The Quest for Music Miracles
© Copyright, Grantley Morris All rights reserved
God’s Music God’s Way
We mentioned earlier Paul’s resolution to ‘sing with the Spirit’. In fact, he boldly declared to the Corinthians,
‘I thank God, I speak with tongues more than you all’ (1 Corinthians 14:18).
This puzzles many people. ‘Of what possible value is praising God with incomprehensible sounds?’ they wonder. But Bible-based musicians understand. They know of times in one’s Christian experience when we need to express ourselves, but words fail (cf Romans 8:26). And they know God welcomes praising Him with musical instruments, even though these are incapable of producing intelligible words (e.g. Numbers 10:10; 1 Chronicles 15:16, 19-21, 28; 25:1,6; 2 Chronicles 5:12-6; Psalm 33:2; 81:2-3; 92:1-3, 98:5-6; 149:3; Isaiah 38:20) In fact, instrumental praise was mandatory in temple worship:
‘And he set the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps . . . for SO WAS THE COMMANDMENT OF THE LORD BY HIS PROPHETS’ (2 Chronicles 29:25).
Psalm 150 also goes beyond saying it is permissible to praise God instrumentally: it urges us to participate in this kind of worship.
Praise Him with psaltery and harp!
Praise Him with timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with high sounding cymbals!’
This magnificent song seems to be exhorting God’s people to praise with every conceivable kind of instrument – whether delicate or boisterous, soft or shrill, solemn or bright, percussive or melodic; whether associated with plucking fingers, striking hands, blowing mouths or dancing feet – even though none of them are vocal.
Spurgeon commented on this psalm ‘[No instrument] is common and unclean: all may be sanctified to highest uses.’
Cymbals are especially limited in their ability to convey a message. Yet, not even they are excluded from the loftiest worship.
Like tongue-speaking, (1 Corinthians 14:2, 4-5, 16-18, 39) instrumental praise can be edifying to the participant and pleasing to God, without the message being verbally explicit. It is perfectly suited for private worship. For public performance, however, we should carefully consider the implications of Pauline teaching about interpretation of tongues (1 Corinthians 14:5-6, 13-20, 27-28) From this unlikely source, we can distil a principle of great significance to musicians.
This principle, however, must not be confused with an infallible law of God. I have no desire to grieve the Spirit, and put you under bondage, by attempting to bind you to a man-made law. Rather, I would humbly seek to alert you to a viewpoint which, in many instances, should further increase the effectiveness of your music. If the Lord shows you an exception to these general guidelines then, by all means, follow His leading.
One’s doctrinal position on tongues is irrelevant to this discussion. We are simply looking at the phenomena Paul spoke of, irrespective of what it was, or whether it occurs today.
To unite us, we will speak as though we were Paul’s contemporaries. Christians may have differing ideas as to whether the gift is still given, but all are united in declaring that God made no mistake in preserving these New Testament chapters for us. Since ‘all Scripture is . . . profitable . . .’, (2 Timothy 3:16) these Scriptures must have some application for today and I believe, no matter what else they may teach, they hide a principle of great importance to the musician.
Whilst wordless music conveys some meaning, it does so no more than singing ‘with the Spirit’. In both cases, there is a tune without intelligible vocalization. Even without a tune, speaking in incomprehensible words can communicate something through the tone of voice. However, Scripture demands that these sounds be followed by intelligible words so that everyone present benefits from those sounds and hears from the Lord.
As musicians, we would miss a significant point if we thought ‘with the Spirit’ refers to human emotions or the subconscious. Paul meant an utterance originating from the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:10-11; Acts 2:4; 10:45-46; 19:6) with whom our spirits have become one (1 Corinthians 6:17). Obviously, gibberish or sham emotionalism should be absent in public worship. But what Paul is saying is much more startling: something may be good, (1 Corinthians 14:17 f) personally edifying, (1 Corinthians 14:4) even Spirit-inspired, and yet still be unsuited for public ministry. Something that has its source in God Himself could detract from a church service, or lift it. It could be of enormous value, or worse than nothing. Everything hinges on whether it is accompanied by intelligible words.
When playing the melody of a well-known song without vocal accompaniment, it may seem sufficient to rely on the hearer’s memory. The obvious problem, however, is that the message is clearest only to those who have fully memorized the entire song. This conflicts with the apostle’s concern that every part of a service should minister to the ‘unlearned or unbelievers’ as well as the thoroughly initiated (1 Corinthians 14:23).
Our Father is highly concerned about the way we treat strangers in our meetings (James 2:2-4, 9; Hebrews 13:2; 3 John 5). Leaving the music bereft of words discriminates against newcomers (1 Corinthians 14:16). Behaving as though everyone knows the lyrics, makes newcomers acutely conscious that they are outsiders (1 Corinthians 14:11). They are made to feel misfits, instead of an important part of the congregation.
Naturally, there are limits as to how far Paul’s discussion of glossolalia can be applied to music.
Entirely instrumental music is much less likely to offend outsiders than uninterpreted singing in tongues (cf 1 Corinthians 14:23). Moreover, it can be played while something else, clearly intelligible to outsiders, is simultaneously occurring. No-one need feel left out. When used wisely, so as not to detract from whatever else is happening, background music is unlikely to offend newcomers.
So interpreting the gist of background music seems less essential than for tongues. When music is the focus of attention, however, Scripture’s teaching about glossolalia is more directly applicable.
It may be objected that some music has no need of words or verbal explanation. Music can do things beyond conveying a message to the congregation. But so can tongues.
Paul’s teaching about interpretation is obviously applicable to those uses of music which parallel the functions of tongues, especially prayer, personal edification and delivering a message (1 Corinthians 14:4, 16, 17, 28). Nevertheless, even when music is put to other uses, it still usually fits Biblical teaching about making a spiritual activity intelligible to inexperienced listeners.
For example, wordless music can create an atmosphere in which the Spirit moves by speaking through someone, or by overcoming spiritual opposition. But in the former case, Paul would want the person receiving the Spirit’s burden to share it with the whole congregation (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:26-30). In the latter case, sometimes spiritual warfare could perhaps be just as effective if restricted to background music. Furthermore, the enemy-defeating music of Gideon’s and Jehoshaphat’s armies was verbalized (Judges 7:18; 2 Chronicles 20:21-22).
Not even the use of a known language guarantees that we have fulfilled our obligation to new-comers. The jargon-infested lyrics of some Christian songs would hardly be less intelligible to non-Christians if they were sung in tongues! Then there’s the issue of how clearly the lyrics are heard.
‘It took a miracle to put the stars in place,’ sang George Beverly Shea. The song completed, he sat down; satisfied that he had exalted the Lord before this British audience. Imagine his shock when he learnt about the irate woman who slated Billy Graham for having the audacity to allow a soloist to come to England and sing, ‘It took America to put the stars in place’.
Words are important.
‘Actions speak louder than words’ takes on a whole new meaning when you see mime artist Randall Bane in action. His use of movement synchronized with music intensifies the music’s message amazingly. Few people could make music with unclear or non-existent words seem so eloquent. Yet even he considers words so important that he takes enormous care in selecting music with unmistakably clear lyrics.
The spiritual burden of music may be clarified by accompanying words, whether distinctly sung, spoken or written. Even pictures or mime may help. Modern technology opens up many possibilities.
It is not always essential that it be synchronized with the music. Sometimes the theme may be effectively expounded before or after your rendition.
Regardless of sequence, however, the verbal or visual ‘interpretation’ is an integral part of your performance. As much care should be taken with this as with the music itself.
Some musicians’ spoken introduction to their works are like mounting exquisite jewels in settings of scrap iron. Each note of your music is precisely planned and executed, representing countless hours of writing, arranging and practice. Stumbling through a spur-of-the-moment introduction is ridiculously incongruous.
Just as an utterance in tongues and its interpretation are equally Spirit inspired, (1 Corinthians 12:6-11) so our rendition of the music’s message is as important to God as the music itself.
A few, well-chosen words can be powerful. You don’t have to preach a sermon. As much as possible, let your music do the talking. If, however, your comments add clarity to the message, they could be the linchpin, validating your whole performance in God’s sight. Like clothing one’s naked body, making the theme explicit renders one’s music publicly presentable. Otherwise, it might be too private for public exposure. You are a minister of God, not an exhibitionist!
Even if reading between the notes is easy for most of your audience, less discerning hearers still deserve your loving concern. For someone, your explanatory remarks could be the key to transforming a mere sound into a life-changing experience.
Lighting, movement, video clips, and so on, have the power to enhance the message. Ideally, everything should be like a whirlpool drawing people to the central message. Too often, however, they detract from it. Not many experienced pastors preach while a James Bond movie is showing on the screen behind the pulpit, a spotlight is on an acrobat performing on one side and a fireworks display is in progress on the other. The greater the complexity, the smaller the chance of people grasping the message in one hearing. The more you are sure you will repeat your performance to the same audience, however, the more justified you are in adding to the complexity.
Too often we think if it works in the world it will work in the church. What we fail to see is that much worldly music seeks simply to entertain, not convey a life-changing message. In fact, even entertainment is too lofty a goal for some music. Making money is the ultimate for many. Their goals and our goals; their measure of success and Christ’s measure of success, are worlds apart. Look at the ministries of the prophets, of Christ, of Paul. You will find no-one whose goal was popularity and no-one whose goal was to have a good time. Their passion was to serve and if that meant ostracism or pain or death, so be it.
For us to slavishly imitate worldly entertainers makes no more sense than a struggling landscape artist copying the brush strokes of a successful house redecorator simply because the redecorator has discovered how to use paint to make money and be in demand. No matter how many platinum albums worldly musicians may have, from God’s viewpoint they have failed. They have achieved nothing for the kingdom of God. So why copy them as if they had found the formula for success?
The crux of the matter is expounded in a section sandwiched between Paul’s two chapters on spiritual gifts. Love. Without it we sound decidedly tinny (1 Corinthians 13:1). And the world’s best sound system cannot correct it.
That Scripture’s greatest exposition of love be required in the midst of a discussion about spiritual gifts is staggering. If anything has its origin in God; if anything is reserved solely for the Spirit-controlled life, it must surely be spiritual gifts. One can understand the possibility of natural gifts getting out of hand, yet even the most godly things are capable of mutating into monsters. Unless constantly immersed in love, the sweetest music turns sour; the most spiritual music becomes unspiritual; the loftiest goals crumble. We’re not talking gooey sentiment. Love is sacrificing your own pleasures and rights – even your own spiritual ecstasy – for the sake of others. We might have the mind of a genius and the spirit of an Elijah, but without the heart of a servant we are nothing.
Ego-trip and you’ll land on your face. Stoop to serve and you’ll stand.
Paul stressed that the criteria determining what we do in public worship must be far higher than simply whether we find it personally helpful or enjoyable (1 Corinthians 14:4-5, 12, 16, 19, 26; Romans 15:1-3). We can have our own spiritual or emotional high in private (1 Corinthians 14:18-19, 28). In public, however, we should choose what best ministers to others. If, for example, some people find a certain type of music offensive, we must take this very seriously (cf Romans 14).
If even spiritual gifts are not an end in themselves, neither is music. It must be a vehicle the Spirit can use to touch the lives of those listening.
‘Yet if people don’t relate to the vehicle,’ says musician Brett Johnson, ‘they won’t relate to the message.’ This sobering truth applies even if both message and music are unsurpassable.
Love for God and our hearers will at times necessitate the ruthless disregard of our personal musical infatuations. We must die to our own desires and be sensitive both to God and our audience. Only then, will we select material which most effectively ministers.
Scripture warns us to be sensitive to our audience. Solomon said that singing joyful songs to someone who is not in the mood is like stripping him of his clothes in mid-winter (Proverbs 25:20 Cf Ecclesiastes 3:4; Romans 12:15). And the One greater than Solomon warned against casting pearls before swine. Unreceptive people, taught Jesus, will not only treat your ‘pearls’ with disdain, they may even attack you (Matthew 7:6).
Both love and the clarity of the message are related to volume.
Does the instrumental volume, relative to the vocal, give people the impression that music is more important to us than our message? It may require an abundant endowment of humility and self-control for an instrumentalist to give priority to the vocalist. Guitarist Stewart Wissell calls it, ‘Dying to self for both the audience’s and band’s sakes.’
It’s not that vocalists are more important, but if, before reaching the listener, the lyrics get lost in an instrumental maze, our performance might not even be Christian ministry – perhaps ‘jam session’ would be a more accurate description.
Often the problem is more with the arrangement that the relative volume. For instance, other things being equal, the more the melody line is left to the vocalists, the easier it is to hear the vocalists.
A songwriter is someone who finds a dull rock and discovers it’s a diamond. Without instrumentalists, droves of people will bypass that stone, having no conception of the beauty and value locked inside it. Instrumentalists cut that stone, revealing facet after facet of God’s beauty, with each cut adding value and showing forth God’s glory, causing people to be transfixed by something they would otherwise have overlooked. Were instrumentalists to pervert their high calling, however, by foolishly cutting too deep and too often, those entrusted with beautifying and enriching would begin to devalue and destroy a work of God. What a challenging task and grave responsibility rests with diamond cutters with musical instruments in their hands.
Frances Ridley Havergal heard in a dream the most exquisite music. It thrilled her. Then she saw the Savior. Knowing He was about to address her, she was filled with rapturous anticipation. Yet His words, more precious than life itself, never reached her. They were drowned by the music. Those thrilling, beautiful strains should have added to the grandeur of the occasion. Instead, they ruined it. Instead of enriching her, they robbed her sorely. How she hated that lovely music!
When the words are displayed, clapping to a song is fine, but I get annoyed when a leader of a Christian band urges the audience to clap along with a song which has lyrics I’ve never heard before and might never hear again. The leader seems to be saying, ‘Block out the words with your clapping, we haven’t found a message worth hearing anyhow. All we can offer is a beat that we hope you’ll enjoy.’ Usually the problem is that performers have an exaggerated idea of the clarity of their lyrics by the time it goes through the sound system and arrives at a dead spot in the auditorium. With the lyrics chiseled into their brain, performers have difficulty perceiving the problems facing first time hearers.
In addition to the relative vocal and instrumental volumes, the overall volume is important. What should we do if our music is so loud that it offends half our audience, while pleasing the other half?
The divinely established Old Testament worship was apparently very noisy. The ‘joyful noise’ of Psalm 100:1 is the usual word for a blood-curdling battle-cry designed to instill fear into enemy soldiers. This ear-splitting shriek which often appears in a military context in Scripture (Joshua 6:20; 1 Samuel 17:20; 2 Chronicles 13:15; Jeremiah 50:15 and elsewhere) is also frequently used to describe the triumphant shout of worshippers in (Ezra 3:11, 13; Psalm 47:1; 66:1; 81:1; 95:1-2; 98:4; 98:6; 100:1). Let’s examine the context of one of these latter references:
‘. . . they set the priests in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, after the ordinance of David, king of Israel and they sang, praising and giving thanks to the Lord . . . And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord . . . and the noise was heard afar off’ (Ezra 3:10-13. See also Nehemiah 12:43).
I’m not sure how loud music would have to be to wake the dead, but I know that a divine trumpet blast will one day do just that! (1 Thessalonians 4:16)
In the book of Revelation, almost everything seems to be done at double forte (ff) – or louder (Revelation 1:10; 4:5; 5:2, 12; 6:1; 10; 7:2, 10; 8:5, 13; 10:3; 11:12, 15, 19; 12:10; 14:2, 7, 9, 15, 18; 16:1, 17, 18; 18:2; 19:1, 6, 17; 21:3.). So from a Scriptural viewpoint, it seems false piety to imagine it is reverent and honoring to God to always keep the volume subdued in church.
There is an additional consideration, however. The Bible teaches that our bodies are sacred. It is they, rather than a church building, which house God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). The Lord counts our bodies so important that He will resurrect them for eternity (e.g. Romans 8:23; 1 Corinthians 15:12-58; 2 Corinthians 5:1-4; Philippians 3:21). That God treasures our bodies should hardly surprise us. After all, He is the One who lovingly fashioned them. There are Christian musicians, who out of reverence for the One whose blood purchased their bodies, have endured agony to give up cigarettes and yet scorn anyone who objects to ear-damaging volume. Of all people, surely music lovers should value God’s gift of hearing. Can we harm the gift without hurting the giver? We spend thousands on sound equipment that gives us the broadest possible range of frequencies. Are we then going to permanently lower our ability to hear those sounds? Yes, dangerously loud music is fashionable, but it’s never fashionable to be Christlike. How much like Jesus is it to contribute to someone’s hearing loss? Tradition-bound Christians grieve our Savior, but so do Christians who mindlessly follow the ways of the world. God finds both worldliness and pseudo-reverence sickening.
Furthermore, we have a responsibility to be faithful steward (e.g. Luke 12:42 ff; 1 Corinthians 4:1-2; Titus 1:7) of everything divinely entrusted to us. Our bodies are as much God-given gifts as our talents and ministries. So adequate rest, recreation and physical exercise are as important as developing one’s ministry.
Christians may be required to endanger their bodies in times of persecution, or be specifically led to minister in dangerous places. Otherwise, however, our commendable desire to praise God with everything we’ve got (including volume) must not over-rule our duty to care for our bodies. Hence, for God’s sake, if not for our own and that of others, we will keep the volume below that which endangers voice or hearing.
If your music offends some people while blessing others, it is wisest and most loving to clearly indicate the nature of your music when advertising. Can you think of further ways of reducing possible offence?
I’ve stuck my neck out, giving some unusual expositions of Scripture. It’s your responsibility before God to determine whether I am right. I have endeavored, however, to illustrate the need to dig deep to find the Bible’s treasures. It may be in an obscure Hebrew word, or locked away in a passage apparently unrelated to music, but somewhere in Holy Writ God has deposited the answers we need today. Prayerfully seek, and the joy of finding divine wisdom will be yours.
(Please indicate which of my web pages you are referring to and ensure your return E-mail address is correct.)
In Tune with God: Contents
For a treasure trove of hilariously helpful, compassionate and stimulating webpages by Grantley Morris, click the chest.
Melt hard hearts! Link your page to an evangelistic site. Here’s how.