The Quest for Music Miracles
© Copyright, Grantley Morris All rights reserved
God’s Music God’s Way
We plant our feet on the crumbling pearl we temporarily call home. It’s time to grapple with the problems faced by musicians residing on this polluted planet.
The smog down here is so thick that many of us can’t even see some of the issues. Others of us are so wearied by earthly toil that we prefer to side-step them.
I would be honored if the Lord enables me to help penetrate the gloom and shoulder for you much of the burden associated with facing these enigmas head-on.
We’ll commence with issues we often fail to even identify. Before we do, however, let me explain where we are headed.
We have seen (and I will provide even more examples later) that throughout history supernatural moves of God in music have occurred through divine sovereignty, but for music miracles to occur with greater frequency requires two things of us:
(1) to use music God’s way
(2) to have the faith to receive divine intervention in our music.
Around these twin goals this book revolves, with the conviction that when fully appropriated into our lives these strategies will bring us to such intimacy with God and His power that our music will be lifted into a higher realm of the Spirit for His glory.
With these two goals in the sight we are mining to great depth the solid rock of Biblical revelation and, for possible confirmation, venturing beyond that security, sifting through every possible line of evidence right to the precarious edge of human experience. As you already know from the title, this chapter, like chapter 4, is one of several wrestling with the challenge of using God’s music God’s way.
It was the American Civil War. Rev. Rankin bent over a critically wounded soldier. Seeking to minister to him, the chaplain asked if there was anything he could do. The unexpected reply hit the reverend like a sickening blow. He was asked to sing Jesus, Lover of my soul.
He knew the song, but never in his life had he sung it. His United Presbyterian Church taught that only psalm-singing was acceptable to God. A chill swept his spine. Suddenly, the folly of shallow Bible study was all too apparent. The soldier was but seconds from death. It was too late now to feverishly scour the Word for an authoritative answer.
But we have no such excuse.
Most of us have mindlessly accepted the practice of singing songs which are not found in God’s hymn book – the book of Psalms. Few Christians have bothered to seek God’s thoughts on substituting human inventions for His songs.
Without prayerful investigation of God’s Word, all assumptions are potentially dangerous; even ones that seem too obvious to require divine confirmation (e.g. Joshua 9:14-20; 2 Samuel 21:1 f; see also 1 Corinthians 4:4). History confirms that a church custom may be widely accepted without having God’s endorsement.
‘But,’ you protest, ‘we’ve seen in the previous chapter the mighty way God has used non-biblical songs.’ Yes, and that’s strong evidence for using ‘man-made’ songs today, but it falls short of conclusive proof.
Though it’s hopelessly out of context, I’m reminded of Acts 17:30:
‘The times of this ignorance God winked at; but now He commands all men everywhere to repent.’
No doubt an historical search would uncover Christian slave-owners mightily blessed of God. That doesn’t mean the Lord would let me act in like manner!
New Christians, cigarettes drooping from their mouths, have witnessed to the saving power of Jesus Christ in the only way they know – in speech peppered with foul language. It would be hypocritical to be shocked by the Spirit empowering such witnessing. If God doesn’t use flawed vessels and imperfect means, you and I don’t have a chance. Yet that doesn’t imply divine approval of the method.
God even prophesied through the man who sent Jesus to the cross (John 11:49-51).
If not even church tradition guarantees divine approval of our methods, neither will godly motives. We have noted the disastrous consequences of David’s minor deviation from Scripture’s ark-carrying instructions (Chapter 4). The purity of David’s and Uzzah’s motives did not insulate them from God’s judgment (1 Chronicles 13:1-4, 9-10)
It is imperative that we do God’s work, God’s way.
You would brand me a heretic if I claimed a hymn was as inspired as a Biblical Psalm. We readily admit that Biblical songs are of unsurpassable worth. We recognize that the Lord has gone to great lengths to provide and preserve the bountiful collection of uniquely inspired songs found in Scripture. So is it blasphemous to even consider press-ganging lesser songs into Christian service?
As musicians, we dare not proceed without resolving such a fundamental issue. Rather than risk offending our Lord, let’s sift God’s Word in search of clues relevant to this topic. As we proceed, we will pick up some more fascinating insights from that inexhaustible goldmine we call the Bible. (I admit it. Before leaving the Biblical era, I smuggled out a copy of God’s Word. I’m not going to be left groping in the dark for anyone.)
Surprisingly, the clearest confirmation comes from Paul’s reference to singing ‘with the Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 14:15). The context reveals that this refers to singing in words unintelligible to the hearers.
Obviously, these unintelligible words appear nowhere in Scripture. And yet, in his inspired epistle Paul declares, ‘I will sing with the Spirit.’ So God approves, even though the lyrics are not recorded in the Bible.
Scriptural reference to ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) is difficult to interpret with definite accuracy. Commentators have often regarded ‘spiritual songs’ as synonymous with singing unknown words ‘with the Spirit’. But even without such precise identification, it is most unlikely that a writer would use in succession three separate terms if he simply meant the book of Psalms. Surely, at least one of the terms must refer to songs not found in Scripture.
1 Corinthians 14:26 may also hint at divinely approved extra-Biblical songs:
‘When you come together, each one of you has a hymn, or a teaching, a tongue, a revelation, or an interpretation.’
Delling, in Kittel’s Theological Dictionary, says this ‘obviously’ refers to a song composed and sung by the person in the gathering. In other words, an extra-Biblical song. Notice how ‘a hymn’ is placed side by side with gifts of the Spirit. Some commentators even wonder whether this implies the song is a gift of the Spirit.
Another line of evidence is found in the Bible’s repeated plea for ‘a new song’.
So the Bible supports our hunch: at least in principle, God endorses the singing of lyrics not preserved in Scripture. This, however, has been hotly debated at various times and in various parts of the Christian Church.
Rev. Rankin sang the hymn to that soldier. Before he had finished, the man was dead. But the light on the soldier’s face amazed him. He arose, an eyewitness to God’s ability to empower songs not found in the Psalter. We can now complement that subjective evaluation with reassuring hints from the authoritative Word of God. We have a scriptural basis for affirming that a divine blessing upon such music is neither exceptional, nor a reluctant accommodation to the weakness of man.
Perhaps we should be cautious, however, about a wholesale musical rejection of the Bible’s songs, in favor of man-made ones. It is disturbingly easy to imagine we revere Scripture, while our behavior suggests otherwise.
The Salvation Army is renowned for its total opposition to alcohol. This church offers full membership only to strict teetotalers and non-smokers. Yet so strong is their conviction that secular melodies can be used for the glory of God, that Salvationists often sing their hymns to such tunes as, ‘It was my first cigar’ and ‘Here’s to good old whisky, drink it down’.
Whilst most of us would approve of Christians composing their own songs, the Christian adaptation of ungodly tunes or lyrics causes many more qualms.
Moved by a lady’s rendition of ‘an Indian air,’ Alexander Young wrote a children’s hymn. So popular did it become that was translated into many languages. Though praised by multitudes of dedicated Christians, most have been oblivious to the assertion that the tune being engraved upon tender minds is none other than a Hindu melody used in idolatrous worship.
The above are obviously dramatic examples. Even so, an amazing proportion of the music many of us assume to be Christian, is actually of non-Christian origin. Luther employed secular music for hymns. If all such music were to be purged, most churches would feel the loss. I’d be thrilled if this fact motivates Christian composers. Meanwhile, however, we are stuck with this dilemma. Should we use secular music at all?
The titles of Psalm 8, 81 and 84 contain the Hebrew word gittith This could mean these Psalms were set, not just to a secular tune, but one from the pagan (Philistine) town of Gath. If so, we have clear, Scriptural support for using secular tunes in the highest Christian worship.
But, alas, it is not without reason that several Bible versions leave this word untranslated. Technical musical terms in the Bible are notoriously difficult to translate. Not even Jewish translators in the second century BC seem to have understood them! Scholars can only guess – and their guesses have been many and varied (see Appendix, Note 6.1).
Other possible tune names appear in the titles of many Psalms (e.g. Psalms 9, 22, 45, 56-60, 69, 75, 88). These could be secular melodies. For instance, ‘Do Not Destroy’ (e.g. Psalm 57) may have been the tune of a vintage song (cf Isaiah 65:8). However, this is only an educated guess.
A study of the biblical adaptation of pagan lyrics will give us greater confidence in the use of non-Christian melodies. Before proceeding to this, however, let me illustrate the power of this practice.
Old-time Methodist preacher, Hodgson Casson couldn’t sleep. Unable to tolerate the din any longer, he burst into the dance saloon, seized a fiddle from a stunned player and proceeded to put new words to the dance music that had been keeping him awake. Soon, people were kneeling before the Savior Casson sang about.
Music which, just moments before, was moving dancing feet was now bending penitent knees. Such is the power of a musician sold out to God.
That night a new hymn was added to the Christian Church. More significantly, new names were added to the Lamb’s Book of Life. The tune wasn’t new, but the reverence in that tavern certainly was. A man had converted dance-hall music. God had converted dancers. Casson changed their song. God changed their hearts.
Bruce Olson was excited when at last one Motilone Indian surrendered to Christ. As months slipped by, however, without Bobby sharing his new found faith with others, Olson became increasingly agitated. He was sure Bobby could evangelize the South American tribe far more effectively than a foreigner.
A Festival of Arrows was announced, the only occasion when all Motilones gathered together. One of its features was singing contests in which participants would sing for as long as they could of legends or news events.
A chief challenged Bobby to a song. Delighted, Bobby began to sing, the chief copying him line after line. ‘Jesus was incarnated into man,’ sang Bobby, with the chief repeating the line. ‘He has walked our trails. He is God yet we can know him.’
Other men engaged in their own contests began to hear and fell silent. All attention was riveted on Bobby’s wailing song as though life itself depended on it.
Writes Olson, ‘Inside me, however, a spiritual battle was raging. I found myself hating the song. It seemed so heathen. The music, chanted in a strange minor key, sounded like witch music. It seemed to denigrate the Gospel. . . .’
On and on went the song.
“Can’t you see the reality he is giving them?” the Lord seemed to ask me.
“But Lord, why am I so repulsed by it?”
‘Then I saw that it was because I was sinful. I could love the Motilone way of life, but when it came to spiritual matters I thought I had the only way. But my way wasn’t necessarily God’s way. God was saying, “I too love the Motilone way of life. ‘. . . And I’m going to tell them about my Son in my way.” ’
Bobby’s song continued for fourteen hours. When they finally finished the chief said, ‘I too want to suspend myself in Jesus. I want to pull his blood over my deception.’
‘That night a spiritual revolution swept over the people. No one rejected the news about Jesus. Everyone wanted Him to take them over the horizon. There was tremendous jubilation. Sometimes it was quiet and people would talk to each other in little groups. At other times the joy would break into spontaneous singing.’
What if Olson, even by a disapproving look, had silenced Bobby?
A word of caution, however. Though we have established that musical ability is from God, it does not logically follow that, lyrics aside, every musical style must be of God. And although some worldly music can be reclaimed for the cause of Christ, this does not automatically imply that all secular music is capable of such use.
Let me use two other gifts of God to demonstrate the distinction between what is able to be used in God’s service and what is not. The world can misuse God’s gift of sex, turning it into sin and yet that exact behavior could be placed in a godly, marital context and glorify our Maker. However, this gift can be not merely misused but so perverted (e.g. bestiality) that there is no acceptable context in which that perversion could be used for the glory of God. As another example, consider God’s gift of speech, something that is so much of God that His Son is call the Word. We will confirm in the next few paragraphs that words, even sentences, used by pagans can be put into a Christian context that pleases God. Some words, however, (e.g. vulgar swear words) are so perverse that there is probably no context in which they can be used for the glory of God.
I don’t know if any music falls into this category, I just warn of the theoretical possibility. I also alert you to the greater likelihood of there being music which, while not intrinsically anti-God, has such evil or sensual connotations in the minds of some people as to present a spiritual danger to them. Then there are those who conclude that if Christians can play a certain type of music then they can fill their minds with the worldly equivalent. More than two entire New Testament chapters are devoted to the care we should exercise in ensuring we do not risk a bother’s or sister’s spiritual welfare by doing something which causes us no qualms of conscience (Romans 14:1– 15:3; 1 Corinthians 8). There are people who would not dare touch alcohol for fear of offending a ‘weaker brother’ and yet spare no thought for the casualties their music might produce. Musicians worthy of the name of Christ are ministers of the Gospel, servants of the body of Christ, not egotists intent of having a good time or establishing their own rights.
With our knowledge of ancient tunes being so slight, it is hardly surprising that a search for the Biblical use of pagan or secular songs is more productive when we examine the lyrics.
Some divinely inspired psalms bear striking similarities to Canaanite and Akkadian psalms. Many scholars even believe Psalm 29 was originally a Canaanite hymn. Whilst this might be going too far, it does seem that songs used in Baal worship have strongly influenced the form of some of the Bible’s psalms.
The full extent of Scripture’s use of heathen works is not known. It certainly goes beyond the book of Psalms. Paul’s famous sermon on Mars Hill contains pagan poetry, (Acts 17:28) as does two of his letters (1 Corinthians 15:33; Titus 1:12).
So if expressions in a pop song, or even from a non-Christian cult, happen to be particularly applicable to the true God, we apparently have Biblical support for adopting them.
When night club singer Chico Holiday first became a Christian, he continued singing just as before, with minor word changes. ‘Sweet Caroline’ for example became ‘Sweet Lord of mine’. The club owner allowed it because Chico became a curiosity and the number of patrons actually increased!
An older example is found in Charles Wesley’s:
Joy of Heaven, to earth come down,
Fix in us Thy humble dwelling . . .’
Seat of pleasures and of loves,
Venus here will choose her dwelling . . .’
There seems no justification in deliberately exposing oneself to potentially harmful non-Christian material, in search of rare possibilities. It is far more profitable to devote that time to seeking God’s inspiration and searching His Word (cf Psalm 1:1-2) Why scour a desert for a speck of gold when you have unlimited access to Fort Knox?
It might seem that Paul must have spent much time researching pagan poetry to obtain his quotes. But this argument springs a leak when we learn that half his quotes (Acts 17:28a and Titus 1:12) come from adjacent sentences in the one poem! Of the two remaining quotations, (Acts 17:28b and 1 Corinthians 15:33) the one in Corinthians is generally thought to have been so common in Paul’s day that it was virtually a proverb. Contrast this with Paul’s abundant use of Scripture. Romans alone contains at least sixty-one direct quotations from fourteen different Old Testament books.
Charles Wesley displayed this same spirit. It is claimed that in his hymns, ‘only five books of the Bible are not illustrated’ Just one of his eight-stanza hymns contains the words and thoughts of at least fifty verses from seventeen books of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. It was not unusual for Charles to consult Bible commentaries when penning his famous hymns. A Methodist hymn book, published early last century, had less than 5,000 stanzas, yet its far from exhaustive index contained 5,600 Scriptures.
Fanny Crosby memorized eight books of the Bible – the first four of both testaments. She must have been lazy. Except for the book of Acts, hymnist Frances Ridley Havergal could recite the entire New Testament, as well as Psalms, Isaiah and all of the Minor Prophets. The way she crammed this into her short, exceptionally busy life, is a rebuke to nearly all of us. She once wrote,
‘I don’t see how one can put too large a proportion of God’s own words among our own. He never said our words should not return void . . . ‘
She regularly studied both testaments in their original languages.
Chuck Girade confesses that he ‘started getting really into the Word’ only after twelve years. He made up for lost time. Chuck so filled his mind with Scripture that its words appeared in his songs without him even realizing it. There were even occasions when he worried over whether some of his lyrics lined up with Scripture, only to later discover he had unconsciously taken the words verbatim from the Bible.
It was exciting to see a reliance upon Scripture continuing in our era. Consider, for instance, the Scripture choruses within the last couple of decades. I have no idea of their full extent, but my casual perusal of just some of them unearthed excerpts from forty-three books of the Bible. They are now unfashionable. We’ve found more trendy music. Does heaven (and the world for that matter) see us as lovers of music or lovers of God’s eternal Word? Whether or not we use the exact words of Scripture will not answer that question, but the question that demands serious attention.
The use of Scripture rather than original material may be a blow to the ego, but the psalmists didn’t shrink from it. Consider Psalm 118. Unlike several psalms, (e.g. Psalm 78, 106, 114, 136) it doesn’t even mention the crossing of the Red Sea, yet Psalm 118:14 is a direct take from the song of Moses associated with that event, (Exodus 15:2a – note also Isaiah 12:2b) and three other verses (Psalm 118:15-16,28) seem to echo Moses’ song (Exodus 15:6, 26). The first and last verses of this psalm are identical with Psalm 107:1, and the second verses in both psalms are similar. The fifth verse of Psalm 118 has a number of close parallels elsewhere in Scripture (e.g. Psalm 120:1).
I’ll let you complete this study, but if you think the writer of this hymn must have been a mindless parrot, unable to receive anything original from the Lord, you couldn’t be further from the truth. In addition to other beautiful, original contributions to Scripture, this psalm is the source of that famous prophecy, ‘The stone which the builders rejected . . .’ (verse 22).
So we are vindicated in adapting, but not diligently researching, unchristian material. For example, perhaps a converted Muslim could cautiously draw upon his past experience. After becoming a Christian, however, no-one should engage in further pagan studies without definite guidance from heaven. Scripture is the songwriter’s treasure house. Every spiritual truth on earth is deposited there. Delving into its depths is a life-long pursuit worthy of humanity’s noblest minds supernaturally expanded by the Spirit of God. To mount in a worthy setting, just one of Scripture’s priceless jewels is a challenge of superhuman proportions; a calling as high as the heavens.
In Tune with God: Contents
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