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UNDERSTANDING: Singing and making Melody

How we should praise God in song…..

 

 

Singing is one of the distinctive features of the Christian faith. Some years ago a friend engaged in reaching out with the Gospel to the Muslim community in a northern city referred to music in his prayer letter. He pointed out that it is wonderful for us to participate in singing God’s praises, but in the religious life of Muslims songs of praise are noticeably absent because music and singing are considered sinful. When a Muslim is converted, however, he learns for the first time to worship in song. The friend wrote that he longed to see many more from an Islamic background coming to Christ and joining the vast throng that will be found around the throne singing praise to the Lamb in eternity.

 

 

 

In all Christian churches singing will be found. Styles of music differ, just as people’s tastes do. Many will remember what happened in the past when it was suggested that a new hymn book should be introduced to a church congregation. It was as if a lighted match had been dropped into to a can of petrol! Feelings can run very deep. The older we get, the more we derive security from that which is familiar. Change must be resisted at all costs! But church life, in many places, has moved on. Hymn books have gone, replaced with words which appear on a large screen. Congregations in such places are constantly being offered a diet of new songs. Prolific song-writers abound, and it has become perfectly normal for something new to be introduced on an extremely regular basis. Song-writing has, in fact, become something of a business. Christian music is now an industry. To protect the modern song-writer copyright is stamped across compositions. The fee for a licence is just one of the normal church expenses – though you will search the New Testament in vain to find any such thing. Hymn-writers of a past generation seemed to manage perfectly well without copyright-enforcing schemes.

 

Much could be written about singing and Christian music. What does the Bible teach us? Are there any principles which we can discover? How should we praise the Lord? These are some of the themes which will be explored.

 

 

THE RELEVANCE OF SINGING

The first reference in Scripture to a particular subject is always significant. The very first song appears to have been at Creation “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). The first time we encounter singing in the Bible, however, is when Moses and the children of Israel sang unto the Lord after the Egyptians had been defeated (Ex.15:1). Having seen the Egyptian army dead upon the shores of the Red Sea, the Israelites “feared the LORD” and then burst into song (Ex.14:31). They rejoiced in His triumphant victory over the enemy and exalted Him in an anthem of praise. Thus the very first recorded song is the song of a redeemed people.

 

The final song mentioned in the Bible is in Revelation 15:3 and is called “the song of Moses … and the song of the Lamb.” How significant this is! Deliverance is one of the major themes of Scripture. The first song of deliverance in Moses’ day must not be forgotten, but it is now connected to the deliverance obtained by the Lamb. We can have no doubts as to His identity. John the Baptist had earlier pointed to the Lord Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). In Revelation we find the Lamb of God enthroned in glory (Rev.5) before pouring out His wrath upon a godless world (Rev.6:16). In the song recorded in Revelation 15 the victorious saints declare, “Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are Thy ways, Thou King of saints. Who shall not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify Thy name? For Thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before Thee; for Thy judgments are made manifest” (v.3,4). No longer are the worshippers beside the Red Sea but by “the crystal sea” – described as “a sea of glass mingled with fire” (v.2). Overlapping themes in the two songs are therefore Redemption and victory over the enemy.

 

Reading through the Old Testament we discover many more references to singing and to songs. God’s saints of old had a song – and their song book was the Book of Psalms. Worshippers were invited to sing “a new song” unto Him (Ps.96:1 & 98:1). In the New Testament we read of the solemn occasion when the Lord Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. Before going out to die upon the cross He sung a hymn with His disciples (Mt.26:30). This would have been one of the Hallel Psalms associated with the Passover. Singing therefore mattered to the Lord Jesus. In Revelation 5:9 the 24 elders are found singing “a new song” in heaven. These many references prove beyond all doubt that this is indeed a relevant subject to explore.

 

 

GOD-GIVEN SONGS

All who are reading this article probably at some time arrived at a church where a collection of songs and hymns was already in existence. The people you joined may well have been using material that had been handed down long before. In some places in Scripture we can trace what was being sung in the early Church. For instance, Philippians 2:6-11 is generally believed to be an ancient hymn, as is 2 Timothy 2:11-13. Both of these passages have inspired the writing of hymns. It is interesting to realize that a hymn written by Bernard of Clairvaux some 900 years ago is still being sung today – “Jesus, the very thought of Thee”.

 

We are told in Job 35:10 that God “giveth songs in the night.” Some writers will make the claim that God gave them a particular song which they composed. At times we may be unconvinced by such claims, for the words or music may not seem to possess any exceptional qualities. It is always important to test what we are singing by Scripture. Are the words true? It was in the night that Paul and Silas sang praises to God, even though circumstances were against them in the darkness of their prison (Acts 16:25). Sometimes life’s darkest experiences have resulted in the composition of the most touching hymns. Consider, for instance, Horatio Spafford’s “When peace, like a river,” written after his five daughters had drowned. Joseph Scriven wrote “What a Friend we have in Jesus,” and George Matheson “O Love, that wilt not let me go” after experiences of great distress. The comfort and assurance that has been brought to believers through such profound hymns is immeasurable. Truly God gave to those writers “songs in the night”.

 

A rich heritage of good hymns is available to us today. Theologically sound words can prove most helpful in enabling us to offer worthy praise to God.

 

 

CATEGORIES OF SONGS

Ephesians 5:19 refers to “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”. Perhaps we ought not to think that these are absolutely water-tight compartments but rather are helpful ways of categorizing what we sing. Some hymn books are divided into themed sections. Although these sections are not infallible and a hymn might justifiably be included in another section, the arrangement can be useful. Let us examine the three divisions outlined in Ephesians 5:19.

 

The expression “Speaking to yourselves in psalms” may sound unusual until we remember that psalms were often antiphonal. Psalm 136 is a good example of this with its “for His mercy endureth for ever” refrain in each verse. No doubt this was a congregational response. The verb “to psalm” refers to a striking or twitching with fingers on musical strings, and a psalm itself is simply a sacred song sung to musical accompaniment. Some commentators have suggested that “psalms” should not be interpreted literally as it is wrong for us to sing imprecatory psalms today, but what about the other psalms? The loved hymn “The Lord’s my Shepherd” is a very close reflection of Psalm 23, while “Through all the changing scenes of life” is based upon Psalm 34. “All people that on earth do dwell” mirrors Psalm 100. Some congregations actually use the Metrical psalms and seek to include verses from at least one psalm in every service. The Book of Psalms certainly covers many of life’s experiences and furnishes useful material for us today.

 

Hymns are mentioned next in Ephesians 5:19. Quite simply, a hymn is a song of praise addressed to God. Many examples could be given, but the following brief list will illustrate what we can consider here:-

  • “The God of Abraham praise” by T. Olivers.
  • “Let us with a gladsome mind” by John Milton.
  • “Praise Him! Praise Him! Jesus, our blessed Redeemer” by Fanny Crosby.
  • “I will sing of my Redeemer” by Philip Bliss.
  • “The Lord is King!” by Josiah Conder.

 

 

The expression “spiritual songs” refers to songs that are of a spiritual character, the word “spiritual” qualifying the term “song”. We might think of poetry which describes Christian experience. Rather like the singing of psalms, we can sing to one another as we join together in these compositions. The list which we could compile would be exhaustless, but the following hymns can help us to understand the nature of songs which are spiritual:-

  • “When we walk with the Lord” by J.H. Sammis.
  • “Take time to be holy” by W.D. Longstaff.
  • “Like a river glorious” by Frances Ridley Havergal.
  • “Yield not to temptation” by H.R. Palmer.
  • “The Lord’s our Rock” by V.J. Charlesworth.

 

Songs of this ilk are fast disappearing in many churches today. At one time hymn books with themed divisions might have a section entitled “Pilgrimage and Conflict” or another entitled “Heaven”. Many churches nowadays have embraced a new kind of theology which is more earth-orientated. Christ is setting up His kingdom now, they tell us, and as more people come to faith we are nearing the moment when Christ will return in triumph. The “pilgrim-nature” of the Christian life (described in 1 Peter 2:11) has vanished. There is no longing after heaven any more. The old songs which encouraged us to go on in faith, glorifying the Saviour by holy living, and looking heavenward, are not fashionable any more.

 

 

RENDERING PRAISE

Having looked at the various kinds of hymns and songs, how should we render our praise to God?  Two important features identify the nature of our singing. It should be done spiritually as well as sensibly. By spiritually, we must understand that worship is a spiritual exercise and not a bodily one. We are exhorted to “be filled with the Spirit” (Eph.5:18) and to be “singing and making melody in [our] heart to the Lord” (Eph.5:19). Making melody literally means psalming – playing a stringed instrument. The word is used this way in the Septuagint where it refers to singing to the accompaniment of the harp. Notice that the melody originates in the heart and is therefore to be real. Thanksgiving to God is a necessary characteristic (Eph.5:20), and singing to the Lord is to be done with grace in our hearts (Col.3:16). James encourages the cheerful to sing psalms (Jas.5:13)!

 

Praising God must also be undertaken sensibly – using our sense of understanding. 1 Corinthians 14:15 refers to singing “with the spirit” and also “with the understanding”. The faculties of perception are therefore to be employed. We do not leave our minds outside when we come to worship, as if our minds somehow hold us back and we need to be free from their influence. The Holy Spirit must use our minds – and we must both know what we are singing and mean it too.

 

 

THREE VITAL REQUIREMENTS

Before drawing to a conclusion, it is important to consider some requirements. What should characterize the songs and hymns which we use? Three features will be examined.

 

First, our songs should be glorifying to God. If it is true that man’s chief end is to glorify God, this should be reflected in the manner of our singing. Showmanship and the atmosphere of the disco floor are totally inappropriate for a holy God. A noisy band, effective lighting, and an atmosphere of celebration may appeal to the flesh, but they are certainly not what God is seeking. Revelation 5 presents a redeemed company in heaven worshipping the Lamb. It is a scene of absolute majesty. We ought to worship like that now. There is no place for trite, banal compositions. The words upon our lips should exalt and honour our great God.

 

Secondly, our songs should be doctrinally correct. A lot of modern composers are all at sea theologically, having embraced erroneous charismatic teaching. They confuse physical and spiritual healing and mislead those who are encouraged to take the words upon their lips. Generally speaking, if we want hymns containing sound doctrine we need to go back to the older compositions. Isaac Watts had a wonderful grasp of the teaching of Hebrews which is reflected in his hymns. Albert Midlane has provided us with a memorable outline of Christ’s work of Substitution in his excellent hymn “The perfect righteousness of God.” The words we sing (especially when we are young) become impressed upon our minds. For this reason we need to ensure that what we are singing is the truth.

 

Thirdly, the hymns which we sing should be spiritually edifying. They ought to do us good spiritually, encouraging us as disciples in the path of holiness. They should make us more aware of our heavenly home and of the promised return of our Lord from heaven.

 

We ought to assess what we sing, applying these three stringent tests. Does it glorify the Lord? Is it doctrinally correct? Does it provide spiritual edification? If it fails to pass these tests it should be rejected.

 

 

SONGS IN THE NIGHT

The Lord does give songs in the night, and we can be truly grateful for the psalms, hymns, and fine spiritual songs which are available to us. The Psalmist wrote, “I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being” (Ps.104:33). Let it be our aim to praise Him as long as we live down here, singing and making melody in our hearts to the Lord.

 

 

We sing the praise of Him who died,

Of Him who died upon the cross;

The sinner’s hope let men deride,

For this we count the world but loss.

Thomas Kelly