Have you ever wondered why Christians sing so much? Think about it: every week we sing several psalms and hymns to the Lord. What other setting in life do we gather together weekly with people of different ages and backgrounds and sing songs? The world sings too, of course, but not in the same way as the church or for the same reasons. Most of us probably sang patriotic songs at school when we very little. Some of us may still sing along to the “Star-Spangled Banner” before a Padres game or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. Usually, however, the world just listens to singing. It serves the purpose of entertainment, whether it is highbrow opera or lowbrow pop music. I doubt any of us live in neighborhoods where all the residents come together on a weekly basis and sing songs. Even though we live in a very noisy world, there simply isn’t that much singing.
Perhaps the world doesn’t sing that much because there is not very much to sing about. With the church, though, it is different. Christians have a lot to sing about. We sing to the Lord because he has rescued us from Satan and death. We sing to him because Christ has been raised from the dead and so shall we. We sing to him because he is good and worthy of our praise. Singing, in one sense, comes very naturally to Christians. Because of what God has done for us in Christ, we cannot help but sing praises to the triune God.
We also sing because God commands us to. The psalms are replete with the Lord’s calls to his people to lift up their voices and sing to him. Psalm 95, for example, begins, “Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!” He commands us to sing because he delights in hearing the praises of his people. He is the inventor of music and the One who gave us lips, lungs, and vocal chords. He has given us voices to sing and ears that recognize melody and harmony. And he has given us a whole songbook. We sing the 150 psalms not merely to express our emotions (although it is indeed emotional), but to glorify our Creator and Redeemer. Our singing is directed God-ward, because he, not our own experience, is the object of our worship. Our God loves it when we worship him in song.
This is why the church has always been a community of singing people. Singing is the proper response to God’s grace. In all ages, God’s people have lifted up their voices and sang his praises. In the old covenant, the Psalms were sung constantly at the tabernacle. Families were to learn these songs and pass them on to their children. There were psalms to be sung daily in the home, psalms to be sung on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and psalms to be sung at the holy feasts.
In the new covenant, we find Jesus and his disciples singing a hymn immediately after the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26.30). We find the apostles singing in the book of Acts, even during times of persecution and suffering (Acts 16.25). The apostles commanded the churches to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5.19; cf. Col 3.16). Singing is part of “the prayers” in which the apostolic church devoted themselves (Acts 2.42).
In the ancient church, that is, in the first several centuries after the death of the apostles, singing continued to have a regular and important place in worship. All of the surviving liturgies from that period reveal a singing church in which the psalms were lifted up to the Lord every week. This continued throughout the Middle Ages (from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries) and into the time of the Protestant Reformation. At that time, Christians sang the psalms in their common languages rather than Latin and Greek which had become antiquated.
In fact, learning and singing the psalms in one’s native tongue became such an ordinary part of the Christian life for Protestants that in some places during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Roman Catholic magistrates forbade it. History reveals that during times of persecution it was not uncommon for Protestants to have their tongues cut out before they were burned at the stake because they were known for singing the psalms as the fires were lit.
Which psalms and hymns will we sing in our very last days? Which psalms and hymns have we committed to memory as families and individuals? Which psalms and hymns do we hope the congregation will sing at our funeral? These are good questions to ask ourselves. As your pastor, let me encourage you to think about them. Let me encourage you to learn the psalms and hymns we sing in church. As Reformed Christians, we have inherited a rich tradition of singing, one that is far more robust and time-tested than much of what is found in contemporary praise music with its often shallow words and brief shelf-life.
Let me also encourage us to lift up our voices in church. God is worthy of far more than singing that is kept at a whisper or low voice. Do not be ashamed of your voice. God calls us to make a joyful noise. So let it rip! Besides, he has given us so much to sing about.
Taken from Pastor Brown's pastoral letter to CURC for the month of February