December 2020- January 2021
Passing the Faith
INTERSECT: Music and Singing
in Corporate Worship
Have you ever heard the music of a song you haven’t listened to in years, but in a single moment, you pull up the lyrics in your mind? This speaks to the power of music. How does music relate to the practice of congregational singing? In this last article of our four-part series on worship, we want to touch on a few scriptural principles related to music and singing in corporate worship.
Principle: Scripture Shows the Supporting Role of Music for Congregational Singing
Music has a long heritage in the Old Testament. The collection of psalms attests the richness of this heritage, particularly in the psalm titles. The Hebrew title for the whole collection is tehillim, which simply means praises. This is what we usually associate with the psalter. However, many individual psalms are further qualified as mizmors. For instance, the title for Psalm 3 reads: “A mizmor of David.” The term mizmor comes from the word zmr, which means “to make music.” A mizmor is therefore a song put to music to be sung corporately with musical accompaniment. Other musical
notations are also found in the psalm titles. One common designation is lamnasseah, meaning, “for the choir director.”
A notation often follows, indicating musical instruments to accompany the singing of the psalm, or the melody to be used. Many of these Hebrew terms are unknown to modern interpreters, even though their function as musical designations is widely accepted. The following examples illustrate this point:
Psalm 4: “For the choir director: on a neginot (stringed instrument); a mizmor of David”
Psalm 5: “For the choir director: on the nehilot (thought to be a flute-like instrument); a mizmor
Psalm 6: “For the choir director: on the neginot, on the sheminim (likely eight-stringed instruments); a mizmor of David”
Other examples of singing to music abound in the Old Testament. One memorable scene comes from King Hezekiah’s recommissioning of temple worship recorded in 2 Chronicles 29:20-36. Hezekiah stationed Levites with all kinds of musical instruments (cymbals, harps, and lyres), “according to the command of David” (verse 25). The priests stood with trumpets (verse 26). When the burnt offering commenced, the whole assembly began to sing “the song of the LORD” with trumpets and the instruments of David (verse 27). After the offerings were completed, the Levites were ordered to praise the LORD “with the words of David and Asaph the seer” (verse 30). At various intervals the people responded with prostration before the LORD (verses 29, 30). The tone of the entire gathering was one of joy and humble reverence.
Music in Scripture serves a supporting role for corporate worship. In ancient Israel, musical accompaniment supported congregational singing from the psalter, the Israelite hymnal. The focus of this singing was recounting the word of the LORD delivered through David, Asaph, and other great hymn writers of Israel. The tradition of the psalter established the practice of putting Scripture to music for corporate singing. The reforms of Hezekiah sought to reestablish this practice in Israel. Paul reiterates this heritage to the Colossian believers, admonishing them to allow the word of Christ to dwell in them richly, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).
Principle: Congregational Singing Strengthens the Faith of Believers.
The power of song is undeniable. Many of us have experienced this most poignantly from secular music (especially from our teen years), but the same is true of sacred music. Scripture commands believers to sing the Word in corporate worship. Songs set to music teach the congregation (Colossians 3), aiding the memory in recalling truth and reinforcing our deeply held convictions. In this way, music is an effective means of fostering biblical literacy in the church.
It also nourishes the soul of believers because it leads us to meditate on the life-giving Word of God. scriptural meditation through song can even renew our minds beyond our corporate gatherings. The powerful melodies we sing together on Sundays resound in our hearts throughout the week. Good melodies are ready-made for committing scriptural truth to memory.
Principle: Congregational Singing Is an Element of Corporate Worship
We have emphasized throughout these articles on worship the importance of seeing every biblical element as an act of worship. Biblical elements or practices of local church worship include reading of Scripture, preaching of God’s Word, praying, giving, celebrating the ordinances, and singing. When our minds and hearts are engaged in these practices, the Lord uses them as a means of personal and corporate transformation.
It is important to understand musical accompaniment supports the biblical element of singing, but it is not the element itself. When we equate accompaniment with worship, it
actually supplants true worship. Song leaders become worship leaders. Musical performers take center stage. Instrumental music overpowers the corporate voice of the saints. Division over musical style takes root.
In its proper place, music represents a joyous gift from God. In corporate worship, music serves as the humble handmaid of congregational singing. We need to hear the voices of our brothers and sisters united in song. We need singable and congregationally-friendly melodies to guide our voices united in praise to the Lord. This approach both edifies the church and glorifies God.
We are called to sing “as unto the Lord” (otherwise, it is just performance). But we are also called to “speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” Therefore, it is paramount we hear our brothers and sisters lifting their voices to God in worship.
Congregational singing uniquely brings together two important facets of corporate worship: the edification of Christ’s Body and the praise due to His glorious name.
About the Columnists: Dr. Matthew McAffee serves as provost and professor at Welch College. He has ministered in Free Will Baptist churches in Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Canada.
Dr. Barry Raper serves as program coordinator for Ministry Studies at Welch
College. He pastors Bethel FWB in
Ashland City, Tennessee.