Singing acts like a spiritual thermometer. It takes our spiritual temperature and tells us whether we are healthy or not. A guest can tell by how a church sings whether they are thriving, or just keeping house. What spills out of our mouth is an undeniable testimony of what is in our heart (Matt. 12:34).
God intended singing to be an opportunity to express our faith and strengthen our souls. However, we have all seen situations where singing went wrong. Where it didn’t build up the church, it tore it down; where the singing became a source of exhaustion, rather than refreshment. This is what happens when God’s people forget why they sing. Singing then slides into something selfish or meaningless.
Not a lot is said in the New Testament about singing in the assembly of the church. There are basically three verses and two of them are nearly identical (1 Cor. 14:15; Eph. 5:19; Col 3:16). However, what is said is very helpful in learning why we sing. Song worship has three clear targets.
Praising God is the most important and prevalent purpose of singing in Scripture. Ephesians 5:19 says, “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Singing is directed “to the Lord.” It is about giving thanks, “to God.” This requires the worshipper to know the Lord and the personal nature of His gifts.
The first song recorded in the Bible is in Exodus 15. It is sung by a liberated band of slaves who burst out in song, “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea! The Lord is my strength and song. He has become my salvation; He is my God, and I will praise Him” (Ex. 15:1-2).
Similarly, the second song in the Biblical narrative comes from the time of the Judges. Israel was under the oppressive rule of a Canaanite king, and Israel’s leaders were too weak to rise up. So God used a couple of women, Deborah and Jail to deliver His people. When the people saw this great deliverance they broke out in song (Judges 5).
The next song comes from the lips of David. David considered how the “Lord had delivered him from the hand of all his enemies,” (22:1) and he sang, “The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; The God of my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, My stronghold and my refuge; My Savior, You save me from violence. I will call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised; So shall I be saved from my enemies” (2 Sam. 22:2-3).
Do you see the pattern? God’s people burst out in song because of the great way He delivers them. In this regard, no one has more reason to praise God than we do. We were destined for hell. Satan and his demons were riding hard after us. We were hopelessly lost with an eternity of unspeakable emptiness and torment awaiting us.
Then Jesus, with tremendous mercy entered into our condition, destroyed the power of the devil, bore the penalty of our sins, and set us free to enjoy every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. No one has ever had such reason to sing like we do!
How could we ever mumble through a song of praise to a God who has done such wonders for us?
Singing also has an instructive purpose. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col. 3:16). There are believers in every assembly who are growing weak in their faith, and they need to hear your voice ring across the room saying, “Brother, don’t give up! Sister, trust in the Lord! Sin isn’t worth it. Nothing is hopeless in Christ.”
Sometimes when I sing I imagine the words leaving my mouth and flying right into the heart of the person who needs to hear it; fortifying their faith. Singing gives us the opportunity to express that life in Christ is about serving others.
However, singing that turns selfish becomes destructive. The church in Corinth had a problem with singing in their assembly. Some brothers were leading a song in a foreign tongue and people weren’t getting much out of it. Ah, but the song leader loved it. Paul came along and said, “No. I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words” people couldn’t understand (1 Cor. 14:19). Singing is about the spiritual edification of all (1 Cor. 14:12,15). An effective song service is not measured by the number of songs or the beauty of music, but by the truth it communicates.
This has powerful implications for those who lead God’s people in song worship. Singing must be a completely selfless act. The spiritual needs of the audience must dominate the songleader’s concern. The songleader is to help the audience see the Biblical message, and not be distracted by the complexity of the music. Song worship is about edifying others, not serving self.
If singing is meant to instruct then it is vital that the songs we sing communicate Biblical truth (Col. 3:16). A song is good not just because it is old or new; not because it has a great bass or alto lead; a song is good only if it communicates Biblical truth. Frankly there are many songs that are highly poetic, catchy in rhyme and melody, and are Biblically dry as dust—they are unworthy of the worship of God’s people.
Singing becomes a wonderful avenue for expressing the joy of our hearts. James wrote, “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms” (James 5:13). Praying is the natural response of someone who is hurting, but in the same way singing ought to be the natural desire of those who are happy.
C.S. Lewis put it this way, “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment.” Singing is our way of telling our soul, “These are the things I really value!” This realization puts starch in our faith, boldness on our tongue, and courage in our plans. The next time you sing tell your soul to listen.
“I will sing to honor my Savior!”
“I will sing to enliven my brother and sister!”
“I will sing to direct my heart!”
“Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14)
Paul wrote to Timothy: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). Yet, for many of us contentment is an elusive quality. Philip Ryken offers this anonymous little poem to help us see the problem of being discontent.
It was Spring, but it was Summer I wanted:
The warm days and the great outdoors.
It was Summer, but it was Fall I wanted:
The colorful leaves and the cool, dry air.
It was Fall, but it was Winter I wanted:
The beautiful snow and the joy of the holiday season.
It was Winter, but it was Spring I wanted:
The warmth and the blossoming of nature.
I was a child, and it was adulthood I wanted:
The freedom and the respect.
I was 20, but it was 30 I wanted:
To be mature and sophisticated.
I was middle-aged, but it was 20 I wanted:
The youth and the free spirit.
I was retired, but it was middle-aged I wanted:
The presence of mind without limitations.
My life was over,
and I never got what I wanted.
Discontent is life’s burglar. It robs every other experience of its God-given joy. Someone who is discontent is always operating at a loss.
Think of it this way: Contentment is the best furniture for your home. If you add contentment to your living room, you have all the furnishings you need. Contentment is the best fashion accessory. Wrap contentment around your collar, and voilà, you have reached the height of true fashion. Or add “contentment” as a line item in your portfolio; then you have the ultimate financial security. The more content you are in Christ, the more you discover that godliness with contentment is great gain.
(Poem and comment from: Ryken, P. G. (2007). 1 Timothy. (R. D. Phillips, D. M. Doriani, & P. G. Ryken, Eds.) (p. 260). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.)