The Quest for Music Miracles
© Copyright, Grantley Morris All rights reserved
Music’s Facets in Scripture’s Light
We Christians tend to use music as bait, to allure; a novelty, to entertain; a sedative to soothe, a stimulant to whip-up emotions: or a glimmering orb to mesmerize the wavering wayward into a decision.
Is this all our Lord intends for earthly music? Or is it like thinking God gave us Bibles to use as church door-stops, kneeling pads and hand-held fans? Is our use of music pleasing to the Lord? Or is it a virtual prostitution of His precious gift?
We must determine how God expects us to use music. The most crucial thing in the entire universe is involved – God’s will. So we need something much more concrete than an educated guess. Emotions, traditions, worldly trends, love of music and commendable intentions must all bow to God’s will.
The will of God, however, always agrees with the Word of God. An exploratory Bible probe is therefore imperative; Scripture’s evaluation of music must be determined with precision.
Time-wise, we may be closer to the sparkling new heaven and earth, than to the era when the Bible was penned. In character, however, our shabby world is far closer to that of the Bible than to the new age. So we can take our Biblical findings and apply them to our era with little or no modification.
Ancient musical instruments may have been rudimentary, but the Bible’s approach to music is so sophisticated that it makes some of our modern attempts seem simplistic. This is to be expected from a book that claims to be not just God’s history book, but His guide book for all generations (Romans 4:23-24; 15:4; 1 Corinthians 9:10; 10:11; 1 Peter 1:10-12).
Facts gleaned from our Bible discovery tour will provide us with
significant guidance and confirmation in our effort to set precise,
divinely directed goals for our music.
When seeking Biblical guidelines for our music, Old Testament references tend to predominate. But should Christians be led by pre-Christian Scriptures?
Music receives significantly less emphasis in the New Testament. Does this indicate that the Lord meant music to play a lesser role in the Christian era?
We need to resolve these issues before proceeding with our Biblical exploration.
The amount of space Scripture allocates to a subject does not necessarily reflect God’s view of its importance. The New Testament’s attitude to musical instruments is typical: little mention is made of them, and yet it gives them the highest possible status, speaking of ‘harps of God’ and revealing that musical instruments are played in heaven itself.
The casual way the New Testament mentions the singing of hymns shows that it regards music as a normal part of a Christian’s life.
‘And, having sung a hymn, they went out . . .’ (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26).
‘And at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God . . . And suddenly . . .’ (Acts 16:25-26).
‘When you come together, every one of you has a hymn . . .’ (1 Corinthians 14:26).
‘. . . speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs’ (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
‘Is any among you afflicted? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing hymns’ (James 5:13).
These New Testament Scriptures give the impression that for the Christian, hymn singing is as natural as breathing. The centrality of such music to Christian living is taken for granted.
Little wonder that when reporting to the Roman emperor the activities of Christians in about AD 110, Pliny the Younger zeroed in on hymn singing.
‘They are accustomed to meet on a fixed day before daylight to sing a hymn of praise to Christ as God. They read from their own sacred writings and partake of a very simple meal consisting of bread and wine . . .’
In about 125 AD a Greek described to his fellow pagans a typical Christian funeral. The Christians would escort the ‘body with songs and thanksgiving as if he were setting out from one place to another nearby’.
The New Testament speaks of singing under the Spirit’s influence (1 Corinthians 14:15) and implies that singing is a natural consequence of being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-19). Twice in the chapter on spiritual gifts, singing is mentioned (1 Corinthians 14:15,26). Clearly, music is linked with one of the most fundamental aspects of the New Testament era – the outpouring of God’s Spirit.
Jesus sang. Indeed, He still sings (Matthew 26:30; Hebrews 2:12). And it is the New Testament, rather than the Old, that gives the greater insight into music beyond this world (in the book of Revelation). Furthermore, there are possibly more hymns and remnants of early Christian hymns locked in the New Testament text than most of us realize. (See Appendix, Note 1.9.)
It is hardly surprising that something that will out-last our planet, had no difficulty surviving the passing of the old covenant!
If the entire Old Testament had been made obsolete by the New, we would have to gloss over the Bible’s earlier musical insights. But the earlier Scriptures were not a crumbling ruin that had to be demolished to make way for the new. On the contrary, they are the very foundation upon which the New Testament stands.
When Jesus confidently declared, ‘It is written’, He quoted from the pre-Christian Scriptures that, He said, ‘cannot be broken’ (John 10:35). And it was these that Paul was referring to when he wrote:
‘ALL Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Old Testament was written for people belonging to the New Testament era.
‘Whatever things were written previously, were written for OUR instruction . . .’ (Romans 15:4 – see also Acts 26:22; Romans 4:22-24; 1 Corinthians 9:9-10; 10:11; 1 Peter 1:11-12).
The Lord didn’t go to the lengths He did in giving musical instructions in the Old Testament, only to ignore it and laboriously repeat it all in the New. The Old Testament’s hymn book (Psalms) is the most frequently quoted book in the New Testament. According to one calculation, of the approximately 287 Old Testament quotes in the New Testament, more than forty-four percent are from the Psalms. The God who inspired the Old Testament is the same God we serve today.
Since singing in tongues occurred in the New Testament period, it is likely the other verbal gifts of the Spirit were also commonly set to music. Singing in tongues is mentioned unambiguously in only part of one New Testament verse – just three Greek words (1 Corinthians 14:15). Had the Corinthian church been a little more orderly, we would lack even this insight into early church worship. But we don’t need more. The use of music in delivering utterances of the Spirit is already established in the Old Testament. Further confirmation in the latter part of Scripture is unnecessary.
Some pre-Christian practices have been superseded, but music is
obviously not one of them. Christian musicians can learn from
the Old Testament as readily as from the New.
One final thing before commencing: when reading Bible references to singing, there is no reason for instrumentalists to feel left out.
Paul and Silas were probably not permitted to bring their grand
piano and drum set into the cramped Philippian jail to accompany
their singing’ (Acts 16:25). Nevertheless, singing to the accompaniment
of instruments is the norm in Scripture. (For a sample of the
Biblical support for this statement, see 1 Kings 10:12 – ‘psalteries
for the singers’ ; 1 Chronicles 15:16, 19; 2 Chronicles 5:12;
23:13; Psalm 33:2; 71:22; 98:5; 147:7; 149:3; Isaiah 38:20.) Harps,
alone, are mentioned some fifty times. References to trumpets
are twice as frequent. David appointed 4,000 instrumentalists
for sacred music (1 Chronicles 23:5). David himself was renowned
not only as a song writer, but as a highly skilled harpist (1
Samuel 16:16-18) and a maker of fine musical instruments (1 Chronicles
23:5; Amos 6:5).
If music began in the heart of God, it is only fitting that it be offered back to Him. And so we find such Scriptures as:
‘I will sing unto the Lord as long as I live:
Scripture abounds with such exhortations to sing God’s praises. They occur up to four times in one verse (Psalm 47:6) as the Bible seeks to drive home the importance of musically worshipping our Creator.
However, there are two ways of singing God’s praises: we can direct our song solely to God, or we can use music to tell others how praiseworthy God is.
Expressions like ‘sing unto the Lord’ clearly indicate when the former type of praise is in focus.
Flick through the Bible. After finding about sixty such references to singing to God, you might get the impression God is trying to tell you something!
We shall see later that it is quite Scriptural to sing about God, but the emphasis is upon singing to Him.
Worshipping the majestic Lord of heaven and earth is the highest use anything can ever be put to. The fact that the Almighty has ordained that music be used for this exalted purpose indicates how highly esteemed earthly music is.
It is customary to place musical worship at the beginning of church services. This is consistent with Psalm 100:
‘Come before His presence with singing’ (Verse 2).
‘Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
It would be wrong, however, to conclude from this practice that musical worship is a mere preliminary. On the contrary, it is first priority.
Until we have adequately used music to bless, honor and express our love to the One who gave us the gift, we have no right to use our God-given gift for any lesser purpose. Do we give worship the primacy that our Lord deserves? We can put music to trivial uses that carry no eternal reward. But we will be thankful forever for the earthly time we spend worshipping our Creator and Redeemer. Communing with the sovereign Lord of glory is our highest calling. May we never lose sight of this.
Making melody to the Lord is a good and delightful thing (Psalm 92:1, 3; 147:1).
The Levitical musicians lived in the temple chambers ‘free from other duties’ because they were in service ‘day and night’ (1 Chronicles 9:33 cf Psalm 134:1; 84:4). However, the temple was – at least usually – closed at night (1 Chronicles 9:27). Our information is scanty, but perhaps these musicians worshipped the Lord not just when other worshippers were present, but at times when only the Lord was listening.
That the Lord appointed these Levites, confirms what by now must be obvious: music is no gimmick. It is a holy ministry of the highest order. In fact, as we have seen, it is about the only temple ministry to survive the revolutionary consequences of Christ offering the ultimate sacrifice. So much has been superseded; Levites, priests, ceremonial cleansing, unclean food, burnt offerings, sacrifices and the veil to the holy of holies have all gone. But music remains.
‘Open my lips,’ prayed David, ‘and my mouth will show forth your praises’ (Psalm 51:15). David recognized that only with God’s enabling can we effectively praise God. This prayer, however, follows an even more critical one for those desiring to minister to the Lord:
‘Create in me a clean heart, O God . . .’ (Psalm 51:10).
A God whose mercies are ‘new every morning’ (Lamentations 3:22 f) is continually worthy of new songs (Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9; 14:3).
He whose works are innumerable (Job 5:9) should be praised in innumerable ways, including the use of a great variety of musical instruments (Psalm 150:3-5). Worship Him whose greatness is indescribable in ways that go beyond words See ‘wordless praise,’ chapter 6).
A God of infinite abilities is worthy to be praised skillfully by accomplished musicians (Psalm 33:3; 1 Chronicles 15:22. See Appendix, Note 4.1 for indications that Jewish singers were of a high standard).
A God who has given us His very best (Romans 8:32) deserves our best (e.g. Malachi 1:6-9).
Worship the Creator creatively
‘. . . In the night His song shall be with me,
I’m led to believe that down through the centuries, music has inspired many prayers. During King David’s reign, I can imagine Mrs. Asaph praying, ‘Lord, please stop my husband from practicing his cymbals so late at night.’
Perhaps hour after tortuous hour of his neighbor’s singing lessons inspired someone like Hudson Taylor to pray, ‘O Lord, send me to China!’
Then there’s little Tommy’s prayer, ‘Lord, please may my violin break today.’
And let’s not forget Mary, nervously awaiting her exam results: ‘Dear God, please may Beethoven have composed the Messiah.’
Yes, music has done much to encourage prayer.
The book of Psalms is not only Scripture’s hymn book; it is its prayer book. Of all the prayers recorded in God’s Word, a large proportion, perhaps nearly half, were originally set to music. Many of these prayers were associated with worship. In this section, however, we will widen our horizon to include other types of prayer.
According to my fairly careful calculations, two-thirds of the Bible’s songs are either entirely prayers or contain prayers. Each of these songs has such expressions as ‘unto THEE, O Lord,’ clearly indicating that God is being personally addressed.
Irrespective of how many categories we divide prayer into, we can usually find Biblical examples of each type being sung to the Lord. References cited below are merely representative of the Bible’s vast collection of melodic prayers. Were I to attempt a full list of Scriptures for each type of prayer, I’d probably still be writing!
Examples of worship, adoration, praise and thanksgiving are too numerous to miss. In addition, we find prayers of supplication, (Psalm 4:1; 28:2; 142) confession, (Psalm 51) lament, (Psalm 10, 69, 79) intercession, (Psalm 68:3; 72:1 ff; 125:4) communion, (Psalm 63:1-8) faith (Psalm 65:2) and recounting to God His past acts (Psalm 68:7-10). The numerous petitions offered in song include requests for healing, (Psalm 6:2) forgiveness, (Psalm 25:7, 11, 18) holiness, (Psalm 19:12-14; 139:23; 119:10; 141:3-5) enlightenment, (Psalm 90:12; 119:18, 169) guidance, (Psalm 25:5; 31:3) God’s blessing, (Psalm 90:14-17) prosperity, (Psalm 144:12-14) joy, (Psalm 51:8, 12) vindication, (Psalm 109) deliverance, (Psalm 17:13; 71:2) protection (Psalm 56:1-2) and imprecation (Psalm 10:15; 68:1-2; 140:11).
And the above is not even a full list! Obviously, there need be nothing shallow or limiting about melodic prayers. How do your prayers compare?
Frequently the Psalms’ prayers contain a commendable declaration of faith and praise in the midst of adversity. Psalm 13, for instance, commences:
How long, O Lord?
A few lines later, however, this once-dreary psalm triumphantly concludes:
‘I will sing unto the Lord, because He has dealt bountifully with me (Verse 6).
Biblical prayers set to music are not restricted to the Psalms. Consider Habakkuk chapter 3. The first verse clearly states that it is a prayer and the last line of the chapter proves that it was intended to be set to music (note also Isaiah 38:9-20; Jonah 2:2-9).
In Nehemiah’s time it was a musician (A ‘son of Asaph,’ cf Nehemiah 7:44) who was chosen to have a special ministry in prayer (Nehemiah 11:17).
In a surprisingly high proportion of New Testament references to music, prayer and singing appear side by side (Acts 16:25; 1 Corinthians 14:15; James 5:13-15; Revelation 5:8-9 – Ephesians 5:19-20 comes close to being a fifth reference.).
I have brought to you but a few strains from the Bible’s glorious symphony of prayer. We could linger here for hours. But we must move on. As we do, however, may we be encouraged to broaden the number and type of prayers we commit to music.
I almost dug a hole in my Bible trying to find them. Earlier, I had effortlessly located nearly a score of Biblical exhortations to sing praises to God. Had I the motivation, I would surely have caught still others that were playfully eluding me. Yet where are the corresponding exhortations to sing praises about God to a congregation? They are as rare as bearded sopranos!
In a moment of desperation I almost wrenched part of 1 Samuel 21:11 out of its context:
‘. . . sing to one another of him . . .’
But alas, it is referring to secular music!
The Babylonians were a willing human audience. They pressed the Israelites to sing to them ‘the Lord’s song’ (Psalm 137). It would have been easier to force a tune out of granite.
The following verse is the most I have been able to wring out of Scripture in the way of a specific exhortation to sing to people about God, and even then the original wording is a little too vague to be certain it is referring to music (see Appendix, Note 1.2).
“. . . with a singing voice declare . . . to the end of the earth . . . ‘The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob. And they thirsted not when He led them through the deserts. He caused the water to flow out of the rock for them . . .’ ” (Isaiah 48:20-21).
Here we find an exhortation to sing (or shout) about certain miraculous acts of God. This song exalting God is apparently directed to people, rather than to the Lord. I have found no other such command in Scripture.
The Book that repeatedly tells us to sing to the Lord hardly ever tells us to sing to people about the Lord. There’s a lesson here somewhere.
Our search is much more fruitful, however, when we widen it to include not just specific commands, but the psalmist’s personal example. For instance, Psalms 95, 96 and 98 are all exhortations to sing ‘unto the Lord’. Yet, in encouraging his hearers to do this, the psalmist musically proclaims to them (not to God) the Lord’s praiseworthy acts (Psalm 95:3-5; 96:4-6; 98:1-3 – similar examples are found in Psalm 33, 47, 105, 107, 135, 136, 147, 149).
Commencing with, ‘Give ear, O my people’, Psalm 78 is obviously directed to an earthly audience, and half of it describes God’s mighty acts.
‘Come, behold the works of the Lord’, sings the forty-sixth psalm (verse 8). It then proceeds to enumerate those works.
So although Scripture most often exhorts us to direct our music to God, rather than man, it provides many examples of singing God’s praises to a human audience.
Most frequent of all, is music directed to God but deliberately played in the presence of other people. That way, two of music’s two most important functions – ministering to God and to people – are achieved at the same time. Furthermore, it effectively focuses both the musicians’ and the audience’s attention upon the Lord, who alone is the Source of effective ministry. The audience is drawn into worshipping the Creator, rather than idolizing the dust the music is coming from.
‘. . . I will sing UNTO YOU among the nations‘ (Psalm 108:3 – note also 1 Chronicles 16:8-9; Psalm 9:11; 18:49; 57:9; 96:1, 3).
‘At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns TO GOD, and the prisoners were listening to them’ (Acts 16:25).
‘. . . Speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart TO THE LORD’ (Ephesians 5:19).
Ultimately, every song of praise in the Bible directed to God
falls into this category. Obviously, the Lord intends us to ‘overhear’
every song of praise recorded in the Bible.
We have seen that exhorting others to praise God is a very common theme in the Bible’s songs. Sermons on praise can be helpful, but the psalmists usually went far beyond this. By singing their song they provided a living example. Moreover, they created an atmosphere conducive to praise and even provided words for their hearers to use.
‘O magnify the Lord WITH ME
‘And all the congregation worshipped, and the singers sang and the trumpeters sounded: and all this continued until the burnt offering was finished’ (2 Chronicles 29:28).
‘All the people of the land rejoiced and blew trumpets, the singers with their musical instruments LEADING the praise’ (2 Chronicles 23:13 NASB).
Some psalms (e.g. Psalm 136) were probably intended to be sung by a choir, with responses by the congregation. In fact, the nature of Hebrew poetry means that most psalms can be readily used in this form of singing (See chapter 11). At least by the first century AD, there were three different types of responsive singing, alternating between a leader and the congregation.
Music that woos the Spirit of God must, of necessity, make demons quake.
When God’s chosen people comprised one nation, wars involving that nation had spiritual overtones. For instance, when the Israelites slaughtered the former inhabitants of the promised land, they were executing God’s judgment, not expressing personal hostilities (Genesis 15:16; Leviticus 18:24-25; Deuteronomy 7:16, 20-24; 20:16-17). This is highlighted by the Lord repeatedly rebuking Israel for being too lenient (Numbers 31:3, 7, 12-16; Judges 1:24-2:2; 1 Samuel 15:2-3, 9-11, 32-33; note also Jeremiah 48:8, 10) As the Lord told Jehoshaphat centuries later, ‘The battle is not yours, but God’s’ (2 Chronicles 20:15 b – note also 1 Samuel 17:45-47; 1 Chronicles 5:22; Zechariah 14:2-3).
The Lord of hosts was deeply involved in Israel’s wars; whether it was giving victory to Joshua’s army whenever Moses raised his rod, (Exodus 17:11, note verse 16) pounding the Amorites with hailstones, (Joshua 10:11) teaching David’s ‘hands to war,’ (2 Samuel 22:35) revealing Syrian war secrets to Elisha, (2 Kings 6:8-12) or slaying Sennacherib’s army, (Isaiah 37:36 – note also Exodus 14:14; Judges 5:4, 19-20, 23, 31; Isaiah 9:11-13; 13:3-5; 34:2-8) to mention just a few exploits of the One who is ‘mighty in battle’ (Psalm 24:8). On the other hand, we would expect evil spiritual powers to have an active interest in attempts to annihilate or subjugate God’s people (cf Numbers 33:4; 1 Samuel 17:43 b; 1 Kings 20:28; 2 Kings 18:32-35; 19:9-12, 22-23, 27-28, 34; 1 Chronicles 14:11-12).
Since these wars clearly had a spiritual dimension, they may encompass principles of relevance to the spiritual warfare each of us face today (2 Corinthians 10:3-4; Ephesians 6:11-17; 1 Timothy 1:18; 6:12). This could be a major reason why God has preserved these accounts in Scripture.
Consider this divine instruction:
‘If you go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresses you, then you shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and you shall be remembered before the Lord your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies’ (Numbers 10:9).
Trumpet blowing played a significant role in the defeat of God’s enemies under both Joshua’s (Joshua 6:4-6) and Gideon’s (Judges 7:22) leadership. In each case, the decisive point of the battle was won before they even physically touched the enemy. (See Appendix, Note 4.2: Trumpets in War.)
In Jehoshaphat’s time, God’s secret weapon was taken one step further: the enemies annihilated each other. The most strenuous thing God’s people had to do was to collect the booty (2 Chronicles 20:21 ff). Musicians played the key role in this glorious victory, right from the initial prophecy, (2 Chronicles 20:14) through to the victory celebration (2 Chronicles 20:27-28).
Following in this tradition, a Jewish hero in the intertestamental era is reported to have loudly sung psalms as he successfully attacked the enemy (2 Maccabees 12:37).
Isaiah connected the playing of godly music with the Lord executing His judgment upon Assyria (Isaiah 30:29, 32). The blows of God’s judgement would fall upon anti-God forces to the accompaniment of the drums and stringed instruments (and singing) of God’s people.
Half of Psalm 149 may be roughly thought of as dealing with the subject of musical praise, and the other half, with the defeat of God’s enemies. These two, seemingly diverse activities, might be closely related.
With David, certain leaders were involved in the appointment of the Levitical musicians. Though acknowledging that there are other views, Payne insists that the Hebrew of 1 Chronicles 25:1 unambiguously identifies these leaders as military commanders, an interpretation favored by several Bible translations (NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, Jerusalem Bible). If military commanders had a particular interest in the appointment of musicians, it suggests a strong link between music and warfare.
Another aspect of spiritual warfare is seen in David’s skillful harp playing which relieved King Saul of his oppression from an evil spirit (1 Samuel 16:16-17, 23).
In this context, note Psalm 138:1:
‘I will praise you with my whole heart:
‘Gods’ often represent demonic powers (cf Leviticus 17:7; Deuteronomy 32:17; Psalm 106:37; 1 Corinthians 10:19-21; Revelation 9:20). So this verse is yet another Scriptural suggestion that musically praising God directly affects evil spiritual powers.
This discussion is important because spiritual warfare is inevitable for the Christian. Even after Christ’s victory, Peter declared Satan to be our enemy and Paul affirmed that we wrestle against principalities, powers and rulers of darkness (1 Peter 5:8; Ephesians 6:12). This, of course, is not merely defensive. We should be on the attack, as suggested by the NIV rendering of Psalm 141:5 b, ‘My prayer is ever against the deeds of evildoers’.
A Tyndale publication, Attack From the Spirit World is a compilation of reports from 38 different Christian workers (mainly missionaries) in a total of 24 different countries. Though the sources are so diverse, account after account testifies to the power of Christian songs over the demonic realm. As Ruth Noack put it, years of experience in pre-Communist China had taught her that ‘demons do not like hymn singing’.
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