7th March 2013
Singing is a particularly Christian activity. Go to a wedding or a funeral attended mostly by non-believers, contrast that with one full of believers. The difference in congregational singing is noticeable.
Other people sing-there are lots of secular children's and adults' choirs. But Christians when they come together characteristically like to sing. Maybe because we've got something to sing about.
It has always been so for the people of God, in ways we sometimes overlook:
David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals . . . The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all who were skillful, was 288 (1 Chron. 25:1, 7 ESV).
It seems that something like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was regarded as the norm! There is one memorable musical occasion in the temple when God Himself interrupted the worship:
And when the priests came out of the Holy Place (for all the priests who were present had consecrated themselves, without regard to their divisions, and all the Levitical singers, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun, their sons and kinsmen, arrayed in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres, stood east of the altar with 120 priests who were trumpeters [that beats 76 trombones!]; and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord), and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord,
"For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever,"
the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God. (2 Chron. 5:11-14).
When Hezekiah restored the temple worship:
he stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres, according to the commandment of David and of Gad the king's seer and of Nathan the prophet, for the commandment was from the Lord through his prophets. The Levites stood with the instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah commanded that the burnt offering be offered on the altar. And when the burnt offering began, the song to the Lord began also, and the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly worshiped, and the singers sang, and the trumpeters sounded. All this continued until the burnt offering was finished. When the offering was finished, the king and all who were present with him bowed themselves and worshiped. And Hezekiah the king and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped (2 Chron. 29:25-30).
No wonder the Book of Psalms (the hymn book of the Old Testament) concludes by declaring that God is to be praised on all the musical instruments, and commands: ‘Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!' (Psalm 150).
No less in the New Testament:
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 (Col. 3:16).
be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:18-20).
It is clear here that the singing has something to do with the word and the Spirit. Look at what else it is associated with:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body (Col. 3:12-15).
It has to do with the peace of Christ, and knowing ourselves as chosen, holy, beloved, forgiven, and living in love.
If we were asked, ‘What is the main presenting issue regarding music in life of your local church?' I expect many would answer: the issue of older hymns and music and newer songs, instruments and musical styles. Is this true?
I suggest there is another more important consideration, which may help to lay that one to rest. We can do this by looking at what the Scriptures call a ‘new song'. This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with novelty. The Psalmist who says, ‘sing to the Lord a new song' (Ps. 96:1; 98:1), doesn't necessarily mean one written only in the last two years. This newness relates not to novelty but to being renewed.
Note what is said in Psalm 40:1-3:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.
Here the ‘new song' (1) follows deliverance; (2) is given by God, from God-it is ‘the Lord's song'; (3) it is not just for self-expression, but to gather up others into trusting God. These are the factors that should govern our music in worship.
Nor is this just for the benefit of the local congregation:
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! (Ps. 96:1-3).
Singing in worship is not just self-reinforcing. It has to do with God's salvation for the nations, for all the peoples, for all the earth. So another question we can ask of our singing and music: are we just flying the flag, promoting our little group, reinforcing our brand (of denomination, worship style, or clique), or should there be more to it than that?
Psalm 98 speaks of the ‘new song' in this way:
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things!
Again, it is all about God making known His salvation. Certainly it is that ‘He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel', but in this ‘he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations', so that ‘All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God'. So the whole earth is bidden to join in the song:
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!
Until, finally, the entire creation takes it up, with a view to God's coming judgement and righteousness:
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who dwell in it!
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity (Ps. 98:1-9).
Is this what we are about when we want to ‘sing a new song'?
In Isaiah 42 we find the same thing:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth.
Here the Gentile nations are specifically included: ‘the coastlands and their inhabitants . . . the desert and its cities . . . the villages that Kedar inhabits . . . the habitants of Sela sing for joy':
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands (Isa. 42:10-12).
What occasions this? Isa. 42 is where the figure of the Servant of the Lord is introduced. This culminates in Isa. 53, where ‘he was wounded for our transgressions' (Isa. 53:5). It relates to the work of Christ. This is what the nations are to sing about.
So the ‘new song' relates to the whole plan of God, and to God's saving kingdom action, and its marvellous outcome. When that outcome is attained, guess what?
the four living creatures and the twenty- four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp . . . And they sang a new song':
Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth . . .
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever! (Rev. 5:9-10, 13).
They are joined by ‘a great multitude that no one could number':
from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!' And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen' (Rev. 7:9-12).
Revelation 14:1-3 tells us that this ‘new song' is sung only by the redeemed, who have come to belong to ‘the Lamb' and to his Father. So our first priority in renewing our music in worship is to see that the people of our church, and others outside it, are in on God's great action of redemption!
Why? Because it is ‘the ransomed of the Lord' who ‘shall return and come to Zion with singing':
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isa. 35:10; 51:11).
Then it is that the songs will flow-from the treasure of what is both old and new (Matt. 13:52).