Ephesians 5:18-20 – “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”



reproduced from Salvation on the Line, Volume II

“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah to God, even the Father.”

Dunnam describes[1] how the ekklēsia is “an embassy of God’s kingdom set right down in the center of whatever evil orders may be struggling for dominance.”[2] Such a representation of God’s Kingdom must be a haven of His proper and good character, just as Paul says, “So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:17).

A specific example of how not to be foolish, but instead demonstrate God’s wisdom, is detailed by Paul: “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18, RSV). This is probably an allusion to Proverbs 23:31-32, “Do not look on the wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly; at the last it bites like a serpent and stings like a viper.” Paul is very specific in Ephesians 5:18 in telling his audience to not be intoxicated with wine. This is not a prohibition against drinking alcohol, but is rather a prohibition against drunkenness, a trait of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:13). This is similar to the requirement of overseers not being drunkards (1 Timothy 3:3, 8; Titus 1:6). The Apostle Peter commended his audience in how the pagans “are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4).

While some from various traditions will take Ephesians 5:18 as a support for a total prohibition of drinking alcoholic beverages, the very mention of wine (Grk. oinos) indicates how common it was consumed in Mediterranean culture. Certainly while there were wines that were stronger in their alcoholic content than others, the question of whether an alcoholic wine was even consumed is really only asked by American Bible teachers. The United States has an alcohol culture of extremes where people either drink to excess, or fully abstain. The question is not asked by European Bible teachers for whom drinking alcohol in moderation is a part of daily living.[3] The kind of drunk activity that Paul would absolutely be speaking against is that epitomized by the worship of the Greek god Dionysius (Roman Bacchus). The celebration of Dionysia “was often accompanied by drunken excesses, sexual license, and the tearing to pieces of a human or animal victim, symbolizing the god, and the burying of the flesh” (IDB).[4] Antiochus Epiphanes forced the Jews under his rule to observe Dionysia (2 Maccabees 6:7).

We do need to be careful how far we press the point of the Believers in Asia Minor being warned about celebrations such as Dionysia. O’Brien indicates, “Although such cults were widespread, there is nothing to suggest that they had a continuing influence in the churches of Asia Minor.”[5] Yet, drunkenness to an extreme would often lead to wild and lewd sexual orgies in the ancient Mediterranean world, regardless of if a specific deity were in view. This stands in contrast to a glass of wine with dinner, a beer after a hard day of work, or even a nightcap of whiskey. In the Tanach, we see drunkenness associated with the corruption of the Temple priesthood:

“And these also reel with wine and stagger from strong drink: The priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are confused by wine, they stagger from strong drink; they reel while having visions, they totter when rendering judgment” (Isaiah 28:7).

The drinking of alcohol can create a state of joyfulness, as attested by various ancient sources (Philo On Drunkenness 146-148). Yet Paul says that instead of being drunk with wine, Believers are to “be filled with the Spirit”—a clear requirement if they are to be truly filled up to the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). Lincoln validly attests, “Drunkenness leads to disorderly and dissolute behavior, but being filled with the Spirit produces very different results—praise, thanksgiving, and, when the participle of v 21 [hupotassomenoi] is also included, mutual submission.”[6] At Shavuot/Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Believers present and great joy erupted, people looking on mocked them and said, “They are full of sweet wine” (Acts 2:13). The Apostle Peter had to step in and immediately clarify, “For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:15-16), explaining how Joel foretold a time when all would receive the Holy Spirit (Joel 2:28-32), something to be no doubt accompanied by joy.

Some today in the charismatic movement claim that they can get “drunk with the Holy Spirit,” but this is not something that is present in the mind of the Apostle Paul. For his ancient audience, he is contrasting being drunk with wine which leads to gross sexual sins, versus being filled with the Holy Spirit. Those who get drunk are often trying to search for the joy, one which the Holy Spirit provides without the need for alcoholic inducement.

Paul gives some specific examples of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit, that are exactly the opposite of any kind of sexual orgy as would be practiced by the Greeks or Romans. Those filled with the Spirit are to find themselves, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Yeshua the Messiah to God, even the Father” (Ephesians 5:20). This is paralleled by Colossians 3:16-17:

“Let the word of Messiah richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Yeshua, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.”

Being filled with the Holy Spirit causes one “in everything [to] give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Messiah Yeshua” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). The First Century Messianic assembly would have modeled its worship style from the Tanach Scriptures, various Jewish liturgies from the Synagogue, and would have had its own songs and hymns exalting Yeshua (such as the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2:6-10). Spontaneous songs were also a part of some of the early congregations (1 Corinthians 14:15). The comparison and contrast between drunkenness leading to lewd sexual practices, and being filled with the Holy Spirit leading to some kind of worship or thanks issued to God, could not be clearer. In whatever we do today, let it be for God’s glory and not for self-pleasuring.


[1] This entry has been adapted from the author’s commentary Ephesians for the Practical Messianic.

[2] Ibid., 221.

[3] If necessary, consult the FAQ on the Messianic Apologetics website, “Alcohol.”

[4] N. Turner, “Dionysia,” in George Buttrick, ed. et. al., The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 1:844.

[5] O’Brien, Ephesians, 389; cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 343.

[6] Lincoln, Ephesians, 345.