Congregational Singing: The Why and What
Series: Come, Let Us Sing
As we start a series of sermons on congregational singing, we begin by looking at the questions of why we sing, and what exactly it is what we should sing when we gather for worship.
1 Chronicles (WBC), Roddy Braun
We’re starting a new mini-series of sermons this morning on congregational singing. I’m careful to call it that and not “worship” because worship has two basic uses in the Bible, neither of which correspond simply to singing. Worship can correspond to all of life, as we give our entire selves to the LORD in service (Rom 12:1). It can also refer to gathered worship (John 4:24), like what we’re doing now, but that’s what this entire service is, not just the singing. Yet the part on which we are focusing in this series of sermons is the part of the service where we sing together as a congregation. The command to sing is one of the most, if not the most, common commands in the Bible, so it certainly is a point of biblical emphasis. We saw it come up a fair amount in our series through Isaiah. It’s also one that raises questions. Why do we sing? What should we sing? Should we use instruments? Who should sing? Is the music too loud? Should it be emotional or kind of serious? We’ve considered various questions like these over the years, and since singing is something we do together, it’s important we, as a particular church, have unity around the answers.
So, as with any question about how we are to function as a church, we want to get our answer from God himself, as he has spoken in the Bible. That’s what this series is designed to get at. Today, we’ll focus on the “What?” and “Why?” of congregational singing. What do we sing, and why do we do it? To do so, we’ll look at 1 Chronicles 16:8-36. The book of 1 Chronicles was written after the people of Israel returned to their land from exile, but this story it recounts is from earlier in Israel’s history when David, the great king of Israel, God’s people before the coming of Christ, brought the ark of the covenant to the city of Jerusalem, and set up regular worship of God centered around it. The ark was where God had promised to dwell especially for communion with his people. So here, the people of God are gathered around the ark, and the words of this passage are addressed to them. I’ll spend most of the sermon looking at those words, and then close with a few implications of what this means for how we sing together, and how we plan to going forward. As we get into these words, we find their basic command is to Sing to the LORD, and then we’ll get at our “what” and “why” questions in six points. I know, a 6 point sermon probably sounds long, but some of the points will be short. Sing of what he has done, sing to remember what he has done, sing because of who he is, sing of who he is, sing because of what he will do, and ask him to enable you to sing.
Sing of what he has done
Our passage begins with a series of commands: Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples. Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice. The genre we’re dealing with here is Hebrew poetry, which is why it’s printed in your Bibles with the line and indentation format you see, rather than the more standard paragraph format you can see in the passages surrounding it. One device of Hebrew poetry is called parallelism, and each of these commands are in parallel with one another, which suggests that they aren’t separate commands, as though the speaker is calling us first to give thanks to the LORD, then to call upon his name, then to make known his deeds, then to sing, then to tell of all his wondrous works, and so on. Indeed, in the verse just before this, verse 7, we see that thanksgiving is to be sung to the LORD.
So then, the basic command of verses 8-10, and really of the whole passage, is to the sing to the LORD, and what the rest of the commands do, is they give us insight into what exactly we are to sing to the LORD. Before diving into those further, though, notice that we are commanded to sing, not just in general, but to the LORD. That’s because the LORD, the God of Israel, the true God who made all things, is a living, personal being. You sing to your kids, maybe you sing to your spouse, maybe a performer sings to an audience, but I would never say I sing to my Bluetooth speaker, even though I sing with it. Similarly, in various sorts of new age spiritualities, there is plenty of talk of spirituality, a higher power, some all-powerful force even, but it’s an impersonal force, and therefore not one to which you would really sing. Music may be used as an aid to meditation, but the idea of singing to God doesn’t really make sense if God is impersonal. The fact that we are commanded to sing to him here though, shows us that he is personal, and that we have a verbal relationship with him, where speaking to him in song makes sense.
It also shows us that though God is invisible, he is truly present to hear the songs of his people. Again, I couldn’t be said to be singing to my kids if my kids weren’t present to hear it. Not only is God omnipresent, meaning he’s always present everywhere, but God has promised to be present for communion with his people in certain places in particular. It’s significant that the passage on which we’re focusing today occurred in the presences of the ark of the covenant, which was the place where God promised to uniquely dwell for communion with his people at that time. So if you wanted to seek the LORD in that day, you went to the ark. In our day, Jesus Christ has come as the the one in whom the whole fulness of deity dwells, and he promised that “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). Therefore, it is natural that we would sing to the LORD specifically when Jesus’ people, the church, gather in Jesus’ name.
Ok, so what then should we sing to the LORD? Here the temptation for many today, even sincere Christians, is to say, “Whatever you want.” Sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues described our society as one of “expressive individualism”. The basic idea of expressive individualism is that it is the right, and on some level the duty, of each individual, to express what they feel most strongly inside themselves. To not do so is seen as hypocritical, inauthentic, “living a lie”. Applied to art, then, many today assume that art ought to be an expression of the artist’s feelings. Applied to singing, even in Christian worship gatherings, when that worldly assumption creeps in, it makes people think that the job of a Christian worship gathering is to give me a space to express whatever I individually am feeling toward God that day.
A lot of ink has been spilled over expressive individualism, and it’s not all bad actually, but for now I just want to flag it for you and point out that scripture does not tell us to just sing whatever we want to the LORD, or to sing whatever we feel to the LORD. It tells us specifically what to sing to the LORD. It tells us, right at the beginning of verse 8, to give thanks to the LORD. How would we do that? Obviously we can say the words “thank you” to the LORD in song, and some of our songs do that, but repeating the words “thank you LORD” over and over again wouldn’t make for much of a song, and the examples of songs that we have in the Bible don’t do that. Typically when you give thanks to someone, you may say “Thank you” first, but then you would go on to list the things that person has done, for which you are thankful, and this is what we see this passage telling us to do. “Make known his deeds among the peoples” (verse 8). “Tell of all his wondrous works” (verse 9). So what do we sing to the LORD? Not simply whatever we want, but his deeds, his wondrous works. We sing of what he has done.
So in the first command to sing in the whole Bible, we read this: “Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Ex 15:21). What’s Miriam, the person who spoke those words, doing there? She’s telling the people to sing, she’s giving a reason to sing, and she herself, in the song, is telling of one of God’s wondrous works: He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. There’s something natural about singing in response to a great victory. Think of what we sing after the Eagles score a touchdown: “Fly eagles fly, on the road to victory.” Nobody had to command that; it proceeds from a sense of the greatness of the work before us. Or, more to our point, think of the hymn, “Christ the Lord is risen today,” which says words like, “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia…Once he died, our souls to save…Christ has opened paradise.” What are we doing when we sing that? We are telling of his wondrous works. Notice in verse 8 that the reason we do this, in addition to giving thanks, is to “make known” these deeds among the peoples. It is our hope and prayer that every time we gather for worship, there are people among us who don’t yet know Christ, and who may know very little about even what Christians believe. Our songs, then, should teach them. They should make known what God has done.
So sing to the LORD, not simply of whatever you feel, but of what the LORD has done, to make known his deeds to the peoples, and to give him thanks for what he has done. Give him thanks in song for what he has done, even on the days you don’t feel thankful, because the fact is that if you are a Christian, you do have reasons to give thanks. God has done wondrous works, and part of what singing does is it helps you remember the reasons you have to give thanks. That’s where our text takes us next: Sing to remember what he has done.
Sing to remember what he has done
So verse 12 tells us to “remember” the wonderous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered. Verse 15 gets more specific and tells us to “remember” his covenant forever. One of the reasons we sing, as opposed to simply saying what God has done, is that singing has a way of programming the words we sing into our minds. This is one way expressive individualism is so deficient: It teaches you to think you should only sing of what is already inside you. But part of my problem is that inside, I forget all the wondrous works God has done, and get bogged down with my present assessment of what’s lacking in my life. So I must sing of God’s wondrous works to remind me that they exist! And then, here’s the truth and redemptive possibility for expressive individualism: As I am reminded again and again of what God has done, it should compel me to sing. That’s part of the call here too: Remember what God has done, because if you do, of course you’ll want to sing of what he has done! Singing of what God has done will then be the expression of your individual feelings.
Notice again what it is we are to remember in song. It is, once again, his “wondrous works,” his “miracles and judgments”. Verse 15 gives us a specific example in the form of his covenant. So we aren’t to remember and give thanks in song simply for the ways God has individually worked in our individual lives. Again, that’s the expressive individualist tendency. Certainly we should give thanks for God’s individual provision in our lives, but you can do that individually in prayer. We don’t typically sing of how God provided so and so with a job or gave so and so kids when we gather to sing as a church, because those are things God has done more so for individuals than for us as his gathered people, and they are, in a very real sense, not as wonderful as the wondrous works God has done for all his people. Part of the reason we sing of those things, then, is to help us remember that they’re the big deal, they’re the thing worth singing about, even more than the individual temporal blessings of this life each of us may enjoy.
Here’s one aspect of singing that I hope you take away from this whole series: Singing not only expresses what you already feel; it also shapes what you will feel going forward. We sing of what God has done, whatever we feel, because we want to increasingly be shaped into individuals who remember his wondrous works, and who see them as more wonderful than even God’s individual material blessings in this life. And we sing of these things in congregational singing, together, because we want to be increasingly shaped into a community by those works of God for which we can all give thanks in common, because we are all the beneficiaries of those works. So sing to remember what God has done. And, next, sing because of who he is.
Sing because of who he is
So after that call to remember, we’re back to the call to sing in verse 23. And again, the thing of which we are told to sing is his salvation, verse 23, and his marvelous works, verse 24. But now, starting in verse 25, another reason is added to sing: because the LORD is great, and a great being is worthy of great praise, hence “greatly to be praised.” In fact, he is to be feared, which is just another word for worshiped or served, above all other gods. The nations surrounding Israel worshiped what verse 26 calls worthless idols. They were carvings or images, but there is something greater about God, that makes him worthy of greater praise than these idols: He made the heavens. Then verse 27 paints a picture for us of God’s heavenly dwelling place, his heavenly throne room. It says there that strength and majesty are before him. Typically in a throne room, there would be servants, or attendants, before the king. We might expect this to say that the angels are before him. But here God’s attributes are imaginatively depicted as being before him, as though what fills his throne room is his splendor, his majesty, his strength, his joy.
Sing to the LORD, because the LORD is truly great, and greatly to be praised. You probably all have experience of sensing the greatness of a person or a situation and planning accordingly. When Taylor Swift came to Philadelphia recently, nobody thought, “You know, let’s just find a random street, set up a speaker, and have her sing to a crowd of 15-20 people there.” There was a sense of, “No; that’s not enough for Taylor. She’s greater than that. She needs the whole football stadium, a stage, an intricate sound system, costume design, etc.” And people rearranged travel plans and paid a lot of money to be there for it, due to her greatness in their eyes. And yet, the LORD made Taylor Swift. Whatever greatness you see on this earth is something he made. And if you worship it, it’ll be nothing more than a worthless idol. The LORD is great, and greatly to be praised.
Strength is before him; he is infinite in power. He’s the one being in all of existence that can do whatever he pleases; nothing he ordains is too hard for him to accomplish, and no force that opposes him can succeed in thwarting his purposes. Joy is before him; he is an eternally happy God! He is seated far above the heavens, infinite, incomprehensible, majestic beyond anything you can understand. And in worshiping him, we are transformed more into his image. Those who look to him are radiant, and in him there is strength there for our weakness and joy for our sorrow. Sing to the LORD for who he is, and sing of who he is.
Sing of who he is
So next we see in verse 28 this command to “ascribe” to the LORD glory and strength, ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name. The Hebrew word there could be translated more woodenly as “give” to the LORD glory and strength. Now bear in mind, we just read in verse 27 that strength is already in his place. So why would God need us to give him strength? He doesn’t. So what verse 28 is describing is our ascribing these things to him. In other words, we say them of him. Since God is strong, we say to him, “God, you are strong.” Since God is glorious, we say to him, “God, you are glorious.” In this way, we give the glory due his name.
It’s a joy to have a lot of young kids running around our church. One of the common comments made about any of one of them is, “He or she is so cute.” What are we doing there? We aren’t making them cute, but we are ascribing cuteness to them. There’s a sense that it ought to be pointed out; it’s the glory due to a cute child. So also there is a glory due to God’s name for who he is, that ascribes to him what is true of him: Glory, strength, invisibility, unchangeability, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, eternity, etc. So we sing in our hymns, “How great thou art,” or “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes, most blessed, most glorious, the ancient of days, almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.” Next, sing because of what he will do.
Sing because of what he will do
This call to sing actually expands out beyond the people to the inanimate creation. So verse 31 says, “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice.” It goes on to list the sea, the field, and all that fills them, the trees as well, and the reason given in verse 33 is that the LORD “comes to judge the earth.” To many modern people, the news of a coming judgment wouldn’t seem like cause for rejoicing, but if you could personify the trees, the heavens, the earth, the sea, think about how much injustice they’ve witnessed. How often have they seen the righteous oppressed, while the wicked prosper? So they rejoice that a day is coming when those who have done evil will finally be judged for it, and when the righteous who have suffered will be rewarded. Where the LORD reigns, there is justice, and the day is coming when he will consummate his rule over the earth.
There is both a present and future tense to the singing here too. Verse 33 speaks of a coming day, when the trees of the forest will sing for joy, and yet even now, the worship leader calls the various parts of creation to sing, because this coming day of the LORD is so sure. You’ve no doubt had the experience of being in hardship in the present, but experiencing joy during it because you are looking forward to something joyful in the future, even though it hasn’t happened yet. So we sing because of what God has done, we sing because of who God is, and we sing because of what God will do. If he’s promised it, it will happen, and we have glorious promises from him of what will happen in the future. Many hymns, in fact, will make their final verse about what God will do in the future, and some hymns are entirely about that. So we sing On Jordan’s Stormy Banks almost entirely about what God will do: No chilling wind nor poisonous breath, can reach that healthful shore, sickness, sorrow, pain, and death, are felt and feared no more. Other examples: And Lord, haste the day, when the faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll. The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul. Raised with him to endless life, he will hold me fast, till our faith is turned to sight, when he comes at last. Sing because of what God will do. And, finally, ask him to enable you to sing.
Ask him to enable you to sing
Our passage concludes in verses 34-36 with another call to worship in verse 34, but this time it’s followed with a “say also” that is actually a prayer. The prayer is a request from the people to God, asking him to save them, to gather and deliver them from among the nations. Israel was not in exile in David’s days, but they would be in the future, and throughout the history of God’s people, there were various impediments to them coming together in the presence of the LORD to sing to the LORD of what he had done, who he is, and of what he will do. Famously when they were slaves in Egypt, the whole reason God sent Moses to Pharaoh and told him to, “let my people go,” was “that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Ex 7:16). While Pharaoh was making them gather their own straw to build bricks for his kingdom, they didn’t have the ability to gather for worship like we see them doing here.
In the time in which the book of 1 Chronicles was written, the people were now back from exile, and this prayer would have been significant for them because they had seen God answer it! It also would have been significant for them because it reminds them why they were saved, gathered, and delivered from among the nations. Did you see that in the prayer? The prayer is for God to save us, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise. The prayer ends with this prayer that the LORD, the God of Israel, would be blessed from everlasting to everlasting. The idea is, “LORD, God of Israel, you are great, and greatly to be praised. You have done great works, and you will do more great works, and therefore you are worthy to be praised eternally, from everlasting to everlasting. There should never be a time when you specifically are not being worshiped by name. So save us, and gather us from among the nations, so that we might come together to sing of what you have done, who you are, and what you will do, as you deserve.”
We too must pray like this today. We have brothers and sisters in nations throughout the world who face the threat of physical violence or legal penalties for assembling to sing to the LORD. We should pray for God to thwart, change, or disempower those evil people and governments. But as the Bible’s story develops even within 1 Chronicles, we start to learn that the enemy of our singing to the LORD is not so much an external, oppressive nation, whether Egypt, the nations among which Israel was scattered in the exile, or the oppressive governments of the world today. Part of the reason 1 Chronicles was written was because the people had been brought back from exile, but they didn’t seem to care that much about assembling to sing to the LORD! They were free now to sing to the LORD, but they used their freedom instead to serve themselves, because the biggest barrier to our singing to the LORD, from which we need the LORD to save us, is not outside us. It’s inside us. The oppressive regime from which we must be saved is the sin inside us.
If it weren’t for sin, there’s a sense in which expressive individualism would work fine. We’d remember God’s wondrous works, we’d see him for who he really is, greater than anything else, we’d look forward with certainty to what he will do in the future, and apart from sin, that would produce in us a feeling that makes us want to sing to the LORD of what he has done, who he is, and what he will do, and we could simply express it. His works really are wondrous, he really is great, he really is going to judge the earth. He has given us no shortage of reasons to sing to him, and no shortage of things about which to sing. If we were functioning properly, if we were living the way we were created to live, singing to the LORD would be the expression of our deepest individual feelings. But the fact that it is not proves that we are not functioning properly. The fact that we look at all that God has made, and instead of worshiping the God who made it all, we worship the things he made, we ascribe glory to them, proves that we are sinners. We really think the accomplishments of athletes and celebrities are wonderful. We really think that vacations are glorious. We will rearrange our travel schedule and spend exorbitant amounts of money on a concert, we will instinctively sing at a sporting event, and yet assembling with the LORD’s people to sing to the LORD can feel like drudgery.
And so we must pray for God to enable us to sing. We must pray, “Save us, O God of our salvation, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.” And much like the audience of 1 Chronicles, we have the benefit of living on the other side of God’s answer to that prayer. Of all the wondrous works God has done, none are more wondrous than when God the Father sent God the Son to take on human flesh, to be tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin, then to make a full atonement for all the sins of any who would believe in him by dying in their place on the cross, and rising from the dead to eternal life. Believe in him today, and you will be saved, that you might give thanks to God’s holy name, and glory in his praise.
We call this message of God’s wondrous works in Christ the gospel. We sing because of the gospel, and the gospel is that which we sing. As you hear the gospel with faith, the Spirit works in you the desire to sing of what God has done, who God is, and what he will do. You really are free now to express that part of your individuality if you are in Christ! Act on that. And where the desires of the flesh war against it, and singing to the LORD feels like the last thing you want to do, keep praying this kind of prayer. Keep praying for God to finish the good work he’s begun in you, that you might give thanks to God’s holy name, and choose to sing even on the days you don’t feel like it, because God is just as worthy of it on those days. Pray not only for yourself, but for all God’s children still scattered among the nations, those God chose from before the foundation of the world, for whom Christ died, that they might all be brought to him through faith in Christ, and gathered as one, so that we will all one day come together, in his presence, in a new heavens and new earth, to give thanks to his holy name, and glory in his praise.
Let me close, then, with just three implications of this for how we plan to sing together at Citylight Center City. Beginning with the most straightforward implications of this text for our singing, one is that we will gather weekly, and one of the main things we will do when we gather weekly is sing to the LORD. One basic priority for every Christian, then, should be to gather weekly with their church to sing to the LORD. Are you willing to rearrange your life to make that happen?
Another implication is that when we think about what to sing or how we sing, the first audience we should have in mind for it is the LORD himself. We are singing, most fundamentally, to him. We’ll see next week that we also sing to one another when we sing, but there is no sense in which we are singing to the unbelieving world. Our goal is not therefore to sing what we think others will like so that we can draw a crowd, much like Taylor Swift drew a crowd to the Linc. God has told us what our goal must be: To sing of what he has done, who he is, and what he will do.
So that means, third and final implication, that the songs we pick should serve those goals. Our criteria for a song cannot simply be, “it is not heretical.” One of my favorite songs is Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” It is not heretical; i.e., nothing in it contradicts biblical doctrine. But we should not sing it in church, because it is not about what God has done, who God is, or what he will do. We want to pick the songs that best accomplish those purposes, not just those that don’t contradict it. That means some songs, like “Fast Car”, and some even “Christian” songs may not be best suited to congregational singing, while others, that may not immediately register as producing positive feelings, are quite well suited to it.
God truly has done great things. God truly is great. And God truly will do great things in the future. Sing to him because of these things. Sing to him to remember these things. And sing to him of these things. Let’s pray now that he’d enable us to do so.