I’ve been thinking about Nehemiah 12:45-46 for a while now, and what the revival of singing in Nehemiah’s day can teach us about our need to sing a lot more with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And they performed the service of their God and the service of purification, as did the singers and the gatekeepers, according to the command of David and his son Solomon. For long ago in the days of David and Asaph there were directors of the singers, and there were songs of praise and thanksgiving to God. —Nehemiah 12:45-46
Nehemiah’s talking about when David and Asaph were at work, making sure that God’s people were singing great songs, and singing them well. Nehemiah and Israel would have read about Asaph when they read 1 Chronicles 15. He was one of the brothers appointed by the Levites to lead the singing when David brought the Ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem. It’s interesting because in chapter 15 Asaph is mentioned second, after Heman, who seemed to be the chief singer at that moment. But in Chapter 16, David himself names Asaph and simply calls all the other singers his brothers, and he asks him to sing a beautiful song of Thanksgiving. Then David leaves Asaph and his brothers to minister before the Ark. Apparently, Asaph distinguished himself as a singer in between chapters 15 and 16.
We see Asaph mentioned again in 1 Chronicles 25 when David and the chiefs of the servants set apart Asaph’s sons who “prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals.”
And of course Asaph wrote a number of our psalms, including Psalm 50, and Psalms 73-83.
So David and Asaph were the pioneers of psalm singing, they were the ones who set the course. They were like the Beatles were to rock and roll, only more so.
What is Nehemiah doing here in verse 46? He’s telling us that, in his day, there was a revival of singing in the temple. They were bringing back the practices that David and Asaph laid down.
But wait. Aren’t there better things for us to focus our time and energy on than singing? Singing is just for those artistic types who can’t work an actual job, and it’s just frivolous. That’s a fun word, isn’t it?
Frivolous– “not having any serious purpose or value.”
If we were serious about life, we wouldn’t be singing all the time. We do it for the kids, okay I get that. We do it for those people who get all emotional about that kind of stuff, but then the rest of us have to put up with it until we get to the serious stuff about being a Christian in the fallen world.
If you relate at all, even a little, to that way of thinking, let the Bible correct you. Singing is anything but frivolous to God. There are over 400 references to God’s people singing in the Bible, did you know that? And there are about 50 direct commands to God’s people to sing.
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! For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. —Psalm 96
The prophet Zephaniah tells us that our God is, in fact, a God who sings:
The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. —Zephaniah 3:17
Here’s an important biblical principle: If God commands something, you can usually discover that there’s a good reason for it. Another way to put it is that God’s commands fit together with God’s design. There’s a reason singing has such a powerful impact on people. There’s a reason we burst into song when we’re excited and happy. There’s a reason that some songs bring us to tears, and even help us understand or cope with difficult times in our lives.
Have you ever felt like you were stronger after hearing a particular song? Do you know what that reason is? It’s because we were designed that way. God’s command to sing, his hundreds of expressions of song in Scripture, they all point to the fact that we were designed by him to engage deeply with song. He doesn’t command us to sing, and then hope that we like it. He knows we will like it because he made us this way. God gave us the love we have for music and song, and then he commanded us to do what we love for his glory.
And it’s not frivolous at all. It’s life or death to our souls. Have you ever been ministered to by singing “It Is Well” in a dark time of your life? A few weeks back our church sang “Ten Thousand Reasons” with just a guitar and, man, that ministered to me in a powerful way. Hearing all of my family sing, “Bless the Lord O My Soul, O My soul” was such an encouragement to my own weary soul that morning.
Think for a minute about Paul’s argument in Colossians 3. He starts with the fact that Jesus Christ owns us through the work of the Gospel. “Christ, who is your life…” Then he goes on to tell us that the Gospel should bring about change in our lives- putting off the old self and putting on the new self because we’re following Christ by the Spirit. Then in verse 15 he turns to the unity that churches ought to have together, and look what he includes in this beautiful expression of what our attitude ought to be towards each other.
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. 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. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. —Colossians 3:15-17
So, we take this for granted in our day I think. We just assume that of course churches will sing, they’ll read the Bible, they’ll pray, and so we almost ignore those things and move to the preferences we really care about. “Every church does that, we’re looking for more.” “What do you offer for ___________? What are you doing about this ‘need’, or that ‘opportunity?”
But God didn’t tell us that, when we gather, we ought to prioritize anything but singing, prayer, teaching and preaching the Word of God, and loving one another with humility and gentleness in Christ Jesus.
So if you overlook those practices, and take them for granted, guess what? You’ve overlooked the very means God gives us to unite around Jesus Christ and be fed together!
Given this, isn’t it ironic that our singing is one of the biggest things that brings division in churches today? That’s the work of the devil and our natural sinfulness, I’m convinced.