By Cornelis Van Dam
An important part of our worship on the Lord’s Day is singing praises to God. Indeed, this element of our liturgy is something we will one day continue to do in God’s presence! Someone once noted that the congregation of God is not en route to an eternal sermon, but it is on its way to eternal song. Our singing in holy worship therefore should entail a foretaste of that eternal joy. All of this makes singing a tremendously important part of our Sunday liturgy. It is therefore worth reflecting on some aspects of our singing.
A sacrifice of praise
It is noteworthy that God’s Old Testament people when approaching the Lord for worship were exhorted to do so with singing and praise. “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs!” (Ps 100:2). Praise is central when singing before the Lord. This fact is also evident from the many times that “hallelujah,” the Hebrew equivalent of “praise the Lord,” is used in the book of Psalms. Indeed, the Psalter ends with the repeated exuberant hallelujahs of Psalm 150.
All this praise was only possible because of God’s forgiving grace by which he blotted out the sins of those who came to him confessing their iniquities. This grace was evident in all those bloody sacrifices that were ultimately fulfilled when our Saviour offered himself on the altar of the cross. The author of Hebrews alludes to this reality and then exhorts: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name” (Heb 13:15). Thus, in response to Christ’s sacrifice and on that basis (“through Jesus”) we may present to God our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
It is striking that our singing is called a “sacrifice of praise.” That reminds us of the peace offering which was also called the “sacrifice of praise” (in the ancient Greek translation) or, as the Hebrew can be translated as well, the “sacrifice of thanksgiving” (Lev 7:12). In other words, our singing which gives thanks and praise to God for his redemption is considered by God to be a sacrifice pleasing to him (cf. Ps 50:14). Indeed, it is part of our giving our entire life to God as a thank offering (cf. Rom 12:1). And so when we approach God today, we don’t come with animal sacrifices as in Old Testament times, but we present ourselves sacrificially to him and we do so with “the sacrifice of praise, the fruit of our lips that confess his name” (Heb 13:15). The singing at worship can therefore not be missed. And that singing must therefore be to his praise and glory!
This means that our singing includes proclaiming God’s great deeds of salvation.
Declaring God’s great deeds
Indeed, David sang: “I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonders ... proclaim among the nations what the Lord has done” (Ps 9:2, 11). Similar exhortations are found throughout the Psalms. “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts” (Ps 105:1–2; similarly, e.g., Ps 71:16; 145:5, 12).
Such a declaration in song is also described in Scripture as prophesying. Thus when Miriam, Aaron’s sister, led the singing and dancing declaring their praise to God for his deliverance from Egypt, she is called a prophetess (Exod 15:22). Likewise, the music ministry of the temple, was called a “ministry of prophesying” (1 Chron 25:1). This ministry included the sons of Asaph and their prophesying included the composition of Psalms 50 and 73 to 83 (cf. 1 Chron 25:2).
All of this means that when we in the course of our worship sing of the great deeds of God, then we are prophesying in the biblical sense of the word. Surely this aspect is also part of the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy that the day would come when God would pour out his Spirit on all people and “your sons and daughters will prophesy” (Joel 2:28). Moreover, one can think here of how the Heidelberg Catechism defines our prophetic task as confessing Christ’s Name (Q.A. 32). Confessing Christ must include confessing God’s great acts of redemption in our Saviour. If that is the case, then we also do need to take note of the biblical exhortation to sing a new song! “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Ps 96:1; also, e.g., Ps 33:3; 98:1).
Singing a new song
Reformed churches have followed the early Christian church by focussing their singing in their worship services on the Psalms. However, the early church also sang the New Testament hymns. After all, God’s great deeds continued in Christ! Scripture has given us the Song of Mary (Luke 1:46-55), the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79), and the Song of Simeon (Luke 2:29-32). Hymn-like passages are also found in Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20. Furthermore, the New Testament also records the song of the angels. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests” (Luke 2:14). There are also heavenly hymns in the book of Revelation such as: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev 4:8). There is evidence that the early Christian church produced hymns, but most of them disappeared, probably because it was recognized that they were not inspired. Reformed churches have therefore gone back to the early church’s practice of prioritizing the inspired Psalms and biblical hymns in worship.
At the same time, there was also the recognition that in this final age of the Spirit we may
“Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things” (Ps 98:1). Churches of the Reformation have therefore also sung hymns which were not inspired but which conformed to biblical norms, especially that they offer the sacrifice of praise to God.
It is remarkable that although Scripture teaches us that our singing should be directed in praise to God, yet, it is also a fact that in singing there is another aspect, namely that we address each other as members of Christ.
Speak to each other with psalms
The Apostle Paul after exhorting his readers to be filled with the Spirit notes that such a condition results in “addressing one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19). These apostolic words show that our singing praises to God is done in fellowship with other believers. Although our worship has very important personal aspects, it is not individualistic. There is an important corporate aspect. Filled with and united by the one Spirit of Christ we praise God with our singing, but in the process also address each other. This speaking to each other is clarified in the Apostle’s words to the Colossian Christians. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col 3:16).
With our singing, we remind each other what God has done for us in Christ, rejoice in the purpose of God for our lives, and share in the joy of redemption. At the same time, the Apostle says the singing of biblical songs with gratitude in our hearts is one way in which we can teach and admonish each other. Since the psalms and hymns of Scripture speak of Christ and the redemption to come, singing these songs means that we let the word of Christ dwell in us fully. This being the case, such singing will serve to remind, instruct, and indeed admonish if our life does not conform to what we are singing.
This reality adds to the meaningfulness of our singing in Sunday worship. But such singing is not restricted to the Lord’s Day but should characterize our entire life as Christians so that the biblical lyrics fill our lives. The Spirit uses singing the psalms and biblical hymns to mould, sanctify, and equip our lives so that we can be equipped for all circumstances of life in a fallen world. Being filled with the Spirit and having the word of Christ live in us with biblical song, also enables us to teach and admonish each other with all wisdom.
And we may do so in expectation of that great day!
Singing has a glorious future
As we worship and praise God today, we may do so in anticipation of the perfect worship that will one day take place on this present earth completely renewed. Then we will have entered the true Sabbath rest (cf. Heb 4). That perfect worship will include singing God’s praises in new songs celebrating the complete redemption of all creation. Scripture gives us some tantalizing glimpses of that heavenly worship. Around the throne of the Lamb a new song was sung in his honour (Rev 5:9-10). The elect are also pictured as singing a new song before the Lamb’s throne (Rev 14:3). We also read of a great multitude in heaven shouting and rejoicing in worship and praise that the wedding feast of the lamb has come. “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear” (Rev 19:6-8).
But all these glimpses and images of that perfect worship in song is not enough to satisfy our heartfelt longing to know more of that coming reality. As a wise pastor said years ago: Don’t speculate. Just wait and see! It will be better and more than we can imagine! “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).