Words of Wonder: What Happens When We Sing?
Desiring God 2008 National Conference
The Power of Words and the Wonder of God
SINGING. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up on groups like the Swingle Singers, Association, and Beach Boys and sang in or accompanied choirs throughout high school and college. I was involved with the vocal group GLAD for thirty years and have been leading corporate worship for even longer. I can’t imagine my life without singing.
Maybe you share my love for song. Then again, maybe you don’t. You might be someone who patiently endures the singing on Sunday mornings until you hear what you really came for — the message.
If that’s where you’re at, Martin Luther wants to have a few words with you. Luther loved congregational music and considered music next to theology in importance. He also had no problem saying what was on his mind. In a foreword to a collection of songs arranged for multiple voice parts, he wrote the following:
When man’s natural ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress, and embrace. . . . A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard it [music] as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs. (Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae,” LW 53, cited by Buszin in “Luther on Music,” The Musical Quarterly 32, no. 1 : 85)
We may not want to imitate Luther’s attitude, but we do want to imitate his passion for singing — because God himself is passionate about singing.
God’s Passion for Singing
God’s heart for setting words to melodies is evident from even a casual reading of the Psalms.
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. (Psalm 96:1–2)
Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! (Psalm 47:6)
In just four verses we’re commanded to sing seven times.
All told, the Bible contains over four hundred references to singing and fifty direct commands to sing. The longest book of the Bible, the Psalms, is a book of songs. And in the New Testament we’re commanded not once, but twice, to sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another when we meet (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
Why does God so often tell us not simply to praise him but to sing his praises when we meet? Why not just pray and preach? Why sing? Why are God’s people throughout history always singing? Why words and music and not just words alone? Why does God want us to sing? One reason is that God himself sings. In Zephaniah 3:17 God exalts over his people “with loud singing.”
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus sang hymns with his disciples (e.g., Matthew 26:30). Hebrews 2:12 applies Psalm 22:22 to Jesus when it says, “In the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And Ephesians 5 tells us that one effect of being “filled with the Spirit” is “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (verses 18–19).
We worship a triune God who sings, and he wants us to be like him.
How Music Relates to Words
There’s more to say about why God wants us to sing, but first I want to make a few general comments about how music relates to words. When it comes to combining music and words, Christians tend to fall into one of three categories.
Some Christians think that music supersedes the Word, both in its significance and effect. They think that words without music — and that’s usually a certain kind of music — are dry, unaffecting, and unimportant. They say things like, “Music speaks to me better than words can,” or, “I can’t worship unless I hear the style of music I like.” For these folks, the impact of words is not only helped by music; it’s dependent on it.
“We worship a triune God who sings, and he wants us to be like him.”
Other Christians think that music undermines the Word. As far as they’re concerned, any time you combine music with words in the church, you’re asking for problems. They fear the power that music seems to have over people, so they want to restrict its use.
Augustine acknowledged that struggle in his own soul. In his Confessions he wrote:
I am inclined — though I pronounce no irrevocable opinion on the subject — to approve of the use of singing in the church, so that by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional mood. Yet when it happens that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess myself to have sinned wickedly, and then I would rather not have heard the singing. (Augustine, Confessions, XXXIII.50)
Augustine was conscious of how music can distract us from the Word and potentially even undermine the Word. Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss pastor who lived in the sixteenth century, went even further. He was so concerned about music’s power that for a time he banned music from his meetings.
But music and the Word aren’t meant to be in conflict with each other. God himself wants them together. That’s why he tells us in 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.” God didn’t intend that music supersede the Word or that music undermine the Word. He gave us music to serve the Word. When that relationship is understood and appreciated, music becomes a powerful gift from God that complements, supports, and deepens the impact of the words we sing.
I’m going to take the rest of this chapter to describe three ways singing serves the Word and what difference it should make in our lives and our churches. My prayer is that by the end you’ll understand better why God tells us so many times to sing to the Lord.
Singing Can Help Us Remember Words
The first thing music helps us do is remember words. Ever notice how easy it is to recall hymns you sang growing up — or a TV jingle from the eighties, nursery rhymes, Christmas carols, or pop songs that you learned as a teenager? Do you ever find yourself singing along to a song you hadn’t heard for twenty years?
We store hundreds, literally thousands, of songs in our memory vaults, ready to be accessed at a moment’s notice. Music has a powerful mnemonic ability that scientists are just beginning to understand. They’re discovering that our minds are hardwired to recognize, categorize, and remember patterns in music better than we remember patterns in words alone.
For years Oliver Sacks has studied the effects of music on the brain. In his fascinating book Musicophilia he writes:
Every culture has songs and rhymes to help children learn the alphabet, numbers, and other lists. Even as adults, we are limited in our ability to memorize series or to hold them in mind unless we use mnemonic devices or patterns — and the most powerful of these devices are rhyme, meter, and song. (Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain [Alfred A. Knopf, 2007], 158)
You see the power of music in Alzheimer’s patients who can’t tell you the name of their spouse or children but can instantly sing songs they learned as a child. That’s partly because musical elements like rhythm, meter, and rhyme govern and restrict the way we say words and the time it takes to say them. And the more unique, repetitive, or immediately impacting these musical elements are, the easier it is to remember the song.
In Deuteronomy 31, God himself used music to help his people remember his words. As Israel was about to enter the Promised Land, God instructed Moses to teach Israel a song so that “when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring)” (Deuteronomy 31:21). Singing can help us remember words.
Use Effective Melodies
What does music’s mnemonic ability imply for us as followers of Christ? First, in the church we should use melodies that are effective. By “effective” I mean melodies that people are able to remember and melodies that people want to remember.
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is a hymn that’s universally loved. Part of the reason it (and other great hymns) endure is that it’s a well-crafted lyric set to a memorable, singable, and pleasing tune. If those same words were sung to a melody that was boring, unsingable, or forgettable, the hymn itself would never have become so popular.
Some people assume that the only effective melodies were written three hundred years ago. Others think that the best melodies have been written in the last ten years. Both groups are right. Both groups are wrong.
Some hymns have truly great melodies; they’re memorable, singable, and enjoyable. But sometimes a melody or a musical setting begins to sound stale to a younger set of ears. The result is that generations end up leaving behind not only the music but the words. New hymn versions aren’t always as good as the originals, but some are as good and even better. Great hymn lyrics have been introduced to new audiences through fresh musical settings. It’s always good to remember that the time period in which a tune was written isn’t the ultimate determiner for its effectiveness for corporate worship.
Sing Words That God Wants Us to Remember
Here’s another implication of music’s ability to help us remember words: we should sing words that God wants us to remember. It not only matters that we sing; it matters what we sing. And the words we sing have a far greater impact on us than most of us are aware.
New Testament scholar Gordon Fee once said, “Show me a church’s songs and I’ll show you their theology.” And it’s true. Or as Mark Noll puts it, “We are what we sing” (Noll, “We Are What We Sing,” Christianity Today, July 12, 1999, 37). Words should be the first thing we consider when we think about what songs to sing when we gather as the body of Christ.
In Colossians 3:16 Paul tells us that we are to “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.” It is the Word of Christ, the Word about Christ, the Word of the gospel — not musical experiences or emotional highs — that are to dwell in us richly as we sing. There’s certainly a place for expressing our subjective responses to God in song, but the greater portion of our lyrical diet should be the objective truths we’re responding to: God’s Word, his character, and his works, especially his work of sending his Son to be our atoning sacrifice.
That means the lyrics to our songs should reflect the broad themes of Scripture and not simply the themes we’re fond of. Few understood this better than John and Charles Wesley. Charles wrote over 6500 hymns, and together they produced fifty-six hymnals that covered every area of Christian doctrine and experience that they taught. They weren’t attempting to write worship hits. They wanted to teach and admonish the church. They wanted to give people songs that were filled with the Word of Christ. They understood that songs will never replace preaching but can serve as a significant complement to it.
So the question we need to ask today is this: if the teaching in our church was limited to the songs that we sing, how well taught would we be? How well would we know God? We should make it our aim not only to preach the whole counsel of God but to sing it, as well.
Seek to Memorize Songs
If singing can help us remember words, there’s one more implication. We should seek to memorize songs. You’ve heard of A.D.D., Attention Deficit Disorder. Well, many Christians suffer from S.D.D., Screen Dependency Disorder. We know the words of the songs we’re singing, but our eyes are glued to the screen, as though we’d be lost if the screen went blank. But songs don’t come from the screen. They come from our hearts.
Others suffer from H.D.D., Hymnal Dependency Disorder. We’ve sung the same hymns for decades, and yet we’d never think of lifting our heads from the page for a few moments to sing out the glories of the Savior. I’ve found it helpful, whether I’m singing from a screen or a hymnal, to look at a line briefly and then look away and sing it. It helps me realize that God gave us music to help us remember words.
Singing Can Help Us Engage Emotionally with Words
Along with helping us remember words, singing also connects the words we sing with our hearts. In every culture and age, music is a language of emotion. It expresses, arouses, and speaks to our feelings. Music is capable of moving us in subtle and profound ways — in anticipated and unexpected ways — with or without words. As David played skillfully on his harp, Saul’s troubled spirit was calmed (1 Samuel 16:23). In Matthew 11:17 Jesus referred to music that made people want to dance or mourn. God commands us to sing with thankfulness in our hearts to God (Colossians 3:16). Our hearts should be involved because music is meant to affect us.
But why does music affect us so deeply? There are a number of reasons. Sometimes we’re simply responding to musical principles that have been culturally learned. Personal experience with a song can affect its influence on us. We might assign moral value to songs, connecting them with aspects of our culture that we consider good or evil. We conclude that a certain beat, volume, chord progression, instrument, or vocal style is evil in and of itself. But unless those aspects are spelled out in Scripture we should be cautious about assigning a moral value to them. Another factor in a song’s effect on us can be how a song is performed or led. If a performer or leader is inexperienced, out of tune, or out of sync, the music may not move us, or move us in the wrong ways. On the other hand, skill can make a song sound better than it actually is.
Whatever the reasons, music can come alongside words and heighten their emotional impact in a way we may not have perceived with words alone. That has a number of advantages. First, singing can help us take more time to reflect on the meaning of words. It can stretch out words and phrases. It can allow us to repeat them or put space in between words. All these qualities can help us engage emotionally with the words we’re singing.
“Jesus died to redeem a universal choir.”
For instance, singing, rather than reciting, the words to “Amazing Grace” enables us to stretch out and think more carefully about what we’re singing. Likewise, the chorus to “It Is Well” gives us plenty of time to consider and enjoy the peace that God alone can bring to our souls. The music helps us engage with the words, “It is well with my soul.” The mood of the music matches what we’re saying. It’s a peaceful, calming setting, and the music swells to this appropriate climax of confident trust: it is well with my soul.
Second, music can amplify the emotion of the words we’re singing, whether it’s joyful celebration (“Better Than Life”), reverent awe (“Holy, Holy, Holy”), or sorrowful repentance (“O Sacred Head Now Wounded”). Music serves as an additional influence that guides and deepens our emotional responses to the words we’re singing. In one setting we might be mourning the death of Christ caused by our sins, and in another we might be joyfully celebrating the fact that his death has purchased our forgiveness and reconciled us to God. The music helps us know how to respond.
When talking about the emotional effect of music, we need to differentiate between being emotionally moved and spiritually enlightened. Music can move our emotions, but it can’t speak propositional truth. You might say that music has a voice, but we’re not always clear what that voice is saying. An instrumental piece can make us feel peaceful. But it can never tell us by itself that the Lord is our Shepherd or that Jesus endured God’s wrath in our place so that we might have eternal peace with God. Only words can do that.
We Need a Broader Emotional Range in the Songs We Sing
If music is meant to help us engage emotionally with words, then most churches need a broader emotional range in the songs they sing. We need songs of reverence, awe, repentance, and grief as well as songs of joy, celebration, freedom, and confidence. The holiness of God cannot be adequately expressed in a two-minute up-tempo pop song. The jubilant triumph of Christ’s victory over sin can’t be fully communicated in a slow a cappella hymn.
There are varied traditions of song throughout history as well as very different hymn-writers: Puritans, psalm singers, pietists, charismatics, modern worship songs. Why do we need to pit them against one another? As long as the lyrics are edifying and faithful to Scripture, why can’t we draw from each tradition to enable a broader range of emotional responses in corporate worship?
Singing Should Be an Emotional Event
If music is meant to stir our emotions, then it follows that singing should be an emotional event. For some of us, that’s no problem. For others, it’s a real struggle. If that’s you, then listen to Jonathan Edwards’s thoughts from his treatise on Religious Affections:
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 our affections. (Edwards, Religious Affections, cited in Sam Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections [Crossway, 2007], 53)
In other words, music is meant to affect us.
It’s important to understand that when Jonathan Edwards uses the word affections, he’s not merely talking about emotions. Emotions are included in the affections but not restricted to them. The affections he’s referring to are more than momentary musical highs produced by hearing a beat or harmonic progression we find interesting. Edwards is speaking of religious affections, meaning our entire being is engaged with God and his truth in a way that determines our words, thoughts, choices, and actions. They spring from the center of our being.
Having said that, God is still worthy of our highest, purest, strongest emotions. Singing helps express and ignite them. Passionless singing is an oxymoron. John Wesley said it this way in an introduction to a hymnal:
Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan. (John Wesley, Preface to Select Hymns )
Some of us are afraid of getting too emotional when we sing. But the problem isn’t emotions. It’s emotional*ism*. Emotionalism pursues feelings as ends in themselves. It’s wanting to feel something with no regard for how that feeling is produced or its ultimate purpose. Emotionalism can also assume that heightened feelings are the infallible sign that God is present. They’re not. The emotions that singing is meant to evoke are responses to the truths we’re singing about God — his glory, his greatness, and his goodness. Vibrant singing enables us to connect truth about God seamlessly, with passion, so that we can combine doctrine and devotion, edification and expression, mind and heart.
Of course, we won’t always be moved in the same way or to the same degree when we sing. We can sing theologically profound truths while thinking about what we’re going to have for lunch or which teams are playing that afternoon. There will even be times when outward singing is accompanied by a numbness in our souls. What should we do? Rather than simply gritting our teeth and accepting that condition as normal, it’s better to ask God for faith and mercy to feel what is appropriate in light of who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ.
The good news is that God wants to use music, and has even designed music, to break through our apathy and hardness of heart, and to help us engage emotionally with his Word.
Singing Can Help Us Use Words to Demonstrate and Express Our Unity
We’ve seen how music can help us remember and engage emotionally with words. A final way singing serves words is by demonstrating and expressing our unity.
People sing together in the strangest places. At sporting events, fans sing enthusiastically about their desire to crush the opponent. People sing at New Year’s Eve parties, Christmastime, rock concerts, weddings, and even funerals. When eating out we often have to endure well-meaning but musically challenged servers in restaurants attempt to sing some form of “Happy Birthday” to an embarrassed individual. I always ask myself, “Why do we do this?” It’s not as though anyone thinks this is enjoyable. Do they?
While these events aren’t equally significant, something similar is happening. Our singing tends to bind us together. It’s more effective than simply reciting or shouting words in unison. Singing enables us to spend extended periods of time communicating the same thoughts, the same passions, and the same intentions. That process can actually have a physical effect on our bodies. Scientists have found that singing corporately produces a chemical change in our bodies that contributes to a sense of bonding.
When it comes to the church, this characteristic of singing has significant implications, all of which require great wisdom and discernment. To be clear, Scripture doesn’t talk only about congregational singing. God is honored when we sing alone, when a musically gifted individual leads out in a solo, when a choir sings, or when different segments of a church sing to one another, taking turns. The Bible isn’t specific about exactly who sings when.
But the predominant emphasis of Scripture is believers confessing their common beliefs together. The book of Revelation doesn’t give the impression that Jesus died for independent soloists, people who would sing on their own clouds or in different sections of the renewed earth by themselves. He died to redeem a universal choir.
That means every voice in the church matters. We’re not called simply to listen to others sing — as we are prone to do increasingly in our iPod-Internet-downloading culture — or to sing by ourselves. We are called to sing with others, especially in the context of our local church. The question isn’t, Do you have a voice? The question is, Do you have a song? If you’ve turned from your sins and trusted in the finished work of Christ, if you’re forgiven and reconciled to God, then you have a song. It’s a song of the redeemed, of those who have been rescued from the righteous wrath of God through the cross of Jesus Christ and are now called his friends. Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God, and our singing together, every voice contributing, is one way we express that truth.
Sing Songs That Unite Rather than Divide the Church
What does this mean for the church? To begin with, we should seek to sing songs that unite rather than divide the church. We should appreciate — and, oh, how I do — the diverse musical genres and styles that God has given to different cultures, ethnic groups, and generations. But music in the church was never meant to be “something for everybody.” That’s not what we should be advertising.
“Jesus died to redeem a universal choir.”
There should be a common musical style that speaks to most of the individuals in our church while occasionally introducing new songs and styles, so that we might appreciate the glory of God expressed in music in new ways. But the most important unifying musical center should be the sound of the people themselves.
God commands us in numerous Scriptures to worship him with instruments (Psalms 33:2–3; 81:2; 150). But dwarfing those commands in number are the times God tells us to worship him with song. It seems that the primary purpose for instruments is to support faith- filled, gospel-centered, passionate singing. That’s why I always encourage leaders in the church to take time to sing a cappella, whether it’s a line, a verse, or an entire song.
The sound that unites the church should be the sound of voices, not a particular music style. When people are focused on that sound and the fact that Jesus has made it possible, style becomes secondary.
Musical Creativity in the Church Has Functional Limits
Here’s another implication: musical creativity in the church has functional limits. The church will always be exploring new and different ways of expressing God’s glory and our response to him. But God did not assign us the task of singing the most radical, cutting-edge, creative music possible. In other words, our personal music collection is not the best place to begin when thinking about what songs we should sing on Sunday. We want to pursue a creativity that is undistracting, a creativity that unites the church around gospel-centered truth rather than dividing the church over musical innovation.
The Gospel, Not Music, Unites Us
Finally, we must be clear that it is the gospel and not music that unites us. An increasing number of churches have adopted the practice of offering different services for different musical tastes. While that decision can be well intentioned, I believe the long-term effect is to separate families and generations and to imply that we gather together around our musical preferences, not Jesus Christ.
What does it say to the world when we can’t prefer each other long enough to have a meeting? Worshiping God together is just one part of our overheard witness to the world. We’re saying that the gospel — not musical styles, preferences, or backgrounds — is what unites us. Ephesians 2:14 says, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” He has not only broken down the walls of nationality, race, and class. He has broken down the walls of musical preference. I don’t love the people in our church because we like the same kind of music, because we can all name the same bands, or because we all sing from the same hymnal. I love the people in my church because Jesus has enabled me to love them through his once-and-for-all atoning death.
In the book of Revelation, the host of heaven aren’t in unity because of the style of music they are using but because of the focus of their song. We read about it in Revelation 5:10:
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.”
What kind of music do people from every tribe and language and nation and tongue sing? I don’t know! God didn’t tell us. He didn’t include a soundtrack with the Bible (although don’t you sometimes wish he had?).
Instead, God has told us what the focus of our songs should be: worthy is the Lamb who is slain. The Lamb must always be central to our corporate singing. Why? Because Jesus is the One who has made it possible.
We can tend to think that God accepts our offerings of musical worship because of our skill, efforts, practice, or sincerity. If that were the case, our offerings wouldn’t be accepted at all. Harold Best reminds us that all our offerings “are at once humble and exalted by the strong, saving work of Jesus Christ” (Best, Music through the Eyes of Faith [HarperOne, 1993], 156). They’re humbled because none of our songs would reach God’s ears apart from the song of our Savior. Our song is joined with his song; his glorious, perfect song of praise. What exalts our offerings is that God receives our songs as though Christ himself were singing them. Amazing, isn’t it?
There have been times when I’ve listened to recordings of myself leading worship and thought, “That’s horrible. How can God put up with that?” He can because he hears what we do through his Son. Certainly there’s a place for skill, practice, and sincerity in our worship. But our faith is not in what we do. It’s in what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf and in our place at the cross.
Anticipating the Songs to Come
So, what are we doing in our local churches to promote, encourage, and participate in the kind of corporate singing we see in Revelation? What are we doing to discourage it? Leaders should be faithful to model and instruct the church in the purpose of singing, because we live in a musically addicted culture.
“None of our songs would reach God’s ears apart from the song of our Savior.”
We need to teach how music functions in corporate worship so that our singing more and more resembles what we see in the book of Revelation. There, in the context of the new heavens and the new earth, we’ll forever lift up undistracted, passionate, unified, Word-centered songs to the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb who was slain.
In his book Recalling the Hope of Glory, Allen Ross reminds us of the value of looking ahead:
If we even begin to comprehend the risen Christ in all his glory, or faintly hear the heavenly choirs that surround the throne with their anthems of praise, or imagine what life in the presence of the Lord will be like, then we can never again be satisfied with worship as usual. We will always be striving to make our worship fit for glory; and we will always be aware that our efforts, no matter how good and noble, are still of this world and not yet of that one. (Ross, Recalling the Hope of Glory [Kregel, 2006], 474)
What will we experience in that world, in the new heavens and new earth? While we won’t be singing all the time, I can tell you this: when we do sing, it will be like nothing we’ve ever experienced. We’ll have clearer minds to take in the glories of God. We’ll have new strength to give him the glory he deserves. And we’ll have an unlimited time in which to do it, free from any and every influence of sin. Singing will fully and finally serve the purpose for which it was intended.
And until that day we continue to sing — thanking God for old songs that join us with the saints of history, enjoying new songs that enable us to express eternal truth in fresh ways, and anticipating the songs that are yet to come.
The Savior has rescued us that we might sing the song of the redeemed. May we sing it well. May we sing it constantly. May we sing it passionately. May we sing it for his glory and the advancing of his gospel until the time comes when our songs will never end.