Congregational Singing

Congregational Singing: A History and Explanation of Congregational Singing



This evening we’re looking at congregational singing, and it really is to be congregational. That’s the keyword. This is something that everyone ought to be participating in. I want to start out with a historical point of view. The last section of this will be three different passages that give us different commands about how and why we should worship, but I want to start with answering the question: Why do we sing, and what have people sung for the 2000 years that Christianity has been around?

I want to present to you some people that have influenced Christian music throughout the millennia. Also, we need to recognize the past must be learned from and appreciated. Just as when pastor prepares his sermon, he looks commentaries written by old, dead guys; we also should be looking at music by old, dead guys. Because, they have something that is different and unique to their time period and something that we need to learn from and appreciate. I know that all of these men and women who have studied the Word and produced songs know far more about the Bible than I do, and I need to listen to what they have to say through song.

In Ecclesiastes 1:9 Solomon tells us, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” First of all, I want you to recognize the fact that the problems we face today in music (and there are a lot of them) and struggles that people have with music today are absolutely nothing new.

We’re going to start of with a gentlemen by the name of Socrates, and he’s not the philosopher Socrates, he was actually a lawyer and historian who lived in Constantinople from 380-450 AD. And this man, Socrates, had a lot to write about early Christianity. Socrates tells us this story about the fact that worship wars are nothing new. In fact, what we call worship wars today are rather mild compared to what they have been. He tells us this story about–this is happening in Constantinople. There was two groups of Christians. One group were the Arians, and the other group were following a preacher by the name of John. Now, the Arians didn’t believe in the Trinity. Instead of meeting in their local houses of worship, they got the bright idea that they would just parade around the city and sing hymns that kind of defaced the Trinity. In fact, he says in here some of their lyrics were, “Where are they that say three things are but one power?” So, they’re running about the town singing these hymns that are heretical–that have heresy all throughout them. So, John decides to counteract this, because he didn’t want the simpler of his flock to be caught up in this and to stray. He wanted to make sure that they knew what the truth was. So he appointed some people to go out into the town at the same time the Arians were, and these people are going to go out and sing songs about the Trinity; songs with good doctrine. So, we have these two groups of people running around Constantinople, singing hymns that are different, and they were arguing over which hymn was more correct to be singing in church and out in the town. Well, this conflict actually ended up turning into a riot, and the Arians, because they had more people John’s followers, they thought they could overtake them. And, the actually began to attack one another. These are brothers and sisters in Christ attacking one another in the streets. In fact, Briso, one of the Empress of Constantinople’s eunuchs, he was leading the singing at the time that this happened, and he was hit in the forehead with a stone. Socrates goes on to tell us that actually some people were killed in this conflict; that worship wars are really mild compared to what it once was just at the beginning of Christianity. What these people were fighting over was a hill worth dying on. A lot of times the things that we argue over are not, but this was something that people were actually willing to lose their lives over–the fact that they wanted to sing about the fact that we serve a God who is Trinity. 

We move on to a man, Jonathan Edwards. He’s been a really big impact to my life and growing as we’re studying one of his texts in Bible study on Tuesdays. Jonathan Edwards experienced some worship wars in his church. He lived from 1703 to 1758 in colonial America before the revolution even was a thing. Edwards had his church singing Psalms, and we’ll find out why they were doing that later on. His church was only singing Psalms, and he went away for a business trip, and when he went away the people decided they wanted to sing some songs of Isaac Watts. They wanted to sing some hymns; they were not Psalms. By the time that Edwards came back to the church, they’d completely replaced all of the Psalms with Isaac Watt’s hymns. Jonathan Edwards was fine with hymns. He said that was a very good thing and a very helpful thing, but he didn’t like the fact that they’d completely abandoned singing God’s Word. So, he reinstated just singing Psalms, and during the summers they would occasionally sing an Isaac Watts hymn. There was this gentlemen by the name of Mr. Root, and Mr. Root didn’t like the way that Jonathan Edwards was doing worship in their church. So, Jonathan Edwards writes this letter to Benjamin Colman in 1744, another pastor. He was trying to get another pastor’s advice on how he should address this situation. In this letter he says about Mr. Root, “he after a little while manifesting a disgust, not by coming to me to say anything to me, but turning his back on that part of our public worship from time to time and going out of the meeting house.” So, this man, Mr. Root, rather than just coming to the person in charge just didn’t participate, turned his back on that part of the service, and sometimes just left. This was a very bad attitude for Mr. Root to have, but it is one that is common in our churches today if we don’t enjoy or particularly like the kind of music that’s being done. We might have an inclination to do this same thing. I want you to recognize that these are issues and attitudes and problems that are prevalent throughout history of hymnody and psalmody. 

A part of the historical view is: it’s unfair to authors of the past to say that their writing can’t reflect the situations that we find ourselves in. A lot of times people have an attitude, “well, if someone wrote something 400 years ago, how could that possibly have an impact on my life?” Well, Malachi 3:6 tells us, “For I the Lord do not change.” God doesn’t change and our relation to Him has not really changed since the cross. People who have been Christians in the first century and in the twelfth century are the same; they’re experiencing the same things; they’re relating to the same God that we serve today. So, we need to recognize that those people and what they’re writing is relevant to our lives. That’s not a question of relevance. To demonstrate this, I want to talk about this man, his name is William Cowper. He lived from 1731-1800. He had a very, very hard life. He was actually a very famous poet in England. He was published. He was famous. He had it all, yet he struggled with something that many of our young people and many of our adults in American society struggle with today. That was suicide and depression. William Cowper tried to commit suicide countless times, and he struggled with these things that a lot of times we shy away from in Christianity. He felt hardships; he had a hard life. He wrote these things that can relate to us when we’re going through hard times the song I sang a few weeks ago, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way His Wonders to Perform.” 

Click Here to View the Video on William Cowper.

So, we see that a man who lived at the time of the genesis of our country, in fact, can influence us and should influence us. And the lyrics that he has written should be impressed on our hearts. 

The history of church music: I’ve tried to demonstrate why it’s very important that we understand where we’ve come from, so I’m just going to present a very brief overview of the history of church music. Of course, the earliest Christians sang Psalms and sang songs out of the Old Testament, because, in fact, most of them were Jewish. They would have been used to this, and they would have been raised in the synagogues singing Psalms and things like that. So, this is just what they would have sung. They would also have written some of their own compositions and things like that. As Latin began to replace Greek as the language of the church we began to see Latin hymnody. So, people were writing songs in Latin, and these songs developed into what we know now as the different masses of the Roman Catholic Church. They live on today through that means.

The reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), as he reformed from the Roman Catholic Church and as Lutheran churches began, they still had the Latin Mass, but he had a passion to see people not only be able to read God’s Word in their own language, which we know he was passionate about and translated the Bible into German so that his congregants could read the Bible for themselves, he was also passionate about making sure that his congregation’s flock could sing songs that were in their language–that they could understand what they were singing. So, he writes in a letter in 1523; he says, “Also I wish we had more songs in the vernacular for the people.” In the language of the people. He says, “but poets are missing among us or are not yet known who can produce devout and spiritual songs.” Martin Luther had this great desire that the people in his congregation would be able to sing songs not only with their hearts, but with minds. That they could know what they were saying; that they could understand the words that they were speaking. So, he began this amazing movement where people began to write many songs in German. In fact, a lot of the hymns that we have in our hymnals today are originally in German, and they’ve been translated mostly by Englishmen into English so that way we can sing these great hymns as well. 

So as that was going on, many people were writing beautiful hymns in German and even some in English at the time. This was a great and wonderful movement, and it progressed to a point and then it kind of slowed down and was stopped by a man by the name of John Calvin. There was a return to purely psalmody. People only sand Psalms after John Calvin for the majority. John Calvin had some great principles for music. The two biggest ones were: music must be simple and modest. Simplicity and modesty–those were his go-to things for music. He said it had to be simple enough for the lay people to sing it. It had to be accessible to them, because he had many musically untrained people in his congregation, and he knew that something terribly difficult musically they just wouldn’t be able to sing. He knew that congregational singing, again, is about “congregational.” It’s something that everyone should participate in. So, if he wanted to make it easy for his congregation to participate. And modest–this past few weeks I’ve been studying different aspects of astronomy. I’ve been looking at some different YouTube videos that have been explaining things. The universe that we live in is beautiful and amazing, astounding; it’s beyond what we can comprehend. God has created it, and it’s massive! It’s so mind blowing! It’s so much above us, and John Calvin knew that God the Creator, and there was no way that we could make something that would impress God. So, he said that we must not strive to try to make things that would be impressive to God. We should do things that are pleasing to Him–that are honoring to Him. We should be modest and try to strive after God and not making Him impressed with us. He lived from 1509 to 1564, and he has some amazing things to say. 

He wrote An Epistle to the Reader. It was something that he wrote to the different people who were in churches underneath his. There’s just many beautiful things in this. He says, “A song is just simply a prayer.” He says about prayers, “Some are made through simple words, others with singing.” It’s amazing that we get to sing a prayer, and John Calvin knew this. He said that “singing is the prayer that gives us a more vehement and ardent zeal.” We all know from experience how music can uplift us in a way that merely words cannot, and music has an incredible power to touch our soul–to play on our heart strings. He said that “we must be careful that the music that we’re singing in church isn’t light or vulgar,” is the two words he uses. What he’s getting at here is that we should sing things of substance. We should sing songs that have deep texts–texts that teach us, that instruct us. We shouldn’t be singing things that are simply fluffy or experiential. He knew that we needed to sing very meaningful songs that would activate our minds. He says, “Because of this, there may be a great difference between music that one makes for entertaining men at table and in their house and the Psalms which are sung in the church in the presence of God and His angels.” See, John Calvin recognized that if we’re going to make church music about God and make it important and deep, it’s probably going to be something that’s different from just entertaining music that we would have outside of the House of God. This is reasonable and acceptable and ok, because we ought to be singing something of spiritual substance when we are in church. It would be different from what would just be merely entertaining or amusing. He says, “Sing things that are holy and pure and simply ordered for the edification of the people in your congregation.” He says that when we sing these songs in church his hope is that this will become an incentive to us when we’re outside–“A means to praise God and raise our hearts to Him, to comfort us in meditating on His virtue, goodness, wisdom, and justice,” that as we sing songs here, in church, they ought to go out with us. And, we ought to be able to keep them in our hearts, and that’s the amazing thing about music–that it can get stuck in your head and carry along with it those beautiful words that make us focus and think about God. As we go out of this place, we would still be focused on heaven. He says about music, “There are two parts namely, the letter or subject or substance,” so the text of the song, “and secondly, the song or the melody,” the tune. “It is true that every evil word, as Saint Paul says, corrupts good morals, but when melody is with it, it stabs the heart much more strongly and enters within just as wine is poured inside a vessel through a funnel, so poison and corruption is distilled down to the depths of the heart through melody.” See, John Calvin recognized that, because music has this amazing ability to stick with us, so do the words that we put with it. We must be so cautious as we put words with music, because it will go to our hearts. If we listen to music that has words that are not of God and words that are sinful, then they will stick with us just as the songs that we sing here stick with us. So, we have to be careful that as we sing songs, especially in church, that they are full of good, spiritual doctrine and truth and not anything heretical. As I’ve mentioned, John Calvin believed in only singing Psalms, and he mentions this in part of this letter. He says, “Now what St. Augustine says is true, that no one can sing things worthy of God except what he may have received from him.” See, John Calvin believed that if we are going to sing something to God, then we should sing something that God has already given to us, which would be found in the Scripture. He takes that statement to say that we should only sing Psalms–we should only sing things that are written in Scripture, where another wider interpretation of that, which is one I would hold, is that we should sing songs that are based on Scripture. Sing songs that are filled with Scriptural truth, but we shouldn’t sing songs that are not filled with Scriptural truth in a congregational worship setting. He also gives us these principles to remind us that congregational singing is not performance, because it absolutely never should be. It should always be participatory, and it should be designed to encourage everyone to sing. 

So after this return to Psalmody, there was again a return to hymns of human composure. This is, in fact, the era that we are still living in. This was started by men like Newton and Isaac Watts and different people like that. Isaac Watts is the one we’re going to focus on. He lived from 1674-1748, and Isaac Watts has written countless hymns that we sing today. He’s a great influence, and if you remember, these are the hymns that Jonathan Edwards’s church would have been singing. He writes us in a preface to a hymnal that he wrote and compiled. It was Hymns and Spiritual Songs published in 1707. Again, this is before the American Revolution. He had a problem with Psalmody only, because he noticed that the Psalms of the Old Testament are just that–the Psalms of the Old Testament–and we, if fact, live in the New Testament era. So, these songs had these lyrics that just didn’t match with a New Testament view of life. Things like David was saying that he wanted God to smite his enemies, and things like that. Where, in the New Testament era, we’re living in a new covenant of forgiveness. We ought to be loving our enemies, and Christ tells us to forgive those and pray for those who persecute us. So, these things just don’t quite line up, because the Psalms were written for Jews to sing. Yes we ought to sing them, but we ought to sing them with a different kind of understanding than they sang them with. He spent a large portion of his time not only translating these Psalms into English, but even putting Christ and mentioning redemption in the Psalms, so we can celebrate them as Christians. So, he’s looking out onto his congregation–I should mention that most of these sources are from pastors. They had a heart for their congregation, and they wanted to see their congregation fed; they wanted to see them grow through music. So, music was important to a pastor, because that is what was feeding his sheep–a part of what was feeding his sheep. So, many of these men are pastors who were very concerned about what kind of music their congregants are going to be singing. So, as Isaac Watts looks out onto his congregation Sunday morning, he sees this. He describes it; he says, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of the whole assembly while the Psalm is on their lips, might tempt even a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of inward religion, and tis much to be feared that the minds of the most of the worshipers are absent and unconcerned.” Isaac Watts was afraid of what he saw when he looked at his congregation, because he saw people not thinking about what they were saying, and if they were, it was kind of uneasy because of these dichotomies between Old and New Testament. So, he was concerned that the people weren’t singing with fervency. He said even an outsider might look at this and wonder, “Why are you even here? Why are you even singing these songs if they don’t mean anything to you?” So, he recognizes that the root of this problem in this particular time period was, if fact, that they were singing Psalms of the Old Testament, and he puts it beautifully. He says, “Thus by keeping too close to David in the House of God, the veil of Moses is thrown over our hearts.” The fact that it’s like we’re still living in the Old Testament, but we have Christ, we have redemption, we have forgiveness. We ought to be celebrating that. So, Isaac Watts begins this campaign to write songs of human composure–new songs that we can sing about Christ and forgiveness and redemption and sanctification. He addresses the people who would be on Calvin’s side of the pew. He says, “Hymns of human composure suited to the clear revelations of the New Testament are encouraged by the Word of God and almost necessary for Christian churches.” He’s saying its almost completely necessary that we write these songs so that we can celebrate Christ. He reminds us that our worship should be Christo-centric. It should be about Christ, and it shouldn’t be able to be confused with another religion. What we sing in church ought to be distinctly Christian, distinctly protestant even, because we believe that Christ has come and paid for our sins, and we’re forgiven through grace, through faith alone. That is something different from what other religions would teach. So, we must be singing songs that would be distinct to us, so that way we wouldn’t be confused with a Jew or Roman Catholic. We must be singing songs that are distinct to us. 

Isaac Watts influenced that, and a man came later; his name is John Wesley. John Wesley is a great evangelist. His brother Charles and he started many different evangelical movements. In fact, they came to Maryland and started one in the states here. Charles Wesley, you might know that name, he has written countless hymns as well–amazing, beautiful hymns that we still sing today. Well, John Wesley, Charles’s brother, he was, again, a pastor. He instructed his congregation with these five points. He lived 1703-1791. He says these are the five things that I want you to do while you’re singing. This comes from “Directions for Congregational Singing” which was a section of Sacred Melody, again another hymnal which was produced in 1761. He says, “This part of divine worship may be more acceptable to God, as well as more profitable to yourself and others, be careful to observe the following directions.” So, he’s saying so that this singing might be “more acceptable to God” and “more profitable”–that it would be worth while for you–do these things. Number one, “Sing all.  See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.  Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you.  If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find a blessing.” John Wesley knew that although sometimes, yes, congregational singing is challenging and hard, and we might be sick and weary, but he says, “if it’s a cross, take it up, and you will find a blessing.” It is an incredible blessing to worship with each other. Number two, “Sing lustily,” or sing with energy, “and with a good courage.  Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.  Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.” He’s saying just like young people sing these pop songs, these anthems, they just belt it out. He said that’s how you ought to be singing. You ought to be just praising God! And, we have so much to celebrate. We ought to be boisterously praising the Lord. But he counters that with number three, “Sing modestly.  Do not bawl, so as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.” He’s recognizing the fact that we ought to be doing this as a whole. This ought to be a unifying thing that we are doing, and it brings us all together for one purpose. The Body of Christ ought to be unified, and singing is a beautiful picture of the unity of the Body of Christ. Number four, he says, “Sing in time.  Whatever time is being sung, be sure to keep with it.  Do not run before, nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can.  And take care you sing not too slow.  This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quickly as we did at first.” He wants to return to this time where people were singing with energy and “lustily” as he says. And, number five, “Above all, sing spiritually.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing; and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds.” We ought to be singing every word with our mind activated–our mind thinking about what we’re singing. We’re going to get into that a little bit later. 

I want to just stop and make one point that he mentions there at the end. Please don’t be carried away with the music. Just as John Calvin referenced, it’s very easy for a beautiful melody to be paired with very lacking lyrics, and we think, “This is an amazing song!” When really, if you just took the lyrics by themselves, it’s not that much substance. So, we have to be careful not to be carried away with music, because it is very, very easy to do so. In fact, this has been a struggle for musicians and pastors throughout history. Huldreich Zwingli who lived in 1484-1531 again, another great reformer. Out of the three reformers we’ve talked about today–Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli–Zwingli was by far the most musically talented. He was an incredible musician, yet in Zwingli’s church there was no music at all. None, because he knew this power of music, and also he believed that since Christ tells us to pray in our closets, to pray in secret, that, since singing is a kind of prayer, we ought to do the same. So, Zwingli was very, very cautious about music in his church, and we ought to be mindful of that, because music can carry us away quite easily. 

So, I would like to get into some Scripture and see: What does the Bible have to say about music? You know, the Bible gives us a lot of commands about music. It gives us a lot of guidelines. It’s not a kind of “open for debate” subject. The first passage we’re going to look at is Colossians 3:14-17. This is the go-to passage most of the time for anyone looking into church music, and it’s actually paralleled by a passage in Ephesians. I’ve done word studies on both, and the four words that we’re going to look at tonight are the same in both passages. Colossians 3:14-17 tells us, “And above all [...] put on love which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” So, first of all, above all, put on love. That’s how he begins this section of Scripture. Before anything else, put on love. Before your personal preferences, before your desires, before your weaknesses, put on love. As we’re singing congregationally, we ought to have a mindset of love, not only toward God and what He’s done for us, but also to the people around us. As we are singing congregationally, you’re actually speaking to one another, believe it or not. You’re telling the person beside you what you know to be true about God and His redeeming plan. So, you should be having a spirit of love toward that person beside you Wether they’re much older than you or much younger than you, whether they’re different from you or you’ve never met them before in your life, you’re singing to them; you’re talking to them about God. And you ought to be loving them, because they’re a brother or sister in Christ. So, before anything else that we deal with in music, love ought to define everything that we do.

He moves on and he says, “be thankful.” Thankfulness ought to describe our music as well. We ought to be express our thanks and gratitude for what Christ has done for us. He also says, “teach and admonish.” Songs are actually a way to teach one another, and that what the purpose of them, according to this passage, is–that we’re actually telling one another what we know to be true about God. And, if you learn something from a song that we sing, that’s exactly what supposed to happen. This is a teaching experience. You’re supposed to be learning and reminding yourself about God, and even being built up and sometimes being convicted through song. And also, it must be based in Christ’s Word. He says, “let the word of Christ dwell in your richly.” Our songs have to be based in Scripture. They have to be about the truths of scripture, and come from what God’s Word is telling us. Lastly, it must be in Christ’s name. Again, this is a Christian organization. This is a group of people who ascribe to follow Christ. We ought to be demonstrating that with our music–that without a shadow of a doubt, we are Christians. Most of this information came from a class I took called hymnology, and we spent a large portion of that class analyzing songs of contemporary Christian music of 2014. In fact, it was what Worship Magazine called the top 20 songs, and probably one of the biggest problems with many of these songs is that I didn’t know who was singing about. I didn’t know who I was singing to. God, Christ, Lord, Savior was never mentioned. It could have been a song that I could sing to my girlfriend; however, when I brought that up, my professor said, “Well, if I tried to sing that to my wife, she wouldn’t be very impressed.” Because, the songs were empty of who God is. They were kind of to God, but they weren’t about what He’s done. They weren’t about His nature. He said, “If I was going to sing a song to my wife, she would want to know the things that I like about her. She would want to hear the things that make me love her.” In the same way, God wants to hear us sing about the things that make us love Him. He wants to hear us sing about the things that He’s revealed about Himself in His Word. 

So the often debated words here are Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Now, Calvin would say that Psalms is the overarching category and spiritual songs and hymns are subcategories of that, and that’s how we ought to address this. But, if you look at the words, that’s not quite what’s revealed. Psalms, of course, would just simply mean the songs of the Old Testament. This could include the song that Miriam and Moses sang after crossing the Red Sea, songs that Deborah sang, any song in the Old Testament. The Greek word actually originated from the word “to touch” which then developed into the idea that you would touch a harp, a stringed instrument, and that you would sing a song with that. Eventually, it developed into the idea that you sing a Psalm, a piece of Scripture. The other word is hymns. Which is simply a song of praise to God. I know that in today’s society “hymn” means something different than what this word actually means, because we refer to hymns as old songs that we sing in church. But, that’s not actually what this word means. This word means simply a song of praise to God. I could write a song of praise to God, and we could sing it, and it would be, in fact, a hymn. The first song that we sang this evening was by Lincoln Brewster and Brenton Brown who were born in the 70s and the 80s, and they wrote a hymn. Even if you tried to define it as a song that’s in the hymnal, well Twila Paris and Bill Gaither are also in the hymnal, and they are definitely not old, dead people. So, if we want to really understand what this word meant to the people that Paul’s writing to, one of the early sources that we can go back to (and is, in fact, the earliest source that we will look at tonight) is one by Saint Augustine. Augustine of Hippo, and he lived from 354-430. He’s a very old, dead guy, and he tells us in a commentary on Psalms, he says, “Hymns are praises of God with singing: hymns are songs containing the praise of God.” He likes to repeat himself. “If there is praise, but not of God, it is not a hymn; if there is praise, and praise of God, but no singing, it is not hymn. Therefore, if it is a hymn, it will properly have these three things: not only praise, but of God, and singing.” This widens the categories of songs that we can sing immensely. We can sing songs that praise God. It’s a beautiful category that we have, and the last one is very similar to it. It is spiritual songs. The word for spiritual would mean pertaining to the Holy Spirit–songs that are inspired by the Holy Spirit. As we read God’s Word as song writers, we read God’s Word, the Spirit teaches us things about God. He reveals things to us about God’s Word and about Christ’s work. And then, we might right a song about it and sing it. The word song, and hymn actually developed from this too. The Greek words were originally used as a song of honor or admiration to a person, maybe a great war hero. As he would come back from war, the people would gather around and sing this song of praise or honor to this war hero. Eventually, it became songs that people would sing to idols in the temples. So, when Paul writes this, he knows that’s the kind of context these people are working with. This is a song of honor or praise to a deity. Specifically, he defines it with a spiritual song–a song that is inspired by the Holy Spirit.

So as we move on to our second passage of Scripture, this is found in 1 Corinthians 14:13-19. This is actually a passage talking about speaking in tongues, and because I’m intern and not very learned, I’m not going to address that, but instead we’re going to address the portion of this Scripture that talks about singing. That actually, he’s applying most of the same principles that he was applying to speaking in tongues to singing. So Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, he says, “Therefore one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also. Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say, ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up. I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words with a tongue.” Paul is reminding us that we must first of all be thankful, again he mentions it. But also, we must have a head and a heart activated as we’re singing songs. Jonathan Edwards actually, after witnessing great revival movements in the country, and then people subsiding from that and falling away, was confused as to what was going on. What was happening as these people’s affections were raised so high, and yet later on it seems that it meant nothing to them. He was realizing that just stirring up affections in us is dangerous, and is in fact not a good idea. But, in fact, we should be activating our minds and that is what should fuel our hearts. That, the more we think and know about God, the more our hearts can be raised, the more our affections can be activated in praise to God. I could speak on this for a little bit, but it wouldn’t be as clear as this man here, Alistair Begg puts it in a video that we’re about to show you. He was born in 1952, so he’s one of our contemporaries.

Click here to watch the video of Alistair Begg.

The last Scripture that I want to look at is a Psalm, Psalm 98, and the Psalms give us many, many instructions on how we ought to be worshipping and singing to God. In this particular Psalm, we’re just going to look at a few verses, it says, “Oh sing to Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things! His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. The Lord has made known his salvation; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!” So this gives us several different principles that we can draw out of this. First of all, we’re supposed to worship Him because of what He’s done. It says, “Sing to the Lord a new song for he has done marvelous things!” Our songs ought to be responses to the workings God. Also, we’re aloud to worship Him with incredibly many instruments. In fact, as you look throughout the Psalms, every single branch of instruments are mentioned: percussion, woodwinds, brass, strings, but most importantly, voices. We ought to be singing to God, and again, I want you to walk out of here with just one word in your mind: congregational. Congregational singing is singing that everyone participates in–that this is a group effort. Also, it tells us to rejoice. Our walk with Christ, and especially our songs ought to be defined by rejoicing, by joy. I’d like to say, we ought to be as Christians the most joyful people in the room, because we have the most to be joyful about. We’ve been given salvation. We’ve been set free from the bonds of sin, from our death sentence to Hell. We have been redeemed to live with God for eternity, and that ought to make us praise and rejoice in Him like no other person on the planet could. 

Quoted Material:

Socrates (380-450) Constantinopolitan lawyer and historian

The Arians, as we have said, held their meetings without the city.  As often therefore as the festal days occurred--I mean Saturday and the Lord’s day--in each week, on which assemblies are usually held in the churches, they congregated within the city gates about the public squares, and sang responsive verses adapted to the Arian heresy.[...] But since they did not desist from making use of insulting expressions in relation to the Homoousians, often singing such words as these: “Where are they that say three things are but one power?”--John fearing lest any of the more simple should be drawn away from the church by such kind of hymns opposed to them some of his own people, that they also employing themselves in chanting nocturnal hymns, might obscure the effort of the Arians, and confirm his own party in the profession of their faith.  John’s design seemed to be good, but it issued tumult and dangers. [...] the Arians who were very numerous, and fired with envy, resolved to revenge themselves by a desperate and riotous attack upon their rivals.  For from the remembrance of their own recent domination, they were full of confidence in their ability to overcome, and of contempt for their adversaries.  Without delay therefore, on one of these nights, they engaged in a conflict; and Briso, one of the eunuchs of the empress, who was at that time leading the chanters of these hymns, was wounded by a stone in the forehead, and also some of the people on both sides were killed.

Jonathan Edwards

A letter to Benjamin Colman 1744

REV’D & Honoured Sir,--It has been our manner in this congregation, for more than two years past, in the summer time, when we sing three times upon the Sabbath, to sing an Hymn, or part of a Hymn of Dr. Watts’s, the last time, at the conclusion of the afternoon exercise.  I introduced it principally because I saw in the people a very general inclination to it: indeed I was not properly he that introduced it: they began it in my absence on a journey; and seem’d to be greatly pleased with it; and sang nothing else, & neglected the Psalms wholly.  When I came home I disliked not their making some use of the Hymns: but did not like their setting aside the Psalms; and therefore used them principally, and continued the singing of the Hymns only in the manner that I have spoken of, and thus we continued to use them: which at first I suppose, was to universal satisfaction: and [so] it continued to be till very lately, excepting one [m]an, one Mr Root; he after a little while manifest[ing] a disgust, not by coming to me to say anything [to] me, but by turning his back on that part of [our] publick worship from time to time, and [going] out of the meeting House.  There was no appearance of dislike in any other person that I know of, ‘till lately I have heard some other persons have appear’d not well pleased[.]

Martin Luther

Formula Missae et Communionis (1523)

Also, I wish we had more songs in the vernacular for the people to sing during mass, either immediately after the gradual of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei.  For who doubts that once the voices of all the people did this, which now only the choir sings or responds to the blessings of the bishop?  In fact, the bishops may arrange these songs thus, either after the Latin songs, or alternately in Latin on one day and sung in the vernacular on another, until the whole mass is brought out in the vernacular.  But poets are missing among us, or are not yet known, who can produce devout and spiritual songs (as Paul calls them) [Colossians 3:16] [.]

John Calvin

“Epistle to the Reader” from Cinquante Pseaumes en francois par Clem. Marot (1543)

As for public prayers, there are two kinds.  Some are made through simple words, others with singing.  And in truth, we know through experience that song has great power and strength to move and inflame the heart of men to invoke and praise God with a more vehement and ardent zeal.  It is always necessary to give heed that the song may not be light and vulgar, but may have majesty, as Saint Augustine says.  And thus there may be great difference between the music that one makes for entertaining men at table and in their house, and the psalms which are sung in the Church in the presence of God and his angels.  Now when one would judge rightly of the form that is here presented we hope that it shall be found holy and pure, seeing that it is simply ordered for the edification of which we have spoken, no matter how far the use of singing extends itself.  Even in houses and fields this may be an incentive to us and a means to praise God and raise our hearts to Him, to comfort us in meditating on His virtue, goodness, wisdom and justice. [...] But in speaking now of Music I include two parts, namely the letter or subject and substance, secondly the song or melody.  It is true that every evil word (as Saint Paul says) corrupts good morals, but when melody is with it, this stabs the heart much more strongly and enters within.  Just as wine is poured inside a vessel through a funnel, so poison and corruption is distilled down to the depths of the heart through the melody.

Now what St. Augustine says is true, that no one can sing things worthy of God, except what he may have received from Him: when we shall have moved all around to search here and there, we shall find no better nor more proper songs to do this than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit has spoken and made through him.

Isaac Watts

Preface to Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707)

To see the dull Indifference, the negligent and thoughtless Air that sits upon the Faces of a whole Assemble, while the Psalm is on their Lips, might tempt even a charitable Observer to suspect the Fervency of inward Religion; and ‘tis much to be fear[e]d that the Minds of most of the Worshippers are absent or unconcern[e]d.  [...] But of all our Religious Solemnities Psalmodie is the most unhappily manag[e]d.  That very Action which should elevate us to the most delightful and divine Sensations, doth not only flat our Devotion, but too often awakens our Regret and touches all the Springs of Uneasiness within us.

I have been long convinc[e]d, that one great Occasion of this Evil arises from the Matter and Words to which we confine all our Songs.  Some of [th]em are almost opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel: Many off them are foreign to the State of the New-Testament, and widely different from the present Circumstances of Christians.  Hence it comes to pass, that when spiritual Affections are excited within us, and our Souls are raised a little above this Earth in the beginning of a Psalm, we are check[e]d on a sudden in our Ascent toward Heaven by some Expressions that are more suited to the Days of Carnal Ordinances, [...] Thus by keeping too close to David in the House of God, the Vail of Moses is thrown over our Hearts. [...]

Since there are some Christians who are not yet perswaded that it is lawful to sing any thing in Divine Worship, but a meer Version of some part of the Word of God, I have subjoyned a Discourse for the satisfaction of their Consciences; wherein I indeavour to prove, that the Duty of Singing under the Gospel is not confin[e]d to the Jewish Psalms, or any other Scriptural Songs; but that Hymns of human Composure suited to the clearer Revelations of the New Testament are incouraged by the Word of God, and almost necessary for Christian Churches, that desire to worship Christ in the Beauty of Holiness, and praise him for the Wonders of redeeming Grace.

John Wesley 

“Directions for Congregational Singing” from Sacred Melody (1761)

This part of divine worship may be more acceptable to God, as well as more profitable to yourself and others, be careful to observe the following directions: ―

1. Sing all.  See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.  Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you.  If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find a blessing.

2. Sing lustily, and with a good courage.  Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.  Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.

3. Sing modestly.  Do not bawl, so as to be heard above, or distinct from, the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.

4. Sing in time.  Whatever time is being sung, be sure to keep with it.  Do not run before, nor stay behind it; but attend closely to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can.  And take care you sing not too slow.  This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from among us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.

5. Above all, sing spiritually.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature.  In order to this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing; and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.