In Tune With God

The Quest for Music Miracles

Grantley Morris

© Copyright, Grantley Morris  All rights reserved



Music’s Facets in Scripture’s Light


      Christians have used music as an emotional release. Is this a perversion of God’s gift? Not according to Scripture. James wrote, ‘Is anyone happy? Let him sing psalms’ (James 5:13). Clearly, such a supposedly ‘unspiritual’ motivation has God’s approval. Isaiah virtually commands the barren to sing for joy because of the exciting things that will happen to them (Isaiah 54:1).

      We may piously lament theological shallowness in some Christian songs, but an emotional shallowness is also below the scriptural norm.

      Ideally, Christian music is like a rope made strong by the entwining of many strands. Emotional appeal is one of those strands. Some of us are tempted to rely almost exclusively upon it. But God intends music to accomplish far more than mere emotionalism can achieve. Others of us would like to weaken the emotional strand, but that would weaken the entire rope.

      The psalmists confessed feelings of confusion and frustration. Jesus openly wept and displayed anger. Early Christians ‘made great lamentation’ over Stephen (Acts 8:2). The Ephesian elders ‘all wept sore’ at Paul’s departure (Acts 20:37). Many of us, in contrast, seem reluctant to even admit that dedicated Christians can have feelings other than peace and moderate joy. We could hardly be surprised if, locked within many Christians from time to time, are strong feelings that they have no idea how to express in an authentically Christian manner.

      Emotions are created by God. We should neither despise them, nor be enslaved by them.

      Whereas some Christian traditions fear ‘excessive’ enthusiasm, there are others equally wary of any expression of sorrow. Yet in the book of Ezra we see both, on the same occasion and associated with music (Ezra 3:10-13).

      A jubilant expression of joy seems to be gaining acceptance in Christian circles. The expression of sorrow, however, often seems less common in today’s Christian music than in Scripture (e.g. 2 Samuel 1:17 ff; 3:33-34; 2 Chronicles 35:25; Psalm 137; Jeremiah 9:20 – some translations – and Matthew 9:23).

      In his youth, William Muhlenberg wrote a melancholic hymn. He afterward regretted its tone and for years tried to brighten it. To his repeated frustration, the hymn was widely accepted only in its original form.

      Sad songs should not seem strange to us – consider the innumerable pop songs of our era expressing the pain of broken relationships. In P. B. Shelley’s opinion, humanity’s ‘sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought’.

      There is considerable scope for such Christian songs; especially dealing with Jesus’ suffering and death, the sorrow of knowing a loved one is going to a Christ-less eternity, grieving over past sin, lamenting the future judgment of this world, (cf the book of Lamentations) and so on.

      A renowned Christian author once implied to song-writer Don Wyrtzen that it is wrong to compose when one is depressed. Don hardly needed his extensive theological training to recognize that had psalmists heeded such advice, our Bibles would be slimmer.

      ‘Out of the depths [of distress] I cry to you, O Lord’ (Psalm 130:1).

      How can we hope to adequately minister to real people with real hurts if our songs belong to a fantasy world of continual highs? Scripture urges us not just to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice,’ but to ‘weep with those who weep’ (Romans 12:15).

      The rejected, ridiculed, pain-racked Son of Man identified with our anguish before raising us up with Him. Let’s not allow hypocrisy to banish this divine pattern from our songs.

      Opening the Psalter almost at random reveals inspired songs which plunge into the depths of despair before leading their hearers to new heights of devotion (e.g. Psalms 6, 10, 11, 12, 13), Their sheer honesty helps believers cope with conflicts some of us pretend never exist in godly people – fear, pain, grief, loneliness, frustration, failure, depression, complaints, guilt, enemies, unanswered prayer, the apparent failure of God’s promises, the success of the world in contrast to the trials of God’s people – and the list keeps going. Whereas some psalms joyfully praise God for victories, success and prosperity, others freely admit being betrayed, rejected, ridiculed and slandered.

      Thankfully, Christians in great distress have always been able to turn to biblical songs for comfort. Many of today’s song-writers would have let them down. But what about those pressures unique to our era – unemployment, AIDS, the power of the mass media, the ecological time-bomb, fear of getting mugged, the fragmentation of Christ’s body, the exploitation of sex, and so on? While we’re busily burying such problems in the ‘too hard’ basket, real flesh and blood Christians are forced every day to try to cope with them. Does our music sufficiently follow the psalmist’s lead, offering emotional and spiritual support to fellow believers weighed down by these burdens?

      Perhaps it is significant that Israel’s mourning women – who almost certainly used music (2 Chronicles 35:25) – were apparently known as ‘wise women’ (2 Samuel 14:2 (?); Jeremiah 9:17 – literal translation).

      One needs a lot of courage, wisdom and experience to take up David’s lyre.

      I know of a church that banned the old Scripture chorus based on Habakkuk’s song, ‘Though the fig tree does not blossom’ (Habakkuk 3:17-19). It was pronounced too negative! The song is saying that we can enjoy and delight in God for who He is, not just for His gifts; that God is far more precious than material things; that no matter how much circumstances may hinder our physical eyes from seeing it, God is always loving and trustworthy. What could be more positive? What greater comfort could there be for someone suffering a financial reverse? What greater encouragement to see material things in their proper perspective?

      A careful study of the seemingly negative aspects of the Psalms will confirm that the Bible’s songs really are a divine pattern for today’s music.

      To lift people we must first reach down to where they stand. The first task of apparently mournful songs is to assure hearers that they are not alone: other godly people have experienced similar feelings. What vast comforting power there is in the knowledge that others really understand! Inspired of God, such music is not a call to self-pity, but a sweet embrace dispelling loneliness; a shaft of hope penetrating icy darkness.

      Beginning here, a song can slowly lift hurting people heavenwards. Having identified with their sorrow, it can then be used of God to help hurting humanity come to grips with real-life crises and handle them in a truly God-glorifying way; providing a means of expressing nebulous feelings and gradually turn repressed anxieties into concrete prayers. It can then, under the Spirit’s leading, gently, patiently entice the afflicted to confident trust. Carefully nourished, trust will grow ever stronger until it finally bursts into jubilant praise. We must not, however, confuse the starting point with the goal, imagining we can bludgeon hurting Christians into by-passing these stages and commence with triumphant praise. If we do, I suggest it is we, not they, who have deviated from the biblical pattern.

      ‘Singing bright songs to a grieving person is like rubbing salt into a wound’ (Paraphrase of Proverbs 25:20).

      ‘. . . they had made an appointment together to come to mourn with him and to comfort him . . . they lifted up their voice and wept; and they rent everyone his mantle, and sprinkled dust upon their heads toward heaven. So they sat down with him upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke unto him, for they saw that his grief was very great’ (Job 2:11-13).

      ‘A time to weep and a time to laugh.
      A time for dirges and a time for anthems’ (Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 3:4).


      (1) Processions

      When Nehemiah dedicated the city wall, he divided the people into two processions, each with their instruments and singers (Nehemiah 12:27-43). This religious use of processions had a long history in Israel. For more Scriptures relating to religious processions, see Appendix, Note 4.4.

      If we view the way David brought the ark into Jerusalem as a procession, we can easily see how they must have often been associated with dancing as well as music (2 Samuel 6:12-16; 1 Chronicles 15:1-29). Perhaps we could also view the march of Jehoshaphat’s army behind the singers as a religious procession (2 Chronicles 20:17-22). Even the march around Jericho led by Joshua seems to bear similarities (Joshua 6:3 ff).

      ‘Onward Christian soldiers’ is one of a number of hymns originally written for Christian processions.

      The challenge of even simple movement can sometimes inspire selfless dedication. A choir sang a recessional as they marched with reverence and precision up the center aisle to the back of the church. On the way was grating covering a hot-air register, negotiated with grace by woman after woman. Then a high heel slipped through the grill. Knowing the recessional must not falter, the quick-thinking lady stepped out of her shoe and without a break the procession continued. Inspired by her poise, the next man knew how to salvage the situation. Not dropping a beat, he executed a masterful swoop and seized the shoe. With it came the entire grate. Startled, but still singing, still conscious of the solemnity of the occasion, he could only proceed up the aisle carrying the shoe and the grate.

      The couple might have looked a trifle ridiculous as they solemnly pressed on, but sheer dedication to excellence had redeemed what could have been disaster. Not a note had been missed. With dignity they proceeded in faultless step, majestic music soaring heavenward, striding as one with as the next man reverently stepped into the open register.

      (2) Dancing

      Though worldly excesses and ‘religious’ fears make me hesitate, Scripture forces me to confess that godly music was frequently associated with dancing (e.g. Exodus 15:20-21; Psalm 149:3; 150:4; Luke 15:25). Being thoroughly convinced from childhood that all dancing is worldly has made it difficult for me to face these Scriptures.

      To the accompaniment of music, (2 Samuel 6:5, 15; 1 Chronicles 15:27 ff) David leaped (2 Samuel 6:16) and ‘danced before the Lord with all his might’ (2 Samuel 6:14). It was an act of holy worship offered to the God he delighted in. But his wife despised it and, perhaps as a direct result, became barren (2 Samuel 6:16, 20, 23).

      I might have come precariously close to spiritual barrenness myself, had I allowed a similar judgmental attitude toward dancing to remain in me.

      The dancing that Scripture approves of is often misunderstood. For example, we would be way off the mark if we imagined that such modern innovations as dancing by couples were involved.

      Percussion, especially tambourines, seems to have played a prime role in Biblical dancing, often being played by the dancers themselves (Exodus 15:20; Judges 11:34; Psalm 150:4; Jeremiah 31:4). However, other types of instrumental, and even vocal, accompaniment were common (Exodus 15:20-21; 1 Samuel 18:6; 21:11; 2 Samuel 6:14-15; 1 Chronicles 15:16, 29, 29 – 1 Chronicles 13:8 may also include a reference to dancing).

      Could ‘. . . praise His name in the dance’ (Psalm 149:3) refer to singing God’s praises while dancing (cf 1 Samuel 21:11)?

      A number of Bible versions (e.g. RV, RSV, NEB, GNB.) also link singing and dancing in Psalm 87:7.

      The evidence suggests the ‘dance music’ endorsed by Scripture was more complex than we might have expected, with lyrics, as well as rhythm, playing a significant role.

      Psalm 150 gives the impression that dancing was such an integral part of Biblical music that it was impossible to speak at length about music without referring to dancing. The psalmist mentioned it in the midst of a list dealing exclusively with musical instruments (Psalm 150:3-5). Perhaps it was as much a part of their music as hand-clapping is in some Christian circles today.

      Dancing may have been much more a part of the Biblical scene than we generally realize. For example, as Johnson points out, ‘. . . it is hard to imagine the music and ecstasy of prophetic bands [such as those which Saul met (1 Samuel 10:5)] without rhythmic movement . . .’ They even played the instrument most frequently associated with dancing – the tambourine.

      Christ had no hesitation in including dancing in His Prodigal Son parable and when mentioning children’s games to make a point (Luke 15:25; 7:32; Matthew 11:17). Physical movement is a natural and legitimate way to express joy and if the New Testament emphasizes anything, it is that joy did not die with the making of the New Covenant. Even when persecuted, we should ‘jump for joy,’ said Jesus (Luke 6:23). The God who in the Old Testament era turned mourning into dancing (Psalm 30:11; Jeremiah 31:13) has in no way diminished in power or lost His desire for us to exuberantly share in His joy.

      As instrumentalists use their instruments and singers their voices, so dancers use their bodies to magnify the Lord. ‘. . . the body is . . . for the Lord,’ declared Paul, ‘‘. . . glorify God in your body . . .’ Later he expressed his desire ‘that the life of . . . Jesus might be made manifest in our body.’ In a third epistle he wrote of his longing that ‘as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body’ (1 Corinthians 6:13,20; 2 Corinthians 4:10-11; Philippians 1:20). He was not, of course, specifically referring to dancing but I believe that when offered as a living sacrifice to God, a dancing body redeemed by the blood of Jesus can reach Paul’s goal of using one’s body to exalt our Lord.

      As instrumentalists often unite with singers to heighten the power of their individual ministries, so they can both unite with dancers for a further enhancement.

      I have seen the gift sadly abused by Christians who think that by copying the world they glorify the One who overcame the world; who imagine that what pleases the crowds must please the Lord. Too many dancers convert their Christ-bought liberty into an occasion for shame. The situation demands much prayerful rethinking.

      Nevertheless, the fact that dancers can use their bodies for sensual purposes should thwart us no more than the fact that singers can misuse their voices. The very real possibility of abuse only accentuates the glory when that path is spurned in favor of passionate purity. Though the servant in Jesus’ parable resisted the urge to squander his talent on sensual pleasure, he still incurred the master’s wrath because he failed to use that talent positively (Matthew 25:14-30).

      Clement of Alexandria (c AD 150) was so narrow that he even opposed the use of musical instruments, yet even he spoke positively of dancing.

      Ambrose, the ‘jealous upholder of orthodoxy’ who played a role in Augustine’s conversion and was ‘greatly revered’ by him, wrote in about 390 AD:

      ‘Everything is right when it springs from the fear of the Lord. Let’s dance as David did. Let’s not be ashamed to show adoration of God. Dance uplifts the body above the earth into the heavenlies. Dance bound up with faith is a testimony to the living grace of God. He who dances as David danced, dances in grace.’

      Wrote Theodoret forty years later: ‘I see dance as a virtue in harmony with power from above.’

      Next . . .

      In Tune with God: Contents



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