The many purposes of singing
One of the chief things that Christians are renowned for, both historically and universally, is singing songs and making music. This is in contrast to Islam, for example, where many regard music as haram (forbidden), and singing does not normally feature in Mosque practices.
Now there are all sorts of reasons why Christianity is a singing faith; for the practice of making melody to the Lord, and of hymn singing in particular, has many purposes. My intention in this article is to focus specifically on congregational singing (rather than Christian music generally), and to open up its three principal purposes; the three main reasons why, according to Scripture, God has given us this ability and called us to engage in this activity. These reasons are: (1) to help us praise, (2) to help us pray, and (3) to help us proclaim. So let’s look at each of these in turn.
1. Singing and praise
a) Singing is a vital form of praise
How should we think about praise? The first thing to note is that, according to Scripture, praising God normally has two faces or aspects to it: we can praise God to God and we can praise God to others. In this sense, a parallel exists with the way we can praise one another. For example, I can praise my wife by telling her how wonderful she is, or I can praise her by telling you how wonderful she is.
The second thing to note is that praising God doesn’t always have to take the form of singing. Indeed, it would be a mistake, biblically speaking, to equate praise with singing. Whilst praise normally involves words, everything we do should be for the glory and praise of God (1 Cor 10:31; Phil 1:11).
But, thirdly, there’s likewise no escaping the fact that singing is a vital form of praise. Many Scriptures (particularly many of the Psalms) bear this out. Not only do they link praise directly with singing, but they frequently speak of the two faces of praise in virtually the same breath, often sliding from one to the other with barely so much as a gear change! Consider, for example, the opening verses of Psalm 96:
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 marvellous works among all the peoples!
The point could not be clearer. We sing to the Lord, blessing his name, and we sing of the Lord, declaring his glory. And, of course, we often (if not always) do both at once. For even when we’re singing of the Lord to others, he is present to receive his praise!
b) Our constant battle with praise
The importance of singing the praises of God is evident from the number of times it is commanded in Scripture (e.g. Ex 15:21; 1 Chr 16:9, 23; Ps 5:11; 9:11; 30:4; 33:3; 47:6-7; 66:2; 68:4, 32; 81:1-2; 95:1-2; 96:1-2; 98:1, 4-5; 100:2; 105:2; 107:22; 135:3; 147:1, 7; 149:1, 5; Isa 12:5-6; 42:10; Jer 20:13; 31:7; Zeph 3:14; Zech 2:10; Jam 5:13). Now, admittedly, most of these exhortations are found in the Old Testament, particularly the Psalms. But given that the apostle Paul expects and exhorts Christians to sing the Psalms (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16), these commands have abiding relevance.
Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that praise, like all other aspects of Christian obedience, is a constant battlefront on which God’s people have to fight to be faithful. For it is God’s purpose that his children should praise him (as we should serve him) “with a whole heart” (e.g. Ps 9:1; 86:12; 111:1; 138:1; Eph 5:19). Consequently, an array of forces are pitted against us (celestial and terrestrial, external and internal), which seek to deflect us from giving God the praise that is rightfully his—not only with our lives, but also with our lips; not only in speech, but also in song.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to rob God of his praise simply because we fear looking foolish, or we fear what others might think of us, or think of our voice, or how they may label us! So we ‘play it cool’, muzzle our gratitude, curb our enthusiasm, and (perhaps) don’t even connect with the words we’re singing! Of course, the antidote to this is not to be impervious to those around us, or unconcerned about how we impact them. To the contrary, it is God’s will that we should look out for others and endeavour to worship him only in ways that build them up (1 Cor 14:19). But a Christ-like concern for my neighbour is a million miles away from a slavish fear of man—a fear that is ultimately idolatrous and self-serving, not God-honouring.
c) Biblical strategies for engaging in the battle
Given that we all battle such temptations and fears (albeit in different ways), how should we engage in the battle? How do we redress our natural (fallen) reluctance to praise, honour and give thanks to God (Rom 1:21)? Let me suggest three biblically grounded strategies.
First, we need constant reminding that God truly deserves our praise. The Psalms help us in this regard:
I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High. (Ps 7:17)
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies. (Ps 18:3)
Praise the Lord!
For it is good to sing praises to our God;
for it is pleasant (or he is beautiful), and a song of praise is fitting (Ps 147:1)
The point is this: the triune God who is our creator and redeemer, our saviour and sanctifier, deserves every bit of praise you and I can muster, and then a whole lot more! Praise is his due, it is what he deserves: for he is infinitely worthy and therefore it is entirely fitting that we praise him at all times (Ps 34:1).
Second, we need constant reminding that God repeatedly demands our praise. Psalm 47 is but one example:
Clap your hands, all peoples!
Shout to God with loud songs of joy!
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm! (Ps 47:1, 6-7)
These are not mere suggestions; they are commands! But what beautiful, liberating commands they are. This is what we were made for, saved for. They are also invigorating commands, requiring sustained, energetic performance; singing, clapping, shouting. Indeed, we are to “shout to God with loud songs of joy”.
Third, we need constant reminding that God deeply desires our praise. That’s why he described the people of Israel as “the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isa 43:21). That’s why he describes the church of Jesus Christ as those who have been chosen “for the praise of his glory” (Eph 1:12, 14). Praise is God’s purpose because praise is God’s desire. And he desires our praise not only because it is good for us, but also because it pleases him.
d) How, then, shall we sing praise?
The clear implication of all this is that we need to heed the call of the Scriptures to be people and churches that give ourselves to praise. And I do mean ‘give ourselves’, because it takes effort and energy, decision and determination—praise doesn’t just happen by accident. We also need to see that just as the people of Israel dishonoured the Lord by offering him defective animal sacrifices (Mal 1:6-8), so we can dishonour the Lord by offering paltry, half-hearted sacrifices of praise. This should not be!
In short, the God who has held back nothing from us, not even his only Son, deserves far more than the dregs of our attention and the leftovers of our affections. John Wesley, ever sensitive to these dangers, offered the following exhortation as part of his instructions included in the preface to Sacred Melody:
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.1
For similar reasons, Martin Luther used to call his whole congregation together midweek so that they could learn new hymns and practice their singing for Sunday. But, of course, Sunday itself is also practice—practice for heaven, a rehearsal for the resurrection life of the world to come. More than that, it’s also a reflection of what is even now taking place in the heavenly realms (Revelation 4-5). Listen to how Jonathan Edwards once expressed these important truths:
So far therefore as we sing this song on earth, so much shall we have the prelibations of heaven… And this will make our public assemblies some image of heaven, and will make our sabbath days and thanksgiving days some resemblance of that eternal sabbath and thanksgiving that is solemnized by that innumerable company of angels and spirits of just men made perfect.2
What greater incentive do we need to learn to sing the praises of God here on this earth? Not only are we praising God to God and also to one another, but we are simultaneously joining our voices with those of the hosts of heaven, and preparing ourselves for that day when we will see the Lord face to face and sing his praises for ever as we serve him on the new earth (Rev 22:3).
2. Singing and prayer
We turn now to the subject of singing and prayer. For just as praising God is bigger than singing, so singing is also more than praising God. How so?
a) Singing is a form of prayer
Perhaps it may not have occurred to us before, but singing is (or at least can be) a form of prayer. Or, to put it round the other way, prayers can be sung. This is not just an obvious truism (inasmuch as anything that can be said can also be sung), but an observation from Scripture. The book of Psalms, once again, is our prime example here. For a large proportion of the Psalms are, in fact, prayers (e.g. Pss 3-8, 9-10, 12-13, 16‑18, etc.). And if there’s one thing we know about the way the Psalms functioned in the life of the people of Israel, it is that they were sung. Moreover, as we’ve already noted, they were also sung by the New Testament churches (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Jas 5:13).
What this means, then, is that exhortations to sing Psalms (such as those we have in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3) are effectively commands to sing prayers. This, of course, does not mean that the Psalms must only be sung, as if they should never simply be read, recited or chanted. But it is instructive to realize that they were sung—the laments as well as the praises; many by the whole congregation, although some perhaps only by the temple choir (as many are addressed specifically “To the choirmaster”).
The great value of singing our prayers (and indeed of singing in general) is that it helps us to engage with the emotional dimensions of the truths we are saying or the requests we are praying. In other words, singing plays a critical role in helping us to bridge the gap between (what many call) ‘cognitive knowledge’ and ‘experiential knowledge’, and (as many of the lament Psalms illustrate) in helping us process our emotional pain and so bring us to a point of praise (e.g. Ps 3-7).
The way in which music and song minister to the affective dimension of our humanity is something that Martin Luther understood only too well. That’s why he once made this strong claim:
Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions… which control men or more often overwhelm them… Whether you wish to comfort the sad, to subdue frivolity, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate or to appease those full of hate… what more effective means than music could you find.3
Singing the Psalms, then, is an immensely powerful thing to do. Not only are we praying as we sing, we are praying divinely inspired words! More than that, the singing of these words helps us to engage and express not simply the conceptual dimensions of the truths we are articulating, but their emotional dimensions as well.
b) Many hymns and songs are prayers
But, of course, we don’t have to restrict ourselves to just singing Psalms. Not only are there other biblical songs (and many other parts of the Bible that can be sung), but Paul urges the singing of “hymns” and “spiritual songs” as well. Whilst it is difficult to make hard and fast distinctions between the terms, “Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”, taken together seem to cover the whole range of Christian congregational songs, from canonical psalms (at one end) to spontaneous songs (at the other).4
What is clear from this is that the Scriptures themselves do not restrict us to singing and praying only Scripture. Provided we are singing Scriptural truth, we are on solid ground. Therefore, we ought to feel free to draw on the rich, historical treasury of musical and liturgical resources developed by former generations to help us in our prayers. This, of course, includes many paraphrastic translations and metrical versions of the Psalms, as well as a plethora of hymnals going all the way back to Isaac Watts.
So again, if you stop and think about it, many of our traditional hymns, as well as many contemporary songs, are quite obviously prayers. Think, for example, of “May the mind of Christ my Saviour”—that is a personal prayer. Or “Let your kingdom come”—that’s based on a famous Puritan prayer, which is in turn drawn from the Lord’s prayer. Or even some of my own songs, like “New song in my heart” or “Revive us, O Lord”—these also are prayers.
c) What are the implications of this?
So what does all this mean? It simply means that often when we are singing we are also praying—whether we realize it or not. We are asking God for things in song, both personally and corporately. However, it’s clearly good for us to be aware of what we’re doing and what we’re saying; to pray and sing with our minds fully engaged (1 Cor 14:15). So don’t be surprised if next Sunday your service leader or song leader introduces a song by saying, “Let us lift our voices together in prayer as we sing this next song”. For often that is exactly what we’re doing.
It also means that our times of singing and our times of praying are never neatly partitioned off from each other. They may appear this way on the ‘run sheet’, but they are not this way in reality. Once we recognize this, it opens up all sorts of new possibilities for deliberately intertwining the two, perhaps interspersing spoken prayers with sung prayers and vice versa. So why not get creative here and see if there are other ways of doing things than the way we’ve always done them, ways that may help us to be more intentional and heartfelt in our prayers?
d) Singing and thanksgiving
Before we leave the subject of singing and praying let me also say something about singing and thanksgiving, for the simple (and entirely biblical) reason that whenever we ask God for things, we should also thank him for the things he has given. That’s why in Colossians 3:16, for example, Paul urges the singing of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Or why in Ephesians 5 he follows his instruction in v. 19 to address one another in song, “singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart”, with the words: “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 20).
Now, as we noted with praise and also with prayer, thanksgiving doesn’t have to take the form of singing, but singing is a very natural (and also biblical) way of giving thanks—particularly because of the deep connection between singing and joy (e.g. Ps 5:11; 63:7; 65:13; 67:4; 71:23; 84:2; 92:4; 98:8; 149:5). Indeed, thanksgiving is normally inseparable from praise, and is probably best thought of as an aspect of praise (cf. Ps 7:17). Here’s just a smattering of examples, once again from the book of Psalms:
The LORD is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts, and I am helped;
my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him. (Ps 28:7)
Sing praises to the LORD, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name. (Ps 30:4)
Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre;
make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!
I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
(Ps 57:9; Ps 108:3)
It is good to give thanks to the LORD,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High. (Ps 92:1)
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise. (Ps 138:1)
Once again, if we stop and think about it, we’ll realize that many of our hymns and songs are expressions of thanksgiving—e.g. “Now thank we all our God”, or “Jesus, thank you”, etc. Let’s then be conscious of what we’re doing when we sing such songs, and let us thank God with the depth of gratitude and gladness that ought to accompany the prayers and praises of those who “were by nature children of wrath”, but have been loved with an everlasting love, saved by grace through the blood of Christ, and adopted as the children of the living God (Jer 31:3; Eph 2:8; Rom 8:15).
3. Singing and proclamation
Finally, we turn to the subject of singing and proclamation.
a) Singing is a form of word ministry
As well as being a form of praise and a form of prayer, singing is also a form of proclamation. For the Scriptures reveal that the life-giving word of God is ministered among the people of God not only by Bible reading and biblical preaching, but also by the singing of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16).
Evidently, this does not mean that the sung word is meant to eclipse the spoken word, or that singing should replace the public reading of Scripture and preaching and teaching (1 Tim 4:13). Neither Jesus nor the apostles preached the gospel by singing it! Therefore, the sung word is not to rival the spoken word in the church’s preaching ministry, but is designed to function as its handmaid and complement.
Nevertheless, the singing of God’s word (provided it is the word of God that’s being sung!) is a vitally important and a uniquely powerful form of ‘word ministry’. This fact has not always been adequately appreciated. Indeed, some have regarded congregational singing as little more than a way of getting people’s blood pumping so that they might then listen more attentively to the reading and preaching of the Scripture. This was certainly not Martin Luther’s view, as the following comment reveals:
Music is a vehicle for proclaiming the Word of God… The gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [God’s word] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.5
b) Teaching one another in song
The apostle Paul was of the same mind. This is why he emphasized the teaching function of congregational singing. For one of the chief things we are doing when we sing together is instructing and exhorting one another. This is clear in Ephesians 5:19 where Paul speaks of our “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” It is even clearer in Colossians 3:15-17 where Paul writes:
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.
Did we catch the thought flow here? The peace of Christ can only rule in our hearts as the word of Christ dwells richly in us. But how does that happen? It happens, says Paul, as we teach and admonish one another in all wisdom by singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in our hearts to God”.
Such a statement surely makes singing integral to the spiritual life and health of the church. Far from being a leg-stretching exercise before and after the sermon, it is in fact part of the sermon. It’s the part where we all preach—both to ourselves and to each other. And the fact is—and it’s a humbling fact for those of us who are preachers—that the songs we sing are often remembered long after our sermons have been forgotten.
c) Making it work in practice
So how do we ensure that this works out in practice in the way that God intends? Here are three points of practical application:
- First, we must always sing truthfully. That is, we need to make sure that we’re singing God’s truth. Now, of course, it helps if the tunes are appropriate, enjoyable, singable and memorable. It also helps if the words have a certain poetic flair. But nothing can substitute for a faithful articulation of God’s word. Indeed, if the songs we’re singing are not true, we’d be better off not singing them. For only the truth will set us free and make us strong. Likewise the balance and focus of Scripture ought to be reflected in our songs, so that the things of ‘first importance’ remain central in our singing. Therefore, both our songs individually and our songs collectively must pass the test of Scripture. Only that will ensure that we are singing truthfully.
- Second, we must always sing clearly. This point is really an extension of the first, highlighting the need for our songs to communicate Scriptural truth in a way that is intelligible to the people who are singing and hearing them. This doesn’t necessarily require a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach or the removal of all archaisms, for words and ideas can always be explained and all of us grow in our understanding of the things we sing over time (as we do of the things we read in the Bible). Nevertheless, if the word of Christ is to dwell richly among us, it is incumbent upon those who choose songs to ensure not only that the songs are appropriately related to the other elements of our gatherings, but that they communicate effectively to, and can be sung with understanding by, the people gathered.
- Third, we must always sing fervently. This, I take it, is the reason why Paul adds the word “richly” in Colossians 3:16. For it is clearly possible for churches to let Christ’s word dwell in them poorly or ineffectually, not only by singing songs which are untrue or unclear, but (and this would seem to be Paul’s point) by singing them feebly or half-heartedly; that is, without either a profound sense of thankfulness to God or the intention of actively teaching and encouraging others. Paul makes the same point in Ephesians 5:19 when he urges believers to address one another and make melody to the Lord “with all your heart”! This, as we’ve already noted in our reflections on praise, requires deliberate engagement on our part, for communication takes effort. Hear Wesley again:
Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you.
If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.6
The many benefits of singing
In giving us the ability to sing and make music, God has given us a very great gift. In calling us to utilize this gift in our church gatherings, he has provided a way of praising him, praying to him and proclaiming his word to others. This not only unites us together in our prayers and praises, and not only helps us to teach and remember his word, but assists us (both personally and corporately) to embrace the emotional dimensions of the truths we sing, so that we might love and serve God in the fullness of our humanity, with heart, soul, mind and strength. This, then, is a gift to treasure dearly, use wisely and protect carefully. The words of bishop J. C. Ryle form a fitting conclusion to all that we’ve seen:
There is an elevating, stirring, soothing, spiritualizing, effect about a thoroughly good hymn, which nothing else can produce. It sticks in men’s memories when texts are forgotten. It trains men for heaven, where praise is one of the principal occupations. Preaching and praying shall one day cease for ever; but praise shall never die. The makers of good ballads are said to sway national opinion. The writers of good hymns, in like manner, are those who leave the deepest marks on the face of the church.7
- J Wesley, Sacred Melody; or, A choice collection of psalm and hymn tunes: with a short introduction, London, 1761. ↩
- J Edwards, “583. Rev. 14:3(a) (Nov 1940)”, Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742 (WJE Online Vol. 22), Ed. HS Stout, Jonathan Edwards Centre at Yale University, New Haven, 2008, p. 241. ↩
- M Luther, “Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae Iucundae”, Luther’s Works, vol. 53: Liturgy and Hymns, JJ Pelikan, HC Oswald and HT Lehmann (eds), Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1999, p. 323. ↩
- See further: R Smith, “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs: What are They and Why Sing Them?” CASE, Vol. 23, 2010, pp. 26-29. ↩
- M Luther, op. cit., p. 323-24. ↩
- J Wesley, op. cit. ↩
- JC Ryle, “Toplady and his Ministry” in Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, Banner of Truth, Carlisle, 1970, p. 382. ↩