Founders Journal 90 · Fall 2012 · pp. 21-41
What Then Shall We Sing?
From the teaching notes of a series taught at Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, Florida on August 22 and 29, 2010
Used by Permission
Part 1: Thoughts on Music
My focus for this brief study is music–the music we make, sing and hear around us. I want to share with you some thoughts on music and consider how we can use and enjoy music both in our times of gathered worship and in all of life.
I have 10 questions that I want to address and answer. The first five relate to music in general–music that we employ and enjoy in all of life.
Part 1 — Thoughts on Music
1) What is music?
2) What does music communicate?
3) How does music communicate?
4) Can music be evil or worldly?
5) What music can we enjoy as Christians?
The last five relate specifically to music in the context of gathered worship.
Part 2 — Thoughts on Music and Worship
6) What is the relationship between music and worship?
7) Can all music be used equally well in worship?
8) What does music add to our worship?
9) What should worship music sound like?
10) Should all Christians sing the same music in worship?
We begin with the first question:
I. What Is music?
There are many ways to describe and define music. I want to give you three ways to think about music that will be helpful in laying the groundwork of our study.
A. Music is a gift of God
Music comes from God; it belongs to God; it serves His purposes. Listen to how some of the Reformers spoke about music:
Among all other things which are proper for recreation of man and for giving him pleasure, music is the first or one of the principal and we must esteem it as a gift of God given to us for that purpose [from John Calvin’s Preface to the Geneavan Psalter, 1543].
Music is a beautiful and glorious gift of God and close to theology. I would not give up what little I know about music for something else which I might have in greater abundance. We should always make it a point to habituate youth to enjoy the art of music, for it produces fine and skillful people [Martin Luther, 1538].
1. Music is a part of God’s creation
As part of God’s creation it was created good for us to use and enjoy. The beauty and order in its design are testimonies to its Creator and give evidence of God’s delight in beauty, order, and harmony. Zephaniah 3:17 reveals that God Himself sings as He dwells in the midst of His people and rejoices over them.
God has filled creation with music and He has adorned His Word with music. There are many references in the Bible that command and commend music, references that speak of music accompanying worship, work, recreation and rest.
Many verses contain the words to songs, hymns and spiritual songs. There are 31,173 verses in the Bible; 3,521 contain music texts (about 11%). About 14% of verses in the Old Testament are psalms and songs. About 3% of verses in the New Testament are songs, hymns and quotations from psalms and songs in the Old Testament.
2. Music is designed for God’s glory
Along with all of the good gifts of creation, God gave us music that He would be glorified in it. Scripture testifies to this–music all through the Scriptures exalts God and His work.
Many of the major events of the Bible are celebrated through music. Job 38:7 records that the morning stars sang together and the angels shouted for joy as God created the heavens and the earth. Israel celebrated God’s victory over Pharaoh and his army at the Red Sea with singing (Exodus 15:1-21). Music was heard at the giving of the law at Sinai (Exodus 19). It accompanied the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 15), the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 5, 7:1-11), and the restoration of the Temple (Ezra 3) and the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27-43). The birth of Jesus was announced with the song of the angels (Luke 2:13-14) and His coming again will be announced with the sound of a trumpet (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
God commands all of creation in Psalm 96:1-3
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.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples!
Music is a good gift of God that we are to enjoy for His glory–in worship and in all of life.
B. Music is an art
1. It is designed for expression
2. It is comprised of elements
As painting has color, line, texture, shades of light and dark, music also has elements:
Pitches or Notes / rhythms / dynamics (loud / soft) / tempo (fast / slow)
Timbre (sound qualities of the various musical instruments)
Composers combine all these elements to express something they believe is of value.
C. Music is a language
1. It has written and audible structure
2. It communicates meaning
Music is not just sound, it is intentionally composed to communicate. It has content. Music is an art. It is designed to be expressive. Music is a language. It is meaningful.
II. What does music communicate?
A. Music communicates emotion–it expresses feelings
Another way music is an art–like painting and sculpture–is that it can be abstract or representational.
Painting can be abstract–lines and shapes, lights and darks, textures and color–all for their own sake with no association with objects, places or people. Or you can take these elements of painting and use them to represent something on a canvas–like a person or a landscape.
Music can be abstract–pitches, rhythms, dynamics, timbres and sonance–sound for sake of sound. Or music can be representational. The vast majority of the music we hear and sing–in church, in the car, at the symphony hall, at the concert, on the radio, on our iPods–is representational, conveying emotion–we tend to prefer representational music for the simple reason that we want to listen to music that moves us and connects with our feelings.
Music helps us emotionally interpret and express poetry, movies, drama, and events. So if you think of emotions–love, contentment, excitement, hope, joy, wonder, anger, rage, regret, envy, fear, hatred, sadness, grief–music is a capable means of helping us express such emotion.
B. Music is designed to “raise the affections”
In other words, music shapes and gives voice to our feelings. It not only allows us a means to express what we feel, both individually and corporately, it can stir and heighten such emotion in us.
III. How does music communicate emotion?
Music communicates primarily by–
Music conveys emotion, but not in the same way as a spoken language. You can’t combine notes and chords to directly express emotions in the same way that you put together letters to make specific words–as J + O + Y = JOY. Music conveys its message indirectly by reflecting and imitating gestures, inflections, and movements that are associated in human experience with specific emotions and feelings.
If you walk into a room and someone is joyful, how do you know they are joyful (if they don’t come right out and tell you)? You can tell, right? You might notice the inflection of their voice or buoyancy and energy in their movements. Music is extremely proficient in imitating and reflecting these kinds of signals that we use to interpret our emotions.
PLAY EXAMPLE: Bach — “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”
What is Bach trying to communicate? How does he do it?
Ladies, let’s say you are putting your children down for a nap and you want to play some Classical Music as they rest. How would this work?
PLAY EXAMPLE: Bizet — “March Of The Toreadors” from Carmen
How would you describe the emotion of this song? Why would it not work for a nap?
Music is a marvelous means to express emotion. For example, if a composer wants to convey rage, he might make the movement of the notes agitated or violent. To create a feeling of peace, he might fashion the sound to be still and quiet with soft tones and little movement. To express joy, as we heard with Bach, he might create a melody that is buoyant and energetic. By reflecting and imitating the gestures and movements of emotion, the music seems to take on the character of the emotion itself, undergirding and giving voice to our feelings and sometimes even stirring and heightening the associated feelings.
This expression of feeling in a song is not always entirely clear or apparent. We can miss cues in physical gestures, and often we need other clues from words, actions and the surrounding context to confirm our interpretation. The same is true in music. Sometimes a composer may change a song to suggest a different feeling.
PLAY EXAMPLE: Edelman — “Dixie” from Soundtrack of Gettysburg
This is a familiar tune. Normally played upbeat and joyful.
What has the composer done here? Why? [He slowed the tempo and cast the song is a more somber, reflective tone.]
A skilled songwriter will be very intentional to emotionally interpret and set the words of a song to music that fits the affections that are evident in the words or the context (like a movie score).
The Bible demonstrates the connection between music and emotion. In times of joy music adds delight and enjoyment to celebration. In the Old Testament, for example, music accompanied the celebration of victory over an enemy (1 Samuel 18:7-8), celebration at the beginning of a journey (Genesis 31:27), and the celebration of springtime (Song of Solomon 2:12). In times of sorrow music deepens and enriches lamentation. David taught the children of Judah the Song of the Bow in 2 Samuel 1:17-27 to lament the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. In 2 Samuel 3:33-34 David sang a lament over Abner.
A great many passages in Scripture where you see a personal outpouring of emotion (both joy and sorrow) are musical passages, especially the psalms.
Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!
There are also examples of sorrow and grief:
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress;
my eye is wasted from grief;
my soul and my body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my iniquity,
and my bones waste away.
Music communicates emotion by reflection, but it is not always that simple. There are at least two other factors that can undergird or complicate the message.
Identification takes place when a song becomes well known. For example who recognizes these four notes?
PLAY EXAMPLE: Opening to first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: Allegro Con Brio
Those familiar with this music can immediately identify it.
Identification can also occur in the bonding of text and tune. The music can quickly call to remembrance the lyrics.
Identification can be distracting when you try to change the words of a well-known song, add words to a well-known tune, or even use a tune that sounds similar to a well-known tune. Rather than supporting the new words, the tune can confound them, as it brings to mind the previous words or musical work.
Association is the bonding of music to our experience. Sometimes association can be reinforcing, heightening the meaning of the song. In the summer of 2004 my church in Florida, Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, learned the song “Made Me Glad.” This song expresses to God:
You are my Shield, my Strength, my Portion, Deliverer,
My Shelter, Strong Tower, My very present help in time of need.
[2001 Hillsong Music Publishing; Words and Music by Miriam Webster]
A few weeks after learning the song, Hurricane Charley hit Southwest Florida. Many in the church sang the song while riding out the storm. We sang the song together when we met for worship the first time following the storm. It now has strong associations that heighten its meaning. Through the event of the hurricane we lived the truth of the song. God was and is our “Shield, our Strength, our Portion, Deliverer, our Shelter, Strong Tower, our very present help in time of need.”
Associations can also be distracting to the emotional expression of a song. Someone may know a very joyful song that was a favorite of a loved-one who is now with the Lord. Though the song was composed to express joy, it can now stir some sorrow as well as it invokes memories and bereavement.
Or take another example of association. Maybe God saved you out of a sinful and rebellious lifestyle in the past, and music was a part of how you expressed and indulged in that passion. Now when you hear music that sounds similar, the assumptions and connections they form are instinctively negative.
And you begin to wonder: Was that music sinful? It sure feels like it was?
IV. Can music be evil or worldly?
You may have read books or watched videos that teach on music and warn against various styles of music, pointing to their association with things that are ungodly. Those discussions about music can be both helpful and at times misleading.
They are helpful in that–
1) They make us aware that we should be concerned about the music we hear.
2) They expose some very real issues of sin and abuse of music to promote evil.
But they can be misleading in that:
1) They tend to pick on just 1 or 2 styles of music (Rock, Pop), and give the rest a pass.
2) They often misidentify the problem.
Let me give you some guidelines for thinking about music as it relates to sin. First we must realize that–
A. All music belongs to God.
All music that we create is a part of this world. And all music belongs to God as a part of His creation. God gave us music to enjoy and glorify Him in all of life.
B. Music itself cannot be “sacred” or “secular.”
When you are considering just the music–not music and words together–not music in other contexts–just evaluating the tune–music itself is not “sacred” or “secular.” It is a false dichotomy to divide music into categories–thinking that God has His music over here–music that He prefers and delights in–and the world has its music over there that it delights in and prefers–and the really bad stuff–that is the devil’s music.
There is no “God’s music,” “world’s music,” and “devil’s music.” It is all God’s music. No tone or beat has ever been sounded in this universe that does not belong to God.
Music is not inherently religious or worldly, good or evil. There is only music–which can be employed for worship, for recreation, for celebration, for numerous occasions in which we wish to raise our affections and give voice to our emotions.
C. Music can’t be evil because “evil is nothing, i.e. no-thing.”
Evil does not consist of things, be it bullets and guns or tones, rhythms and instruments.
For an explanation of this principle listen to the message by R.C. Sproul from Ligonier National Conference held in June 2010 on “What Is Evil and Where Does It Come From?”
Evil does not consist of things, rather–
D. Sin is an issue of the heart.
When we see music that is wed to words or actions that dishonor God, if we are not careful, we can come to the conclusion that the problem is the music, when the real problem is sin. Sin is always an issue of the heart. Sin is found in our motives and intents as we create and use music, not in the tones, rhythms, and instruments we use to create and make music. Music can certainly be used in sinful ways to express sinful desires and wicked intentions. But the music itself is just a tool.
It has been this way since the beginning. In Genesis 4:21 we read of Jubal–the father of those who play the lyre and pipe–the first time music is referenced in the Bible. Two verses later in Genesis 4:23 we have the first recorded song in Scripture–a boast exulting in murder and lust for revenge.
All styles of music can be abused in sinful ways. Often it’s styles like Rock and Pop that are targeted as “worldly” or “evil,” while styles such as Classical are championed as wholesome and safe. Critics point to the perverse lifestyle and evil intentions of many Pop and Rock musicians. And we should heed their warnings and be on guard against using music to sin against God. But honestly, all styles of music can be abused by sin. Classical, Rock, Pop, Country and Jazz can all express a wide range of emotion. And all have a history tainted by sin. All have had composers and performers whose lives have been shattered by sin. We need discernment to judge every style and genre of music.
A better way to think of music in regard to evil is–
E. Music can be used in ways that honor God or profane God.
When music honors God, it is intentionally composed or used to praise Him, acknowledge Him or celebrate what is good and right. Music that honors God does not necessarily need to be worship music. It can be music that celebrates life, love, marriage, family, children, home, and many other gifts of God–and celebrates these good gifts in God-honoring ways.
When music profanes God, it is composed or used without thought of God, as an end in itself, making music to be an idol or empty. Or it is composed to celebrate or promote things contrary to God and His revealed will. And this can happen in all styles of music.
Music itself simply expresses and reflects emotion. It does not in itself distinguish between sinful expressions of emotion and pure expressions of emotion.
All emotions can glorify God when channeled and expressed in God-honoring ways. God created our emotions for us to express to His glory. But emotions can be hijacked, misdirected and used in sinful ways. And music has certainly been abused and misused to express emotion in sinful ways.
This world has produced some wonderfully passionate and expressive music. The music is for us to use and enjoy to God’s glory. The problem lies in that the world is often passionate and expressive about the wrong things. Their emotions have been hijacked and sent in sinful directions. And so the music they use to express themselves has been hijacked and misdirected as well.
So how do we know–
V. What music can we enjoy as Christians?
A. Some parameters for enjoying music
1) Do all to the glory of God
All music, whether it is sung in church, at home, on the stage, in the car, in private, should be sung to the glory of God. That is NOT to say that all music must be suitable for corporate, family or private worship. God is glorified when a man sings a love song to his wife, when he uses music to teach his children, or sings about his home or nation, or many other good gifts that God gives.
2) Keep a watch over your mind and heart–guard your affections
Music is a powerful tool. It takes what we sing and embeds it in us. It shapes how we emotionally respond to truth as well as error. What we sing and what we listen to will have an impact on us. It makes memorable our words and gives voice to our affections. It heightens and inspires and connects with our emotions.
What you choose to imbibe will feed your soul. What you choose to listen to will stick in your head. This is especially true of music. How often does a tune come to mind that just stays with you? As you turn up the radio or iPod, ask yourself: Do I really want to wake up singing this in the morning?
B. Some questions to ask when evaluating music
I have found it helpful to think through the following grid when evaluating the music.
A Grid for Evaluating Music
You need to ask good questions about the music you hear and sing and play.
Questions related to truth and worldview:
1) What is this song saying?
Ask this of the words; the music doesn’t “say” anything.
2) What worldview is expressed in the words of the song?
What does the song say about God, the world around us, reality, humanity, the meaning of life, right and wrong, etc.?
3) Are the words true? Are they biblical? Are they God-honoring?
Do they express what is true, honorable, just (Philippians 4:8)?
Questions related to affections and emotions
4) What affections does the music raise?
How does the song make me feel?
5) Are these affections reflected in the music itself or are they the result of associations I am imposing on the music?
6) Do the affections reflected in the music faithfully express the intent of the words?
Does the message of the words and the affections of the music undergird one another or distract from one another?
7) When and where and for what purpose would this song be useful?
Questions related to identity and expression
8) Why do I want to hear (sing) this song?
9) Do I connect with this song? Is this who I am?
Do the words express what I want to say? Why or why not? Who says these kinds of words? As a Christian, should I be saying this?
Does the music express the way I feel? Why or why not? Who feels this way? As a Christian, should I be feeling this way about what is being said in the song?
10) Can I listen to (sing) this song to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31)?
My prayer is that these questions will serve you as you seek to enjoy music to the glory of God.
Part 2: Thoughts on Music and Worship
VI. What is the relationship between music and worship?
A. These two terms have been misunderstood and misconstrued as synonyms.
1. People will sometimes use the term worship in reference to the singing portion of the service.
2. Because of the nature of music and its connection to our emotions–music can “feel” more like worship.
B. But each term has a wide scope.
1. Worship is much wider in scope than music–it includes many elements: praying, preaching, reading Scripture, testimonies, giving–music is but one element. If you are not engaging in worship during the other elements, you are missing out on most of what takes place in times of gathered worship; in fact, you’re missing out on the very things that should fuel and impassion your singing in worship.
2. Music is much wider in scope than gathered worship–it encompasses all of life. At work, at rest, and at play–in movies, in celebration and in romance; music is all around us.
C. Is music necessary for worship?
1. No–in the sense that what is necessary for worship is “Spirit” and “Truth” (John 4:24).
2. Yes–in the sense that music is commanded by God. “Sing to the Lord” is not optional! (Psalm 95:1; 96:1, etc.)
VII. Can all music be used equally well in gathered worship?
NO–Not all music is suitable for congregational singing or useful for corporate worship.
A. Music must be fitting to what we are trying to express in worship.
We have freedom to create and use music in a wide variety of venues: a football game, a parade, driving in car, in the symphony hall, at home. In all these venues, we can enjoy music to the glory of God. But a worship service is not a football game or a parade or a family drive. Not all the music that we enjoy hearing at venues outside of the church may be appropriate or fitting for the purpose of worship. In worship we are pursuing a well-defined purpose and seeking to communicate a clear message. As we choose music for worship, we need wisdom and discernment to find tunes that will serve as a suitable accompaniment to help us express our emotional responses to God and His Word as we commune with Him corporately in worship.
We need to consider the affections that are raised in the song. Songs that express anger or rage or discontent, for example, will have a very little or limited usefulness, if we are seeking to communicate a message of peace, reconciliation, satisfaction and joy in Christ. You can’t take words that express passions like peace, satisfaction and joy and wed them to music that was crafted and composed to express contrary passions and expect to have a coherent message.
B. Music must be an authentic expression of our own voice in worship.
Not every song is written to be sung congregationally. Not every song is in a language or musical style we understand or express as our own. Musical expression arises out of our culture and experience. We use the musical instruments of our day. We sing in the language we share together. We sing with gifts and abilities God has given us.
For example: If the pastor told me that he was planning to preach a sermon from Genesis 1 on creation, I wouldn’t bring in vocal scores and instrumental parts for Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation for us to sing that day in worship. The Creation is great music, but it is more complex and more involved than we could handle here. However, if I were on a retreat with a group from an accomplished choir and symphony, maybe we could make it work. One of my filters for choosing music for our worship here at Grace, is finding music that fits our voice that we can sing well as an expression of worship together.
C. Music may have unhelpful associations or be identified in distracting ways.
Some tunes and texts have become so closely associated over time, that to hear one brings to mind the other. For example, I would not want to use the tune of “Happy Birthday” to compose a worship song. “Happy Birthday” has a fine tune, but hearing it with different words would likely be distracting or even amusing to many people. It would take the focus off of worship.
VIII. What does music add to our worship?
A. Music is a means of praise, thanksgiving, confession, proclamation, prayer
We are to–
Enter His gates with thanksgiving,
And His courts with praise!
Give thanks to Him; bless His name!
Music fulfills its highest purpose when it serves the communion of God and His people. Music accompanies, adorns and interprets the revelation, proclamation and teaching of God’s Word as God speaks to His people. And music also bears the prayers of God’s people as we speak and respond to Him in petition, praise and thanksgiving.
B. Music raises our affections (it gives voice to our feelings in worship).
Often in Scripture, where you see expressions of great joy and delight or great sorrow and distress, these feelings are expressed to God in prayer or to the community of faith in songs of praise or lament. The 150 psalms display the wide range of emotion that can be expressed in corporate worship (culminating with Psalm 150 in joyful praise). We are free to use music to express our emotions before God–everything from sorrow to joy–soft and contemplative to loud and celebrative.
The psalms actually have a much larger scope and vocabulary of emotion in worship than most of us are comfortable with. We are rather reserved in our day and in our culture with sharing the passions of our hearts (at least in church). There is passion and affection in the psalms–in the context of gathered worship–that would take us way out of our comfort zones, on both ends of the spectrum: from sorrow and grief and repentance to celebration and exuberant joy and praise. We get a little uncomfortable when things start getting too loud and excited or getting too low and broken. But the psalms and music give us voice for these affections.
C. Music unites us in worship.
What may have started as a personal outpouring of emotion by David or another composer of psalms, becomes the voice of gathered worship, as it is sung together and shared together and expressed together in one common voice. Music helps us pray together, give thanks together, confess together in one united voice.
D. Music shapes how we emotionally interpret and respond to truth.
It serves an important role in how we receive and understand the text. This is why we need to be thoughtful and discerning in the music we use to incarnate the words.
One example from hymnody are the hymns “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” sung to the tune PASSION CHORALE and “O Lord, How Shall I Meet Thee” sung to the tune ST. THEODULPH. Both tunes are wed well to their texts. PASSION CHORALE expresses the sorrow and grief of Christ’s suffering on the cross. ST. THEODULPH expresses the joyful expectation of communing with God in worship. Both are in the same poetic meter (18.104.22.168.D.), and the tune could be switched. But the result would be incongruent and contradictory.
The words and the music should emotionally tie together. There are many good tunes and good texts that are simply mismatched. One that I can remember while growing up was “Love Lifted Me.” It begins:
“I was sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore, Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more ”
A joyful tune–a good tune, but very mismatched, at least at the beginning of the verse, with words that are trying to communicate desperation and our hopeless state when we are outside of Christ. We want to wed music and words that strengthen the message, not confuse it.
One good example of matching words and music is the “Revelation Song” by Jennie Lee Riddle. Its tune communicates well a sense of wonder and profoundness suggested by the words. Another is Bob Kauflin’s setting of William Cooper’s hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”
Sometimes words can have more than one emotional setting. Having different arrangements of the same words can be helpful at times. We might feel a text differently depending on what we are going through or how it lands on us.
IX. What should worship music sound like?
To answer this question, let’s turn to the book of Psalms. The psalms are a book of worship. They are our precedent and guide for understanding how to employ music in worship. But the book of Psalms is not just a book about worship, it is a book filled with the content and words of worship.
As we read through the psalms, we learn how to come into God’s presence. We learn how to worship Him. We can learn from the words of psalms themselves–as we see how God’s people expressed their hearts in song together before God–but we can also learn from the structure of the Psalter as a whole.
Note first how it begins. Psalm 1 begins with instruction to forsake the way of sin and find delight in the ways of God.
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
Here we have a guide for our motives and intents. We are not to allow our desires and affections to run after unworthy things, unholy things.
We are to delight in God and His Law. This delight should be the foundation of all our singing and all our worship.
Psalms are a wonderful testimony to God’s faithfulness as He continues to deliver and uphold His people. As the psalms progress, you see the people of God in a variety of circumstances and situations: some expressing joy, some in distress–some are singing praise, some lamenting–some declaring their love for God, some grieving over sin and wickedness. Many come with requests; many others come with thanksgiving because God has answered their prayers.
This is true of us as we gather for worship. We all come from different circumstances into the gathering of the church. Some of us are joyful, some of us are facing sorrow; all of us come with great needs that only God in the power of His grace in the gospel can supply.
But as the psalms draw nearer to the end of the Psalter, you notice that petitions and laments grow fewer and fewer, while praise and joy becomes increasingly dominant. After about Psalm 145 there is a crescendo of joyful praise to the end, where we see in the final verse (Psalm 150:6) “let everything that has breath praise the Lord!”
The structure of the psalms is a wonderful illustration of what happens in worship as we lift our eyes from looking at ourselves to fixing them fully upon God and the hope of the gospel. God takes all our concerns and trials–all our laments and pleas, and moves us in one direction, toward our chief end–glorifying God as we rejoice in Him forever. Everything is moving toward the glory of God. This is the trajectory of the psalms and should be the trajectory of our singing as well.
In Psalm 150 we hear a description of the sound of worship music.
Praise the LORD!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty heavens!
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with trumpet sound;
Praise Him with lute and harp!
Praise Him with tambourine and dance;
Praise Him with strings and pipe!
Praise Him with sounding cymbals;
Praise Him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD!
Verse 1 answers the question: who to praise: “Praise the LORD!
And where to praise:
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty heavens!
God is praised on earth = “in His sanctuary.” This is the tabernacle and Temple of the Old Testament–a foreshadow of its fulfillment in the New Testament: the hearts of God’s gathered people. And God is praised in heaven.
Verse 2 explains the reason for our praise–because of who God is and what He has done.
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
We are to praise and worship God “according to His excellent greatness!” Think of the magnitude of that phrase. This is what fills the content of our songs. This is what determines the scope of our songs. How much music will it take until we can say with satisfaction that we have fully praised God “according to His excellent greatness”?
Rejoice in the LORD, O you righteous!
For praise from the upright is beautiful.
Praise the LORD with the harp;
Make melody to Him with an instrument of ten strings.
Sing to Him a new song;
Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
This is a command for every age and every generation, as the salvation of God is made known in the power of the gospel. There is continually a new song as hearts are conquered and voices are lifted up in praise in every place.
Verses 3 to 6 of Psalm 150 then describes the sound of music in worship.
We hear all kinds of musical instruments:
strings–lute and harp
and percussion–tambourine, cymbals, loud clashing cymbals
And we hear voices–everything that has breath
We also see something else in verse 4 that may make some of us a little uncomfortable.
Praise Him with tambourine and dance
We can save the discussion on dance for another time. But suffice it to say here, that this term here in this psalm does not carry with it all the meaning that some try to read into it. It is a word that simply means “moving the body to music.” It is not a sensual dance with immodest overtones, as our culture tends to think of dance. And it’s not necessarily artistic or structured dance, like a ballet or modern dance. It is simply moving to the music.
I mentioned earlier that we tend to be rather reserved in our expressions of worship. But there are peoples and cultures, in other places and at other times through out history, who would think it very strange, if not impossible, to sing praise to God while standing still.
God’s design for music in worship is “everything that has breath.” Every person called to praise, and every style, every culture, every musical instrument sanctified for God’s glory and purposes.
One of the questions I received is about musical instruments: “I have seen people get up and leave when they saw drums in a church service. Some teach that having drums is wrong in church.”
Some of this may be a lack of understanding about what the Bible says about music. But much of it, I think, is due to association. People have seen music used in frivolous and ungodly ways–ways that are obviously dishonoring to God–and for them it is hard to imagine how music like that–music played on those instruments–could be pleasing to God.
Drums have been on the hot seat in recent times, but there are actually two other instruments that had a much more difficult time being recognized as instruments suited to worship. Can anyone guess what these are?
One was the piano.
The piano was invented early in the 1700s. It became popular, especially in the 1800s, but its use was in the home with the family or on the concert stage. The organ was the established instrument for worship of that day.
Pianos were frequently used in Sunday School and at youth meetings, but not in worship. What finally made the change for the piano was the contemporary music of the day–the gospel song–that was popularized with the evangelistic crusades of the early 1900s. As people learned the new music at the crusades, they wanted to sing the music in church. The only problem was the accompaniment. The organ worked fine with the old hymns, but it struggled to keep up with the lively, bouncing rhythm of the new music.
Compare for example the rhythm of: “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the tune NICAEA with “Standing on the Promises” by R. Kelso Carter.
Churches discovered that people sang the new songs well in Sunday School with the piano, but when they tried them in gathered worship, the songs were hard to follow and hard to sing.
One of the evangelistic teams found the answer. Charles Alexander began bringing a piano into the sanctuary to accompany the singing. He was a gifted pianist and he demonstrated how the piano could serve well to accompany the contemporary music of the day in worship.
Eventually the piano and gospel songs stayed, but not without some controversy. Critics of the day complained: “[it] sounds like a horse and buggy galloping through the sanctuary.” You knew you were in a contemporary church at the turn of the 20th century if you saw that the piano had been moved into the sanctuary.
The other instrument was the organ.
For this we must go farther back in history. The organ was invented around the 3rd century B.C. Back then it was designed to use water rather than air in the pipes and was called the hydaulis. The water organ was quite loud and was used most prominently in the amphitheaters.
During the time of the Roman Empire it was used to accompany the processions and events at the gladiatorial games. Some ballparks today use the organ in a similar way to create a festive atmosphere–to signal and stir up the crowd. It was to the celebrative sounds of the organ that many Christians were paraded in before cheering crowds to be martyred.
So you can imagine the difficulties with association that early Christians must have had whenever someone finally had the idea to introduce the organ into church as a worship instrument.* How could this instrument that accompanied so much death, ever be used in worship?
But God had a purpose for the pipe organ. He designed to rescue that instrument and use it for His glory. Rome was sacked in 410 and the empire fell over the next 150 years. The organ was finally brought into the church around 7th century A.D.–well after the fall of Rome. It was not until the 1300s that the first organ was permanently installed in a church. But for hundreds of years after the pipe organ was a prominent instrument in carrying the praise of God’s people.
* Instrumental music as a whole had a difficult time in the early church. Most of the instruments of the day were associated to some degree with the worship of Greek or Roman gods. To play such instruments was regarded by many to be an act of worship to the gods.
Look now at Colossians 3:16
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.
What did Paul mean when he wrote in this verse: “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”? What music would he have had in his mind’s ear? I can tell you what he could not have imagined–
Not the metrical psalms of the 1500’s
Not the hymns of Watts in the 1700’s
Not the gospel songs of the 1800’s
Not the praise choruses of the 1960’s and 1970’s
Not the worship songs of today
These were all still future expressions of God’s design for music. All music was once new music. This brings us to the final question–
X. Should all Christians sing the same music in worship?
A. No–there have been many styles throughout the history of the church.
B. There are believers singing to God’s glory all over the world (and throughout all centuries), and most are not singing like Americans–or even Westerners!
What is “singable” and suitable for one culture (or time in history) may not be for every time and place. Singable to a congregation in Indonesia or Zambia may not work for Cape Coral, Florida or Mansfield, Texas. The voice of one generation may not sound like the voice of the generation that follows.
This brings up another perplexing question in music. It is a question asked by almost every generation, especially as that generation prepares to pass the baton on to the next.
Why does music have to change? Why don’t we just keep singing the same songs as our fathers and our forefathers? Or, if you’re on the other side of the equation: Why don’t our kids just keep singing the songs we like to sing? They were good enough for us. Listen to the opening verses of Psalm 96. Here is the answer:
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.
Declare His glory among the nations,
His marvelous works among all the peoples!
Music changes because there is always a new song. God is at work in the nations, through His people, taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. God’s design is every nation, tribe and tongue magnifying His name and glory–that He would be praised in every place in every age!
Every generation adds its voice to God’s praise, but none can contain or epitomize His praise. No one generation or style or age can encapsulate all God is and all He has done. No one place or time or culture can fully express the praise and worship of our great God.
The praise of God is a glorious tapestry woven through the ages as His Kingdom advances, conquering hearts, lives, nations and cultures.
As God saves, he rescues and sanctifies–that is true of our souls as well as our emotional expressions through our music.
Let me give you one example. Hip Hop and Rap are often used in the world in demeaning and ungodly ways. But listen how Shai Linne from Capital Hill Baptist Church uses the style.
PLAY EXAMPLE: “Q&A” from “Atonement
— use of Hip Hop by Shai Linne to catechize.
Reformed Rap may not be suited well for congregational participation in worship, but it has one big advantage as personal expression and testimony–it is rich with words. If used in a sanctifying, redemptive way–you can pack a lot of truth in a short space of time!
There is ever a new song. And we have not seen the last. God has shown His power and mercy in every age and He intends for His gospel to spread to the ends of the earth.
Music changes because God and His excellent greatness cannot be contained. It cannot be epitomized. And every age and generation is commanded to add its voice to the tapestry of praise throughout history.
There will come a day when music moves on. It will be handed off to an up and coming generation. It will press out beyond our comfort zones and beyond our preferences. But I want to be one that cheers on and coaches the next generation to lift up their voice–to take the art of music and run with it to the glory of God.
May God make it so.