What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this, thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever,
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee. (“O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”)
I’d like to begin by giving two answers to the question of why this conference exists, or more personally, why I consider it a grace and privilege to be here.
First, when Bernard of Clairvaux, a thousand years ago, wrote the lines, “What language shall I borrow / to thank thee, dearest friend,” he was expressing the universal human experience that human language does not suffice as an adequate expression of the greatest realities in the world. What language shall I borrow / to thank thee, dearest friend, / for this, thy dying sorrow, / thy pity without end?
One answer to Bernard’s question that God has given in Scripture, and that the people of God have given for four thousand years, is this: I will borrow the language of singing. The Sing! Conference exists because the realities of the Christian faith are so glorious — so great, so beautiful, so valuable — they will never be adequately experienced or expressed by written or spoken language alone. They must be sung. Hence, a conference called Sing!
My second answer to the question of why this conference exists, or why I feel it as a grace to be part of it, can be seen if I tell you about an interaction between my wife and me. When we travel together, as we did yesterday to come here, I have said to my wife countless times in the last 52 years, “I’m glad you can go with me.” Or I have said something like: “It makes me happy that we can do this together.” Never once, not once, has she ever said, “You are so selfish. It makes you glad to have me along. It makes you happy that we can do this together.” The reason this conference exists is found in the answer to why she has never said that.
“God has given singing to his people as one of the most precious and powerful expressions of our gladness in his glory.”
Here’s why she has never said that: My pleasure in her is a measure of her treasure to me. The worth, the glory, that we see in others is measured by the gladness that we have in their presence. My pleasure in her presence is a tribute. It’s not selfishness; it’s celebration. And so it is with God. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Our pleasure in him is the measure of his Treasure to us. And the Treasure of God is so great that spoken language alone does not suffice as an adequate expression of his worth. Therefore, God has given singing to his people as one of the most precious and powerful expressions of our gladness in his glory. It is the gladness of Godward singing, especially through suffering in the cause of love, that makes God’s glory shine most brightly.
Five Ways Singing Serves the Great Commission
My task in the final minutes is to draw out some of the connections between this gladness of Godward singing and the great work of finishing the Great Commission — to gather in God’s elect from all the peoples of the world — to see all the ransomed of the Lord “come to Zion with singing” and “everlasting joy . . . upon their heads” (Isaiah 35:10).
To that end, I want to simply point you to five of those connections that I see in Scripture:
- Singing sends the lovers of Christ to the nations.
- Singing sustains the servants of Christ among the nations.
- Singing sets free the captives in the nations.
- Singing shows the all-satisfying glory of Christ to the nations.
- And singing is a sign that the kings of the earth belong to Christ.
1. The gladness of Godward singing sends the lovers of Christ to the nations.
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. (Psalm 96:2–4)
How many thousands of missionaries over the centuries have heard their calling from God in Psalm 96? Declare his glory among the nations! Declare his glory among the nations! And do it with a song in your heart and on your lips: Sing to the Lord, bless his name.
Every year for 33 years when I was a pastor, we had a missions conference. We closed it with me asking people to come to the front who, in their own fallible hearts, believed that God was calling them to cross some culture for the sake of the gospel long-term. They would come — twenty, fifty, two hundred. We would get their names to plug them into the nurture program. Then we would close the service every time with the hymn that the five Ecuador martyrs sang as they gave their lives to reach the Hourani in 1956.
We rest on thee, our Shield and our Defender!
Thine is the battle, thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
victors, we rest with thee, through endless days;
when passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
victors, we rest with thee, through endless days. (“We Rest on Thee”)
My point is this: I would not be surprised if singing that song sealed the calling of many people as they wrestled with God’s will. Singing sends the lovers of Christ to the nations.
2. The gladness of Godward singing sustains the servants of Christ among the nations.
When that first Lord’s Supper was over, and Jesus was about to walk out into the dark of his final test, Mark and Matthew tell us that they sang together. “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mark 14:26). And the next thing out of Jesus’s mouth is: “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Mark 14:27). Here is the greatest missionary that ever was — from heaven to earth — about to be tested beyond imagination. And he strengthened his hand in God by singing with his friends.
I got an email from a missionary friend several months ago who serves among an unreached people in a very difficult place, and he gave a link to a recording of a song his teenage daughter had written and sung about the sufficiency of Christ in her life. One can only imagine how many missionaries have persevered for a lifetime through the power of Godward singing. Many of us sing to the Lord in the solitude of our rooms. So only heaven will reveal the immeasurable strength God has given to sustain us through song.
3. The gladness of Godward singing sets free the captives in the nations.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that an earthquake shook open the prison doors while Paul and Silas were singing.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. (Acts 16:25–26)
Whether Luke intended for us to make the connection between Paul’s singing and setting the prisoner free, that is what happened, and what happens today.
In my early days as a pastor, I got a call at about ten o’clock in the evening. Some college students told me that a young woman was demon-possessed, and was threatening them with a knife, but they weren’t going to let her out of the room until I came. So I called my colleague, Tom Steller, and we went.
I had no experience of such a thing. But it was quite real. They all said that’s not her voice and that’s not her face. What I knew was that Jesus is more powerful than demons, and that the word of God is our sword for such warfare. So I read and prayed, and read and prayed, as she knocked the Bible out of my hand several times, and kept threatening with this little penknife that she had.
Then someone started to sing: “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,” and we all joined in and added spontaneous words to that simple melody. She fell to the floor and shook with great spasms calling out for Satan not to leave her. Then she went limp. When she came to, she had a different countenance and a different voice and read to us the eighth chapter of Romans.
Demons are real. Prisons are real. And God has appointed his truth, sometimes in singing, to free the captives among the nations.
4. The gladness of Godward singing shows the all-satisfying glory of Christ to the nations.
What does it mean that the missionaries of Christ sing and call the nations to join them in singing? It means that the fundamental divine requirement from all the peoples of the world is that they be glad in God through Jesus Christ.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, . . .
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you! (Psalm 67:4–5)
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody!
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord! (Psalm 98:4–6)
“The Great Commission is a global command to be glad in God. Missions is a summons to the nations to sing of the all-satisfying glory of Christ.”
The Great Commission is a global command to be glad in God. Missions is a summons to the nations to sing of the all-satisfying glory of Christ — not because singing is the right thing to do but because singing is inevitable when you have tasted the forgiveness of sins, the rescue from hell, the imputation of righteousness, the adoption into God’s family, the hope of being with the God of all glory and shining together like the sun in the kingdom of our Father (Matthew 13:43).
“Let the nations be glad and sing for joy” is not a burdensome requirement. It’s an invitation to a feast (Matthew 22:4, 9), where every burden will be lifted, and every inner restraint will be removed, and the least likely singer will sing like the nightingale or the trumpet of God.
5. The gladness of Godward singing is a sign that the kings of the earth belong to Christ.
All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth. (Psalm 138:4)
They lift up their voices, they sing for joy;
over the majesty of the Lord they shout from the west. . . .
From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise,
of glory to the Righteous One. (Isaiah 24:14, 16)
This is the sign of the triumph of Christ among the nations and their kings: a song of joy to the majesty of the Lord and songs of praise to the Righteous One. The singer gets the joy. The Savior gets the praise. That’s how God’s saving purpose advances.
This is the way God designed the world to be: God gets the glory among the nations. The nations get the gladness in God.
There is one unified goal for the universe: the glory of God in the gladness of the nations in God — gladness that is of such a nature that it cries out, What language shall I borrow? and answers, I will borrow the language of singing — and summon the nations to join me.