Ephesians 5:19&20 “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Those who are full of the Holy Spirit are transformed in their Worship of God, their Walk of Godliness, and in the Warfare of Grace. That is the theme of the remaining verses of this letter, and in many ways the worship of God is the most crucial of the three because out of right worship comes the right walk of godliness, and right endeavours in the warfare of the Christian life. If there is one emphasis that stands out clearly in God’s Word it is that the worship of God’s church is different from anything the world can do. It never reflects, nor imitates the world. Greek theatre and Roman entertainment were at their zenith in the days of the early church but the apostles never incorporated into the worship of God such things as its chorus structure, its drama, masks and comedy. The 3,000 who were converted on the day of Pentecost “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” That has been the pattern ever since and will be until the coming of the Lord.
There are many pressures on church leaders to make Christian worship ‘lighter’ especially as a means of attracting outsiders into the church, and to keep the church’s own young people. Maybe it would be wiser to ask what God would have us do when we come before him. King David said of Solomon his young son, in connection with the building of the “old” house, “the palace is not for man, but for the Lord God.” Worship is for the mighty God alone. It is not something shared between him and the children or the strangers who visit the assembly. It is quite sobering that there are too many Christians who will allow the opinions of their children to dictate the course of their Christian lives, the church they join, or the ministry they sit under. I know of no children who would be called into their father’s business premises to act as advisors on how the business should be run. “Of course not,” you say; “they are too immature for such a high calling.” Indeed. Why then should their immaturity play such an important part in the direction of a church’s worship? And that is not the only problem with the influence of children; children, while they are out of Christ, are not only immature in mind and body, they are not full of the Spirit. It is not simply “boredom” that underlies children’s behaviour in the worship of God, it is the inbuilt animosity of the fallen heart.
What holds good with children and young people, of course, also applies with non-Christians in general. It is bound to be difficult to get people into a church where the only attraction is God. Hence, the danger of multiplying Christianized versions of what the world is finding attractive today. We must cry halt to seeker sensitive emphases and rather magnify Word and Spirit sensitive emphases. Let’s not grieve the Holy Ghost when we gather on Sundays. This is no plea for dull worship: “Religion never was designed to make our pleasures less.” Our question is this, if the worship of God is focussed on those who don’t know God, what effect will it have on those who do know God?
So Paul, having exhorted the whole church to be filled with the Spirit goes on to spell out the first mark of the Spirit filled life, that the church is characterised by praise and gratitude. The Ethiopian eunuch having believed in Jesus Christ and been baptized went home rejoicing. The consequences of Philip bringing the message of Jesus Christ to Samaria were that the city was full of joy. Paul tells the Philippian church to rejoice in the Lord always, that is, to rejoice in the knowledge of Almighty God, the forgiveness of sins, the experience of the Father’s love, the promise of God working all things together for our good, and the hope of eternal life. The fruit of the Spirit of God in our lives is love and joy. The Christian has been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Our joy will come to expression in song and music in our hearts to the Lord, but we will also sing to one another. In other words our joy will not be silent inward praise but we are conscious that we’re addressing one another in our psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in the assembly of his people. Don’t you wish there was something to move you to song, to praise and to worship? Aren’t you made for this? Isn’t man’s chief end to glorify and to enjoy God? The Times yesterday said that the millionaire hip-hop artist Eminem is in hospital because of addiction. What does he sing about? “These blue and yellow purple pills. I’ve been to mushroom mountain, once or twice, but who’s countin? But nothing compares to these blue and yellow purple pills,” so the Times quoted (20 August 2005). Isn’t there much more to sing about than digesting chemicals?
The fullness of God leads to a life of praise. No one can specify what these three types of praise individually represent. This repetition of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” is emphasising the range of singing which the indwelling Spirit produces throughout the churches of Jesus Christ. There is no congregational singing amongst the Muslims, or amongst the Hindus, nor the Buddhists. The Christian alone has much to sing about, but let’s put that in perspective as we notice that there are few examples in the Bible of congregational singing. There seem to be some temple choirs and instruments in the Old Testament, but there’s not a single reference to a musical instrument in the New Testament. We’re told that our Lord Jesus Christ sang the Passover psalms with his disciples, and then there is this exhortation of our text and a similar one in the letter to the Colossians. Occasionally the spotlight of revelation is focussed on heaven and we are told that there the redeemed and all God’s holy angels are singing the praises of the Lamb. So in the means of grace, that is, prayer, the Lord’s supper, baptism, reading the word of God and preaching the word, there is also a place for singing God’s praise, but scarcely a major place.
1. HOW SHOULD OUR CONGREGATIONAL WORSHIP BE CHARACTERISED?
A good place to find some guidelines for this is in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Here was a church which knew the blessing of God, but also it knew enormous moral and doctrinal problems. In chapter 14 Paul gives them four divine guidelines for the kind of worship that is acceptable to God. You may not like them; you may say, “But my sort of personality and the culture in which I have been raised likes to worship God in this sort of way.” You will plead your temperament and your background and so on. But the main criterion for true worship is not whether you get pleasure from it but whether Almighty God gets pleasure from it. Does he find it acceptable? You remember the church in Isaiah’s day and God said this about their worship, “When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations – I cannot bear your evil assemblies. Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen” (Isa. 1:12-15). In other words, sincerity in worship alone is not enough to guarantee God’s approval. It is not enough to say, “Well, I sing to God like this, and I think of him in this way.”
So we must heed these guidelines that Paul gives to the mighty Corinthian congregation about its worship. They present us with the setting in which our hymns are to be set. He tells them four things:
i] There’s to be no disorder in Christian worship. “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints,” (I Cor. 14:33). Paul is not dealing here with clamour and commotion so much as instability in worship, an immodest spirit in a people who choose to do their own thing. God is not the author of uninhibited free expression. Worship is arranged and appointed; times are set for services both to start and to finish; God desires an ordered, thoughtful, controlled approach. Consider the mid-week Prayer Meeting; even that has to be led; there won’t be an excessively long sermon; individual prayers won’t be too long, or too quiet, or too brief. Announcements and prayer topics will be cut short by the leader if people ramble at an inordinate length. There is a man of God in charge controlling that meeting even though there are many contributions for prayer encouraged in everyone present. Our freedom in Christ is always under the control of the Word and Spirit in every circumstance. There may not be disorder in our meetings.
ii] There’s to be peace in Christian worship. “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (I Cor. 14:33). Paul is not referring to the silence broken by the occasional sounds a baby makes or when a hymn book drops to the floor. He is not referring to silence, but that peace that is the opposite of conflict. Peace here means harmony and reconciliation. It means that parts of the service fit together; there must be nothing alien to the Word of Christ, nothing discordant to God’s grace. There must be the beauty of unity and progress. All the components of worship will make their contribution to the whole. There is objective praise; there is humble and earnest prayer; there is thanksgiving to God for the gift of his Son our Saviour; there is the affirmation of the great truths found in the Bible. There is proclamation when the word of God magnifies the Lord and humbles us. Worship is a harmonious and balanced entity. Think of the discord that would be created if one day I decided to dress up ornately in priests’ vestments, how that would clash with the message which the Bible gives to us about that one finished, perfected, completed work of the Lamb of God. There’d be no peace that day. Or if on another occasion I introduced a brilliant juggler and he gave us a remarkable display of twelve plates spinning on long pliable sticks, that that too would end the evangelical peace of our congregation. There’s a place for Christian jugglers but not in a worship service. There’s a place for Christians to glorify God by cooking a delicious meal, but not at 11 a.m. on Sunday morning in the assembly of the righteous with everyone watching the demonstration. Every day we glorify God even in our eating and drinking, but we don’t display our talents and interests in a service of worship on the Lord’s Day. There are many opportunities to care for one another imaginative ways in beach missions and camps and special evangelistic meals. When we visited an orphanage in Nairobi last month we spent hours with the children. One thing they enjoyed was making animals out of long balloons. The orphanage was their home and in our homes we both work and play to the glory of God, but when we gather in the presence of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, on the Lord’s Day then there are prescribed activities we are to bring to God; we are not to turn our worship into play. There is a place for play and a place for the piety of worship. There’s to be peace in our congregations not turmoil.
iii] There’s to be a decency or fittingness in Christian worship. “Everything should be done in a fitting . . . way” (I Cor. 14:40). The Authorised Version translates it ‘decently;’ and it is developing the previous point that our services should be balanced and well proportioned. The potter making a vessel knows that it must be symmetrical so that it can stand upright and not topple over. It mustn’t be lopsided or top heavy. Similarly there must be a structure in which our praise is set. For example, you can overbalance a service of worship by singing the same kind of hymns – four 8-lined hymns can crush a congregation, especially in the mornings, with the heaviness of such demanding singing. Only young preachers would make a selection like that. In our doxology there must be balance of length and spirit and even the age of the hymns chosen – there must be ancient and modern.
The worship service as a whole is covenantal in which we begin by addressing God in prayer and praise and then it climaxes with him addressing us through the word preached. The whole service must be appropriate for holy things, reverent in character and suffused with the love of God in Christ. The rhythms of the disco have no place in our churches. Even the world would disapprove; “If we wanted that then we’d go to a concert or even a night-club.”
iv] There’s to be orderliness in Christian worship. “But everything should be done in an . . .orderly way” (I Cor. 14:40). Paul is speaking of the need of a regular arrangement or order in the service. Sameness is not a hindrance or drawback but actually a benefit. We know what is coming and so we can keep our minds from straying. We’re not being eaten up by the pre-occupation of the moment. We don’t want the brightenings, and the lightenings, and the shortenings, and the lengthenings, and the tamperings, and the simplifications, and the innovations, and the novelties. We don’t want to be sitting on the edge of our seats wondering who or what is going to pop up, and speak up, and sing up, and cry out next. We don’t want human engineering, we want the presence and living word of God. We don’t want to be distracted from the satisfaction of our hunger for God being filled. We are looking away to the gracious present Lord Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. We are not very interesting people; we don’t have profound spiritual experiences to share with one another; we are not going to stop the whole church to share with everybody something as mundane as our experience of finding a place to park the car this past week; we are ordinary people walking with an extraordinary Saviour to heaven. If we dramatise our humdrum lives then we turn men’s eyes away from the Lord. So we have to have an order, which means we can give ourselves to the various items which we know follow one another, though they themselves will always be different.
All the hymns and readings and prayers and sermons are different at each service, but they are presented in a regular structure of what is called derogatively, ‘a hymn sandwich.’ I think it needs to be realised that it can only be replaced by other kinds of sandwiches, whether liturgical or the two piece sandwich of 40 minutes of singing followed by 40 minutes of preaching. A sandwich of some kind there will inevitably be. It is the quality of its contents that is important. If the Holy Spirit is there, in grace and power, the most prosaic order of service will light up and become vibrant with reality and spiritual life.
Let me describe to you the Alfred Place sandwich, though you know it well; we sing the praise of God, and then we hear his word, and then we sing God’s praise again being enlightened by the word we’ve just heard, and then we pray to him and bring to him our thanks and confession of sin and our praise and many requests; then we sing his of his glory again because he seems to be growing in covenant faithfulness before our eyes; then we preach his word, and how can we respond to that but in prayer and singing and prayer again? What a wonderful delicious nourishing sandwich that is. You can keep your meringues and hamburgers! Things are to be done in an orderly way, that is, according to the rules and pattern of the Bible itself. Innovation is out. Gimmickry is out. Exhibitionism is out. Entertainment is out. We must always pray, “O Breath of life come sweeping through us, revive thy work with life and power.”
2. HOW CAN WE KNOW WHAT ARE SPIRITUAL SONGS ACCEPTABLE TO GOD?
Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are clearly those which have been energised in their composition by God the Holy Spirit. They have been written by men who are full of the Spirit, many of them having lived during times of great outpourings and mighty works of the Spirit. How can we judge what is a spiritual song? It will reflect the various experiences of our Christian race as we go to heaven, battling with temptation, wrestling with principalities and powers, mortifying remaining sin and looking unto Jesus as we are being helped by the God who blesses us with every spiritual blessing – just as you see in the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament Scriptures. These spiritual songs edify the worshipper. They throw light on Scriptural truths; the words take priority over the tune, but both blend together. They are reverent in addressing a mighty God. They are doctrinally clear, in keeping with the Confession of Faith of the church which uses those hymns. They are not over-ornamental, full of embellishments and romanticisms and flights of the imagination. They have a good structure and sensible rhyming. They are free from such mystical phrases as “a place of sweet repose near to the heart of God . . . I walked in the Garden alone when the dew was still on the roses . . . Shine Jesus shine.” Spiritual songs draw in the whole congregation – we all sing together. You know how the progress of backsliding shows itself; a man stops praying in the prayer meeting, and then he stops attending the prayer meeting, and then he stops singing the hymns on Sundays, and then he stops attending on Sundays.
J.C.Ryle said that there were three elements in a good hymn – sound theology, true experience and good poetry. If just one of those is lacking then it is not a good hymn. I like John Blanchard’s tests for a spiritual song in his book, Pop Goes the Gospel (Evangelical Press) and will use his helpful headings
i] Spiritual songs help us hear the Word of God more clearly.
The Bible says that ‘faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ’ (Roms. 10:17). We have to hear a message in words about the Lord Jesus Christ, in fact Paul says that he renounced secret and shameful ways; he did not use deception; he did not distort the word of God. On the contrary he set forth the truth ‘plainly’ (2 Cor. 4:2). Music was not to be one of those devices which soften people up, creating a mood in which some religious decision would become easier. Music has far more power to touch our emotions than the truth itself. Aren’t there melodies from symphonies and operatic arias that are simply too grand and so too dangerous for Christian worship? You can move an audience through magnificent music. Imagine then proceeding to tell them that their high emotions were the Holy Ghost. What confusion! I was flying home from Kenya earlier this month; it was dawn and on the opera channel as the sun was rising from under the clouds a tenor sang the aria from Gounod’s Faust, Salut, demeure chaste et pure. My eyes flooded with tears seeing that line of crimson sky and hearing that gorgeous music. That had nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. That was just the beauty of stirring music. That was a reflex in me, subconscious and psychological, after years of listening to music. Such songs are too magnificent to use in Sunday worship and there is much music like that. We have six days in which we can pursue all sorts of aesthetic experiences, in paintings, ballet, architecture, design, taste and even perfumed odours. On the Lord’s Day these things can only serve as barriers between us and our exposure to the living God.
Unacceptable music in worship is what draws our attention away from the words, or it is music in which the words are rather incidental – they might even be in Italian, German or Latin. Music must enhance and illuminate the words we use in worshipping God. Whatever the style, the music in our worship must always serve the message of the gospel. There are three basic elements in good music, melody, harmony and rhythm and each one must promote the message of the Bible when we’re worshipping together. They must open up the Word of God; they must clarify Scripture. Think, for example, of the word ‘love’. When the Beatles sang ‘All you need is love’ they were singing something very different from what the Bible means by ‘love.’ So if you are going to sing about love you must make sure that the people singing are not equating the word ‘love’ with the Pop understanding of love which is libertarian, and sensual, and infatuative, utterly obsessed with sexual attraction. Love in Christianity is very different. It is about sacrifice, God taking responsibility for our blame and shame, sparing not his own worthy Son because he loves worthless sinners, giving him in death for us and then caring for us all our days.
“Love is kind, and suffers long;
Love is meek, and thinks no wrong;
Love, than death itself more strong:
Therefore gives us love,” (Christopher Wordsworth 1807-85)
At the dawn of the contemporary worship music revolution thirty years ago the themes asserted were that “Jesus is alive/real/mine” etc. Very few songs mentioned a particular third-day resurrection. Then they progressed to this;  the world is in a mess and so are you,  Jesus can sort it out,  so just accept him. What was missing? A mountain of glorious truths: creation, incarnation, the cross and resurrection, the throne of Christ, his High Priestly ministry, judgment, repentance, heaven and hell and so on. If the songs reflect modern preaching no wonder they are pathetic. But hymn-writing has improved in the past thirty years though it has left a good wariness concerning the new in evangelical Christians, and a caution about the unchallenged value of what is new in music. We will not be bought by drums and synthesizers. The tunes to accompany the songs have also got better, but what an incalculable loss it is to sing them exclusively and discard the great hymns of the past. An American Christian called John Fischer has said, “It’s hard for me these days to get into many churches where I can hear a hymn anymore, because now everything’s contemporary. It’s like we’ve left a lot of our history, because we want to make something really hip and cool that everybody’s going to be excited about. We do everything with a praise band, the words are up on the screen and we’re all singing repetitious choruses. Sometimes I start longing for one of those great old Isaac Watts hymns with somebody’s grandmother playing the organ, even messing it up at times. Somehow, something got through to us as we worked over and stumbled through the words some of which we couldn’t quite understand because they were from another generation and culture from our own. Yet they asked us to think about our faith, and realize that our beliefs are not just for now but part of historical Christianity.” So the hymns must help us better understand the Word of God.
ii] Spiritual songs give us a greater vision of the glory of God.
John Blanchard writes, “The first recorded song in Scripture is in Exodus 15 and was sung by Moses and the Israelites to celebrate their miraculous deliverance from the Egyptians. In it are these remarkable words: ‘The Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation’ (Exodus 15:2). What is remarkable about them is that Moses refers to God as ‘my song’, and it would be impossible to link the nature of God and the nature of the song more closely than that. God not only caused the song, he characterized it. No wonder Matthew Henry calls Exodus 15 ‘a holy song, consecrated to the honour of God, and intended to exalt his name and celebrate his praise, and his only’. Can the same be said of your ‘Christian music’? Accepting that its beat, rhythm and syncopations are saying things, are they things that express the purity, majesty, holiness and serenity of God? Music about God should be like God. It should reflect him, magnify him; it should communicate something of God’s character. Does it do this? Is it pure in its tone, lovely in its melody? Fine-tuning the question to the subject of our study, does rock music do it?” (John Blanchard, Pop Goes the Gospel, Evangelical Press, Darlington 1983, p.161).
Can any contemporary worship music either in its words or in its tunes rival the wealth of hymns in the English language that speak of the majesty of God? What hymn on the Holy Spirit can compare in loving ardour with Joseph’s Hart’s?
“Descend from heaven, celestial Dove,
With flames of pure seraphic love;
Our ravished breasts inspire;
Fountain of joy, blest Paraclete,
Warm our cold hearts with heavenly heat,
And set our souls on fire.
Breathe on these bones, so dry and dead;
Thy sweetest, softest influence shed
In all our hearts abroad;
Point out the place where grace abounds;
Direct us to the bleeding wounds
Of our incarnate God.
Conduct, blest Guide, Thy sinner-train
To Calvary, where the Lamb was slain,
And with us there abide;
Let us our loved Redeemer meet,
Weep o’er His pierced hands and feet,
And view His wounded side.
Teach us for what to pray, and how;
And since, kind God, ’tis only Thou
The throne of grace canst move,
Pray Thou for us, that we, through faith,
May feel the effects of Jesus’ death,
Through faith, that works by love.
Thou, with the Father and the Son,
Art that mysterious Three-in-one,
God blest for evermore!
Whom though we cannot comprehend,
Knowing thou art the sinner’s Friend,
We love Thee and adore.”
How many churches beside our own sing these words each year with comprehension and wonder? A splendid new tune in the living tradition of hymn-tune writing could give this hymn back to the church achieving what another contemporary tune has done for Charitie Bancroft’s hymn, “Before the throne of God above . . .”
iii] Spiritual songs teach a repentant view of man’s depravity.
John Blanchard writes, “In describing man’s spiritual state, the Bible says that the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure (Jeremiah 17:9). One of man’s most persistent follies is to imagine that whenever he chooses he can pull himself up by his spiritual bootlaces, turn to God, get cleaned up, and become a member of God’s family. But that is not the case. Man is corrupt, vile, morally and spiritually rotten to the core. Does your music give you a repentant view of all this? That word ‘repentant’ is all-important. There is certainly a great deal of 21st century music that shows us man’s depravity. Rock music’s heavy emphasis on violence, anarchy, rebellion, sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, the drug culture, blasphemy, occultism and the like is saying something that is both loud and clear. One would certainly hope the ‘Christian music’ would not glorify those things, but neutrality is not enough. The questions we have to ask are these: does it lead you to search your heart and not just to tap your feet? Does it get beyond feelings to facts? Does it make clear to you the reality of man’s spiritual condition apart from God? Any idiom aimed at bringing pleasure has great difficulties in conveying the ‘bad news’ that a man must grasp before he can appreciate the nature of the ‘good news’. Does the music you are playing, singing or hearing honestly overcome all those difficulties and do it in such a way that it helps to bring you to a place of repentance, a place where you loathe sin and want to have nothing to do with it?” (John Blanchard, op cit, p.163). Will our music set our affection on things above? Will it make us hunger and thirst more for righteousness?
Will the sort of songs we sing create an ethos which will produce men and women in their twenties like Robert Murray M’Cheyne who will write hymns like his, one of whose first verses say this
“When this passing world is done,
When has sunk the radiant sun,
When I stand with Christ on high,
Looking o’er life’s history,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe.
Chosen, not for good in me,
Wakened up from wrath to flee,
Hidden in the Saviour’s side,
By the Spirit sanctified,
Teach me, Lord, on earth to show
By my love how much I owe”? (Robert M. M’Cheyne 1813-1843).
iv] Spiritual songs encourage us to disciplined godly living.
The goal of the Christian life is to present your body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. The goal is to cheerfully take up your cross, deny yourself and follow Christ. I know what God’s will is for your life. I can look at each of you and say, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified” (I Thess. 4:3). It is not his will that you should have good vibrations, and love yourself but that you should become like Christ. That doesn’t come easily. It isn’t handed to us on a plate. The Christian life is a struggle with remaining sin and we can feel the wretchedness falling through the influence of the flesh. The Christian life is a conflict, not a concert. Around us are principalities and powers which want to destroy us and ours. We need to sing to one another to endorse our vigilance, discipline, sacrifice, watchfulness and determination to persevere. Do our hymns do that, or are they warm’n’fuzzy hymns? Are they soft and slushy hymns? Do they rather serve to focus our minds on things that are ” true . . . noble . . . right . . . pure . . . lovely . . . admirable . . . praiseworthy”? (Phils. 4:8). Does the music lift our minds to consider God? Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs are most beautifully equipped to bring the soul to God, to him who is back of all, above all, before all, first in order of sequence, first in power and glory, utterly pre-eminent, above everything in rank and station, exalted in dignity and honour, the great self-existent one, giving life and form to all things and sustaining moment by moment all he has made; the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit; the one God, and then all things else, whether they be creatures or spirits, thrones and principalities and powers, all exist because of him and for him. “Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.”
v] Spiritual songs exhort us to be separated from the world.
The Bible defines the world in terms of the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. The world is a system organised without God and against God. “Live for me. I am the only reality there is,” the world is always crying to us. So the apostolic word of warning is, “Do not love the world, or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (I Jn. 2:15). We are under siege, and then on Sundays we come apart and we receive what no power in the world can possibly give us, the restoring of our souls to a calm trust in the living Saviour. On Sundays the spirit of the world is to be locked out of our gatherings, its values and philosophies and enthusiasms, and standards, and life-style would all seek to quench the dove of holiness who rests upon us. The congregation is to be a world-free zone. What about the music you sing? Does it appeal to the sensual or the spiritual? Are its roots in heaven or this world? Does it stimulate purity and a God-consciousness or are we forced to think too much about that member of the singing group screwing up her face as she sings a little theatrically in front of us week by week? Does the music lead you to want more or less of the things of the world? Do godless people actually enjoy coming to hear this music week by week without repenting or growing as Jesus’ disciples? Should they enjoy the worship of the Holy One while they are always keeping him out of their lives? Does the music help you to break free from the ties to the world that seem so unbreakable and which are strangling you? “Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). The question before us is not what music you like but who do you love, God or the world?
vi] We can envisage spiritual songs being part of a great awakening.
There are times when God works so that not one man, like the Ethiopian Eunuch, is converted, but a whole city is affected and hundreds are changed, as happened in the city of Samaria. Edward Payson was a Presbyterian minister in Portland, Maine in the USA. In his first pastorate he experienced something of this great blessing. He wrote to his mother on September 19, 1816, saying to her, “On the whole, the past summer has been the happiest which I have enjoyed since I was settled . . . the revival, which I feared was at an end, began again, and things now look as promising as ever. My meeting-house overflows, and some of the church are obliged to stay at home, on account of the impossibility of obtaining seats. I have, in the main, been favoured with great liberty for me, both in the pulpit and out; and it has very often seemed as if – could I only drop the body, I could continue, without a moment’s pause, to praise and adore to all eternity. This goodness is perfectly astonishing and incomprehensible I am in a maze, whenever I think of it . . .
“Never did God appear so inexpressibly glorious and lovely as he has for some weeks past. He is, indeed, all in all. I have nothing to fear, nothing to hope from creatures. They are all mere shadows and puppets. There is only one Being in the universe, and that Being is God; may I add, He is my God. I long to go and see him in heaven. I long still more to stay and serve him on earth. Rather, I rejoice to be just where he pleases, and to be what he pleases. Never did selfishness and pride appear so horrid. Never did I see myself to be such a monster; so totally dead to all wisdom and goodness. But I can point up, and say, ‘There is my righteousness, my wisdom, my all.’ In the hands of Christ I lie passive and helpless, and am astonished to see how he can work in me. He does all; holds me up, carries me forward, works in me and by me; while I do nothing, and yet never worked faster in my life. To say all in a word – ‘My soul followeth hard after thee; thy right hand upholdeth me.'” (Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism, Banner of Truth, 1994, p.204). There were seventy people inquiring after salvation and seventy new members brought into Paton’s church that year.
Music was never and nowhere prominent as a performance at that time, but the praise of God became richer and more sincere as the familiar words had a new awesome reality. Would you expect the hymns we sing to capture the conviction of sin and brokenness of exercised sinners present when the Spirit comes and breaks and awakens many men and women? Would our hymns express the new assurance of deliverance through Christ?
vii] Under the influence of spiritual songs we can see Christians being drawn into sacrificial full-time work for God.
One of the marks of a church’s spiritual health is the steady enrolment of its young men to become ministers of the Word. They have turned from other careers, the security and comfort of their jobs and looked to Europe, Africa, Asia, South America to become preachers of the Word, whatever the cost. Young people are keen on short term service, a summer spent in Peru on a building project, visiting India in a witness team, or even taking a year out and working with a church in the Philippines. These experiences can be so faith-enriching. Our concern is for the next step, that the lessons learned in those places constrain the participants to dedicate their whole lives to bringing the life and message of Christ to such places. Membership in a group and singing around the churches and schools of the Principality has its place, but the fields are white unto harvest. Are you seriously considering giving your life to the Lord in the mission fields at home or abroad? Could your fascination with the singing group be actually keeping you from a deeper commitment?
Yesterday at the ordination service of a former student we sang the hymn of Frank Houghton’s, “Facing a task unfinished that drives us to our knees.” It ends with these words,
“From cowardice defend us,
From lethargy awake!
Forth on thine errands send us
To labour for Thy sake.” (Frank Houghton, 1894-1972)
The old evangelist, John Blanchard comments, “We feel that some honest questions might be helpful. Does much of contemporary praise music appeal to sentiment, or does it touch you at a deeper level? Does it merely encourage enjoyment, or does it lead to evangelism? Does it call you to indulgence, or to sacrifice? Is it music which helps you thoughtfully to count the cost of whole-hearted commitment to Christ? The questions are valid – and the answers revealing! Perhaps another question will help to test where your priorities really lie: how does the amount you give directly to missionary work compare with what you spend on your music?” (John Blanchard, op cit, p.167).
viii] We expect to find spiritual songs in heaven.
The Christian who does not appreciate music is almost a contradiction, because he is on his way to a place where he will be surrounded by music for all eternity. John Blanchard writes, “One of the things revealed by God to the apostle John during his remarkable vision on the island of Patmos was that there will be music in heaven. In one of the most breath-taking passages in all Scripture we are told about three tremendous songs of praise. The first is where ‘four living creatures and the twenty-four elders . . . sang a new song’ (Revelation 5:8-9). Then we are told that ‘Many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand . . . encircled the throne and . . . sang’ (Revelation 5:11-12). Finally John tells us, ‘I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).
“The first choir has twenty-eight members – four ‘living creatures’ and twenty-four elders (representing nature and the church?); then they are joined by at least 104,000,000 angels (work it out!); finally by every creature in the entire universe. No wonder Christina Rossetti once described heaven as the homeland of music. But what kind of music is it? Is it music as we know it, with staves and scales, chords and canons? Will there be melody, harmony and rhythm as we know them here? We have no idea. We are not given any details about the music – perhaps to enable us to concentrate on the words. It will certainly be ‘a new song’ (Revelation 5:9), but as William Freel has said, ‘No composer can estimate its value, no instrument can play its harmony, no voice can pronounce its beauty, no modulator can convey its height or its depth; this song is arranged to please the ear of God.’
“That immediately points us to some important and inescapable questions about the nature of spiritual songs. Does the music you enjoy suggest that it was arranged for the same ear? Can you imagine it being enjoyed by God the Father? Is it serious music? Does it promote a sense of awe and reverence? Can you imagine it being enjoyed by God the Son? Does it give undivided glory to ‘the Lamb, who was slain’? (Revelation 5:12). Can you imagine it being enjoyed by God the Holy Spirit? Does it speak of peace, purity and a spirit of worship? There are other questions to be asked, too. Can you imagine this music being played and sung by the angels and archangels, the cherubim and seraphim? Perhaps even more testing is this: can you imagine that when you get to heaven and stand before the indescribable majesty of the triune God of glory this is the kind of music you will want to play and the kind of song you will want to sing? The apostle Paul says of Christians that ‘Our citizenship is in heaven’ (Philippians 3:20). That being so, every part of life should be seen as a preparation for that glorious experience, and our music is to be no exception” (John Blanchard, op cit, pp. 167-169).
21 August 2005 GEOFF THOMAS