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 Vol. 5, No. 9 

September 2003

~ Page 12 ~

Psallo and Psalmos

By Hugo McCord

Image A sincere brother wonders why do we have the right to say that the terms psallo and psalmos lost all connection to the instrument by the time of the writing of the New Testament. If the early church was in fact using the LXX [Septuagint, Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made by 72 Jewish translators in Alexandria Egypt in the second or third century B.C.] version of the OT, then they would be very familiar with the book of Psalms. And since that would be true, how could Paul's use of these terms be significantly different?

No one has such a right. The terms psallo and psalmos had not "lost all connection to the instrument by the time of the writing of the New Testament," nor since. On the contrary, in the very century in which the NT was written, psallo could mean "sing" or "play," depending on what the writer had in mind. Josephus, in the first century A.D., wrote of some who "psallowed on the harp" (Antiq., 6:8,2), in which example psallo could not mean, "sing."

I have seen three other examples in print with psallo meaning "play": (1) in the first century, Strabo (Geography, 1:23; 14:2,26); (2) in the first century, Plutarch (Life of Pericles, 1:5); (3) in the second century, Lucian (The Parasiste 17). A second century inscription is cited by Moulton and Milligan (Vocabulary, psalmos) in which psalmos signifies a song sung with a harp.

Likewise, Paul commanded Christians to do two things: aido and psallo (Ephesians 5:19). If in Paul's time psallo meant "'sing' exclusively, . . . with no reference to instrumental accompaniment (Baer-Gingrich-Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon to the New Testament, p. 891, 2nd edition, 1979), and aido meant the same thing, then Paul was commanding "singing [aidontes] and singing [psallontes]." Apparently, Paul was commanding both singing and playing.

But on what was the playing to be done? He did not command it to be done on a harp or psaltery or a timbrel, as the LXX (translated 285-247 B.C.) commanded in Psalm 32:2-3; 67:26; and 70:22, nor as the NASB (translated 1971 A.D.) commanded in Psalm 33:2-3; 68:25; 71:22), but "with your heart" (Ephesians 5:19).

If the instrument specified was a harp or a psaltery or a timbrel, the playing necessarily had to be literal, with each Christian at Ephesus having his own harp or psaltery or timbrel (as the Hebrew and the Greek and the English versions of the Book of Psalms specify). But the instruments specified for the Ephesian Christians were their hearts, on which literal playing was impossible.

Therefore, psallo in Ephesians 5:19 cannot mean "singing," but only "playing," and the playing has to be figurative, that is, "plucking the strings of the heart," "with no reference to instrumental accompaniment" (B-G-D, p. 891, second edition, 1979). The NASB has "making melody with your heart."

Thus two things are commanded: (1) singing, external, "the fruit of the lips" (Hebrews 13:15) and (2) playing, internal, "with your heart" (Ephesians 5:19). Since the earliest meaning of psallo (strengthened from psao, to touch) is to strike, pull, twang, or pluck, the translation of Ephesians 5:19 becomes: speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing [aido] and plucking [psallo] the strings of your heart to the Lord.Image

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