The Content of Music we sing

THE CONTENT OF MUSIC

The Word of God, the Bible must be the basis of our singing. At the very least the songs of the church should recount the truths of God’s saving work. Primary attention should be given to the content of songs, measuring lyrics by what is scriptural. Often in the history of the church the Psalms of the Old Testament have formed either all or at least a significant part of the praise of God’s people. Surely our worship is impoverished today by the relative absence of the Psalms from most worship services in most churches. Singing the Psalms is a wonderful way of hiding the Word of God in our hearts and is a certain way of pleasing the Lord who inspired them and gave them to his people for their good.

A change in music — whether to something older or newer — is difficult because most worshipers are not musicians and simply like what is familiar to them. Most worshipers are not motivated by some aesthetic theory, but by the emotional links they have to their familiar music. Because music so powerfully engages and expresses our emotions, it is not surprising that it is an emotional minefield for individuals and congregations.

As with all ways of worship, we must evaluate music in the first place biblically. We must stand back from our own experiences and preferences and ask again, “What pleases God?” We should recognize that not all music and praise pleases him. Think of the worship and praise that Israel offered to God in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. They made a golden calf, called it the Lord, and danced around it (Exod. 32:4-6). Such praise was an abomination to God and evoked his wrath! We must carefully seek what the Bible says about how we should praise the Lord and make music to him.

When we think of music in the worship of God, we are really thinking of three issues:

  • The words that we sing,
  • The tunes to which we sing those words,
  • The instruments we might use to accompany the singing.

The Words We Sing

Of these three issues the first is the most important. The words we take upon our lips to sing to God must be true and pleasing to him. The Cambridge Declaration reminds us that one of the problems we face today is what we sing: “Pastors have neglected their rightful oversight of worship, including the doctrinal content of music.”

Corporate worship is done mostly by the use of words. Words are the basic mode of expressing worship to God. In heaven for example we read again and again that the hosts of heaven worshipped the Lord, “SAYING”. Or they sung a new song. All these are indications that the basic mode of worship is in singing pouring words of praise proclaiming and acknowledging the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord. For example:

And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying,

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.”

And when those beasts give glory and honour and thanks to him that sat on the throne, who liveth for ever and ever,

The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying,

“Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”

And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals.

And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice,

“ Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?” (Rev. 4:8-5:2)

How can we be sure that the words we sing please God? God has given us direction by giving us in the Bible a whole book as a model for what we are to sing. The Book of Psalms (which in Hebrew is entitled the Book of Praises) provides us with songs that God himself has inspired. The Psalms should at least function as the model for what we as Christians sing to God.

The Songs We Use

What do the Psalms teach about song? Robert Godfrey gives a good summary in his his work, Pleasing God in our Worship:

They remind us of the rich variety of songs that we can and should present to God. The Psalms contain joyful praise and thanksgiving. The Psalms are called the Book of Praises because they not only contain but also culminate in the praise of God (see especially Pss. 146—150.) But the Psalms contain more than praise. Some Psalms reflect on creation (for example, Pss. 19 and 104); others recount the great saving work of God in Christ (Pss. 2, 22, 24, and 110); still others meditate on the perfections of God’s revealed Word (especially Ps. 119). There are Psalms of lamentation and repentance (Pss. 32, 51, and 137) as well as Psalms that express the confusion and frustration that God’s people sometimes experience living in this fallen world (Pss. 44 and 73). John Calvin rightly observed about the Psalter, “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here presented as in a mirror.”[1]

In some churches today it seems that only happy, joyful songs are sung. But joy is not the only emotion that Christians experience. Christian worship needs to provide times when sad or reflective emotions are expressed as well as happy ones. A variety of song texts, as we find them in the Psalter, are crucial for that purpose.

Second, the Psalms also model for us the substance of our singing. A few Psalms are short and have repetitive elements, but most are full, rich, profound responses to God and his work. Singing praise to God, the Psalter reminds us, is not just emotional expression, but a real engagement of the mind. Songs that are very repetitive or shallow and sentimental do not follow the model of the Psalter. The command to love God with all our mind must inform our singing. Mind and emotions together are the model of praise presented to us in the Psalms, and the modern church must work at restoring that union where it has been lost.

Once we recapture a proper sense of the texts we ought to sing, the other two issues about singing are relatively easy to resolve. What tunes shall we sing? We may use any tune that is ‘singable’ for a congregation and that supports the content of the song. For example, recently, Psalm 113 has been adopted to a familiar tune that makes is so easy to sing. The tune should reflect the mood and substance of the song in light of the joy and reverence that are appropriate to worship. With those guidelines in mind (and a sensitivity to the congregation’s difficulty with change), the issue of tunes for songs should be resolved smoothly.


[1] Pleasing God in our worship, Dr. Robert Godfrey (Presbyterian and Reformed)

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