This is the first of several articles dealing with singing in the assembly.
Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, Hebrews 13:15. These three scriptures tell us that singing is a deeply spiritual exercise of the heart. The Ephesian passage shows that singing is produced in a believer when he is filled with the Spirit of God. Colossians indicates that singing is a response to the Word of God flooding our hearts with revelations of Christ; and Hebrews shows that singing praises to God is an act of worship.
The different aspects of singing referred to in these passages – psalms, hymns, spiritual songs, and praise – are not distinct and exclusive of each other; when we consider them together we gain an idea of the glorious potential we have as individuals, and collectively, to magnify the Lord.
“Psalms” is the most comprehensive of these expressions, and embraces the others. While it is apparent that many psalms are historical in nature, some instructional, (such as the Maschil Psalms) and others prophetic (also known as the Messianic Psalms), they are predominantly the experience of the psalmist telling what God has been doing in him, and what he has learned from it. Someone has said:
If David’s heart had ne’er been wrung,
Then David’s psalms had ne’er been sung.
James 5:13 would suggest that any situation we might experience has a corresponding passage in the Psalms where we can learn how to resolve these issues in the fear of God. It is comforting to see that the writer to the Hebrews, in quoting from the Psalms, simply says, “the Holy Ghost saith.” So we can be certain of divine guidance.
Many of our most loved hymns today are modern psalms in this respect – that they were produced in the crucibles of great personal losses: blindness, desertion, sickness, and death. What a comfort they have been to us in times of distress, and, as we sing them, they not only help us to express our emotions, but they guide us in our thinking to the source of all true comfort, our Lord Jesus Christ! Notable examples are: Horatio Spafford‘s, “When Peace Like a River” which was written after losing some of his family at sea, and George Matheson’s “O Love that Will Not Let Me Go” which was written after his fianc deserted him when she learned that he was going blind.
Hymns are songs of praise to God, and are primarily occupied with what God has become to us. It has been suggested that Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16 are examples of short hymns sung by the early believers. The doxology of Romans 11:33-36 is a beautiful illustration of a hymn for, after expounding God’s grace and mercy, and summarizing God’s ways, the apostle Paul bursts into spontaneous praise and appreciation of God’s wisdom and ways.
The only mention of the Lord Jesus Christ’s singing in the gospels is recorded by both Matthew and Mark, and is connected with the institution of the Lord’s Supper. When He gave thanks for the cup, He anticipated the time when He would drink of the fruit of the vine in the coming kingdom. The tremendous cost of the work of redemption was eloquently pictured in the emblems as He instituted the supper, but He was looking forward to the consummation of God’s purposes upon the earth. It was in the light of this that He sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives. Zephaniah 3:;17 reminds us that the Lord will rejoice over His redeemed and re-gathered people with singing.
In Psalm 104 the psalmist is likewise meditating on God’s ways, and he too begins to sing (vv 33, 34). The last phrase of the Psalm, “Praise ye the Lord” is commonly transliterated “Hallelujah,” and some have pointed out that the first mention of this word in both the Old Testament (v 35) and the New Testament (Rev 19:1-6) is connected with the judgment of sinners, and their removal from the earth. This gives us some idea of the tremendous scope we have in finding reasons to sing and praise God.
Psalm 22:22 and Hebrews 2:12 indicate that when we are all in “the glory,” the Lord Jesus Himself will lead the hymns of praise to God. What singing that will be! It will delight not only the heart of God, but our hearts as well to hear Him sing.
Spiritual songs may focus on what God has done for us. W. E. Vine points out that the word for song is a generic word, and requires the necessary modification for believers by adding the word “spiritual.” Since we cannot learn anything from the derivation of the word, we must look at how the word is used in the Scriptures.
The first song in time is mentioned in Job 38:7, and appears to be the grateful celebrating response of angels when they first looked upon the creation, and may even be the echo of God’s own thoughts, that it was “very good.” The first recorded words of a song is by Moses in Exodus 15, and is a celebration of a different and new revelation of God’s power as it was manifested in redemption. When Miriam joined in singing, we can see that the words were the words of Moses, and that the concept of repeating the words of others in song was recognized by God. The song of Deborah is a celebration of God taking vengeance upon the enemies of Israel, and her appreciation of His power exerted on behalf of His people (Judges 5). In Psalm 40:3, David tells us of the source of his new song, a song which is a celebration of what God has done for him.
The “new” song in Revelation 5 suggests not only a song that is different in character from other songs, but may indicate that it is not static. The word is used by the Lord Jesus in Mark 2:22 to show that “new” bottles are needed for new wine, because old bottles are rigid and inflexible, but new bottles allow for expansion. This would indicate perhaps that the song of heaven is one that will continually expand at every fresh revelation that God will give us of His Son. Ephesians 2:7 has the word exceeding, and suggests continual fresh revelations in the ages to come.
The Composition of Songs
While many of the scriptures referred to speak of a spontaneous response, the Psalmist in Psalm 45 tells us that not only must the heart be bubbling up with matter, but it also must be harnessed by composition.
“The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth” (Eccl 12:10). We thank God for many godly men and women who have done this. Our hearts are touched as we think of such. Fanny Crosby and J. G. Deck alone have left us an enormous legacy in song.
The Value of Songs
Congregational singing is obviously designed by God for His own glory, and songs allow us to sing in unison. Not only did the morning stars sing together, but in Israel they also sang together (Ezra 3:11). The singing in heaven is clearly congregational (Rev 5:9).
Another part of the design of songs is memorization. Moses left Israel with the charge that they must remember the words he had spoken to them from God (Deut 31:22, 30, 32:44). Because of this, he wrote the words in a song, and many other passages are designed in the original language to assist memorization. Some of us were compelled to learn foreign languages in school, and long after we have forgotten declensions and words, the songs remain in our minds. Many older saints in prayer, when they have difficulty in expressing their thoughts, revert to the words of hymns which they seem to recall clearly. This should be an encouragement to Sunday School teachers as they teach children songs and choruses, for the truth of the words will linger in the minds of the children for many years afterward.
The Mode of Singing
While it is true that musical instruments were used in the Old Testament days, we learn from Amos 5:23 that their songs and music were so much noise to God when they were not sung from the heart. Formality is always a possibility, and we should guard against it; we must sing with the spirit and with understanding also (1 Cor 14:15). The word for singing, psallo, does indeed refer to an instrument being acted upon by touch, but the instrument is clearly the heart of the believer, and we believe from Ephesians 5 that the Holy Spirit will initiate the melodies that will please the Lord and encourage His people. In Revelation 5, it is only voices that are mentioned, and we look forward to joining that great chorus when the Lord comes.