Singing is always an important part of the worship of God. In our last article we discussed some aspects of singing; in this article we propose to continue this discussion.
Singing must always be from the heart. This is an obvious fact and it is not uncommon to hear the minister remind the congregation of the importance of this. Such a reminder is not out of order. While it is true of all our worship that it is easy to slip into a mere routine, to go through the motions of worship outwardly while our thoughts are far away from what we are doing, this is especially true of singing. Most in the church have sung the Psalms of the church for years and years. They know the words and the music by heart, and need not give any thought to what they are singing while they engage in this part of worship. The result is that an individual in the congregation can sing an entire song without really realizing that he has sung at all. But such worship is not really worship at all. In fact, it is particularly offensive in the sight of God. The Scriptures make it very clear that God is angry with this kind of worship. How often is it not true in the Old Testament that God speaks in anger against a people who worship Him with their lips while their heart is far from Him? It is almost as if this kind of formal worship is worse than no worship at all.
When we worship God in His house on the Lord’s Day, a kind of a holy “conversation” takes place between God and His people—as we have had occasion to notice before. Worship in God’s house is an aspect of covenant fellowship. That fellowship between God and His people is characterized especially by “conversation.” This is always true, for fellowship can not really take place unless those who have fellowship together can talk together, can communicate with each other. This is no less true of the fellowship between God and His people. They talk together. God speaks to His people and they speak to Him. There is true worship when this holy conversation takes place.
There are several places in the worship service where God’s people speak to Him. One of these is the singing of Psalms. But it stands to reason that we are not really speaking to God unless we sing from the heart. If our singing is mechanical, formal, outward, mere lip service, while our hearts are not aware of what we are singing, we are not really talking to God. It is a kind of an insult. It is like coming to someone’s house and, while professing to engage in conversation with that person, doing nothing else but reciting memorized groups of words without any thought to what we are saying. Surely our host would have reason to be highly offended when we do this. No less is this true of God. Our “conversation” must not be the thoughtless recitation in song of verses we have memorized while we are not giving one bit of thought to what we are saying.
To sing from the heart means, as Paul expresses it inColossians 3:16, to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom;” and thus “to teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” All of this implies that when we sing, we sing in such a way that the thoughts expressed in the songs are thoughts of our minds. It is a strange thing that we are able to sing, to read, to recite without this happening. Who has not had it at one time or another that he can read an entire page or more in a book without realizing what he is reading. Not one single thought of the entire page has passed through his mind. The same thing can happen in singing. We can sing an entire song without any conscious awareness of what we are singing. But singing as an act of worship can never be this way. The words must pass through our minds consciously so that we know what we are saying, and so that we make what we are saying an expression of our own thoughts.
But this is never enough. What we say must also be an expression of our faith. It is possible to say something which we do not believe ourselves. I would suppose that every one has also had the experience at one time or another of being in a meeting where a thoroughly Arminian hymn is being sung. He feels himself caught in a dilemma: whether to join with the others and sing even though he knows that what he is singing is not the truth of God’s Word, or to refrain from singing and stand there with the hymnbook in his hand and his mouth closed. It is better to do the latter. Singing, to be truly an act of worship, must be an expression of faith. While the thoughts of the words which he sings pass through his mind, he must also at the same time make these words his own personal confession. To cite but one example: when he sings the well-known words, “The Lord my Shepherd holds me within His tender care . . . ,” he must speak these words in such a way that he makes this statement his own personal confession; he speaks to God in his singing so that he tells the Lord that he believes that Jehovah his Shepherd holds him in tender care. Then he sings from the heart.
That the worshiper should do this is not strange, for his confession is always what God has said first of all in His Word. The child of God appropriates by faith what God has said in His Word and makes that his confession as he speaks to God. In fact, any confession is always only what God has first said. If he should speak anything but what God has first said, it is no longer a true confession.
But when he sings as a confession of his faith, he sings in such a way that this truth of God’s Word is his own conscious and personal experience. He does not sing, only believing objectively the truth which is the content of his song, but he sings as that truth has become a part of his own personal experience as God has given to him salvation in the circumstances of his own pathway in life. Out of his own life, as God leads him through this life to everlasting salvation, he sings his songs of praise to God.
It is for this reason too that the idea of a choir in the worship services is abhorrent. Not that there is no place for choirs in the life of the people of God; singing is an important part of the life of the people of God, and they find a particular delight in joining with fellow saints in choir singing. But choirs have no place in the worship service. One does not come to the worship service to be entertained, but to worship. And, as we said, this worship is the worship of the congregation. The congregation must speak to God. When choirs sing this is impossible.
It has been argued that congregational singing is not very edifying because the people are not trained to sing together. There are many voices in the congregation, sometimes very loud, which are off key; there are others who sing so loudly that their voices stand out in a kind of raucous counterpoint to the singing; the music is often not sung properly; the attacks and stops are not together; and the result is that the congregational singing is more noise than music. These “unedifying” aspects of congregational singing are effectively removed when a trained choir, under a director, sings in the place of the congregation.
But none of these arguments ought to deter us from insisting that the congregation itself must do the singing. It is true that each member of the congregation ought to sing the very best he can. It is also true that the congregation must strive together to make its singing as beautiful as possible. Sloppiness in singing detracts indeed from the beauty and edification of the congregation to some extent. But these things are not the main elements in the worship of singing. They may offend one with a trained ear so that he refuses to sing along with the people of God, but this is his problem, not the problem of the congregation. God is pleased with such music as comes from the heart. He delights in the singing of the person who pours out his soul to the Lord in song—even if that singing is not always on key. The congregation which sings together of her faith and hope and longing, with joy and gladness, making a joyful noise unto the Lord, is the congregation whose worship arises before the face of the Lord as a sweet-smelling savor with which the Lord God is pleased. Everyone must sing, whether he has the ability or not, for this is pleasing in God’s sight.
We have talked before about a certain “line” which ought to run through the worship service. By this we mean that the worship service ought to be, as much as possible, an organic whole. It ought to flow smoothly from one element in the worship to the next. There ought to be progression in thought and idea, progression in the whole service so that each element of the worship flows as naturally as possible from the preceding element. The singing of the Psalms is an important part of tying the worship together.
There are, of course, no hard and fast rules to govern this. Each minister ought to decide, in connection with the choice of songs, how he intends to do this. Sometimes, e.g., this order is followed: Song 1, a song of praise to God; Song 2, a response to the law;Song 3, a song which introduces to the congregation the main idea of the sermon which immediately follows; Song 4, a song which emphasizes the climax and conclusion of the sermon, or which elicits from God’s people a response in keeping with the thought of the sermon. But this order need not necessarily be followed in every case. There are certain times in the life of the congregation when a worship service begins with a song which expresses some profound experience through which the congregation has passed. Perhaps, e.g., a congregation has lost one of its members in a sudden death; perhaps a member has been, or is about to be, cut off for impenitence; perhaps a particular joyful event has taken place in the congregation, such as the acquisition of a new undershepherd. It would be altogether appropriate that the congregation begin its worship with a song which expresses what is especially on the minds of all God’s people. There are also occasions for songs of penitence and sorrow for sin, occasions for songs which express the truth of God’s Word as it has become a particular element in the confession and walk of God’s people.
All in all, the minister has a wonderful opportunity to use the songs sung in the worship service for leading the congregation into the proper frame of mind to worship and for tying the various elements of the worship service together into one smooth-flowing whole. Perhaps sometimes a word of introduction is in order when a song is announced; and perhaps it is sometimes well for the minister to call the attention of the congregation to a particular verse or expression in the song which expresses the reason why he chose that particular song. But all these things help to make the singing more sincere and edifying.
In the Protestant Reformed Churches the Psalter which is in common use is the Presbyterian Psalter first published in 1912 by the United Presbyterian Church. This is the Psalter with which we are acquainted and which we have come to know and to love. It is sometimes objected that this Psalter leaves much to be desired. There are lyrics in it which are not too faithful to the Scriptures; there are tunes in it which are not genuine church music, and are, in fact, folk songs and barroom ditties; there are various numbers which are extremely difficult to sing; there are numbers in which the music simply does not fit the words.
While all these things may be true, it remains a fact that the Psalter we now use is a beautiful Psalter with many, many numbers in it eminently suited to congregational worship. On the whole, it is true to God’s infallibly inspired Word, and its music is usually very beautiful and inspiring. We should not let the shortcomings of the Psalter give us the impressionthat the whole book is really no good.
Nevertheless, this Psalter is by no means the onlyPsalter in use in churches which limit their singing to the Psalms. And there are many beautiful numbers in other Psalm books (some chorale numbers set to the tunes of the old Dutch Psalter of Dathenus, the Scottish Psalter) which we could profitably sing. It might be well, as our churches from time to time consider a revision of the Psalter, that some of these other Psalter numbers be introduced into the worship. Perhaps our schools could make use of some of the other Psalters in the classroom singing so that our children would learn to sing them. In this way, over the years, our congregations would be taught to make use of these songs as well.
At any rate, singing is a beautiful and wonderful part of worship. And we ought to learn to make the most of it. It is inexcusable for a saint to stand during the singing with his mouth shut, no matter what the quality of his voice. And it is incomprehensible that a child of God can fail to join in this part of the worship of his God.