessity of singing, not as accompanied by a mechanical instrument, but in making one’s own body the instrument upon which to sing praises to God. Clement of Alexandria writes:
The Spirit, distinguishing from such revelry the divine service, sings, “Praise Him with the sound of trumpet;” for with sound of trumpet He shall raise the dead. “Praise Him on the psaltery;” for the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord. “And praise Him on the lyre.” By the lyre is meant the mouth struck by the Spirit, as it were by a plectrum. “Praise with the timbrel and the dance,” refers to the Church meditating on the resurrection of the dead in the resounding skin. “Praise Him on the chords and organ.” Our body He calls an organ, and its nerves are the strings, by which it has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the Spirit, it gives forth human voices. “Praise Him on the clashing cymbals.” He calls the tongue the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips.” (Emph. Added)
“David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody.” (Emph. Added)
Dozens more quotations could be set forth to show that this was the consensus for musical worship in the early church, namely, that it was the individual Christian who became the instrument upon which to praise God. The Greek word “psallo” does indeed include the idea of “playing,” but that which is played must be specified by the context in which the word is found. In Ephesians 5:19 and 1 Corinthians 14:15, the object is specified, namely, the heart and the spirit. This is why the word is universally translated in these passages “sing” instead of “play.”