The Meaning of "Psallo" in the New Testament
After failing to discover a biblical command, a binding example, or a necessary inference for the use of mechanical instruments in Christian worship, those who advocate the use of such music often somtimes allege that the term psallo includes the use of instrumental music. Psallo is the Greek verb translated “making melody” in Ephesians 5:19, and “I will sing” in 1 Corinthians 14:15. The noun form of this term, psalmos, appears in such passages as 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19, and Colossians 3:16. If one looks up psallo in a Greek lexicon, he probably will find the following definitions: to touch, pull, or pluck; to twitch the strings on a carpenter’s line; to pluck or strike the cords on a musical instrument; to sing praises. Upon reviewing these definitions, some claim that Paul’s use of psallo and psalmos implies the use of a stringed instrument in worship. They further assert that these words always convey the idea of instrumental accompaniment to singing, even if the instrument is not mentioned. Are they correct? If not, why not?
When one studies the etymology of this word, he will find that it is incorrect to say that every time psallo was used in antiquity, it meant to play an instrument. By studying reliable Greek lexicons (dictionaries) and various historical documents, one soon comes to understand that the term psallo has had a variety of meanings in different periods of its history. In fact, the evidence indicates that even before Christ came to Earth, psallo no longer meant to play instruments of music. Numerous scholarly sources could be cited to prove this point, but for the sake of space, three will suffice. First, Walter Bauer’s highly respected lexicon, revised by Frederick Danker in 2000, indicates that even in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament that appeared about 250 years before Christ was born), it “is usually the case” that psallo is translated as only “to sing” (2000, p. 1096). In Henry Thayer’s often-quoted Greek lexicon, he noted that by the time the events recorded in the New Testament took place, psallo meant “to sing a hymn, to celebrate the praises of God in song” (1962, p. 675). Finally, E. A. Sophocles, a native Greek and for thirty-eight years a professor of the Greek language at Harvard University, declared (after examining a plethora of secular and religious historical documents) that there was not a single example of psallo ever used in the time of Christ that involved or implied the use of an instrument; rather, it always meant to chant or sing religious hymns (see Kurfees, 1999, p. 47).
When one wishes to know the definition of a word from times past, he must inquire as to how the word was used at any particular time in history. For example, when one reads the word “prevent” in the King James Version (cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:15), he must understand that this word does not mean the same thing it did when this version was first produced in 1611. Then, it meant “to go before; to precede.” Today, it means “to keep from happening; to impede.” The word “idiot” was used in the seventeenth century in reference to one “in a private station, as distinguished from one holding public office.” Today, it is used to speak of “an unlearned, or ignorant person.” Just as these English words once had meanings that now are entirely obsolete, the Greek word psallo once meant “to pluck or strike the chords of a musical instrument.” But, before the beginning of the New Testament period, it had lost this meaning. In his well-researched book, Instrumental Music in the Worship, M.C. Kurfees noted that the word psallo never is used in the New Testament or in contemporaneous literature to mean anything other than to sing (1999, p. 45). The other meanings had entirely disappeared by the time the New Testament was written.
The fact is, however, even if this word had retained all of its original meanings (and the evidence shows that it had not), the letters Paul penned to the Christians in Ephesus and Colossae specifically name the “plucked” instrument—the heart. Thus, a harp, piano, banjo, or any other kind of musical instrument is not an integral part of psallo.
Danker, Frederick William (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Kurfees, M.C. (1999 reprint), Instrumental Music in the Worship (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate), first published in 1911.
Thayer, Joseph Henry (1962), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).