Why does singing matter to you? The reasons may be multitudinous, and they may range from silly to serious. In this (atypically lengthy) post, I offer ten reasons—drawn from Scripture—why singing matters.
1. God told his people to sing. In Psalm 100:1-2 the psalmist writes, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” In Psalm 96:1 we are told to “…sing to the Lord a new song,” which means, of course, there is a biblical basis for singing modern music in today’s worship services. The prophet Isaiah also exhorts God’s people to sing: “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously…Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Isa. 12:5-6). This directive to sing is not merely an Old Testament phenomenon; in James 5:13 we read, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”
2. Singing is how God’s people respond to God’s redemptive acts (which are incomprehensible yet awe-inspiring). Music expresses what words alone cannot. Moses and Miriam led the Israelites in an impromptu song of praise immediately following the miracle at the Red Sea: “I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (Ex. 15:1-2). After an angel told her she would bear the Savior (which was not only unexpected but seemingly impossible), Mary responded with a song of praise, recorded in Luke 1:46-55, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” An aged Simeon sings in Luke 2:29-32 when he finally sees God’s Deliverer in the flesh: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Paul and Silas, trusting in God’s provision in spite of their circumstances, sang a duet while imprisoned (Acts 16:25). Singing helps us process, if only in small measure, who God is and what he has done for us.
3. Singing is one way—a very good way—that we teach and recall truth. Christians sing in order to teach younger generations, to remind themselves of truth, to embed in their memories the stories of what God has done. Why do we use music to teach children the alphabet? Because it works! Near the end of Moses’ life, God told him to teach using a song, so Moses composed a lengthy song and taught it to the people of Israel. Why? Because music and memory are inextricably linked, and God wanted his people to remember his Word. (God’s commission is recorded in Deuteronomy 31, and Moses’ song is found in Deuteronomy 32.) Paul has a similar exhortation to Christians in Colossians 3:16: “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.” I believe there is a connection in this verse to what Paul writes earlier in his letter, in Colossians 1:28: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” Singing is an important part of how we grow, and how we help others to grow, in wisdom and Christian maturity.
4. Singing is how we lament the human condition. The book of Psalms is full of lamentations. One of the bleakest is Psalm 88, which ends, “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; darkness has become my only companion.” We recognize that the world is not as it should be. The effects of sin are felt everywhere, and we mourn. At times, perpetrators of evil seem unstoppable. In Matthew’s gospel account, after Herod orders the mass murder of all male children in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger, Matthew recalls this prophecy from Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” In Romans 12:15 Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” One of the ways we do that is with music, which is able to express what words alone cannot. In this regard, I am reminded of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to us: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). I have often wondered: could these “groanings too deep for words” be musical lamentations of the Holy Spirit? Having provided music for many funerals, I have witnessed firsthand the power of music to comfort those who mourn.
5. Christians prepare for eternity by singing. We do not know with certainty many of the details about eternity, but Scripture asserts that Christians will be praising the Lord for who he is and what he has done. The fourth and fifth chapters of Revelation include these heavenly songs: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” and “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain.” One of the best summaries I have read about this comes from the introduction to the Trinity Hymnal (1990): “What happens in corporate worship is a foretaste of and preparation for eternity as we join with all the saints surrounding the Lamb’s throne to sing his glory!”
6. The author of our faith sang throughout his life. Only days before his death, Jesus celebrated the Passover, as he did each year. But this time he changed forever the meaning of that Supper: he said “this is my body…this is my blood” (Mk. 14:22-25). As part of the ritual, he and his disciples recited the Hallel (Pss. 113-118), which quotes Moses and Miriam’s song from Exodus 15. Psalm 118:14 reads, “The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” What an amazing thing Jesus did! He used music to reframe the Passover, to make it all about him. In effect, given the context of what was happening, Jesus was saying (through song): “I have become your salvation.” Matthew also writes that, after the meal, they sang a hymn together before going to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30).
7. Singing is one way God meets his people. Psalm 22:3 reads, “Yet you are enthroned on the praises of Israel.” I don’t mean to suggest that singing is like rubbing a bottle in order to summon a Genie. Nor do I mean that God is somehow present in the actual music we make. But, through the music of his people, God makes his reign manifest. 2 Chronicles 5:11-14 is a fascinating account of what happened when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the Temple:
And when the priests came out of the Holy Place…and when the song was raised, with trumpets and cymbals and other musical instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever,” the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.
In the margin of his Bible, next to this passage, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote: Bei einer andächtigen Muzik ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnaden Gegenwart (Where there is devotional music, God is always “grace-present”). What does this mean for the Church today? Clouds no longer fill our worship spaces, after all. In 1 Peter 2:9 we read, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” When Christians gather together and sing, they do the work of modern-day Levites. God is present, and he is enthroned on their praises. God meets us through music in other ways, too. Consider Psalm 42:8, “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” Have you ever felt the Spirit’s presence when you cannot sleep and the Lord brings to mind a song of comfort?
8. When Christians sing, news of God’s Kingdom extends through the world. There is an amazing facet of music-making recorded in Nehemiah 12:43, at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem: “And they offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away.” When the Church sings communally, as a body—which is counter-cultural (and downright strange!)—people take notice. Think, too, about Christmas carols, and the way in which news of the Kingdom extends throughout shopping centers, even to commuters, during every holiday season. When I hear Amy Grant’s Tennessee Christmas version of “Hark! the Herald Angles Sing” play on the radio, sometimes I wonder when the FCC might put a stop to Charles Wesley’s doctrinally-dense hymn floating through the airwaves: “Peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”
9. God delights in his children through song. In Zephaniah 3:17 the prophet writes, “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.” Think about that for a moment—our God delights in you and me, and he does so with music!
10. The Son exalts the Father by singing. Consider Hebrews 2:10-12:
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 perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.”
The author of Hebrews tells us Jesus died to conquer death. Having suffered, he now reigns. He has rescued us from death, and even from the fear of death (Heb. 2:15). In the passage above the author also makes this astonishing claim: we are his brothers (and sisters). Jesus is the unique son of the Father, but if we are also sons, we are his brothers. Jesus stands in the congregation, and it is his joy to sing the Father’s praise. What song does he sing? Psalm 22, which begins in despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus first quotes this while on the cross. The one whom we serve, who suffered throughout his life even to the point of death, is not unfamiliar with our own distress and suffering. We, too, may cry out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” Our Lord knows exactly how we feel in those moments. But the song does not remain a song of despair. It goes on, and in verse 22 we read: “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” He looks forward: I will praise you. This is what Jesus does now, and this is what he will do forever. But—and this, I think, is the ultimate reason why singing matters—he does not do this alone; he does this in community. Jesus exalts the Father by singing the Father’s praise, not as a soloist, but as our True Worship Leader, leading the song of a great congregation made up of his brothers and sisters. Someday, you and I will add our perfected voices to that eternal song of praise led by Jesus himself!
© 2017 Timothy Shaw. All rights reserved.