Singing, Suffering, and Scripture

How God Keeps Us Through Song

Sing! Global 2020 Conference


My title is “Singing, Suffering, and Scripture.” Before I use Scripture to describe three relationships between singing and suffering, I want to say a few words about the kind of singing that I have in mind.

Good and Fitting to the Lord

Psalm 100 begins like this:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
Serve the Lord with gladness!
Come into his presence with singing! (Psalm 100:1–2)

Come into his presence with singing. So, the kind of singing that I have in mind is the kind with which we come into the presence of God. Or another way to say it would be: make joyful noise to the Lord. The kind of singing I have in mind is to the Lord. It is in his presence and for his ears. We consciously choose to sing with his attention in view; it is a Godward act.

And this is true even when our songs are addressed to each other. Because Paul says in Ephesians 5:19, “Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.” So, the kind of singing I have in mind is always “to the Lord” — always in his presence — even when we are singing to each other as well. Then consider Psalm 147:1:

Praise the Lord!
For it is good to sing praises to our God;
     for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting.

“Singing that is good and fitting in the presence of the Lord is not only from the mind; it is from the heart.”

Two words are used to describe why we sing in the presence of God and to God. One is good, and the other is fitting. “It is good to sing praises to our God.” “A song of praise is fitting.” So, I am not talking about just any singing or any song that you might sing to God or in the presence of God. I’m talking about singing and songs that are good and fitting. Now, I’m going to leave aside for someone else to handle what makes the actual music itself good or fitting in the presence of God, and instead I’m going to suggest what makes the verbal content and the heart-affections good and fitting, which the music is carrying.

God’s Word and God’s Worth

My suggestion is this: when it comes to the verbal content and the heart-affections of our singing in God’s presence and to God, the singing is good and fitting when it expresses truth that accords with God’s word, and affections that accord with God’s worth. That’s what makes the song fitting: it expresses truth that accords with God’s word, and affections that accord with God’s worth. When the psalmist cries out,

  • “My tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness” (Psalm 51:14),
  • “I will sing of your strength” (Psalm 59:16),
  • “I will sing aloud of your steadfast love” (Psalm 59:16),
  • “They shall sing of the ways of the Lord” (Psalm 138:5),
  • or “My tongue will sing of your word” (Psalm 119:172),

the assumption in every case is: the verbal content of my song about God’s righteousness and strength and love and ways and word are true; they line up with the word of God. We sing the truth about God. We don’t come into his presence with verbal misrepresentations of God. In fact, the psalmist says explicitly, “My tongue will sing of your word, because all your commandments are right” (Psalm 119:172); that is, they are straight in line with reality, the word of God. And so are my songs. That’s what makes them good and fitting in their verbal content: they express truth that accords with God’s word.

And, secondly, what makes our songs good and fitting is that they express affections or emotions that accord with God’s worth. I say this because Paul says in Ephesians 5:19 that we are to “sing and make melody to the Lord with your heart.” Singing that is good and fitting in the presence of the Lord is not only from the mind; it is from the heart. Indeed, may we not say that this is why God created singing? If he only wanted the recitation of truth in worship, why encourage us in a hundred ways to combine truth with music called singing? Here’s Jonathan Edwards’s answer, and I think he’s right:

The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move [and express] our affections.

In summary, then, when I speak about singing in relation to suffering, as revealed in the Scriptures, this is what I am talking about: singing in the presence of God and to God in a way that is good and fitting — namely, singing that expresses truth that accords with God’s word, and affections that accord with God’s worth.

Three Ways Singing Relates to Suffering

How, then, do the Scriptures present the relationship between such singing and our suffering? I’ll draw out three ways that I think give us good guidance and help us grasp the relationship between singing and suffering.

  1. Singing is stopped by suffering.
  2. Singing sustains in suffering.
  3. Singing follows after suffering.

Those three relationships between singing and suffering correspond to three acts of God’s providence.

  1. God’s providence ordains that his people often suffer song-silencing affliction.
  2. God’s providence ordains that his people endure other measures of suffering, and that we bear it with singing.
  3. God’s providence ordains a day for his people when suffering will be no more, but singing will last forever.

1. Singing is stopped by suffering.

James says in his letter, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (James 5:13). Now, he might have said, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him sing sad songs. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing glad songs.” And we will see that there is such a thing as sad songs in times of suffering. But that’s not what James says. He is owning the truth that there is suffering that can only get out groans of prayer, not songs of prayer.

The wise man in Proverbs 25:20 counsels us not to force a song on the heavy heart: “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda.” Vinegar on soda! All you get is foam, useless foam, while the vinegar and the soda are ruined. An ill-timed song ruins the song and the soul.

The reason Paul said, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), is because there is a kind of brokenheartedness that needs silence — not singing. One example is the sorrows of the Jewish exiles in Babylon when they are being taunted by their captors (Psalm 137:1–4):

By the waters of Babylon,
     there we sat down and wept,
     when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
     we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
     required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
     “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
     in a foreign land?

“There are seasons of suffering that are too painful, even for songs of lament.”

There are seasons of suffering that are too painful, even for songs of lament. Time must pass. Perhaps the day will come when there is sufficient emotional resourcefulness for the sad songs. Till then, faith holds on in silence. Perhaps the most painful example of songless suffering is the example of Job’s three friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) at their best when they first saw Job’s suffering:

And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:12–13)

No word. No song. Because the providence of God ordained that Job suffer song-silencing affliction. As Job said to his wife, “‘Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10).

So, the first relationship between singing and suffering in Scripture is: singing is stopped by suffering.

2. Singing sustains in suffering.

Deep calls to deep
     at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
     have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
     and at night his song is with me,
     a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock:
     “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
     because of the oppression of the enemy?” (Psalm 42:7–9)

Between the waves of God breaking over him on the one side, and the sense of abandonment on the other side, there a song in the night: “at night his song is with me.” The affliction is serious. But it is not song-silencing affliction. It’s singing that sustains in affliction.

King Josiah — a great and good king — was killed in battle, and 2 Chronicles says,

All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a rule in Israel; behold, they are written in the Laments. (2 Chronicles 35:24–25)

Very often the tragedy of a life or a nation are borne in sorrowful memories with sad songs. Songs that don’t pick at a wound, but sustain the sufferer in faith. You know the story of the writing of the hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.” Horatio Spafford lost four of his daughters at sea, and wrote this song as a response of faith. It would be sung by millions as a great faith-sustaining song of sorrow and hope:

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

When Paul and Silas were arrested for Christ’s sake in Philippi, Luke tells us,

The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison. . . . Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:22–25)

Why were they singing? Yes, it was a witness. The prisoners were listening. But Luke says they were singing to God. Why? Because they needed to experience the nearness and the goodness and the greatness of God. God was their sustainer. And they experienced it in singing.

So, the second relationship between singing and suffering in the Scriptures is that singing sustains in suffering. This is probably the most common experience of God’s people in this age regarding suffering and singing. The day is coming when there will be no more suffering. And sometimes in this age there is suffering so great it silences our songs. But most of the time in this world we would say, “Life is hard, and God is good.”

“The greatest song will always be the song born of suffering.”

And what has happened for the last three thousand years is that when the people of God put those two things together — life is hard, and God is good — the result has been thousands and thousands of soul-sustaining songs in suffering. Just think of the songs that mean the most to you. Which songs have touched you most deeply and have sustained your faith most powerfully? Is it not the songs born out of suffering?

I have an Evernote file on my phone with my favorite hymns — 139 of them. I just ran my eyes through them the other day to see this connection between suffering and singing in my own experience.

Those who love the Father,
Though the storms may gather,
Still have peace within;
Yea, whate’er we here must bear,
Still in Thee lies purest pleasure,
Jesus, priceless Treasure! (“Jesus, Priceless Treasure”)

And when I come to die,
Oh, and when I come to die,
And when I come to die, give me Jesus. (“Give Me Jesus”)

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide;
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me. (“Abide with Me”)

Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
To preserve them pure and holy. (“Children of the Heavenly Father”)

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face. (“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”)

He Whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best —
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest. (“Day by Day”)

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be. (“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”)

And that last line leads us to our final biblical relationship between singing and suffering.

3. Singing follows after suffering.

Because there is coming a day — the beginning of an eternity when there will be no more suffering.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)

So, every saint, no matter how hard their death, can sing, or say, in that moment:

I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be. (“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”)

Isaiah put it like this:

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
     and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
     they shall obtain gladness and joy,
     and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

Suffering will stop, but singing will not. But suffering will not be forgotten. Because we will sing about it for all eternity — not ours, but Christ’s.

And they sang a new song, saying,
     “Worthy are you to take the scroll
     and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
     from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
     and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)

Singing will remain, rooted in suffering, forever. The greatest song will always be the song born of suffering. We will never forget the price Jesus paid so that forgiven sinners could sing with everlasting joy.

So, take heart. Though singing is sometimes stopped by suffering, nevertheless, our most common experience in this world is that singing sustains in suffering. And if the slain Christ is your song, then for you (and all the redeemed) the day is coming when suffering will be no more, and singing will follow the end of suffering forever.