Congregational Singing: How (Part 1)
Series: Come, Let Us Sing
As we continue our series on congregational singing, this week we come to the question of with what attitude we should sing.
Hebrews (Word Biblical Commentary), William Lane
An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, John Owen
This morning we’re on week 3 of 4 in our series on congregational singing. We’ve looked at questions like “What should we sing?” “Why should we sing?” “Who should sing?” and “From where does our singing come?” This week and next week I want to look at the question of “How should we sing?” In what spirit, what mindset, what attitude should we sing? One attitude in singing that is common in our world today can be observed in the works of the band Blink 182. In one of their biggest hits, “What’s my Age Again?” one can even get a feel for the song through the lyrics, with stories of watching TV and prank phone calls, and which includes a line saying, “No one should take themselves so seriously.” The song conveys a sense that life should be fun and casual, and those who are serious are just killjoys. Is that the spirit in which we should approach God, though, as we sing to him? Certainly we can affirm the sentiment that we should not take ourselves too seriously, but are there some things in life worth taking seriously? Certainly we can also affirm the simple pleasure of time to relax and enjoy casual pastimes. But is that what the hour or two we spend together in gathered worship is meant to be like? In this passage we’ll see that there are some things worth taking seriously, and that the time we spend together in worship of God is not a time that ought to be casual and lighthearted. How are we, rather, to sing to God according to this text? Sing to God with reverence and awe, and we’ll see three reasons to do so: God’s judgment matters, God’s kingdom matters, and God matters.
God’s judgment matters
Our text begins with a warning: “See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.” Him who is speaking is God, although there is a special emphasis in Hebrews on God speaking in his Son. In other words, the content of God’s speech is focused on the work of God the Son. He has taken on human flesh, he was tempted in every way, yet without sin, by the single offering of himself on the cross he offered a sacrifice sufficient to atone for all the sins of whoever would believe in him, he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to present that sacrifice to God, he always lives to intercede for us, and he will come again, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. Elsewhere the Bible simply calls this the gospel, the good news. Now that God the Son has accomplished these things, the message God is speaking is the gospel concerning the Son. God is speaking good news! All the sacrifice your sins require has been offered. You don’t need to be punished for them, because Jesus was already punished for them. He lives now, not to condemn you, but to intercede for you! He’s praying for you against your remaining sin, not against you because of your remaining sin. He’s coming again, not to judge you, but to save you. Good news, right? Glorious news, right?
Right. And, therefore, see that you do not refuse him who is speaking it. The original audience of this letter was tempted to refuse the one speaking and instead return to the Judaism out of which they had been saved. Today we face all sorts of temptations to refuse him who is speaking. We may refuse him who is speaking by never professing faith in Christ at all. For some it’s just a bridge too far to acknowledge the existence of a God to whom they are accountable, to acknowledge that they are not merely imperfect, but wicked, and to set all their hopes for the future on what someone else who they’ve never seen did for them 2000 years ago. More to the point of this text, though, we may refuse him who is calling after professing faith because we begin to think that life apart from Christ wasn’t so bad after all. The people around us sure seem to be doing fine with it, and sometimes it looks like they may even be happier than we are. It can seem appealing to live as though there is no judgment that matters, no kingdom that matters, and ultimately, no God who matters. See that you do not give into such temptations though. Why?
The reason given in verse 25 is that if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we refuse him who warns from heaven. The event referred to here is the giving of the law. When God first gave the law to Israel, summarized in the Ten Commandments, he did so on earth, at Mt. Sinai. At that event, he warned the people that if any of them touch the mountain on which he was descending to speak, they would be put to death. In the law he gave, there were various warnings. In the second commandment, God told them they should not make for themselves a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. He said they shall not bow down to them or serve them, for “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Ex 20:5). “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Ex 20:7). So you see that? God gave a command, and God gave a warning: If you break this command, I will not hold you guiltless.
And, sure enough, when the people broke the command, they did not escape. Shortly after God appeared in fire on Mt. Sinai and gave this law, the people made a golden calf, bowed down to it, and worshiped it. They even called it a feast to the LORD, taking his name in vain (Ex 32:5). After they did, we read that the anger of the LORD burned hot against them (Ex 32:10), three thousand of them were killed (Ex 32:28), those who engaged in the sin were blotted out of God’s book of life (Ex 32:33), and the LORD sent a plague on the people (Ex 32:35). Suffice it to say, they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth.
Now at this point many evangelicals today, including myself at times, might assume that the next thing the text would say would be something like, “But it’s ok; you will escape if you refuse him who calls, because Christ already died for your sins.” But among the many beauties of having printed Bibles in our language is that we have the words of God right in front of us, and that’s not what they say. Instead, the words say if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we refuse him who warns from heaven. They didn’t escape, and back then God was just warning them on earth, from Mt. Sinai. But now that Christ has ascended into heaven, God is speaking to us in his Son from heaven! In the passage just before this one, we read even that we have not come to Mt. Sinai on earth, but to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. How much less, then, will we escape the judgment of God if we refuse him?
Verse 26 goes on to remind us that at that time his voice shook the earth. When God came down and spoke on earth at Mt. Sinai, scripture tells us the earth itself trembled, along with the people (Ex 19:16-18). And again, maybe you think “Well I’m glad God doesn’t do that anymore,” but then the texts tells us that now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but the heavens.” In other words, God is like, “Oh you thought that was bad? You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Thankfully, the author interprets that promise for us in verse 27. He says this shaking that God now promises indicates the removal of the things that can be shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. This shaking of all that has been made was inaugurated in Christ’s first coming, and will be consummated at his second coming.
It was inaugurated at his first coming. With his birth, we begin to see signs that the heavens are being shaken. A unique star appeared in the sky. An angel came from the heavens to announce it. At his baptism, the Spirit descended from the heavens like a dove, and a voice came from heaven declaring him to be God’s beloved Son. At his crucifixion, the sky was dark for three hours. After his resurrection, he ascended into heaven in his body, the first human to ever do so. Shortly thereafter, on the day of Pentecost, they came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and divided tongues as of fire appeared (Acts 2:2-3). 70 years later, the temple made with hands was destroyed by the Romans. 340 years after that, Rome, the great city of the Roman Empire, was destroyed. Just over 1000 years later, the last remnants of the mighty Roman Empire were defeated. Since then, God has continued to shake the things that are made, in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. And the day is coming, at the return of Christ, when this whole creation as we know it will be shaken, and only what cannot be shaken will remain. And if at Sinai, they did not escape who refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape in that day if we refuse him who warns from heaven.
The law commanded and threatened, but held out no forgiveness. It makes sense, then, that those who refused the warning did not escape. In the gospel, we hear the offer of full forgiveness for all our sins. Yet how much less will we escape if we refuse the offer? How much less will we escape if we never accept the offer at all, or if, after having professed an acceptance of it, we leave it behind and go on living like the world, or even renounce that profession altogether? You say, “But I believe in once saved, always saved!” If what you mean by that is, “Those God saves, he also keeps,” that’s exactly right. AND the way God keeps them is by giving them warnings like this! But if what you mean by that is, “As long as I prayed a prayer once to ask Jesus into my heart, as long as I raised my hand, or walked an aisle once, I can stop worrying about all that scary talk of judgment and just go live a care-free life,” this passage stands as a witness against you. The shaking of all things has begun. There is a coming judgment, and it matters even more than the judgment at Sinai. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.
There is a kind of allure to living as though nothing matters, but it shows its emptiness when you encounter things in life that you cannot deny really do matter. One common example is when you come across real, bona fide, evil, that you cannot deny, not only when you hear of it on the news, but when you are a victim. When that happens, you can’t go on living like life is one big joke. It calls your bluff. Even Blink 182 had “Adam’s Song,” a serious departure from their norm. And when those things hit, you realize a world with no coming judgment isn’t actually preferable to a world with one. When you really get a sense of the evil of the world, you hope it will one day be shaken. It will be, and the only way to escape the judgment in that day is to not refuse the one who is speaking, because he speaks of a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and he has provided a way for sinners like you and me to enter it. Let’s talk about that next. His judgment matters, and his kingdom matters.
God’s kingdom matters
So verse 28, reflecting on God’s judgment, whereby he shakes everything that can be shaken, then calls us to be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus, or in this way, let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe. The word there for “grateful” is closely associated with joy in the Bible. The idea is that we should be glad, we should rejoice, because while everything will be shaken, the kingdom we are receiving cannot be shaken! Israel, with its temple made with hands, its animal sacrifices, its merely human priests, its capital city on earth in Jerusalem, could be shaken, and ultimately was shaken by God. But if you are in Christ today, if you are not refusing him who speaks, you have come to a heavenly assembly, your capital city is the heavenly Jerusalem, one pure sacrifice has already been offered for you that perfects you for all time, your priest is no mere human, but the Son of God himself, without beginning, and who lives forever now to intercede for you. Your priest is also the king of this kingdom, who has already overcome even death itself, and been seated above every rule and authority in heaven and on earth. What could possibly shake this kingdom? Jesus himself has promised to build his church, and said that not even the gates of hell would prevail against it (Matt 16:18).
Though the Jewish leadership persecuted Christians, when their temple was destroyed in AD 70, the church continued to multiply and grow. Though Rome persecuted Christians, when Rome fell in AD 410, the church stood. Particular churches come and go, but the kingdom of God they represent always remains, and makes itself visible again in visible churches. When your job is shaken, God’s kingdom remains. When your health is shaken, God’s kingdom remains. When your family is shaken, God’s kingdom remains. When your house is shaken, God’s kingdom remains. When your bank account is shaken, God’s kingdom remains. When your earthly nation is shaken, God’s kingdom remains. And I intentionally use the word “when,” not “if,” because God has promised, and God never breaks a promise, that everything that can be shaken, will be, so that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, let us be grateful, let us rejoice, for we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
And it cannot be shaken precisely because it is not something we build, not something we make, but something we receive. In the gospel, God does the work, and our part is not to refuse, but to receive, and to respond with gratitude, a gratitude through which we offer to God acceptable worship. This is one of the big questions over this whole series of sermons, right? How do we worship God acceptably? It a question every religion must answer. In Islam, worshipers come together to worship their god by ceremonial washings, readings from the Quran, prayers, and alternating prostrations of their bodies. In Buddhism, worshipers may prostrate themselves toward a statue. In the Judaism of the Bible, which God instituted, worshipers were forbidden from prostrating themselves before a statute. Instead, the priest really did the work of worship on behalf of the people by sacrificing animals while the temple singers gave thanks to God in song. But now that the perfect sacrifice of Christ has been offered, all God’s people are called to worship: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship,” and the animal sacrifice has been replaced with the sacrifice of praise, of thanksgiving, for the sacrifice of Christ that was already offered on our behalf, and the kingdom we have received.
So notice again that the Bible’s answer to the question for Christians of how God is to be worshiped is not, “however you want.” We are to offer to God acceptable worship, which implies there is a way to offer to God unacceptable worship. After the sacrifice of Christ, to offer to God an animal sacrifice would be an example of unacceptable worship. To refuse to give thanks to God would be an example of unacceptable worship. To go through the motions of worship, only to go on in willful disobedience to what God commands, is another example throughout the Bible of unacceptable worship. Gathered worship is meant to produce a life of worship. And I would remind you that gathered worship refers to everything we do when we gather, from the call to worship to the benediction. The entire worship gathering is meant to be an act of gratitude to God, and singing together is simply a part of that. As we saw in 1 Chronicles 16, the first passage we looked at in this series, God has appointed that thanksgiving should be sung to him.
So, we could repeat again from this passage the lesson we saw there: What we sing should be thanksgiving to God. It should tell of what God has done, for which we are thankful. We can note again that the singing is directed to God, as here we offer to God acceptable worship, not first and foremost to potential visitors. But we have covered those things in some detail. This week and next week we’re starting to look at how we should sing, and that’s where our text takes us next. It characterizes acceptable worship not only as being grateful, but as being grateful in a certain way, which it describes as “with reverence and awe.”
So how should we sing to God? With reverence and awe. Reverence means something like caution. When we are dealing with something very valuable, we typically sense that we ought to treat it with reverence. We don’t store it just anywhere, we don’t handle it in just any way. There are actually companies that exist to transport art safely. It involves customized packing, climate control, secure packaging, security measures, insurance, documentation, inventory, and so on. There’s a level of care and intentionality to it that communicates: This thing matters. We also exercise such a care and intentionality when dealing with something powerful. Recently I was in the basement of this building and saw the source of the electrical power. On it were a bunch of large “Caution!” signs. Why? Under the caution sign it said, “high voltage!” In other words, this is powerful, and so you must approach it in a certain way. That kind of caution, care, and intentionality are what the Bible calls “reverence,” and we see here that’s the spirit in which our worship to God is acceptable. We should sing to God with reverence, meaning care, intentionality, and even caution. We should also worship him with awe. Awe represents a similar concept, though it carries more of a connotation of fear. In other writings of the period, it is even contrasted with joy and gladness, thought that’s not exactly what’s happening here. Nonetheless, this text is showing us that all our worship, including our singing, should be directed to God with respect, care, intentionality, caution, and fear.
If before you came to church today someone had asked you how you think you should sing in a church service, would those have been some of the words you’d have used to describe it? It’s common for Christians in America today to assume that such seriousness in the worship of God was maybe appropriate for the Old Testament, but surely under the New Testament there’s grace, and we’re “free” now to kind of let our hair down and approach God more casually. We’re buddies now, after all, right? But notice that this text is in our New Testaments. It was written after Christ died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, and still, perhaps even more so, the worship that is acceptable to God is that which is offered to him with reverence and awe. Our goal in worship, then, is not simply to “have fun”. Our goal is certainly not to entertain. Our goal is to offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe. As we’ve seen with the other weeks of this series, that affects not only the songs we sing, but how we sing them, the arrangements and all, because some songs and arrangements tend to promote reverence and awe, while others do not, and we want to sing those that do.
With that let me add a brief caveat before we move on. This does not mean our singing should be somber. I mentioned that the word for awe there could be contrasted with joy and gladness in the literature of the day, but here it is not. Remember that the command in verse 28 is to be grateful, and sincere gratitude is joyful gratitude. Our worship should not be somber, but it should be sober. The removal of that one “m” in the middle of the word makes all the difference. Our worship should be characterized by what John Piper has called “serious joy”. Here’s how the hymn writer John Newton put it: “Vain indeed the worldling’s treasure, all his boasted pomp and show; solid joys, and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know.” His point is that there is a kind of cheap treasure, boasted pomp and show, what many today would call “entertainment” or “fun”, but solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know. Solid joys, that’s what we’re seeking to cultivate in our singing. I’ll say more about the joy side of that next week, but for now notice that comes with reverence and awe, finally, because the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New Testament. The God whose voice then shook the earth is the same as the God who now promises to shake both earth and heaven, and so the reason given for this reverence and awe in our text comes in verse 29: For our God is a consuming fire. Sing to God with reference and awe finally, because not only does his judgment matter, not only does his kingdom matter…he matters.
The description here of God as a consuming fire comes from Deuteronomy 4:24, where after warning the people again not worship idols, Moses says that “the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous god.” Again, when God gave the law on Mt. Sinai, he revealed himself in a cloud of fire. The warning to the people implied that if they came near to the mountain, the fire would consume them. In Leviticus 10, when Nadab and Abihu offered to God unacceptable worship, fire came out from the Lord and consumed them. In Numbers 16, when 250 non-priests tried to worship as though they were priests, fire came out from the LORD and consumed them. And part of what it means to be God is that you do not change. If God was a consuming fire then, he is a consuming fire now, and that’s what our text confirms. So just as the high voltage electricity in the building here has a “caution” sign on it, so the LORD has a “caution” sign on him to those who would draw near to him.
Does some part of you resist thinking of God this way? I know some part of me does. From where does that come? I’ve already mentioned one place from which it comes: A misunderstanding of the Bible, as though God was one way in the Old Testament, and different in the New. That’s a heresy as old as Marcion, who taught it in the first few hundred years of the church’s existence. But there are also unique features of our cultural moment in the West that make thinking like this come less naturally to us than it even has to sinners like us who live in other parts of the world or past time periods, and it is the pervasive cynicism of our age. Our music, our art, our architecture, our stories, our TV shows all tend to communicate to us that life is basically meaningless. I’ve already mentioned Blink 182; think of the words of Pink: “Don’t be fancy, just get dancy: Why so serious?” The whole message is that there isn’t anything that really matters, that’s worth taking seriously. Even pagan cultures in the ancient world didn’t think that way. In Virgil’s Aeneid, the hero Aeneas is described as “pious.” He took the gods seriously, though they were false gods, and that was seen as a good thing. In our world, the heroes are those who mock the gods, especially the Christian God. If the word “pious” is even used at all, it’s used as an insult. “Oh aren’t you so pious?” And when Christians are conformed to the pattern of the world, it can lead us to come to church even asking, “Why so serious?”
But, as is always the case, while the world is part of the story, it is not the whole story. There is also something in us that shrinks back from a consuming fire, and would prefer to imagine it simply as a dim flame. The idea of an almighty, infinitely valuable being, who exists outside of me, to whom I am accountable, who has the power to consume me in a moment, is too much for us to bear as people who know we are guilty. So we either stay away from God, as other cultures and time periods are and were perhaps prone to do, or we reimagine him and bring him down to our level, as though he is one like us, who we can approach as casually as you might approach your buddies. There’s a very real sense in which we are too afraid to be afraid. Real reverence and awe is more than we can bear. Yet scripture calls us both to come to him, not to stay away, “Let us offer him acceptable worship,” AND to come to him with reverence and awe. How can we do that? Where can we get the courage to be afraid? How can we get at solid joys, instead of running away from God to the worldling’s treasure?
We learn that from an earlier call to worship in Hebrews. “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Heb 10:19-22). Our God is a consuming fire, the same God whose voice shook the earth, who promises now that it will shake the earth and the heavens, AND our God is the God who speaks to us in his Son, who tells us of the sacrifice he offered on our behalf, to make a full atonement for all our sins. The fire will not consume you as long as you come to God covered in his Son. In him, we have the boldness to be afraid. In him, we can let God be who he really is, consuming fire and all, because we know that in him the flame shall not hurt us. When God shakes all things, his kingdom will not be shaken, nor will its citizens.
Outer space looks glorious. In the move Interstellar, one of the characters travels through a wormhole and see a black hole. Many such movies have scenes like that. However, if you try to go into outer space without the proper equipment, you’ll die before you even get there. So you’ve gotta stay away if you don’t have the proper equipment. But once you do, if you knew you’d be safe, wouldn’t you want to go? If you knew you could go through a wormhole and see a black hole safely, what would stop you from doing it? And in the presence of such things, even if you knew you were safe, wouldn’t you still be struck with reverence and awe? Wouldn’t you just think someone was crazy if they asked you, “Why so serious?” in the presence of such glory?
That’s a dim analogy of what it’s like to worship the one who made all that, who will one day shake all that, but who has given us a kingdom that cannot be shaken in his Son. When you see his glory as it is revealed in the gospel, you’ll think people who want you to tone it down are crazy. And the kind of intentionality, the kind of care with which this passage encourages us to approach God, is necessary because it does not come naturally to our flesh to approach him in Christ! Even after we believe, we are prone to wander, and prone to think that because of our sin, we must keep our distance, or to think that he is one like us, so now we can approach him casually. Instead, see to it that you do not refuse him who is speaking. Listen to the gospel, and with a deep sense of your own sinfulness, your own unworthiness, your infinite distance from God, and his character as a consuming fire, but also with a deep sense of our safety in Christ, let us draw near by faith in Christ, and be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. As we think about what to sing and how we sing in this church, some of the questions our elders and musicians are going to ask are, “Does this song tend to promote reverence and awe? Does it communicate that the God to whom we are singing really matters? If we really believed the one to whom we are singing this song is a consuming fire, would we sing it this way?” Let’s not be afraid to be afraid. Let’s draw near to God through Christ alone, and offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.