SINGING. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up on groups like the Swingle Singers, Association, and Beach Boys and sang in or accompanied choirs throughout high school and college. I was involved with the vocal group GLAD for thirty years and have been leading corporate worship for even longer. I can’t imagine my life without singing.
Maybe you share my love for song. Then again, maybe you don’t. You might be someone who patiently endures the singing on Sunday mornings until you hear what you really came for — the message.
If that’s where you’re at, Martin Luther wants to have a few words with you. Luther loved congregational music and considered music next to theology in importance. He also had no problem saying what was on his mind. In a foreword to a collection of songs arranged for multiple voice parts, he wrote the following:
When man’s natural ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress, and embrace. . . . A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard it [music] as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs. (Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae,” LW 53, cited by Buszin in “Luther on Music,” The Musical Quarterly 32, no. 1 : 85)
We may not want to imitate Luther’s attitude, but we do want to imitate his passion for singing — because God himself is passionate about singing.
God’s Passion for Singing
God’s heart for setting words to melodies is evident from even a casual reading of the Psalms.
Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. (Psalm 96:1–2)
Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! (Psalm 47:6)
In just four verses we’re commanded to sing seven times.
All told, the Bible contains over four hundred references to singing and fifty direct commands to sing. The longest book of the Bible, the Psalms, is a book of songs. And in the New Testament we’re commanded not once, but twice, to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another when we meet (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
Why does God so often tell us not simply to praise him but to sing his praises when we meet? Why not just pray and preach? Why sing? Why are God’s people throughout history always singing? Why words and music and not just words alone? Why does God want us to sing? One reason is that God himself sings. In Zephaniah 3:17 God exalts over his people “with loud singing.”
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus sang hymns with his disciples (e.g., Matthew 26:30). Hebrews 2:12 applies Psalm 22:22 to Jesus when it says, “In the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And Ephesians 5 tells us that one effect of being “filled with the Spirit” is “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (verses 18–19).
We worship a triune God who sings, and he wants us to be like him.
How Music Relates to Words
There’s more to say about why God wants us to sing, but first I want to make a few general comments about how music relates to words. When it comes to combining music and words, Christians tend to fall into one of three categories.
Some Christians think that music supersedes the Word, both in its significance and effect. They think that words without music — and that’s usually a certain kind of music — are dry, unaffecting, and unimportant. They say things like, “Music speaks to me better than words can,” or, “I can’t worship unless I hear the style of music I like.” For these folks, the impact of words is not only helped by music; it’s dependent on it.
“We worship a triune God who sings, and he wants us to be like him.”
Other Christians think that music undermines the Word. As far as they’re concerned, any time you combine music with words in the church, you’re asking for problems. They fear the power that music seems to have over people, so they want to restrict its use.
Augustine acknowledged that struggle in his own soul. In his Confessions he wrote:
I am inclined — though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject — to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood. Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. (Augustine, Confessions, XXXIII.50)
Augustine was conscious of how music can distract us from the Word and potentially even undermine the Word. Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss pastor who lived in the sixteenth century, went even further. He was so concerned about music’s power that for a time he banned music from his meetings.
But music and the Word aren’t meant to be in conflict with each other. God himself wants them together. That’s why he tells us in Psalm 147:1, “Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.” God didn’t intend that music supersede the Word or that music undermine the Word. He gave us music to serve the Word. When that relationship is understood and appreciated, music becomes a powerful gift from God that complements, supports, and deepens the impact of the words we sing.
I’m going to take the rest of this chapter to describe three ways singing serves the Word and what difference it should make in our lives and our churches. My prayer is that by the end you’ll understand better why God tells us so many times to sing to the Lord.
Holy Songs From Happy Saints
By: Charles Sourgeon
“Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved.”- Isa 5:1
IT was a prophet who wrote this, a prophet inspired of God. An ordinary believer might suffice to sing, but he counts it no stoop for a prophet, and no waste of his important time, to occupy himself with song. There is no engagement under heaven that is more exalting than praising God, and however great may be the work which is committed to the charge of any of us, we shall always do well if we pause awhile to spend a time in sacred praise. I would not wish to prefer one spiritual exercise before another, else I think I would endorse the saying of an old divine who said that a line of praise was better than even a leaf of prayer; that praise was the highest, noblest, best, most satisfying, and most healthful occupation in which a Christian man could be found. If these may be regarded as the words of the Church, the Church of old did well to turn all her thoughts in the direction of praising her God. Though the winning of souls be a great thing, though the edifying of believers be an important matter, though the reclamation of backsliders calls for earnest attention, yet never, never, never may we cease from praising and magnifying the name of the well-beloved. This is to be our occupation in heaven: let us begin the music here, and make a heaven of the Church, even here below. The words of the text are, “Now will I sing,” and that seems to give us a starting word.
I. THE STRAINS OF THE SOUL’S SONG.
“Now will I sing.” Does not that imply that there were times when he who spake these words could not sing? “Now,” said he, “will I sing to my well-beloved.” There were times, then, when his voice, and his heart, and his circumstances were not in such order that he could praise God. My brethren, a little while ago we could not sing to our well-beloved, for we did not love him, we did not know him, we were dead in trespasses and sins. Perhaps we joined in sacred song, but we mocked the Lord. We stood up with his people, and we uttered the same sounds as they did, but our hearts were far from him. Let us blush for those mock psalms; let us shed many a tear of repentance that we could so insincerely have come before the Lord Most High. After that, we were led to feel our state by nature, and our guilt lay heavy upon us. We could not sing to our well-beloved then. Our music was set to the deep bass and in the minor key. We could only bring forth sighs and groans. Well do I remember when my nights were spent in grief, and my days in bitterness. It as a perpetual prayer, a confession of sin, and a bemoaning of myself, which occupied all my time. I could not sing then, and if any of you are in that condition to night, I know you cannot sing just now. What a mercy you can pray. Bring forth the fruit which is seasonable, and in your case the most seasonable fruit will be a humble acknowledgement of your sin, and an earnest seeking for mercy through Christ Jesus. Attend to that, and by and by you, too, shall sing to your well-beloved a song. Brethren in Christ Jesus, it is now some years ago since we believed in Christ, but since then there have been times when we could not sing. Alas! for us, there was a time when we watched not our steps, but went astray, when the flatterer led us from the strait road that leads to heaven, and brought us into sin; and then the chastisement of God came upon us, our heart was broken, until we cried out in anguish, as David did in the 51st Psalm. Then if we did sing, we could only bring out penitential odes, but no songs. We laid aside all parts of the book of Psalms that had to do with Hallelujah, and we could only groan forth the notes of repentance. There were no songs for us then, till at last Emmanuel smiled upon us once more, and we were reconciled again, brought back from our wanderings and restored to a sense of the divine favour. Besides that, we have had, occasionally had, to sorrow through the loss of the light of God’s countenance. It is not always summer weather with the best of us. Though for the most part:
“We can read our title clear,
To mansions in the skies,”
yet we have our fasting time when the bridegroom is not with us. Then do we fast. He does not intend that this world should be so much like heaven that we should be willing to stop in it; he, therefore, sometimes passes a cloud before the sun, that we in darkness may cry out, “Oh! that I knew where I might find him! I would come even to his seat.” Even the means of grace at such times will bring us no comfort. We may go to the throne of mercy in private prayer, but we shall perceive but little light even there. If the Lord withdraw himself, there is no merry-making in the soul, but sadness, darkness, and gloom shall cover all. Then we hang our harps upon the willows, and if any require of us a song we tell them we are in a strange land, and the king hath gone-how can we sing? Our heart is heavy, and our sorrows are multiplied. Once more, we cannot very well sing the praises of our well-beloved when the Church of God is under a cloud. I trust we are such true patriots, such real citizens of the new Jerusalem that, when Christ’s kingdom does not advance, our hearts are full of anguish. My brethren, if you happen to be members of a church divided against itself, where the ministry appears to be without power, where there are no additions, no conversions, no spiritual life-then, indeed, you will feel that whatever the state of your own heart, you must sigh and cry for the desolations of the Church of God. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her cunning.” This is the view of every true citizen of Zion, and however our own hearts may flourish, and our souls be like a well-watered garden, yet if we see the place of worship neglected, the Lord’s house dishonoured, the Church diminished and brought low, the gospel held in contempt, infidelity rampant, superstition stalking through the land, the old doctrines denied, and the cross of Christ made to be on none effect-then, again, we feel we cannot sing; our hearts are not in tune, our fingers forget the accustomed string, and not then can we sing to our well-beloved a song.
Singing to the Lord
“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:19 NASB
In many ways, slaves in 18th century America seemed to live a hopeless existence. Yet many had discovered how to have hope. Through faith in Christ.
Rev. John Davies, who had a ministry among slaves, was amazed by the spiritual maturity and hunger many demonstrated. He described how “whenever they could get an hour’s leisure” many of these slaves hurried to spend time reading. They were most eager to read “the Psalms and Hymns,” since they particularly loved the message.
He recalled seeing many slaves in his kitchen at any hour of the night. “Sometimes when I have awakened at two or three in the morning, a torrent of sacred psalmody has poured into my chamber.” Some even spent whole nights singing and praising God. They just couldn’t stop their praises.
The owner of a factory in 1843 had the same reaction. “What is remarkable, their tunes are all psalm tunes and the words are from hymn books; their taste is exclusively for sacred music; they will sing nothing else.” And most of these slaves were actively involved in a local church.
This passion for psalms and singing characterized many slaves. They may have faced physical bondage, but nothing could keep them from praising God. They simply could not contain the joy they found in Christ, and their love for God’s Word.
If these slaves could sing with such enthusiasm, why can’t you?
Today, no matter what you are going through, you can sing unto the Lord. He has given you psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to help remind you of His faithfulness, to give you joy. No matter your level of musical talent, sing and make melody in your heart to Him