By Daniel H. King

In all likelihood, the most difficult and confusing aspect of argumentation for or against the inclusion of the instrument in worship is that which surrounds the Greek verb psallo. This is true for a number of reasons, but one of the most obvious is the fact that most people do not consider themselves qualified to evaluate the evidence, since they do not possess the linguistic expertise to follow either the simplest references or the long and drawn-out exercises in deduction that cannot fail to appear before the issue has been laid to rest (at least in the mind of the writer). A second major difficulty lies with the scholars themselves, the sources to which we must all go to derive first their opinions as to the meanings of the word, and second their reasonings behind their opinions. Sad to say, scholars have not changed through the many centuries that have followed the dictum of Horace (65-8 B.C.): Grammatici certant et adhuc sub iudice lis est, i.e. “scholars dispute, and the case is still before the courts.” One may quote renowned scholars on both sides of any issue, I would guess, but I am certain that one can do so on this question.

The problem here is that scholars are human beings and have the same prejudices as the rest of humanity, and in some cases a few more. So, how shall we proceed? To begin with, we shall try with our might to keep the present discussion on the level of the average man so as not to lose you in the shuffle. Second, we will try not to think of men above that which is written (I Cor. 4:6), using sources as merely indicators of human opinion on the issue and not as though they were to be equated with the divine voice.

Psallo’s “Roots”

There appears to be a virtual agreement on the first meaning that the word psallo had, long before Paul utilized it in the form psallontes in Eph. 5:19. It is usually rendered there “making melody.” But at the beginning it signified “to touch sharply, to pluck, pull, twitch, to twang” (Liddell and Scott). That which was touched, plucked, pulled, twitched or twanged could be almost anything. For instance, one might pluck the hair, twang the bowstring, twitch the carpenter’s line, or touch the strings of a harp – and in every case could communicate the idea of doing so by use of the word psallo. Yet in each case he would show by other elements in the sentence or general context what the object of the plucking, twitching, twanging, or touching was. It was in no case inherent within the word itself what its object would be. A modern example would be the word “ride.” One could, let us say, ride a horse, a bull in a rodeo, a car, a truck, or even a jet plane – and in every case he could communicate what he was doing via the word “ride.” But the context would naturally have to show what the object of the riding was. “I rode a camel.” This sentence would, by virtue of simple context and the law of exclusion, communicate the idea that the individual under consideration rode a camel. He did not ride a boat, train, horse, cow, etc. This in spite of the fact that the word “ride” could well communicate that idea if the context demanded it.

In the same way, psallo certainly early had the potential of acting as the communicative vehicle of the idea of instrumental music, along with plucking the hair and twanging the bowstring, etc. But the context had to evince this meaning. Instruments have never at any time in the history of the word inhered in the term any more than camel, horse, boat or train inhere in the word “ride.”

This simple approach to the word is devastating to the cause of those who make the contention that instrumental music in inherent in Paul’s very use of the word psallo in Eph. 5:19. Yet another element must also come into focus. As a matter of simple observation of the ancient texts, it is clear that psallo at some point lost entirely the ability to connote instrumental music and came to mean only unaccompanied singing. This is attested by E.A. Sophocles’ Greek Lexicon of the Roman and Byzantine Periods (From B.C. 146 to A.D. 1100). He defines it as only to “chant, sing religious hymns.” Modern Greek retains this meaning and the Greek Orthodox Church, obviously made up of people who speak Greek, does not make use of mechanical instruments.

Many have argued, and I believe rightly so, that this change took place under the influence of ecclesiatical usage. Since the early church did not use instruments of music in its worship, the word no longer was used in contexts where such a meaning was required and so simply came to mean “to sing.” Everett Ferguson cites a comparable development in the case of the Latin psaltere, which meant at the first to “play upon a stringed instrument” or “sing to the cithara” (Lewis and Short, A Latin Dictionary, p. 1483), but under the influence of church practice came to mean “chant” or “sing a psalm” (A Cappella Music in the Public Worship of the Church, 2nd ed., p. 3).

The Harp Mandatory for All

Of those who have made the absurd contention that the instrument is inherent in the word psallo, few have been willing to acept the certain consequences of their position. Two dreadful necessities would follow as surely as night follows day were this view shown to be correct. Firstly, if the word psallo means “to pluck the strings of a harp”, then a harp is absolutely essential to acceptable worship! What Paul tells Christians to do when he commands them to psallo is not a matter suitable for argument insofar as the obligatory aspect is concerned. It is a commandment. Once we have determined what he meant by what he said there is no room for argument on that count. If he intended for us to “sing and make melody with the heart” as all of the major translations suggest, then the commandment is for us to do just that. But if Paul means for us to pluck the strings of the harp, then no one has the right to substitute an organ or a piano, etc. for what inheres in the word! Further, worship in song which does not include the harp must be considered unacceptable.

Second, if the word psallo means “to pluck the strings of a harp” in Eph. 5:19, then a harp is absolutely essential for everyone. It is not enough for one member of the audience or even a few to engage in this. The commandment is for the whole church. Read this and the parallel passages again. All are to “speak one to another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with their hearts to the Lord.” Once more, if instrumental music inheres in the word itself, then worship in song which does not include each individual playing or “plucking” on a harp is necessarily unacceptable worship.

These are the logical consequences of this position. Yet, as you might expect, no one is willing to accept them. For example, Tom Burgess in his book Documents on Instrumental Music argues that psalmos and psallontes is “singing with instrumental accompaniment” (pp. 114, 118). But seeing where this is logically leading him, he writes: “Paul gives us three ways whereby we might admonish one another in song. A person doesn’t need to do all three” (p. 117). Did the Apostle Paul say that a Christian does not need to do all three? No! He commanded all three. But Tom Burgess knew that in order to get himself out of the corner that he had painted himself into, he would have to loose where God had bound. The same sort of abandoning of their position may be expected in all cases. I think that I can say without fear of contradiction that you will look in vain for someone who will accept both this position on psallo and its logical consequences. What proves too much proves nothing!

Unreasonable Demand

We could spend a great deal of time citing the ancient literary and ecclesiastical texts which use the word psallo, but would rather refer the reader to such fine works as M.C. Kurfee’s Instrumental Music in the Worship, James D. Bales’ Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, and that of Ferguson cited above, and calmly reason with the reader on the matter. Really now, is it entirely or even partially logical to believe that Paul commanded all Christians to “pluck the strings of the harp”? It is likely that no greater number of people could play an instrument then than can play one now. That being so, how could Paul have enjoined such a thing upon a readership made up of people who were mostly completely ignorant of musical instruments? It would have then constituted an utterly unreasonable demand upon such folk. And it would be no less so today. But that is not what Paul commanded. Those who make the argument know it as well as I do. It is purely a device to give some semblance of scriptural sanction for what is completely devoid of scriptural authority or divine favor.

Again, is it reasonable to believe that James made it imperative for all those who were cheerful to “pluck the strings of the harp”? No, what James commands in James 5:13 is possible for all: all who are suffering may pray; and all who are joyful may sing (psalleto). Those non-harpplaying Christians then as well as non-harp-playing Christians now may easily obey the injunction of James. His command does not contain the unreasonable demand that all who are cheerful must learn to play a musical instrument before they can heed his advice. Yet that is precisely the demand if instrumental music inheres in psallo, all of the cunning bamboozlements of its advocates notwithstanding.

The Translators Dispute This Contention

Usually when an argument is made that turns upon the meaning of the original language of Scripture, the best and sometimes only method that the Bible student unlettered in these ancient and therefore mysterious tongues may pursue is a careful examination of the rendering of the word or words by the best of modern scholarship, i.c. through the standard translations of the Bible into English. Such versions as the King James, American Standard, Revised Standard, New English, etc. will give him a fair assessment of the meaning without requiring several years of language study as a prerequisite. Such a proliferation of translations is indeed a blessing, and should make it simple for even the most untutored to gain great insight into the meaning of the original. It would be a good idea for every Bible student to collect a good selection of translations for this very purpose in his own private study and class preparation.

One of the things that we might observe along this line is that when some student or even scholar must base his faith upon the ingenious and obscure treatment of the original text, in plain contradiction of the common rendering given in the standard translations, then he is, in all likelihood, on the wrong track. Two examples will illustrate: most of us have met Baptists who argue that the word eis in Acts 2:38 means “because of,” yet they do so in spite of the fact that they cannot produce one standard translation that has ever so rendered the preposition in this verse. Too, the Jehovah’s Witness cultists argue with all sorts of vigor that the standard translations are incorrect in a host of key passages, passages which, it just so happens, totally refute their doctrines and manifest that their whole doctrinal system is a fraud. We ought therefore to always look more than slightly askance at any theory that cleverly tries to cast aside the labors of the ripest translators of our time or of the past.

What I am getting at here is that the view that suggests the instrument inheres in the word psallo fits precisely into this category. Look at the major translations and see for yourself:

King James: Eph. 5:19 singing and making melody in your heart

Js. 5:13 Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

Rom. 15:9 and sing unto thy name.

1 Cor. 14:15 I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

American Standard: Eph. 5:19 singing and making melody with your heart

Js. 5:13 Is any cheerful? let him sing praise

Rom. 15:9 And sing unto thy name.

1 Cor. 14:15 I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Revised Standard: Eph. 5:19 singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.

Js. 5:13 Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise.

Rom. 15:9 and sing to thy name.

1 Cor. 14:15 I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also.

New English: Eph. 5:19 sing and make music in your hearts to the Lord

Js. 5:13 Is anyone in good heart? He should sing praises.

Rom. 15:9 and sing hymns to thy name.

1 Cor. 14:15 1 will sing hymns as I am inspired to sing, but I will sing intelligently too.

New American Standard: Eph. 5:19 singing and making melody with your heart

Js. 5:13 Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises.


1 Cor. 14:15 1 shall sing with the spirit and I shall sing with the mind also.

New International: Eph. 5:19 Sing and make music in your heart

Js. 5:13 Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.

Rom. 15:9 I will sing hymns to your name.

1 Cor. 14:15 I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.

A further investigation of other translations would only reveal more of the same. In his attempt to gain some form of authority from Bible translations, Tom Burgess (Documents on Instrumental Music, pp. 81 ff) along with others of his stripe, is forced to run to such translations as have been made by an individual rather than a committee of scholars and are, at best, of only minimal importance. Such translations amount to no more than one individual’s view of the situation which obtained in the early church and do not constitute a serious rendition of the Greek text. From such Bibles it could be demonstrated that Peter was prone to cursing: “May you and your money go to hell!” (The New Testament in Today’s English Version; Acts 8:20; translated by Robert G. Bratcher); and from the same version that the early disciples ate the Lord’s Supper on Saturday night (Acts 20:7); that Paul slammed an imaginary “dispensational door” in the closing verses of Acts (The Concordant Version, 1919); that the Eunuch was sitting in his “car” when approached in Acts 8 by Philip (The New Testament – An American Translation, by Edgar Goodspeed, 1923); such uncouth a rendering as “You illegitimate bastard, you!” (Jn. 9:34 in The Living Bible, by Kenneth Taylor) and the doctrine of original sin from the same version, “But I was born a sinner, yes, from the moment my mother conceived me,” Psa. 51:5. One can find almost anything among these translations that he could wish. It is always a sign of a weak argument when one must resort to such authority for one’s position.

Yet this is what Burgess and others must do in order to plead their case. Burgess cites J.B. Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible, which translated Eph. 5:19 as “Singing, and striking the strings with your heart . . . .” W.G. Ballantine’s 1923 Riverside New Testament is another witness, “singing and playing the harp heartily to the Lord . . . .” Burgess is obviously desperate! As a matter of fact such witnesses could be cited on almost any side of any issue. What the Greek literally says is clear from the way that the standard translations have universally rendered the texts in the citations above. What one or more scholars may think about what the early church did may well be based upon what they are practicing in their own denomination at a particular moment in history, rather than what the Greek actually says or the early church actually did. Once more I repeat that those who maintain this position cannot offer a single major translation that supports their rendering of psallo!

Heart the Instrument

If there is any sense whatever in which psalla should be rendered “play” as the pro-instrumentalists suggest, then it is plain that Paul through inspiration of the Holy Spirit has named the instrument upon which we must play, e.g. the human heart. As James Bales has written, “This is a fitting contrast with the Old Testament, for the New is preeminently spiritual (Jn. 4:23-24). David psalloed with his hands (1 Sam. 16:23), but we with our hearts (Eph. 5:19). The instrument is named in Psa. 33:2 and it was the tenstringed psaltery, but in the New it is the heart. Just as circumcision is spiritual – is of the heart (Rom. 2:28-29; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11), just so the instrument is spiritualized, i.e. it is the heart.” (Instrumental Music and New Testament Worship, p. 146).


  1. How do you view the fact that well-known scholars may be cited on both sides of this question?
  2. What was the original meaning of the word psallo?
  3. Does an instrument of music inhere in the word psallo? Does water inhere in the word baptizo (bpptism)? Were there other baptisms in the Bible besides baptism in water? How does this relate to psallo?
  4. Give other examples of English words besides “ride” which do not contain their object as inherent within themselves.
  5. Did the meaning of psallo change at any point in its history? If so, why did it change?
  6. How does the Latin word psaltere compare with psallo in this aspect of its development?
  7. Some have suggested that all Christians do not have to psallo? What is their reasoning behind this, and how would you evaluate their argument?
  8. How does the view that considers psallo to mean “play the harp” constitute an unreasonable demand upon Christians?
  9. Do the standard translations of the Bible into English support the view that instrumental music is intrinsic in the word psallo? Can you offer other translations of the Bible in defence of this point?
  10. How should we see a point of view which must go for its support to obscure and undistinguished translations as opposed to the standard Bible translations? Do any of the standard translations render psallo as “play” in any of the four places where it occurs in the New Testament?
  11. What is the instrument upon which Paul specifies that Christians must “play” if we render it so? How does this relate to Old Testament worship?

Truth Magazine XXIV: 20, pp.325-328
May 15, 1980