In my last article I considered the revival of song that took place in the book of Nehemiah and argued that it’s vital for us as a community, like the Jews in Nehemiah’s day, to have a ministry of singing together.
Here, I’d like to give us three things that are absolute Biblical must-haves when it comes to singing songs together in the Church.
First, what we sing must be Biblical and God-glorifying. The content of what we sing matters more than just about anything else. Think about this story in Deuteronomy 31. Moses is at death’s door, he knows his life is about to end, and God gives him a glimpse of what is to come for Israel. Hard days are coming to them.
So what does God tell Moses to do for Israel?
“Now, therefore, write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.”
– Deuteronomy 31:19
Put it in their mouths. That’s what we want to do. We want to put good theology and biblical hope in the mouths of Christians, and there’s no better way to do that than to teach people good songs. Our time of singing is absolutely a time of teaching. Bob Kauflin asks a very perceptive question here: “Ask yourself, If the teaching of our church was limited to the songs we sing, what would our people know?”
And also, on this note, our singing has to be as broad as Scripture itself. If we’re not singing songs of Thanksgiving and Lament, Confession and Praise, Doxology and Response, then we’re not being faithful to sing Biblically. The songbook of the Bible, which we still sing and many of our hymns are based on, covers all those parts of worship. If we are always upbeat and happy in our songs, we are not being honest, are we? If we are always down and broken, we are not being faithful to God either.
Sometimes, we need songs to lift us up out of a hazy spiritual depression. Other times, we need to be reminded of the sobering truths of our sin and desperate need God. I’ve heard someone say before, “there’s a song for every situation.” I believe that’s true! Just make sure its a biblical song, full of truth.
Our songs must be able to teach Biblical truths, and they also must be able to admonish. Did you hear Paul say that in Colossians 3? Teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs… Are you ever rebuked by the songs we sing? Do you think about the words you’re singing and realize that God is chiding you? Perhaps you’re singing “Christ the Sure and Steady Anchor,” and you realize that you have been striving to anchor yourself in some other desire instead in Christ.
Second, what we sing, we must all sing together. We teach and admonish one another. The singers in Nehemiah’s day led the singing, but God’s people sang together. This singing unifies the people- they are gathering at the temple together to worship God together. They are all singing the same words together because they are united in believing the truth of those words, or they are united in the purpose behind those words! “We praise you!” They all sing that together because they do, that’s what they have in common.
It’s so good to pick out the voices of my brothers and sisters as we’re singing and be reminded that we share a commitment to the words we’re singing. So the principle is that, however we accompany the singing, the singing must be what takes center stage. The commands are to sing, not to listen to people singing. Of course, people immediately want to argue now about what they believe is clearly the best way to accompany the singing, and that leads to the third point.
Third, musical styles are not what bring us together in our worship, the Gospel is. Some people need to read that statement to themselves every week before they enter the worship service. If you have to have your worship music in a certain style all the time, you had better start working to change your attitude now because I’m certain you will have to let that attitude go when you actually join the host of heaven at the marriage celebration of the lamb. That is not a heavenly attitude. You couldn’t go and celebrate the Lord with brothers and sisters from other cultures. You would find it very difficult to worship with the strange instruments that David himself used. I love what Bob Kauflin says:
“We must be clear that it is the gospel and not music that unites us. We should guard against gathering together in churches based upon our musical preferences rather than according to our unity in the gospel. The gospel is what unites us. Ephesians 2:14 – Jesus has united us, not our music. I don’t connect with people at my church because they have the same song selection on their iPod. I love them because Christ has enabled me to love them.
The host of heaven is not united in their style of music but in the words of their song (Revelation 5:9-10). What kind of music do people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation sing? We don’t know! But the Bible tells us what the focus should be: Worthy is the Lamb who was slain. The Lamb must always be central to our corporate singing. Why? Because Jesus is the one who makes it possible. God doesn’t hear us on account of our skill in singing. He hears it because it is in his Son. We shouldn’t look for music to move us to sing. God has already done something worthy of moving us. How can we then keep from singing?”
When we’re singing, we’re not celebrating the piano, the guitar, the band, the organ, whatever. We’re celebrating God who transcends our cultural styles. Our joy comes from God.