Singing with the Understanding

Singing plays a major part in Christian worship and experience. Right from the very beginning of the creation of this world there was singing: it is God Himself who tells us that, when He laid the foundations of the earth, ‘The morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’, Job 38. 4-7. Heaven is a place of joy and it will be a place of singing, Rev. 5. 7-11; Rev. 14. 2-3; Rev.15. 3. Even God Himself sings, we are told, for ‘the Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing’, Zeph. 3. 17.

The human heart and voice sing when they are happy and joyful. The very first mention of singing comes in Exodus chapter 15. God has just delivered His people in stunning and thoroughly unexpected circumstances. They have escaped what appeared to be certain annihilation and their enemies have been swept away in the floods of the river. What is the result? For the first time int he Bible we read that men sang, ‘Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into these a’, 15. 1. This singing expressed praise to God for His power and thanksgiving for His deliverance. So believers, in both Old and New Testaments, are encouraged to sing God’s praises, ‘O sing unto the Lord a new song; for he hath done marvellous things’, Psa. 98. 1; ‘Praise ye the Lord. Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise in the congregation of saints. Ps. 149.1; ‘Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness’, Ps. 30.4; ‘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. Believers over the years have collected hymns and songs to enable them to sing together; that is one of the main purposes of the book of Psalms. It may very well be that the ‘faithful sayings’ of the Pastoral Epistles were snatches of hymns or songs that believers in New Testament days had learned to sing. But what songs or hymns should believers sing? Are only old hymns, that have stood the test of time, acceptable to sing? Is anything new worth singing? Is anything old still worth singing? On the one hand, mature believers enjoy singing old familiar hymns, and with very good reason, yet young believers, sadly, often find the words of such hymns old fashioned and don’t appreciate them. Young believers, on the other hand, enjoy singing what’s modern, what’s fresh, what’s new, yet older believers, sadly, often don’t like modern hymns and songs and don’t appreciate them. Yet surely we should be willing to accept both old and sloppy and dodgy. Yet I can remember growing up and hearing a brother regularly give out that lovely hymn ‘And can it be that I should gain’ by Charles Wesley. Yet without fail, the brother would read out disapprovingly the expression ‘emptied Himself of all but love’ and say this was error, for the Lord never emptied Himself of His divine nature. The phrase needs to be understood in the context of Philippians chapter2 verse 7, where ‘made himself of no reputation’ can be translated ‘emptied himself’. Did Wesley believe the Lord emptied Himself of His divine nature? Not at all, Wesley’s other hymns are full of sublime expressions of the divinity of the Lord. Yet the hymn is still worth singing and no one would refuse to select it. The same can be said of a modern song that says the Lord Jesus, on the cross, ‘became nothing’. Did He really become nothing? Was He not always the only begotten of the Father? Of course. Yet in the context of reputation, Phil. 2. 7 again, and in the context of suffering for sin, it can be said that He ‘became nothing’ as to reputation. The theology is no more dodgy than Wesley’s.

Many Christian songs, both old and new, were written for individual singing and are not suitable for congregations to sing together. The old song ‘I come to the garden alone’ is never selected for congregational use. It is a song, not a hymn. So, also, many new songs cannot be selected for Christian worship because they are not suitable. Styles of poetry and worship change. Christian hymns and songs these days seldom rhyme and they don’t scan well either. Styles of music and tunes change too. Yet surely we should be willing to make careful selection of hymns and songs to sing publicly. Don’t dismiss everything that’s old merely because it is old, or everything new simply because it is new. Don’t, on the other hand, sing everything old because it is old and everything new because it is new. Older believers enjoy singing the grand old hymns of the Christian faith and younger believers should learn to do the same. Young believers enjoy singing ‘a new song’ and older believers should learn to do the same. Whether we sing old or new, let us remember to lift our voices to God in heartfelt expressions of praise and thanksgiving, singing with the heart, but with the understanding also. As Paul says, ‘I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also’, 1 Cor. 14. 15.