Sing praises with understanding

July 12, 2010

Let me ask you something, you readers who belong to Jesus Christ by faith. Do you sing songs to God? What do you sing? Are you in the camp that teaches that only hymns are acceptable for worship on Sunday morning? If so, you would have been considered a liberal, even vulgar in many churches in the 1700s. The arguments in the churches in those days were about using hymns of “human composure,” such as “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” by Isaac Watts. One hundred years after Watts died, people would still walk out of a meeting if someone started singing anything other than a Psalm set to music.
Go back to the 1500s, and you find Martin Luther in the middle of a music controversy in the church. In his excellent book, “Worship Matters,” Bob Kauflin writes that there was a form of music during Luther’s day, a chorale motet, that was controversial because voices would weave in and out and there were strong harmonies and blends. Luther wrote that anyone who didn’t appreciate the beauty of that music and didn’t view it as a gift from God “must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being.” Don’t you love Luther’s subtlety? He went on, “He should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”
Are there music wars in the church today? Anyone who has been around the church for more than 15 minutes knows the answer to that one. Some churches will sing nothing but hymns. Others disdain the old hymns of faith and have replaced them completely with contemporary choruses. Still other churches will sing nothing but Psalms. Some will not permit musical instruments. Others may adopt a music style that sounds more like a rock concert than a worship service.
Who is right? The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind, but clearly written in the Word. Read the Psalms, which were written to be sung and were used in worship in the early church, and you will find out what God has to say about music and how we are to worship him. Psalm 47 opens with these words, for example: “Oh, clap your hands, all you peoples! Shout to God with the voice of triumph!” It may not be within your personal comfort zone to clap in church and certainly not to shout. But I would humbly submit that if that is your position, you may have allowed man’s traditions to trump God’s word.
One crucial point we must consider: We are instructed in Scripture to “sing praises with understanding.” In “Worship Matters,” Kauflin tells the story of a Christian woman who spent time serving God in South Africa. While visiting a health clinic, she was deeply moved by the sound of the Zulu women singing. Their harmonies were hauntingly beautiful. With tears in her eyes, she asked her friend if she knew the translation of the words. “Sure,” her friend replied. “If you boil the water, you won’t get dysentery.” Kauflin wrote, “Now if that doesn’t make you want to worship, what does?”
Some songs may sound like worship but when we get the understanding of the words, we find that they are not at all. At the very least, then, the music we sing to God or about God should speak the truth from Scripture. Kauflin says music should help us “reflect the glory and the activity of the triune God, remember truth about God, and express our unity in the Gospel.”
Keep singing!