A Brief Examination of “Psallo” and Its New Testament Context With Regards to Instrumental Music in Worship

By Michael J. Schmidt

Much has been written over the years concerning the acceptability of instrumental music in worship to God. Much, if not most, of what has been written has centered in the controversy over the Greek verb psallo. It would obviously, then, be quite presumptuous and fruitless for someone with as meager an academic background as myself to attempt to shed some great new light on the subject or dazzle the world with my brilliant conclusions. The position I hold has already been stated by hundreds, in greater detail and in a far more erudite fashion. It is my sincere hope, however, that the truth be explained and not hidden; that is why I have to limit the scope of this paper. I make no pretense to be comprehensive, even in the areas I include. I have chosen to examine the arguments surrounding the verb psallo because I feel that it is the strongest of all the arguments that have been made to try to justify instrumental music in worship. This subject, then, needs to be scrutinized, the evidence weighed, and the truth taught and lived by. A general knowledge of the arguments surrounding psallo is greatly needed by the “average” Christian. An instrumentalist with only a rudimentary knowledge of the Greek, or in many cases none at all, can seriously damage the faith of one who is not familiar with this particular approach to the subject.

In sifting through much material, I have tried to compile what I think are the most basic and valuable evidences to demonstrate that the verb psallo must be interpreted within its context to be properly understood. A corollary to this is that the verb does not inherently contain its object and therefore psallo does not justify the use of instruments in worship to God.

“Psallo” In Pre-New Testament Usage

First, and very fundamentally, it is necessary to examine he historical and linguistic background of the New Testament problem. Relative to Classical period of the Greek language, Liddell and Scott said that psallo meant “to pluck; to play on a stringed instrument.”1 The root meaning carries the idea of plucking or vibrating. The Byzantine period of the language covered the period from 300 A.D. to 500 A.D. Sophocles wrote a famous lexicon during this period (his work spanned from 146 B.C. to 1100 A.D.) in which he defined the verb as “to chant; to sing religious hymns.” 2 In modern Greek psallo has been shaped by ecclesiastical usage and means simply “to sing.”‘ We will analyze this shift in meaning later, but for now the conclusion is obvious that psallo has changed.

Another important aspect of this question to note initially is that in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), the instrument did not inhere in the meaning of the verb psallo. It is true that psallo refers to instrumental music when it translates the Hebrew word nagan (I Sam. 16:1618,23; 18: 10; 19:9), but in these cases there is reference to the instruments in the context. It is also probable, but not as clear, that the translator understood “playing” from the general context even in the cases where the instrument is not mentioned (2 Kgs. 3:15; Psa. 33:3; 68:25).4

Psallo occurs most frequently as a translation of zamar. It is defined as “make music in praise of God.”5 This is the case in these passages: Psa. 33:12; 71:22; 98:5; 144:9; 147:7; 149:3. Psallo is here translated “to play”. The Greek construction in each instance, however, is psallo followed by the preposition en (“with” or “on”) and the name of the instrument, and where the Lord is mentioned (as the indirect object) His name is in the simple dative case.6 The point isthe context here mentions the instrument.

Another interesting fact is that in nearly every case the Septuagint translators have paired psallo with a word that means “to sing” (Psa. 18:49-quoted in Rom. 15:9; Psa. 30:4; Psa. 138:1; Psa. 05:3; Psa. 146:2). The word is most often joined with ado-“sing” (Judges 5:3; Psa. 13:6; 21:13; 27:6; 57:7; 59:16ff; 68:4; 68:32; 101:1; 104:33).7 This usage of Hebrew parallelism. as understood by the translators, demonstrates that the ideas of “psallo-ing” and “ado-ing” are basically equivalent. Everett Ferguson, Professor at Abilene Christian College, pointed out that:

AUnless one is prepared to insist that in each instance of parallelism ‘psallo’ is meant to add a new dimension of playing, surely it is most natural to take these parallel expressions as synonomous statements.8

Thus, it is obvious that the object of the verb (instrument) did not inhere in psallo in the Septuagint because either the object is named, the context refers to instruments, or it is paired with a word meaning “to sing” in Hebrew parallelism.

New Testament Usage

The second major area of consideration is the New Testament usage of psallo. Some preliminary considerations are in order. First, the idea of plucking, pulling or twanging can be traced throughout the entire history of the word, but it did not originally involve music as such. 9 It could be used of plucking a bowstring, a carpenters line, a beard, or some such thing. But that does not mean that Paul authorized all of these in Ephesians 5: 19. As Hugo McCord stated in a letter to J. D. Bales on November 16, 1962:

AIf one grants that the three meanings (strike strings as of a harp or bow-literal meaning; strike strings of the heart-figurative meaning; sing-resultant meaning) may be used by anybody in any age, then the only pertinent inquiry is: which of these is in the New Testament? Examination shows no instance of the literal, once of the figurative (Eph. 5:19), four of the resultant (Rom. 15:9; 1 Cor. 14:15; James 5:13).10

Certainly psallo in the New Testament does not have all the meanings which it has ever had, and one must determine from the context how it is used.11

Another thing to keep in mind is that words do change meanings. A striking example of this is our word “lyric.” It was once entirely associated with the lyre a musical instrument. It became associated with a song accompanied by instrumentation, and now simply means the song itself.

On page 94 of his book Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, James D. Bales illustrates how important the context is in determining the meaning of a word. He stated:

AThe meaning of a word must not be considered only in the light of its history, but of the context in which it is used. In the view of most religious people today, the word ‘baptism’ conveys the meaning either of sprinkling, pouring or immersion. They view them all as baptism. However, when I use the term ‘baptism’, I have reference to New Testament baptism which is immersion, unless the context indicates otherwise.12

Mr. Bales is saying that if someone read his works and did not realize that he used “baptism” in a restricted sense, they would likely misunderstand him. He could, however, use the term in a figurative sense, as Jesus did in Mk. 10:38, and only the context would tell one this. Thus in the case of the verb psallo, the context most naturally indicates that we are to psallo with the heart (as the object of the verb) to the Lord (Eph. 5:19).

Much has been made by the instrumentalists of a statement by Lucian to the effect that “One cannot strum (psallien) without a lyre.”13 As Bales points out, “unless one considers the context, it would have to be concluded from Lucian that to ‘psallien’ one must- not only use an instrument, but that it must be a lyre.14

It is obvious that one must consider the context of Lucian’s statement. But, then those who try to place inherent, a-contextual meanings on psallo must either be illogical or admit that the context is crucial in interpretation. Lucian named his instrument in the context. The only instrument in the context in Ephesians is the heart.15 The plucking is inherent in the verb, the instrument is not. Martin H. Cressy summed up this point when he said that “only within their syntactical environment do words function.”16

Since we have seen that psallo is used in many ways and that the context of a word has an important bearing on its meaning, let us examine the specific context of the New Testament. It should be clear that the early Christians did not use the Greek Old Testament as their standard of authority in determining the significance of words. Acts 2:42 points out that they continued in the apostles’ doctrine. When examining the New Testament, however, it should be noted that the apostles used Old Testament figures to explain the new concepts. For example, the Ephesians were accustomed to using the word ekklesia to refer to a mob, however they knew that Paul used it in a different sense. They did not think that the church was old physical Israel. Terms such as “priesthood” lost their physical meanings and took on a spiritual significance. We do not “praise” God in the same way as the ancient Jews did, even though the same term is used in both Testaments. We must put the worship and all other aspects of the New Testament into their proper, broad context of being a part of a better, spiritual covenant. It should then be clear that understanding the broad context of a word is essential, and that “the words ‘psalmos’ and ‘psallein’ in the New Testament do not afford evidence of the use of instrumental music in the early church.”17 Perhaps one of the most striking evidences concerning the context of psallo in the New Testament is the fact that if the verb included instruments, the early church did not understand it that way. Bales points out that “church historians, historians of music and others usually agree that it (the instrument) was not used.”18

In summary of the entire affair, let us draw some conclusions and make some closing observations. The purpose of this work has been to demonstrate that psallo must be taken in light of its specific, and broad, New Testament context to be properly interpreted. The New Testament is a spiritual covenent and so it is reasonable that the Old Testament figures should be interpreted figuratively. This is especially true of psallo because of the nature of the word and the fact that it is most logical to conclude that the heart is the instrument. It was also an objective of this paper to demonstrate that the verb itself does not inherently contain the object of the instrument. The historical background was touched upon to show this, with special emphasis upon the Septuagint as evidence. I feel that it is clear that much evidence supports the conclusion that if the use of instrumental music in worship to God is acceptable, it is not justified by the Greek verb “psallo.”


1 . Liddell and Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 2018.

2. Ferguson, Everett, A Capella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, (Abilene: Biblical Research Press), p. 5.

3. Ibid, p9 1.

4. Ibid, p. 5.

5. Ibid, p. 5.

6. Bales, James D Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, (Searcy: James 6. Bales), p. 88.

7. Ferguson, p. 6.

8. Ibid, p. 6.

9. Roberson, Charles Heber, “The Meaning and Use of Psallo (Part I)” Restoration Quarterly, (Abilene, Texas), Vol. VI, No. 6, p. 31.

10. Bales, p. 92.

11. Ibid, p. 92.

12. Ibid, p. 94.

13. Ibid, p. 94.

14. Kurfees, M. C., “Review of John B. Cowden’s Tract on ‘Instrumental Music in the Church’ and reply to J. B. Briney’s Friendly Criticism”, Gospel Advocate Company, Nashville, Tennessee, January 25,1917, p. 7.

15. Ibid, p. 49.

16. Cressy, Martin H., Christianity Today, August 3, 1962, p. 154.

17. Smith, William Shepard, Musical Aspects of the New Testament, (Amsterdam: Utgeverij, W. Ten Have N.V.), 1962, p, 47.

18. Bales, p. 100.

Truth Magazine, XVIII:35, p. 10-12
July 11, 1974