Filled with the Spirit: Singing to the Lord (Part 2)
July 28, 2019
If you were here last Sunday, then you might be wondering why we are looking at the same text for the second week in a row. 19b. Singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart.
Last Sunday we considered how our time of worship to God is really a dialogue with him. And we were reminded that we sing to Jesus because Jesus first sang to us.
But I thought it would be good and necessary for us to spend more time on this text and think about its many implications and applications for our lives. Especially with regard to our corporate worship and our singing on the Lord’s Day. I hope that today’s sermon will provide you with some thoughtful and valuable insight into how we do things here at Highland.
This sermon is made up of three parts. The content of our singing. The Christ of our singing. And the character of our singing. The content, the Christ, and the character of our signing. The first part is the longest. The second and third parts are pretty quick.
1. The Content of Our Singing
Let us begin with the content of our singing. What should we sing? What should the lyrics of our songs be about? What should be the content of our singing?
The answer to this question is very simple but also very profound. We are to first and foremost sing the songs that God has given to us in the Bible. And the songs that we have in the Bible are all the 150 psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that we have in the book of Psalms and all the possible psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that we see in the New Testament. This is the content of our singing. This is what we should sing, first and foremost.
And when we look at these songs of the Bible, we see that they are fundamentally and ultimately about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. They are about who he is and what he did to save us from sin and death. They are about his salvation, his life and righteousness, his suffering and humiliation and death, his resurrection and exaltation, his gospel and glory. Therefore, when we sing on Sundays, we are to sing about the person and work of Jesus Christ. This is the content of our singing.
This is very profound because it means that we are not in charge here. We do not get to sing whatever we want to sing. We do not get to use whatever words we want to use. Instead, we are to worship God according to how he has commanded us in Scripture to worship him. Our worship is regulated by him. Because our worship is really his worship. God determines the content of our singing. And he has every right to do so. He has full authority and sovereignty. He is the one whom we are worshipping. He is in charge. We are not. We are not God. Therefore, let us be humble when we think about what we are to sing.
This is also very profound because it means that when we sing rightly, we are singing the very words of God that he gave to us. John Calvin, a great French theologian and pastor in the 1500s, said this about singing: “…no one can sing anything worthy of God that he has not received from him. Therefore, even after we have carefully searched everywhere, we shall not find better or more appropriate songs to this end than the Psalms of David, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And for this reason, when we sing them, we are assured that God puts the words in our mouth, as if he himself were singing through us to exalt his glory.” God’s written word that is the Bible is enough for us. God’s words are more than sufficient for us (#solascriptura). Therefore, let us be amazed when we sing God’s word to him.
Finally, this is so very profound because it means that God knows our hearts fully. When we take the book of Psalms in its entirety, we see that it engages and addresses every single human emotion. There are songs about joy and songs about anger. There are songs about confidence and assurance and songs about sorrow and depression. And the list goes on and on. The theologian and historian Carl Trueman makes an great observation in his recent article titled “What can miserable Christians sing?” He writes, “Because it’s inspired by God, the Psalms are able to be far more honest and searching and depressed and discouraged and angry and fearful than anything we would have the guts to write for God on our own. Singing Psalms means that everyone coming to worship will be able to express their heart to God in a way pleasing to Him. Singing Psalms reminds me God isn’t interested in me putting on a happy face and pretending things are fine when they aren’t. [God] can handle your miserable singing!”
Brothers and sisters, our Lord Jesus Christ knows our hearts fully. He became a human being, though without sin, and he experienced everything that we experience in our hearts. And the book of Psalms is his songbook. The songs are his songs. Therefore, let us be led by the ultimate worship leader who knows us better than we know ourselves.
Now, what about songs that are not directly found in the Bible? What about songs that are man-made? Can we still sing these kind of songs? The answer is yes! We can sing man-made songs to God that are not directly found in the Bible.
But we have to remember that the songs that God has given to us in his word should come first. All the 150 psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that we have in the book of Psalms and all the possible psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that we see in the New Testament should take priority over any man-made song. The songs that our Triune God gave to us were inspired by the Holy Spirit, preserved for us in the Bible, and made of holy, infallible and inerrant words. The songs that Chris Tomlin, Keith and Kristyn Getty, or your favorite Christian artist are not inspired by the Holy Spirit, not preserved for us in the Bible, and not made of holy, infallible and inerrant words. Songs written by God have intrinsic authority. Songs written by man do not. So let us remmeber that there is a pretty huge gap. God’s songs should come first.
But if we rightly sing God’s songs and supplement them with man-made songs, then we have to remember that man-made songs we use must be held to the standard of God’s perfect word. Such songs must be biblical and true. Such songs must be Christ-centered. And so we are to be very careful when we choose man-made songs to sing to God. Because the standard to which we hold them is higher than the heavens.
This is easier said than done. There are many man-made worship songs that seem like they are about Jesus but actually say very little about him. This can happen when a song becomes overly self-referential and the focus on what we will do greatly eclipses the person and work of Jesus (Hillsong’s “Remembrance”: Hallelujah / I’ll live my life in remembrance / Hallelujah / Your promise I won’t forget). This can happen when a song is really a command and a call to worship (CityAlight’s “Only a Holy God”: Come and behold Him / The One and the Only / Cry out, sing holy / Forever a Holy God / Come and worship the Holy God). This can happen when a song gets cringy and sensual and borderline erotic (Kari Jobe’s “The More I Seek You”: I wanna sit at Your feet / Drink from the cup in Your hand / Lay back against You and breath, feel Your heart beat / This love is so deep, it’s more than I can stand / I melt in Your peace, it’s overwhelming). And this can happen when a bunch of songs are strung together in the beginning of worship or during a time of prayer for the purpose of creating “an uplifting experience that elevates [worshippers] to God first through [the] act of singing” and “a manipulating of people’s emotions to bring them into what is assumed to be a proper worshipful state” (Rev. Christopher Gordon on Abounding Grace Radio). I’m sure that all of these songwriters and churches mean well. But good and heartfelt intentions can never rescue a song that is not really about Jesus (#lifeonlife).
Here at Highland, I am sad to say that we are not singing as God has commanded us to sing. We are not singing the 150 psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that we have in the book of Psalms. And we are not singing the possible psalms, hymns and spiritual songs that we see in the New Testament. This is not good. But I pray that we would.
And there is some good news on this matter. Many churches and denominations have really started to recapture the singing of God’s word in their worship services. There is a growing movement in recent years of believers who are trying to sing more of the psalms, hymns and spiritual songs of the Bible. There is a groundswell of support and Christian musicians who are working hard to compose quality music that can fit well with Scripture. And a few denominations have actually completed entire songbooks for all the 150 psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in the book of Psalms. This is really great to hear. I look forward to joining all of this and getting back to our roots.
It is worth noting that the church universal for much of her history has sung God’s word. From the reign of King David in 1000 BC until about 150 years ago, the book of Psalms was THE songbook of the church. The church just didn’t sing anything else but the book of Psalms. People throughout the ages were able to sing all 150 songs in the book of Psalms by memory. But starting in the 18th century, man-made songs began to overshadow God-made songs. And nowadays, most churches do not sing God’s word at all. As one theologian put it: “The early 21st century is almost certainly the most psalm-less age in the history of the church in more than 3000 years.”
Brothers and sisters, this is really something for us to think about. Our century and our generation is perhaps the most contextually ignorant and historically arrogant century and generation… ever. We grew up in our churches and think that the way that we have done things is the best way or even the only way to do things. But we must not be ignorant or arrogant. Other believers in Christ have worshipped and are worshipping quite differently than we worship now. Let us be open-minded to the fact that, for example, persecuted Christians living in Pakistan sing the psalms all the time. “They love to sing psalms of praise, laments, penitence, petitions, and prayers. They memorize them by heart…. It helps them in their daily life, especially when they face questions from Muslims in their work places” (Why Persecuted Christians Sing Psalms in Pakistan, Joan Huyser-Honig). Brothers and sisters, when we sing the songs of the Bible, we do not sing alone. We sing with the church past, the church present, and the church future.
2. The Christ of Our Singing
We spent a good amount of time on the content of our singing. But now let us consider the Christ of our singing.
God commands us here in Ephesians to sing and make melody to the Lord. Our singing is for Jesus. Our songs are meant to give praise and thanks to him. It’s all for him.
And this brings us to a gigantic implication and game-changing application. Our singing to God is not for us. The time we spend singing to God is not our time. It is not a time for us to receive. A common thing that believers say is something like this: “I was so blessed by the songs we sang today.” Or, “The lyrics really moved me.” Or, “I feel like I grow a lot when we sing to God in worship.”
These words sound good and right. But technically they do not make logical sense. And the reason is simple but profound. When a believer is in the act of singing and making melody to the Lord, that activity is for God. The songs we sing are not about us. And they are not for us. They are for God. They are meant to be praise to God.
It is helpful here to remember the dialogical nature of worship. When God calls us in the beginning of every worship and blesses us at the end, when God commands us and assures us, when God teaches us and feeds us, he is talking to us. When we sing to God, we are talking to God and responding to his words. Worship is a dialogue. So when we sing to God, the direction of communication is logical and clear: words are going from us to God.
This means that the songs we sing to God are not for us. We don’t sing to God for our own sake. We’re not supposed to get anything from our songs. The time of singing is not a time for us. It is a time for God. It is a time to praise and worship and thank and exalt Jesus. It is his time. It is about him. And it is for him.
3. The Character of Our Singing
Finally, let us close with the character of our singing.
God commands us here in Ephesians to sing and make melody to the Lord with our hearts. Singing is therefore a fundamentally inside thing. When we sing to God, we are not really singing with our mouths. We are singing with our hearts. There is thoughtfulness and affection when the church sings to Christ. There is love and the joy of salvation in our hearts.
One major implication and application of this command is this. We are not to focus on outwardly things when we sing. The Pharisees are a perfect example here. The Pharisees focused on what they looked like on the outside. According to the eye-test, they were righteous and holy. But on the inside, in their hearts, they were not. When we sing to God, let us not be concerned about the outer appearance. Let us be concerned about our hearts.
There is a tendency to over-value what we see on the outside. We think that good singing and good worship includes things like closed hands, the lifting up of hands, and other bodily movements. Now, don’t get me wrong here. There’s nothing wrong with, for example, lifting up your hands during a song. You are free to do that if you want. But the concept becomes very wrong if we require it of ourselves or if we demand it from others. We are commanded to sing with our hearts. And that’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. So let us not try to evaluate or judge the quality of our songs by looking at what we see on the outside. Let us avoid the ease and the power of self-righteousness. Let us protect Christian freedom and leave the binding of the conscience to God and God alone. Just sing… with your hearts.
So there you have it. The content of our singing. The Christ of our singing. And the character of our singing. Today’s Scripture text has many implications and applications for our lives. I hope that today’s sermon has provided you with some thoughtful and valuable insight into our singing here at Highland as we wait for the return of Christ our King.