The Role of Singing in Worship
The Role of Singing in Worship
An important part of divine worship is the singing of the Word. Singing is closely related to prayer. Calvin distinguished between two kinds of public prayer. Some prayers, he says, are sent up by the minister who speaks to God while other prayers are sent up to Him by the congregation in song. That singing often consists of prayer can easily be demonstrated by examining the Old Testament Psalter. There, God's people are repeatedly exhorted to sing, in fact, even more frequently than to pray.
Man was created to sing. This should not surprise us. It was God's purpose that man, the crown of His creation, should be the precentor of the whole creation. The same God, who equipped birds with the ability to sing, gave also to man vocal chords to praise Him with songs. But with this difference, that whereas birds proclaim their Creator's glory unconsciously or instinctively, man does so consciously or knowingly. The sad thing is, of course, that sin has also ruined this divine gift. Man still sings but not to glorify God. He either sings his own praises or those of his idols. But when the Holy Spirit regenerates us and renews us in God's image, we begin to praise our Creator again who has now become our Redeemer in Christ. Much of this praise takes the form of singing,
Singing In Old Testament Worship
No wonder that singing is such an important element in worship. It certainly was a prominent part of the service in the Old Testament tabernacle and temple. Israel was a nation that loved singing. Every occasion called for special songs: in the vineyards and in the fields, on threshing floors and courtyards the sound of music and song was heard. Also in houses of mourning there was singing, although in the form of sad funeral dirges.
It was especially in God's sanctuary where worshippers sang their Maker's praises. The Israelites would sing about the mighty acts of God in history, recognizing His hand in nature and all events. His redeeming love and grace were celebrated joyfully and enthusiastically. Especially David played a significant role in this vocal aspect of worship. Most of the 150 Psalms were composed by this "sweet singer of Israel." These songs evoked favourable responses in the hearts of God's people. The congregation sang them and choirs directed by the sons of Korah and others song leaders, accompanied by various musical instruments. Often the ground would shake with the joyful noises coming from the sanctuary of God.
Singing In New Testament Worship
Singing also played an important role in New Testament worship. Although the ceremonial aspects of singing were abrogated, singing itself remained. The early church continued the practice of psalm singing until hymns were introduced into the worship services, partly as a result of certain heresies. Hymns were first added to the psalms but ended up replacing them. Eventually, congregational singing went out completely, leaving only the priest and the choir to take care of that aspect of the worship service.
The Reformation restored congregational singing. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers dictated that not only the minister and the choir, but also the whole congregation should take part in the singing. Luther and Calvin did much to create suitable church music. While the reformer of Geneva introduced an almost exclusive psalmody, the German reformer allowed also the singing of hymns in the worship services.
Singing to God's praise is a Scriptural command. David calls all nations to make a joyful noise unto the Lord and to sing forth the honour of his name (Ps. 66:1). Singing praises is good, pleasant and comely (Ps. 147:1). Also in the New Testament we find the apostles exhorting believers to sing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
Singing of Mercy and Judgment
As for the subjects God's people like to sing about, David sums up the basic themes in Psalm 101:1, when he says: "I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto thee, O Lord, will I sing praises." God's people not only like to hear about God's mercy; they also enjoy singing about this wonderful attribute of the Lord. God's mercy is His readiness to help and comfort those in misery. Scripture speaks of Jehovah's bowels or inner being troubled or stirred up for Ephraim (Israel) and of His firm resolve to show mercy to him (Jer. 31:20).
God's children also sing about divine judgment. Contemporary Christians find this difficult to understand. That believers love to sing of mercy they can see, but why should they also want to sing about a God who executes judgment upon sinners? We should realize, however, that judgment does not only refer to punishing the wicked but also to disciplining the righteous.
In Scripture judgment often has to do with dark providences that happen in the life of believers. Included here are God's chastisements or disciplinary dealings with His people. Chastisements are not pleasant, but they are meant for our good. Believers know this and can even praise the Lord for them. As David writes in Psalm 119:71,
"It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes." Spurgeon comments: "We ought as much to bless the Lord for judgment with which He chastens our sin, as for mercy with which He forgives it. There is as much love in the blows of His hand as in the kisses of His mouth."
Nominal Christians may sing of mercy but their concept of mercy is vague and general and therefore presumptuous. When troubles come their way their praise quickly makes way for anger and bitterness.
Here then is the secret of those who fear God. They are able to sing of both mercy and judgment; for both come out of God's fatherly hand. Such singing is a true act of worship. It is singing unto the Lord whereby God is glorified and our souls blessed. "Bless the LORD, O my soul," the psalmist exhorts himself and others, "and all that is within me, bless his holy name" (Ps. 103:1).
What About The Imprecatory Psalms?
The Psalter contains not only songs of praise and deliverance but includes also imprecatory psalms wherein believers call upon God to execute justice and to vindicate His righteousness and holiness. "The Lord is known by the judgments which he executeth: the wicked is snared in the works of his own hands" (Ps. 9:16). Should Christians today take such vengeful songs upon their lips too? Many say no; such songs are part of Old Testament worship, not the New. Today we sing about God's grace and love, not His wrath and vengeance.
I wonder how much the introduction of uninspired hymns and the virtual disappearance of the inspired psalms from worship have contributed to this growing sentiment among Evangelical and even Reformed Christians? Could it be that hymns, many of them, at least, present an incomplete and unbalanced picture of God, whereas the psalms do reveal God in all His holy attributes?
There are many beautiful and biblically sound hymns – think of the hymns of John Newton, Augustus Toplady and Charles Wesley, for instance. Yet, for all their beauty and edifying qualities they are not inspired. The psalms are.
It is for this reason that our Free Reformed churches along with some other Reformed denominations have followed Calvin's advice to sing only the inspired psalms. True, we do not practice totally exclusive Psalmody. There are a number of Scripture songs included in our Psalter. I wonder sometime whether we could not add a few more of them, for instance, some of the doxologies by Paul and others. They could easily be set to music and sung in the worship services because they are obviously inspired. The problem is, however, where does one start and where does one stop?
A Common Misconception
One reason why so many people prefer hymns to psalms is that the latter allegedly do not reveal Christ, at least not as clearly as hymns do. But this is mainly due to ignorance; because both the Person and work of Christ are set forth in every psalm, as is the work of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of believers.
For those who have learned to interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament fulfilment, the psalms are full of Gospel truth. Admittedly, this requires a degree of spiritual maturity. The psalms reflect the deeper leadings of the Spirit; they are truly experimental in that they deal with the heights and depths of spiritual life and therefore need to be sung with understanding (Ps. 47:7).
Indeed, not only what we sing is important, but also how we sing. We need to sing reverently, prayerfully, paying attention to the theme. If it is a psalm of praise we must sing joyfully (Ps. 95:1); if it is a penitential psalm our voices should be subdued and mournful (Ps. 38). Whatever the theme may happen to be, our congregational singing must always be to the glory of God and the edification of His Church. For
It is good to sing Thy praises
And to thank Thee, O most High,
Showing forth Thy lovingkindness
When the morning lights the sky.
It is good when night is falling
Of Thy faithfulness to tell,
While with sweet melodious praises
Songs of adoration swell. Psalter 251:1