Across nearly every denomination and expression within the church today, despite the various differences, when the people gather together one can find some form and expression of music. Whether a tradition permits the use of drums and electric guitar or not, whether the congregation sings hymns, modern songs, or both, and whether the band is on stage, behind the people, or non-existent, one thing remains fairly constant: when people gather as the church, they sing.
Martin Luther once said,
"Next to the Word of God, the nobel art of music is the greatest treasure in the world."
It is no wonder Luther believed music was so worthy of esteem. Indeed, his primary treasure, the Word of God—the standard to which he compared all other things—itself affirms the beauty and worth of music. In fact, it is because of the examples in and commands of Scripture that the church has traditionally kept music as a central part of corporate worship. And since the Bible is our basis for knowing that we should sing in our corporate gatherings, it should also serve as our basis for how we sing and why we sing. Rather than allow culture and tradition to primarily shape our use of music, we should submit to Scriptures as our authority and then faithfully and creatively seek to honor God and his Word within our culture and tradition.
With that, we look to the pages of Scripture to see the different purposes and expressions of music and role it plays in our relationship with our Creator. Of course, many of the examples below could be attributed to multiple categories. And, by no means is the following exhaustive, but hopefully it can afford us some guidance in how we view and participate in singing alongside our brothers and sisters.
Singing Is a Response
One of the most common uses of song that we see in the Bible is singing in response to something, particularly a work of God in our lives. When God assures us of his faithfulness in different seasons and circumstances, it is natural to lift our voices in praise. Throughout the Bible, we see instances of God protecting, providing, and fulfilling promises, and in response, we see the songs of the beneficiaries. In Judges 5, Deborah, for instance, after defeating the Canaanites, recounted in song the victory with which God had blessed her and Israel. She sang the story of their deliverance and praised God for his protection and power:
“Lord, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled
and the heavens dropped,
yes, the clouds dropped water.
The mountains quaked before the Lord,
even Sinai before the Lord, the God of Israel.
Of course, Deborah is not informing God of his work on their behalf as if he is unaware. Rather, she is singing back to God the work he did as a gesture of gratitude and celebration! She is so moved by God's faithfulness and display of power that she bursts with joyful excitement.
Or consider Hannah, who petitioned to God for a Son and, upon being blessed with Samuel, exalted God and rejoiced in his gracious provision. Listen to part of her song in 1 Samuel 2:1-2:
"My heart exults in the Lord;
My horn is exalted in the Lord,
My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies,
Because I rejoice in Your salvation.
There is no one holy like the Lord,
Indeed, there is no one besides You,
Nor is there any rock like our God."
What assurance and joy! God did a work in her life and that work revealed truths about God's nature and character. Hannah cannot help but sing out those truths in response! This is because song is natural response to God working in our lives.
Of course, the most important and song-worthy work he has ever done is the sending and sacrificing of his Son on our behalf. When we gather together on Sundays, part of our time spent together is joining in song. As a family, we sing as a response to the work of salvation that God has extended to us freely and graciously. When we think on how undeserving we are and how generous God is in the giving of Jesus, we cannot help but lift our voices in glad response. And so, with one voice and as one people, we boldly proclaim our praise for the work of the Cross accomplished on our behalf. As the old hymn says:
My sin, O the bliss of this glorious thought,
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Was nailed to the Cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!