As we seek to root ourselves and our worship in the teaching of the Bible, it’s important that we have a willingness to evaluate everything.
Nothing is a given. We can never assume we are doing something the right way if it is not backed up by the Word of God.
And one area I think we have made these kinds of assumptions is in the types of songs we sing, and even the style in which we sing to God in corporate worship.
1 Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous: for praise is comely for the upright.
2 Praise the Lord with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings.
3 Sing unto him a new song; play skilfully with a loud noise.
In Psalm 33, David gives us the command to rejoice in God, and to praise His name. The command is not general, but specific. We are given multiple attributes of what our praise is to be like.
This praise is to be given to God, in joy, by the upright.
We should not come before God in worship with unconfessed sin. We should not come with unresolved conflicts with our brothers or bitterness in our hearts. Instead, should turn our hearts to God, fighting the apathy that easily sets in as we get into the rhythms of our lives.
It is the righteous who offer God praise, and the reasons this praise is due to God are laid out in the rest of our psalm. They include His work in creation as well as His ongoing work of gracious providence for His people. And all of this comes in light of the forgiveness of sins that David experiences in light of his confession in Psalm 32.
This worship we offer up to God is not to be stale, but fresh. We are to sing a new song to God, and we are to do so loudly and skillfully.
We also see instruments here, which I have always assumed are a thorn in the side of every Regulative Principle purist who somehow walks away from the Bible thinking the organ is the only appropriate instrument for worship. Instruments are a great accompaniment to the singing of God’s people, but only if it does not drown out the people singing. And what this requires is reasonable instrument volume and loud singing.
Unfortunately there are many churches where the men begrudgingly murmur in their singing, presumably because of how manly they are. But David slayed his ten thousands and wrote the songbook of the Bible. So singing is most certainly part of biblical manhood.
The righteous, those with hearts made upright by the grace of God, are to offer this worship by singing righteous songs. Lyrics matter, and so they ought to be biblical and rich. The church broadly robs herself of rich lyrics by neglecting the psalms, and also conveniently avoids the types of lyrics that would not be palatable to many Christians today. And so a large part of our worship must be singing the Psalms, believing God to be righteous, even when men charge him with harshness or cruelty.
Each of these aspects that David has presented are essential to our worship through song, but I want to focus in on the command to be skillful in our worship, because most of us do not think of this as a necessary category.
Worship Vs Theology
Let’s start with a question to illustrate how little the church in America understands this command today. What do you think about a church or an individual Christian who says something along the lines of, “No creed but Christ?” What do you think of a church that scoffs at theology and thinks it is a fruitless endeavor, a way for sinful men to exercise their pride by their knowledge?
If you’re reading this, I think you would say something about the fact that pride is most certainly bad, but that the sin of pride does not necessarily follow the pursuit of knowledge. On top of that, knowing God is necessary for properly worshiping God, and so studying the Bible is actually essential to loving and obeying God. Not everyone needs to be able to teach doctrine, but we all must pursue growth in the grace and knowledge of Christ.
We don’t allow the potentiality of sin to determine what we do, we follow the Word of God. We know that temptation will always find ways to present itself, but we seek to obey nonetheless.
And I bring all this up to illustrate how many in the church today, including conservative and reformed Christians, think about the songs we sing in corporate worship. I think that Christian today often sound like the anti-theology people when it comes to the songs we want to sing in our liturgies.
We are fond of saying things like, “God delights in my simple singing. He does not care about the quality, he cares about the heart behind it.” And I would say, fair enough. God cares about the heart behind our worship. But what does this actually mean, and should we be so comfortable with that kind of statement? Should we be comfortable with that heart disposition? Because here’s the thing: what we often mean by that statement is that we do not need to put in the effort to learn difficult songs.
We don’t need to work to grow in our singing abilities similar to the way we seek to grow theologically. We are asserting that God cares about our effort in regards to learning about Him but not so much with how and what we sing.
I think it’s fair to equate that kind of thinking with those who refuse to pursue growth in areas we consider more valuable, like theology. But God cares about our worship through song, and there is objective value to a skillful noise. It is commanded that we offer up our worship in this way.
And I think that the application of this command is that we put forward real effort in learning to sing glorious songs, both lyrically and musically. It’s not always easy to read good books on various areas of theology, but there is a fruitful yield from the work.
In much the same way, I believe there will be good fruit from the pursuit of learning and singing beautiful, biblical songs. And when I talk about beauty, I am talking about harmony. I am talking about the labor of a congregation in learning songs in multiple parts (usually two male parts, and two female parts).
It’s not easy. You can’t memorize 10 words and know the whole song. And you can’t memorize three notes either. Singing the psalms in parts is going to be much more difficult than that.
The point is not the performance. It is about offering God glorious worship. Don’t flatter yourself. The worship, in and of itself, always falls utterly short of God’s standard. But we offer up our best in the name of Christ, and in Him and Him alone it is fully accepted by God. The fact that it is accepted in Christ, apart from our works, should only make us want to offer up even more glorious worship to God; it should not make us complacent.
Another benefit, another piece of the glory, to songs with more than one part is that the corporate nature of our worship is only further emphasized.
Far from your own individual quiet time surrounded by friends doing the same thing (which is what most corporate worship looks like in churches today), corporate worship is a time to address one another in song, and a time to sing to God as a body.
We are a body with diverse gifts and abilities, and what a glory it is for that to be displayed in the act of singing itself. Singing in parts gives us the opportunity to display diversity and unity, diversity that is harmonious. It all fits together, and the diversity adds to the beauty.
Singing in parts also allows men to be men and women to be women. Everyone has a part fitting to their frame, their abilities and gifts. Singing in parts frees the men with deep voices from trying to sing along with a girl up front, which we shouldn’t have anyway (another topic for another time), who is singing in a way that suits her vocal abilities.
Considering how and what we sing is also a good time to consider the potential stumbling blocks that will present themselves to us. But an important thing to note in considering these is that stumbling blocks can be found in any of our attempts at obedience.
If we think of obedience as walking on a path, we should always picture a ditch on either side of that path. There are always multiple ways to fail in obedience, just choose your ditch. There is no place in this sinful world where we are spared from the presence and reality of these ditches.
So some may say they avoid difficult and complex songs because singing these types of songs is an easy way to be prideful over those who insist on simpler forms of singing. All the parts are just a distraction from focusing on worshiping God, whatever that means. Others may say that to sing more poppy, simple songs is to slip into laziness in our worship through song.
There are ditches on both sides. So in this pursuit, remember how to approach it. Rejoice in the opportunity to work hard at something that is pleasing to God. Objectively, God is honored as we seek to grow in skill as we worship before Him.
And if that skill begins to become preeminent, more important than singing with an upright heart, then we are in the ditch. Continually put off thoughts of pride, including self-conscious thoughts about your lack of ability, and seek to worship the Lord, playing skillfully and loudly.
If you aren’t getting the hang of your part, and Sunday worship rolls around, and you don’t sound all that good, then you are right in thinking that God is pleased with Your worship.
The difference is the effort. Don’t consider your laziness to be spiritual maturity. Don’t consider your unwillingness to labor at something new as some kind of piety.
And remember that this praise is to be offered up by the righteous. If the singers cease to be upright in heart, then the loudest, most skillful worship is heinous to God. It’s worse than nails on a chalkboard.
But again, our problem is more at scoffing at the skillful part of the command. Because, “We’re just not music people.”
The people of God are music people. We are a people marked, among other things, by our songs. God has a particular delight in music, and so there is a particular glory in it.
So take on the challenge. Encourage your church to take on the challenge. Praise the Lord with upright hearts? Praise Him with a skillful noise.