Christianity is a singing faith. We sing God's Word. We sing theology. What we believe about God and man and sin and grace and redemption emerge with power in the words that we sing and in the music we deploy to accompany those words. As congregations lift up their voices together, they carry out a vital part in the worship of the living God in support of the preaching of the Word. According to Scripture, God has given us the ability to sing and has called us to do so for three principle reasons: to help us praise, to help us pray, and to help us proclaim.
1. Singing Helps Us Praise
There’s 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 about the Lord to others, he is present to receive his 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; Ps. 147:1, 7; 149:1, 5; Zeph. 3:14; Zech. 2:10; James 5:13 et al.). 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 along 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.
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: 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.
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 dishonored the Lord by offering him defective animal sacrifices (Mal 1:6-8), so we can dishonor 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. Not only do we praise 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 Helps us Pray
Perhaps it may not have occurred to us before, but singing is (or at least can be) a form of prayer. The book of Psalms, once again, is our prime example here as a large proportion of the Psalms are, in fact, prayers (e.g. Ps. 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; James 5:13).
What this means, then, is that exhortations to sing Psalms are effectively commands to sing prayers. The great value of singing our prayers 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).
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.
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 (see further: R. Smith, “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs: What are They and Why Sing Them?” CASE, vol. 23, 2010, pp. 26-29).
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 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.
3. Singing Helps Us Proclaim
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.
The apostle Paul 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” (cf. Col. 3:15-17).
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.
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.