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Sing To The Lord!



Right at the outset, let me state my purpose for this article. I do not aim to give an exhaustive and full treatment of the theology of music, the theology of worship, or anything as thorough as that. But what I hope to do is give a brief statement on the main points of what worship music is and engage with some points of dispute. Consider this a brief statement on a theology of musical worship. It is an effort of one pastor to lead at least his flock in understanding and practicing musical worship in a way that glorifies God and builds one another up.

I am quite aware that music in the church has often been a spicy topic. Opinions abound. Sometimes those opinions grow big and strong and become full-fledged convictions, lodged in the soul with such a grip that seemingly nothing can dislodge them. I am referring to what some have called the "Worship Wars". And like many things it is a bit of a goldilocks problem. "That song was too loud, that song was too soft". "That song was too old, that song was too new". We have spectrums of preferences. But what we need more than preferences and opinions is the Word of God. So let us start there:

Consider these two passages in Ephesians and Colossians:

18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:18-20).

And now Paul to the Colossian Church:

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:16-17).

First Comes the Spirit Then Come the Songs

First of all notice the connection between being filled with the Spirit and letting the word of Christ dwell in you richly. They both lead us to sing. This gives us clarity on what it means to be filled with the Spirit by the way. It is not as some have suggested an ecstatic experience divorced from God's Word. No, it is being richly filled with the truth of God's Word. The Spirit fills us as we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly. And here is my point: It is out of that fullness of the Spirit and of God's Word dwelling in us that we sing. Spirit-filling comes first, then comes singing. Much modern worship, especially in charismatic circles, gets this backwards. They want to use the music to stir up the Spirit as it were. But that is not the biblical pattern. The people of God sing in response to truth.

This is important to note because the design of many worship services in churches today reflects this desire to warm people up through songs to experience the presence of God through more song. But this is not the biblical pattern, nor what we are doing at Redeemer. No, instead we "let the word of Christ dwell in us richly", we begin with God's Word and prayer. We sing in response to God's Word, we sing after hearing the truth read and preached, and we sing in celebration of the truths of the gospel. Our songs express that filling of the Spirit and that dwelling of God's Word. It is out of fullness that we sing.

So that is where we begin. But why do we sing?

We Sing Because This is What the Lord Commands

Well the simple answer is that God commands us to. Right here we see that the church is called to sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. But this command is all throughout the Scriptures. We see it most clearly in the Psalms:

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name (Psalm 30:4).

Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises! (Psalm 47:6)

O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God;
sing praises to the Lord (Psalm 68:32)

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth! (Psalm 96:1)

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! (Psalm 98:4-6)

Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
make melody to our God on the lyre! (Psalm 147:7).

And believe it or not, that is just a small representation of the commands in the Psalms to sing and make music to the Lord. God calls us to sing. We are commanded to do it. But notice that even there it is not a grit your teeth and obey the command kind of obedience. No, far from it! We sing out of joy and thanksgiving to our great God and Saviour. Singing is meant to give expression of our joy, hope, faith, trust, even our sorrows and longings. Music weds the truth to our affections. We could simply say these words of thanksgiving, these words of longing, these words of sorrow – but to add to them appropriate melody is frankly a miracle of God's creative design in this world.

Music is God's Good Gift

John MaCArthur puts it very well:

"So what is music? It is the gift of God, common grace to the world, to give them a means of expressing their emotion. That's the broad part of music: their joys, their sorrows, their hopes, their aspirations, their disappointments. But for believers, it is a gift of God to allow believers to give expression of gratitude to God for who He is, what He's done, and particularly for our salvation. The redeemed sing. Music reaches its highest level among Christians, its greatest usage among Christians. The music of the church is just that: it's the song of the redeemed." – (John MacArthur Is Music Worship?)

We have in music this great combination of melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, and pitch. And these things have a certain objectivity to them. While tastes vary, everyone can distinguish a sad song from a joyful one, a triumphant crescendo from a steady march. And with that, these different musical backdrops can pair well or not so well with different truths of the gospel. There is a place for a mournful longing to be expressed and that of a triumphant resolve. We see these both take shape in Psalm 42 as the Psalmist both laments his sad state and then resolves to put his hope in God. And I would argue that these truths were beautifully paired with music by Matt Boswell and Matt Papa in their song Lord from Sorrows Deep I Call. And sometimes we need to make a bold declaration, not a sorrowful and longing one, like with Luther's great hymn A Mighty Fortress. There the music pairs with the truths beautifully to give a triumphant note for a triumphant truth.

In all of this we see that music, like the truths of the Christian faith is vast and varied. There is a type of song for every season, a melody to express every affection of the human heart.

So What Should We Sing?

I hope that you can see from this brief reflection that we ought to sing, that we are commanded to sing, that singing is a gift to us, and that singing is to be used in our worship of God. But what should we sing? What songs are appropriate? Well, that is an easy question. Let us go back to the Scriptures read earlier:

From Ephesians:
[sing] psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart

And from Colossians:
singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Notice, where these songs are sung from – or what they are sung with. With your heart. With thankfulness in your hearts to God. Before we bring in our opinions and tastes, or our debates and convictions, please don't miss this. Musical worship is meant to be an activity of the heart. If we sing the right kind of songs but with the wrong kind of heart, we are not being biblical. In fact, it would be better to sing a song with a deficient melody, or with poetically lame lyrics, but to sing it with a thankful heart, than it would be to sing a perfect song with a cold heart. Yes, we want the melody and style to be fitting, yes we want the poetry to be smooth, yes we want it to be played and sung well, but none of these things are even remotely as important as worshipping God from your heart. If you are standing on the sidelines not singing because you don't like a song's style or feel, you are failing to obey God's command to sing, and you are not worshipping God with a thankful heart. We must be mature about these things, and roll with the punches. If the church musicians bobble the song or the song is kind of lame – why should that stop you from doing your level best to sing these words with a heart of thankfulness to God? It shouldn't. Keep the main things the main things. It is the singing together as a church in heartfelt worship to our God that is most important – not your preferences, not your vision for what really good worship music would be like. I repeat: it would be better to sing a deficient song with a heart of thanksgiving, than to sing a "perfect" song with a heart that is cold.

But back to the question – what should we sing? The verse tells us. Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. While I can't get into all of the background on these words just now, a brief study will show that they are different categories for the types of songs the church will sing. Psalms is obvious, it refers to our great biblical songbook the Psalms filled with songs to magnify God's glory. The word for hymns usually refers to songs of thanksgiving for salvation, but perhaps could contain a style component as well. And spiritual songs are various songs of testimony and of dedication to God. In this we have a great variety of expression. We are free to take from the Psalms and sing parts of the Psalms or whole Psalms. We are free to write songs based on the Scriptures and the gospel that give thanks for salvation – hymns. And we as the church catholic write and sing many more spiritual songs throughout the centuries and throughout the years, adding new ones all the time.

A Note on Singing Psalms

When we think of singing Psalms we need to remember that no matter what we do we will not be singing the Psalms as David and other Scripture writers exactly wrote them. In order to do that we would need to sing them in Hebrew and find the missing song sheets! No, we are translating into various languages which by necessity requires some adjustments to sing it poetically. Additionally the choices of melodies can be done well or done poorly, but like I said we have no song sheets. Singing Psalms in Africa, Thailand, Scotland, or Canada will look different. Some would insist on singing the Psalms in a certain style (namely the Scottish Psalter). But I see no biblical warrant for doing that. To sing a Psalm or part of a Psalm in a modern style, a hymn style, or an African tribal style can all be appropriate and glorifying to God. The main thing is to sing songs that come right out of Scripture or songs that convey the theological truths that we find in Scripture. Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual songs can all do that.

Sunday Worship and You

So as you can see, we have much to work with. We can wed the Psalms to melodies, we can write new songs of praise and thanksgiving, we can discover old hymns of the church. We can sing in diverse styles trying to fit the truth to appropriate melodies.

This is what I have aimed to do as a pastor. When I choose songs for Sunday, my criteria is to choose songs that we can sing congregationally, that marry together truth and music in a fitting way, and that ultimately express the truths of the gospel. Lyric and melody are both important here – but the truths we sing are paramount.

As we look at worship music in church history and in our day we see a lot of excesses. We see songs that are devoid of meaningful content and theology, we see sappy and sentimental songs, we see eastern mantra-like songs that drone on the same lyric for 12 minutes, we see music that is over-the-top and music that doesn't fit with the truth of who our God is. We rightly react against these things. But sometimes we don't react in a thoughtful way. My concern is that in making a true critique of some of these excesses, many of us go too far and write-off more than we should. If emotionalism is dangerous, then down with emotion we say. Let's be stoics. If too much instrumentation can lead to a performance then let us do away with all instruments. Let's be accapella. If many modern songs are going in the wrong direction, then let us only sing hymns at least 200 years old, or better yet, just the Psalms. But this is immature thinking, and more importantly it is not biblical.

We lay the blame at modern worship music, when there are old hyms just as sappy and innapropriate as some modern songs; and there are ancient songs as repetitive and mind-numbing as some modern ones as well. We shouldn't react against modern. There is nothing intrinisically wrong with a song being new. Remember the command sing to the Lord a new song? Right. Neither should we react wholesale against all repetition. Some truths bear repeating! Just look at Psalm 136, His steadfast love endures forever is on repeat for 26 verses! We shouldn't react against instrumentation and diversity of melody. Just consider the Psalms and all the references to instruments. We shouldn't react against the emotional element of music either; remember it is designed to give voice to our affections. We should instead be wise and thoughtful in what we sing, and how we sing it. And at this point this becomes more a matter for church leadership, for the elders to lead the congregation in singing songs that are excellent in these things. For all of us, we should simply come to church and joyfully as Paul instructs, sing and make melody to the Lord with our hearts. It is in that heartfelt, God-centred worship that we showcase the reality that we are indeed those who worship the Father in spirit and in truth.

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him (John 4:23).

When we are filled with the Spirit and when the word of Christ dwells in us richly, truly then we will worship with our whole lives, including in songs of heartfelt worship. So Christian, don't hold back. Sing to the Lord!

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Sunday, 19 May 2024