Why We Sing

Mark R. Talbot
Wednesday, June 6th 2007
Nov/Dec 2002

It is reasonable to think that music and song have existed for as long as there have been human beings. Scripture notes that Lamech's son Jubal "was the father of all those who play the harp and flute" (Gen. 4:21). Scripture represents music accompanying both work-in Numbers 21:17, 18, Israel sings as a well is re-dug, and the watchmen sing in Isaiah 21:11, 12-and play (see Job 21:7-12; Luke 7:32). Music is present when people meet and feast (see Judg. 11:34; Isa. 5:11, 12; Luke 15:25) as well as when they leave or grieve (see Gen. 31:27; Jer. 48:36).

Scripture contains literally hundreds of references to singers, singing, songs, and music. In addition to those psalms penned specifically for congregational singing, there are love songs (see the Song of Songs), wedding songs (see Ps. 78:63), lustful songs (see Ezek. 33:32), harlots' songs (see Isa. 23:15, 16), drinking songs (see Isa. 24:9), mocking and taunting songs (see Job. 30:9; Ps. 69:12; Mic. 2:4), songs of the ruthless and songs of fools (see Isa. 25:5; Eccles. 7:5), songs in the night (see Job 35:10; Ps. 149:5), songs to greet creation and the dawn (see Job 38:4-7), songs of war (see Judg. 5; 1 Sam. 18:6-8), and songs of peace (see Ps. 85; Isa. 55:12).

Almost every kind of human experience occasions music and encourages singing. But why is this so? What prompts us to make music? Why do we sing?

Why Do We Sing?

The simplest answer is that music and singing are natural to human beings. Human beings are not just unfeeling computing machines. We treasure-as well as observe and measure-various things. How things turn out matters to us. Whether we get the job or lose the boy can affect us deeply. And we often want what moves us to be expressed musically.

Toddlers show that we are naturally expressive, tuneful, and rhythmic beings. They often hum before they talk and not long after they learn to speak they may start putting words to their tunes-"We're going to grandma's; we're going to grandpa's."

As we grow, we look to music especially to help us enhance life's more significant moments. Granted, there are work songs, play songs, drinking songs, marching songs, and driving music. We use music to shape and to celebrate the ordinary as well as to lessen life's tedium. But we use it especially to help us express strong emotions such as love or hatred, joy or sorrow, and hope or fear. If you are falling in love, then love songs probably catch your ear. We also use it to prompt emotion. Oliver Stone's Vietnam film, Platoon, would be much less moving if it had not been set to Barber's Adagio for Strings.

In other words, music both expresses and evokes aspects of our lives that involve more than simple cognition. Falling in love is more than just recognizing that you and your beloved are compatible in various ways. Experiencing these aspects of life is integral to what it means to be a human being. We are not intended to be like Star Trek's emotionless Dr. Spock. If you were present when I first heard that my wife had been in a serious car wreck and you observed no changes in my emotional state, then this would strike you as odd, at best. We are meant to be emotional, active creatures who desire and pursue specific things. The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has a long section on mood disorders that identifies our not feeling enough emotion often enough (the DSM calls this "depressed mood") or our losing interest or pleasure in most of life's activities as signs that we are not well-functioning human beings.

In his great book, Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards sees our emotions, interests, and pleasures as aspects of our affections. Our affections, he says, are the "more vigorous and sensible exercises" of our inclination and will. Our inclination and will encompass our desires, our concerns, our loves, our resolutions, and our emotions. They produce our likes and dislikes, our joys and sorrows; and they evoke our praise and blame. They are what involve and motivate us.

As Edwards observes, sometimes the consideration of some things moves us so little that we remain almost indifferent to how we believe things to be. Yet at other times we are moved so strongly by what we are thinking about that, "through the laws of union which the Creator has fixed between soul and body," it actually affects us physically. Think, here, of being really afraid or of loving someone so much that it actually seems to hurt. This explains why Scripture often speaks of our affections as centered in one or another of our body's inner parts. Strong compassion or a strong inner urge to be merciful is felt in our intestines (this is the literal meaning of the Hebrew word me'eh, translated as "bowels" [kjv] or "heart" [niv, esv] in Jer. 31:20); and the inner center of our strongly felt inclinations-or affections-is sometimes located in our kidneys (see the Greek word nephros, translated as "mind" by the niv and esv in Rev. 2:23) or, more often, in our hearts (see 2 Sam. 14:1; Ps. 119:111; Luke 24:32; 2 Cor. 6:11-13 [esv, niv]; 1 Pet. 1:22).

Scripture views us as essentially psychosomatic-or mind/body-unities that should not be divided into competing parts. More specifically, it does not take our minds or our intellects to be our most godlike part. It never suggests that our affections are second-rate or inessential aspects of our distinctively human being. In fact, it sees these aspects of our lives as mirroring God's own personality. Thus Jeremiah 31:20, with its graphic reference to bowels or intestines, is actually referring to how God is moved as he remembers his "son" Ephraim. Again, Zephaniah 3:17 portrays God as taking great delight in the people he has resolved to redeem-such delight that he exults over them with "loud singing" (esv). Elsewhere, God says his heart "moans" for wayward Moab "like a flute" (Jer. 48:36 [esv]). circumstances, God's people are so eager to sing and make music to their Lord."

When we sing and make music, we put sound and voice to our affections. Scripture sees this as so essential to the nature of created beings that it even portrays the heavens and the earth's deeps, the mountains, the forests, and all of their trees as singing when God brings about the culmination of all things (see Isa. 44:23; cf. 1 Chron. 16:31-33; Ps. 98:7-9). Singing and making music allow us to express and evoke aspects of our godlike humanity in ways that make us much more than we would otherwise be.

Why Do Christians Sing?

The short answer is that Christians sing and make music to God because we are encouraged and commanded to do so (see Ps. 81:1, 2; 98:1-6; Eph. 5:18-20). Yet this is not the whole answer; indeed, it does not explain why, sometimes even in very difficult circumstances, God's people are so eager to sing (see Ps. 92:1-4; Ps. 95:2; Acts 16:25) and make music to their Lord.

"How," the Babylonian captives plaintively cry, "shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" (Ps. 137:4; cf. vv. 1-3). At times, we-like these captives-want to hang up our harps. For us, as for them, there can be times when songs are required of us but we find it tormenting to sing. Sometimes even hearing singing hurts (see Prov. 25:20; cf. Eccles. 12:4; Lam. 5:14). Indeed, God may stop the music and the singing (see Ezek. 26:13).

Singing is hard when we lack the heart to sing. Yet it is easy when our hearts are full-when our desires have been fulfilled, our concerns adequately addressed, our resolutions successfully carried out, and our loves met. Then we feel like singing.

Once Edwards has made his general remarks about our affections, he then makes the astounding claim that those who are spiritually reborn will have these kinds of strong, physically felt affections for God and his things. He painstakingly corroborates this claim from Scripture in the remainder of his book's first part. True religion, as found in the Scriptures,

consists in a great measure in vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul or the fervent exercises of the heart …. That religion which God requires and will accept does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists . . . that we be in good earnest, "fervent in spirit," and our hearts vigorously [engaged in obeying and serving and loving him (see Deut. 10:12, 13; Rom. 12:11)].

Such "fervent, vigorous engagedness of the heart in religion … is the fruit of a real circumcision of the heart, or true regeneration;" and, as Edwards concludes, God promises everlasting life only to those who give him their whole hearts (see Ezek. 18:5-32 and especially vv. 30-32; Mark 12:28-34 with Matt. 19:16-29).

This happens when God sends his Holy Spirit to give us new hearts (see Deut. 30:6; Ezek. 36:26-28; 2 Cor. 3:3; Titus 3:1-7)-hearts no longer naturally inclined toward evil (see Gen. 6:5; 8:21)-hearts healed of their innate enmity against God and their disinclination to obey and serve and love him (see Ps. 51:5; Rom. 3:9-18; Eph. 2:1-3)-hearts with new and godly desires (see Ps. 40:8; 42:1, 2; 73), new, more expansive concerns (see Prov. 29:7 [niv]; 1 Cor. 12:21-26; 2 Cor. 7:2-13), new loves (see Ps. 18:1; 26:8; 119:127; 1 Thess. 4:9), new Spirit-prompted resolutions (see Ps. 16:7, 8; 101:1-4; 119:30, 112; Rom. 8:5-8 ), and new emotions (see Ps. 16:11; Rom. 15:13; Col. 2:7). In sum, hearts that are now, by God's grace and through Christ's work, both inclined and willing to love God and his things (see Ps. 119:112 [esv]; Jer. 24:7; Phil. 2:12, 13).

Christians sing to express and evoke these God-given affections (see Col. 3:16). They sing and make music to God because God has given them a heart to sing. They sing because God has given them his Word (see Ps. 119:72). They sing because they are astounded by the love that God has shown to them (see 1 John 3:1, 2; 4:9, 10; cf. Exod. 15:2; Ps. 108:1-4). They sing because they want to exalt his justice and his righteousness and his favor and his strength (see Judg. 5; Ps. 5, especially vv. 11, 12; 101:1). And they sing because they know that singing helps them to set their hearts and minds on Christ and spiritual things (see Col. 3:1-4; 1 Pet. 1:13; 3:15) and thus increases their love for God and fans their God-given affections into flame.

In his Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton, Edwards notes that the first Great Awakening invigorated congregational singing. In fact, he says, "there has been scarce any part of divine worship, wherein good men amongst us have had grace so drawn forth, and their hearts so lifted up in the ways of God, as in singing his praises." In his congregation, he notes, the men "regularly, and well" carried three parts of music by themselves and the women another part. In a Thanksgiving sermon preached in November 1734, he urges Christian parents to "be careful that their children are instructed in singing."

He notes that music is especially suited to express harmony and proportion. It is thus especially fitted to extol the incomparable harmony and proportion of God's nature and acts. What could be more natural, then, than for God's redeemed people to want to sing? As the great truths of salvation-history hit our hearts, we experience rushes of joy and love and gratitude that naturally provoke us to sing.

God's redeemed people always have had and always will have an urge to form a harmonious chorus to hymn his glories. No wonder the new heavens and the new earth will be filled with the sounds of music and singing!

Wednesday, June 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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