MESSAGE FOR MARCH 8, 2009 ON MUSIC AND CORPORATE WORSHIP

Fourth in a brief series on corporate worship

 

          This week we continue our series of messages, the goal of which is to encourage more God-honoring corporate worship here at Mount of Olives.  We have seen over the previous three messages that God is worthy of our very best efforts and energies in impassioned corporate worship.  We’ve been reminded that all worship must be truth driven, that is--deeply rooted in the Scriptures and finally, that God is not nearly as concerned about outwardly impressive worship performance as he is with hearts filled with love for him.  This morning, we want to look at a topic that in many churches has been utterly incendiary.  In some churches to discuss the topic music in worship is to throw gasoline onto a fire.  The old adage in church that when Satan fell, he fell into the choir loft, has at least some anecdotal evidence to support it when you think about all conflict that has attended this issue of music in worship. 

Today, we want to focus on what has often and sadly been missed in this discussion of music within the church.  In our debates over musical forms, we have often missed the forest for the trees on this topic.  Today, we want to look with a wider lens as we affirm the Biblical truth that music is an indispensible part of corporate worship.  Some of this will be review for the music providers, but not all.  Today, we will focus on what the Bible has to say about singing within corporate worship because the Bible has much to say on that topic and because most people sing in church as compared with those who play a musical instrument.  However, but as you will hear from the Biblical texts we will cite, the Bible is not just concerned about singing as a form of music in worship.

          The question that will guide our thinking this morning is:  Why is music so much a part of Biblical, God-honoring worship?  Here are three answers from the Bible.  One reason why music is so much a part of Biblical, God-honoring worship is:  When we sing, we are reflecting God himself.  It’s certainly appropriate to see music as a gift from God, but it goes much deeper than that.  The reason music is a gift from God is because music, singing in particular, is simply part of who God is.  Music is deeply anchored in the personality of the Godhead.  We don’t readily identify God as a Singer or Musician, but the Scriptures clearly show him in that light.  In fact, each Person of the Trinity is pictured in Scripture as a Singer.  We see the Father singing in Zephaniah 3:14-17.  The prophet promises the people of Judah that after the brutal judgment of God has come upon them for their idolatries, he will yet once more in the future dwell with them in their midst.  He prophesies, 14 Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! 15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. 16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.  17 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.” 
         God exults over his people with loud singing!  The Lord of the Universe sings...loudly.  It won’t do to say this is a metaphor—that God really isn’t singing—that this is just a dramatic way of saying that God will in some generic sense “celebrate” over his people.  If you are going to see his singing as a metaphor, then you must also take his “rejoic[ing] over you with gladness” and his “quiet[ing] you by his love” as metaphors, because they are parallel to God’s exultation with loud singing.  God sings in exultation over his covenant people—that’s how much he delights in those who look to him in faith.  The music we all have in our souls simply reflects the God who created us.   The Father is not the only Person of the Trinity who sings.  The Son also sings. We see this in Hebrews 2:10-12.  The author describes the stunning way in which Jesus identities with his people, the church.  He quotes Psalm 22, a messianic Psalm that points to Jesus to make his point. He says of the Father, 10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation [Jesus] perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he [Jesus] is not ashamed to call them brothers, 12 saying, [hear this quote from Psalm 22] “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation [ecclesia—assembly, church] I will sing your praise.”
          Jesus identifies closely with his brothers (and sisters) through his human suffering, but that’s not the only way in which he identifies with his church according to this text.  The author also pictures Jesus standing in the midst of our assembly—our corporate worship and singing praise to his Father with them.  That’s astonishing!  This is why Sinclair Ferguson has said, “When we come together in corporate worship, Jesus is sharing our hymnal with us.”  This is why many have called Jesus “the Singing Savior.[1]  Think about what it must have been like for Jesus during his earthly life to stand in the temple and sing--long before he went to the cross--the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  C.H. Spurgeon contemplates heaven and says, “How will we praise him, but ah!  Jesus will be the chief player on our stringed instruments; he will lead the solemn hallelujah which shall go up from the …host redeemed by the blood.”[2] (emphases mine)
          The Holy Spirit is also a Musician according to the Bible.  We see this in two ways.  First, he inspired every song, every psalm, every hymn in the Book.  That means we know that, at the very least, the Holy Spirit is the most inspiring and published lyricist of all time. We can forget that the Bible, which is inspired by the Holy Spirit, is chocked full of songs.  Most of them are in the Psalms, but there are many other songs in the Bible as well.  After the children of Israel cross the Red Sea, Moses and the people of God make music—they sing a song—the Song of Moses that was given by the Spirit.  The Song of Deborah, the Song of Solomon and dozens of other songs in the Bible are all inspired by the Holy Spirit.  In the pages of Scripture, when he inspires music to praise God, he’s not simply bending to a Jewish cultural convention. It’s not as if he looked down at the Jews and said to himself, “Well, those people do this strange thing—they sing, so I will use that form of their expression and write some lyrics for them.”  No!  The Bible teaches that the Spirit himself inspires the singing. 
          We also see the Spirit in this role in Ephesians chapter five.  In the second half of the chapter, Paul commands the Ephesians to “be filled with the Spirit.”  That is—be under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit.  What do people do when they are under the controlling influence of the Spirit?  According to verse 19 they are, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart…” When a believer is under the influence of the Holy Spirit, one of their natural impulses is to sing and make melody to the Lord with their heart.  When a person is filled with the Spirit, one of the consequences of that is--their hearts sing to the Lord.  
        Listen how closely God identifies himself with singing as the Psalmist speaks of God in Psalm 40:3, 3 He [God] put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.”  God puts songs of praise in our mouths so that we can praise him.  Who better to put a song of praise to God in our mouths than God?  Again in Psalm 42:8 we read, 8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” This is his song--it originates with him, not us.  Another testimony that singing and music originate in God is seen in the book of the Revelation.  When we peer into the heavenly throne room with perfected, heavenly worship--we see… singing.  Singing will not be left behind on earth; it will be perfected in heaven. 
         In chapter five, the four living creatures--who are angelic beings of some sort--sing, (that means that its not only humans, but also angels who sing) and the 24 elders fall down before the Lamb.  Verse nine says, “9 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,” In chapter 15, those who had conquered the beast celebrate in heaven.  3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!”  Many things on earth will not make it to heaven—only a few will go with us--the word of God, language and worship, which includes music and singing.  Again, we see that singing is not native to this world or to humanity—it originates in God.  One reason singing and music are an indispensible part of corporate worship is because when we sing, we are reflecting God himself.  And to you men who have never overcome the notion that singing is in someway not masculine—how does that line up with the fact that Almighty God sings?
         A second reason music is so much a part of Biblical, God-honoring worship is because God intends singing to be an extension of the ministry of the word of God.  We must never separate worship in song from worship with the word.  There is an unbreakable connection between the two that we see in several places in Scripture.  This connection between God’s word and music goes all the way back to the beginning of established, formal temple worship.  In First Chronicles chapter 25, David, in the last year of his reign, assembles a team of 4000 priests whose main responsibilities were all connected to offering music within the formal corporate worship in the temple when it was completed.  Let’s read verse one and then verses five to eight.  It says, “1 David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals. The list of those who did the work and of their duties was:” [vss. 2-4 are a list of those involved] Then, in verses five through eight the Chronicler tells us, 5 All these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer, according to the promise of God to exalt him, for God had given Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. 6 They were all under the direction of their father in the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman were under the order of the king. 7 The number of them along with their brothers, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all who were skillful, was 288. 8 And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.”
         There are several very interesting truths here that are important to us as we think about singing within corporate worship today.  First, notice these singers were by direct appointment of the King.  That is certainly because David was a musician himself of some acclaim, but think about it—it says something powerful about God’s estimation of the value of music in worship when he places a skilled musician on the throne of Israel during this time when temple worship was being established. The timing there is surely no accident.  Second, notice in verse seven that the musicians were “trained” and they “were skillful.”  This was not a rag tag group of minstrels.  And they were trained not only in music—though that is implied—they were specifically trained in “singing to the Lord” 288 of them—all skillful.
          More important however than all that--is the link God makes from the very beginning of organized corporate worship between singing and the word of God.  Notice the tight connection between music and the word of God in verse one.  It says, “the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals…”  These corporate worship leaders were appointed to minister in song prophetically, using music as the vehicle through which God would speak to his people.  Again, we see God singing to his people through this inspired, Old Testament prophecy.  We see this connection between singing and the word in the New Testament as well.  In Colossians 3:16 Paul says, “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.” 
         The “word of Christ”—the gospel--is to dwell in us richly—it is to utterly permeate our hearts.  It does that in part as we teach and admonish each other and one of the ways in which that teaching and admonishing is to be done is through the singing of psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.  As modern day educators have re-discovered, a great way to teach people is through music.  God knew that from eternity past and he calls us to use music to teach and admonish one another the gospel—the word of Christ.  Notice, the music serves the ministry of the word, not the other way around.  The ministry of the word is the predominate element in our corporate worship service.  It is no accident that when Luther reformed the church, he placed the pulpit at the center of the platform and elevated it to show the centrality of the word of God, not only in worship but to the Christian life. It is likewise not by accident that the longest book in the Bible is the Psalms—a worship book used in the temple, and the longest Psalm in the book by far is Psalm 119 which celebrates the word of God.  We mustn’t miss the way in which music is to be an extension of God’s word in worship.  
         This doesn’t mean that the only songs we sing in church must be literal Scripture songs.  Paul lists “psalms,” and “hymns and spiritual songs”—which according to scholars like D.A. Carson “are broad expressions and includes OT psalms, liturgical hymns as well as spontaneous Christian songs[3]We know from other texts that Paul certainly held that the preaching of the word should be the central part of corporate worship.  He tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:13, 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.”  Paul wanted the word of God to be imparted through the reading, exhortation and teaching of Scripture, but as we have seen--he also expected that this would be done through singing.  Today, when we sing in church, we completely miss the point if we are not seeking to learn something of God in the words we are singing.  Many of the hymns and choruses we sing teach some very significant theology and we mustn’t treat our corporate singing in worship as if it were a purely or even primarily musical exercise.  Neither must we labor under the notion that the singing is merely “fill” before we get to the preaching.  That greatly minimizes one of the exalted purposes of singing in worship, which is to build us up as we minister to one another the truths of God’s word in song. A second reason music is so much a part of Biblical, God-honoring worship is because God intends it to be an extension of the ministry of the word of God.
          A final reason music is so central to God-honoring worship that we have mentioned before is—because words alone are not sufficient to worship God.  To put it in neurological terms—God is so valuable, so precious--the gospel so breath-taking--that both hemispheres of our brains must be marshaled to celebrate and express his glory.  Not just the thinking, analyzing side of our brains, but the feeling, creative, affectionate side as well.  John Piper says it this way, “Music and singing are necessary to Christian faith and worship for the simple reason that the realities of God and Christ, creation and salvation, heaven and hell are so great that when they are known truly and felt duly, they demand more than discussion and analysis and description; they demand poetry and song and music.  Singing is the Christian’s way of saying:  God is so great that thinking will not suffice, there must be deep feeling, and talking will not suffice, there must be singing.  I’ve know people who have been taught to repress their emotions as they sing.  They fear feeling anything too strongly, and believe that maturity is evident in restraint.  But that seems to fly in the face of why God gave us the gift of singing in the first place…singing is an ideal way, a God-ordained way of combining objective truth with thankfulness, theology with doxology, intellect with emotion.”[4]
         God has given us a great gift in music and singing.  He knows that words alone are not adequate to praise him.  Genuinely redeemed hearts yearn to honor him more passionately.  Music is his gracious gift to us so that we will not have to feel frustrated with offering to him only words of praise.  We can give fuller expression to our love and reverence for him through the use of notes and rhythms and melodies and songs.  That brings us back to what we have spoken of before—our passion for God and the condition of our hearts.  We must see that if God has given us music to more fully express our love for God—if that is its purpose, then what a contradiction it is for people to sing choruses and hymns in apologetic whispers with less passion than we would give to a rendition of “Take me out to the Ballgame” during a 7th inning stretch. Although we all enjoy forms of music other than sacred music—classical, jazz, contemporary, etc…worship is the highest purpose of music because worship takes the strongly evocative, emotive power of music and uses it for the highest good—to bring praise to God. 
           This emphasis on passion in our worship singing is seen repeatedly in the Psalms. In Psalm 71:23 we read, “23 My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed.”  In response to God’s redeeming work in us, we shout in singing our praises.  The gospel and its saving work in us is the ultimate example of “something to sing and shout about.”  Notice that the reason for this elevated volume is not because someone has a big mouth, it’s because there’s passion for God in them.  In the same vein, Psalm 33:3 says, “3 Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.”  Psalm 47:1 1Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!”  Psalm 20:5 again locates the source of our shouting in God’s saving work, “5 May we shout for joy over your salvation…”  Psalm 32:11 “11 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”  This is a pouring out of ourselves in worship.  There is nothing here about restraint or repressing our emotions, though different personalities will obviously express this passion differently than others. 
         Now, we must be careful here.  We must distinguish between, on the one hand, the necessary heart condition that induces loud singing and on the other, simply singing loudly.  The application here is NOT—as some churches perhaps practice today—rouse the people to sing louder in praise and worship in order to get them excited so that “good worship” can occur.  Often, what is exciting those people is not God and the gospel—it’s the loud-speaker-driven musical energy in the place.  The call of Scripture is to have a heart so filled with praise that you can’t do anything but sing loudly.  If you sing loudly in church because that’s an expression of your fortissimo love for God—great! 
         If you sing loudly because you are proud of your singing voice and want others to hear it—not great.  That’s taking worship, which is inherently GOD-centered, and prostituting it as a vehicle to self-centeredly showcase your voice.  If you sing softly in worship, the remedy is not fundamentally to sing more loudly, it’s first to ask—why do I sing so softly?  If it’s because that reflects a heart that doesn’t love God very much, then you have much bigger concerns then the volume of your singing—you need your heart warmed with the blast furnace of the gospel.  Get rid of the Spirit-quenching idols in your life and you will find you be anxious to sing with more passion.  If you sing softly because you are inhibited by other people’s opinions, or by a desire to maintain “respectability” in some repressed, unbiblical sense—then feel freedom to cast off those unbiblical restraints and openly express your heart’s love for God.  If you sing softly because you have been told you are tone deaf, but you really love God, then go ahead and express your passion for him and if everyone else is singing with impassioned joy, then no one will hear you anyway.  If they do, then they will probably be far more blessed by your “joyful noise” than you would possibly imagine.  If not, who cares what they think anyway?  We sing for God, not those within the sound of our voice.

          Music is a glorious gift of God to his church to corporately express our impassioned love for him.  If you are missing that passion for him, then spend some time with God and ask him why you don’t love him with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  May God give us the grace to use music and singing in our corporate worship for his glory and our joy.


[1] Just one example of this is Edmund Clowney’s article in Moody Monthly July-August 1979 titled “The Singing Savior.”

[2] Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, Book One, page 236—comments on Psalm 40

[3]Carson, D. A. 1994. New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) . Inter-Varsity Press: Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA

[4] John Piper, sermon on “Singing and Making Melody to the Lord.”

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