Praising the Lord in the Congregation (5): The Element of Singing

Previous article in this series: May 15, 2013, p. 368.

Praise ye the Lord. I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, and in the congregation. Psalm 111:1


We began this series on Reformed worship by look­ing at various biblical principles of public, corporate worship. At this point in the series we are seeing those principles applied to a Reformed worship service, particularly as that is expressed in a typical Protestant Reformed liturgy.

Last time we drove straight to the heart of the cov­enantal assembly by examining the ministry of the Word in Reformed worship. We saw that the reading and preaching of Scripture is the chief element of a Reformed worship service and that all other aspects of worship, indeed the very possibility of worship itself, depend upon God speaking to us in His Word.

In this article and the next we turn to one of our great responses to God’s speaking in His Word, con­gregational singing. Besides the doxologies, we sing four Psalms in a Protestant Reformed worship service. This singing is a significant reason why we join together and separate ourselves out from the world to meet with God face-to-face in public worship.

We are limiting ourselves in these articles to singing in public, corporate worship. Music in other contexts is a different matter, which we are not taking up here. We are talking about singing as a body in worship, where together we come before the Lord God and obey His call to “Sing forth the honour of his name: make his praise glorious” (Ps. 66:2).

The Element Necessary for Corporate Worship

Singing is an element of public, corporate worship commanded by God Himself in Scripture. He does that through the psalmist in Psalm 111:1, “Praise ye the Lord.” And then, He does so through the psalm­ist’s own example of fulfilling that calling in corporate worship, “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright and in the congrega­tion.” The psalmist, and God through him, commands us to praise the Lord among the saints.

Singing in public, corporate worship is demanded by the regulative principle of worship, for not only the Old Testament, but the New Testament as well, calls us to sing in worship. Colossians 3:16, which does not talk only about corporate worship, nonetheless speaks to corporate worship, calling us to sing in worship, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

The apostolic church also provides an example of singing in corporate worship. Once again, following the Jewish synagogue worship, the New Testament church sang in her worship services. I Corinthians 14:15, a chapter about the public corporate worship of the church at Corinth, says that the church in Corinth sang: “What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” The church is commanded to sing, and the example that we have of the New Testament church worship­ing as recorded in the New Testament is that part of their worship was singing. Singing is not an option in corporate worship; the Word of God requires it.

The Purpose of This Element

Singing is closely connected to prayer.1 They are not the exact same thing, of course, for one element is sung and the other is spoken. They are separate and distinct elements of worship. Nonetheless, they are connected. Both singing and prayer express praise to God. Both give expression to our sorrow for sin and our confes­sion of sin. Both are means of bringing requests. Both express thanks to God.

But for singing, the primary purpose is praise. So often in the Scriptures, and especially in the Psalms,2 the word “sing” and the word “praise” are put together, as though the Spirit defines singing as praise. Sometimes the two words are put together back-to-back and repeated, as, for example, in Psalm 47:6, “Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises.”

Psalm 111:1 calls us to praise through singing, using two words for praise. Though both words are translat­ed the same way, “praise,” there are actually two different words in verse 1. The first is used when the psalmist commands, “Praise ye the Lord.” That particular word calls us to laud, to exalt, to magnify the qualities, names, attributes, and works of Jehovah God. That means, then, that praise must be intelligent. A person cannot praise God if he does not know God. Praise might be based on a simple faith at times, but it has to know something in order to praise. It ought to be the case that the deeper we know God, the more we praise and the more fervent our praise to Him is. This is what that first word, “Praise ye the Lord,” indicates.

The second word translated “praise” in Psalm 111:1 is a little bit different. It is used when the psalmist says, “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart.” Literally, that word means, “I will constantly hurl exaltations at.” The idea is that God is so worthy that we cannot praise fast enough or proclaim fervently enough because He is so glorious. We shoot out words of praise to Him. And we do that in a very specific way.

The Nature of Singing

Singing is a poetic form of communicating to God. There are two purposes for singing. The first is to com­municate an idea with intelligible words. The second is to communicate emotions or affections through the use of those words. These two things are never and can never be separated in singing. A person can express ideas via writing prose as I am doing now. A person can communicate information by speaking. In either me­dium he expresses some emotions through the words, but not to the degree that he can by singing. In singing, one puts those words, those ideas, to a melody so that the emotions that those words bring up in a person, and a people, are most fully and beautifully expressed.

In prose and spoken word it is impossible to commu­nicate with such beauty as is found in the expression of words sung. In prose and spoken word it is impossible to capture all the emotion and beauty of expression with any number of people at the exact same time as is possible in singing.

Because of this unique ability of song to combine ideas and emotions and beauty, singing is a unique and powerful way of praising God. Expressions that in­clude emphasis in the right places, that rhyme, and that are set to an appropriate tune represent the entire per­son as the person is singing. The combination of the words and the tune that is appropriate to those words affects the will as we exalt the God of majesty.3 As the psalmist says in the text quoted above, “I will praise the Lord with my whole heart.” That is, I will praise Him with all that I am, mind, will, and emotions. It is pos­sible, of course, just to stand there and mumble, uninvolved in the singing at all. But if someone is singing rightly, the song uniquely represents everything that the person is as a person being set before the God of all glory in wor­ship.

This unique way of praising may be prone to abuse. There is a danger in song and singing that it is simply an emotional release. Singing can be made into a purely subjective experience. If singing is only emotional fer­vor, then it is useless and even dangerous. For example, a person can sing heretical words, but still feel like he is praising because of the power of the poetry and of the music. In contrast, the power of singing must be rooted in the truthful words that in combination with the appropriate music produce accurate emotion. It has to be that way because the Holy Spirit is the power of singing, and the Holy Spirit always uses the truth of God’s Word.

If you would speak to a Mormon about his singing, he would say he has deep feelings of praise and worship while singing a song with a powerful tune. If you would then ask him what the words of that song are, perhaps he would tell you words that proclaim Mormonism’s heretical doctrine that Jesus Christ was merely a man and not God. Nonetheless, he may say, “I feel the Spirit is present with me when I sing those words. I can feel that the Spirit is working.”

This is not the work of the Spirit, and neither is it praise. It is genuine emotion, but it is not produced by the Spirit. The Spirit works through truth. And therefore, the only emotion that is valid as part of true worship is emotion grounded in the truth of God’s Word.

An additional abuse with singing is the error of Pentecostalism, where emotions can become so whipped up that, once again, the emotions are separated from the solid ground of the truth as appropriated by the mind. This allows one to be manipulated and deceived. Always, healthy, true emo­tion in song arises out of and is grounded in the truth of the words that the Spirit is using to fill the mind.

Singing As Spiritual Dialogue with God

You recall that the worship service is a dialog be­tween God and His people. God our Friend-Sovereign speaks in His Word, and we His friend-servants re­spond in singing and prayer. It is the experience of the covenant of grace as God fellowships with us in the service.

In the elements of worship where God speaks to us, He speaks to us in such a way that He gives Himself to us. He gives us Himself and all of His blessings con­tained in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And in praise of song, the children of God re­spond by giving all that we are, body and soul, mind and will, to Him as a sacrifice of love and thanksgiving.

Psalm 111 talks about this. The call of verse 1 is to praise God. The rest of the psalm is the reason why we are to praise God. Verses 2 through 4 tell us that God is the God who has given Himself to us in all of His wonderful works. And then verses 5 through 9 go into detail about what those works are and how God gives Himself to us in those works.

In verse 5 He is the God who feeds His people. He gives them His providential care. In verse 6 He is the God who gives His people the heritage of the heathen. That means that in the end, all is for the child of God. Everything is given to him.

In verse 4 and verse 9 the psalmist says that God is the God who has commanded His covenant forever, that He will ever be mindful of that covenant. The experience of the covenant is that God is ours. We are bound to Him, and He to us, in love and fellowship. Then in verse 9 the great surety of that covenant is that He gives us redemption in the death of His own Son. In redemption we have God made flesh, we have God’s own righteousness imputed to us and then worked in us. Redemption gives us God Himself in Jesus Christ.

In the elements of the worship service that come from His side, God recounts all these things about Himself and His work. He sets before us Himself as the God who gives us Himself. Therefore our singing must be a giving of ourselves to Him in response.

1 So Calvin: “As for public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists simply of speech, the other of song.” Preface to the Genevan Psalter under the heading, “Why Psalms?”

2 I found this 25 times in the Psalms, though there may be some I missed.

3 Similarly, the main element from God’s side, the preaching of the Word, must combine both ideas and unction.