Biblical Singing

By Wayne S. Walker

The Bible abounds with references to singing. In the Old Testament, it was an important part of Israelite worship in general and of the temple in specific. The New Testament makes singing a vital element of the Christian’s praise to God as well. Paul wrote in Colossians 3:15-17, ‘And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”

These verses emphasize several important points about singing in worship. The motivation for singing is thankfulness. The inspiration for singing is the word of Christ, dwelling richly in our hearts. The attitude in singing should lead to teaching and admonishing one another. The content of singing must be psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with the emphasis on “spiritual.” The purpose of singing is to express grace in our hearts to the Lord, or in other words, praise. And the authority behind our singing is acting in the name of Christ. In an article in Christianity Today (June 27, 1980), E. Margaret Clarkson presented some interesting ideas on “What Makes a Hymn ‘Good’?”

1. “Good hymns are God-centered, not man-centered.” We certainly cannot eliminate all references to ourselves out of singing. We need to sing about our cares, our needs, our hopes, our love for Jesus, etc. However, when the majority of the songs we sing are about us rather than about God, things may get out of balance and our singing can very easily become self-centered. Then we start singing to please ourselves, and choose more songs which accomplish this aim, rather than singing to please God. The primary purpose of singing is not just to make us feel good but to praise our Creator and His divine Son (Hebrews 13:15).

2. “Good hymns are theologically sound.” They must not contain untruths. While there may not be as many unscriptural songs in our songbooks as some critics claim, still we must be on guard for hymns that include the tenets of Calvinism, Premillennialism, Pentecostalism, and other ideas associated with denominationalism. There are undoubtedly such songs in all songbooks. Christians should not sing songs that blatantly teach error. The fact that a song is found in a songbook published by a Christian does not necessarily mean that it is acceptable for our worship, which is to be in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).

3. “Good songs are doctrinal in content.” If we are to teach and admonish one another in our singing, the song which we use must contain some solid, thoughtful material with which to do so. While singing surely involves the expression of our emotions (James 5:13), we should strive to avoid hymns which are overly emotionalistic or which wax sentimental. Nostalgic remembrance is no substitute for sound Bible doctrine.

4. “Good hymns have words of beauty, dignity, reverence, and simplicity.” The key word here, I believe, is simplicity. We need to understand what we sing. We need to sing what others whom we are teaching and admonishing can understand and be edified (1 Corinthians 14:15, 26). A good hymn will have a message that is down to earth and practical for the average believer. Yet, it will not transgress the limits of good taste, insult our intelligence, or embarrass the audience. It will speak of a deep, sincere faith in God.

5. “Good hymns display preciseness and finesse of poetic technique and expression.” In other words, they will be singable. And they will be set to tunes esthetically matched. So many of the spirited quartet style of country music “gospel songs” that were popular a few years ago place an emphasis on the mechanics of the music—rhythm, parts, tempo, etc.—that demands attention to the neglect of spiritual thoughts (cf. Psalm 19:14). The words are either immaterial or lost in the shuffle. The same may be said of the vast majority of Contemporary Christian Music “praise and worship songs” popular today. Most of such songs were not really written for congregational worship services to begin with but for entertainment at singing conventions or concerts. That is where they should be left!

6. “Good hymns turn heavenward.” Since the songs which we are to sing in worship must be spiritual, they will point us to God in heaven and encourage us to be the kind of people whom God will take to live with Him in heaven. They will speak of the style of life that God will reward with a heavenly home. The Christian’s citizenship is in heaven from which he looks for the Savior to return and take him to his eternal reward (Philippians 3:20-21). One who truly longs for everlasting life in heaven cannot help but sing of his hope for the inheritance incorruptible, undefined, and that fades not away, reserved in heaven for him (1 Peter 1:3-5).

In closing, let me repeat what I believe is something that we should consider very carefully. While it is true that the Bible says nothing specific about musical styles or forms, the emphasis on spiritual motivation and purpose in worship requires that the music which we use in our singing be in keeping with the definitions of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Again, our primary purpose in singing religious songs is to worship God, with the implied result of teaching one another. To understand this is to come as long way in choosing suitable tunes to enhance such sentiments. While there may be room for some differences in judgment, songs which stimulate one to jig more than to elevate God in his heart should not be regarded by anyone as appropriate for worship. With a desire to glorify and magnify our heavenly Father, we should be able to sing with a dignity above a jungle dance.

—taken from Gospel Anchor; Nov., 1983; Vol. X, No. 3; pp.28-29