Our motive for all that we do is to be the glory of God — even if it is something as mundane as eating or drinking (1 Cor. 10:31). How much more should we be seeking the glory of God when we are in the act of worshipping Him? Certainly, most Christians would agree that we should sing in order to glorify God — but is there a snare? Yes, when we assume that whatever we like is suitable as an offering to God, for no better reason than that we like it. This was the error of Cain, of Nadab and Abihu, and of those guilty of “self-imposed religion” in Col. 2:23. In other words, how do we know what glorifies God? We must seek to answer the question through Bible study. Our motive, therefore, must be to glorify God in our singing, according to the pattern found in His Word. We should want to do this with regard to our manner of singing, and with regard to the content of our songs.
We should begin with the need for purity. Music does not stand alone as a separate entity. Men and women express themselves to God through music of public worship. This is why it is important for those who sing (whether individually or congregationally) to have hearts prepared to offer the sacrifice of praise. “Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15). If we do not prepare our hearts for worship, God is not pleased with our musical offerings. “I hate, I despise your feast days, and I do not savor your sacred assemblies. Though you offer Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them, nor will I regard you fattened peace offerings. Take away from me the noise of your songs, for I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:21-24). We must note this carefully — God evaluates worship services. And He takes a dim view of musical hypocrites.
As we sing, certain characteristics should be obvious to all who hear the singing. Our congregational singing should have at least the following characteristics. First, it should be reverent. The flippancy with which some address God is truly frightening. “The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He dwells between the cherubim; let the earth be moved! The Lord is great in Zion, and He is high above all the peoples. Let them praise your great and awesome name — He is holy” (Ps. 99:1-3). We should note the KJV translation of awesome — terrible. Moreover, this requirement to be God-fearing was not an Old Covenant thing — notice Paul’s teaching in Philippians, which is to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12). Do not sing to the Lord with your mind somewhere else, or while entertaining various jolly thoughts. Worship of God needs to be acceptable, which means it must be offered in reverance and godly fear. This is because God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:28-29).
In the second place, the music should be done well. Beautiful and appropriate music exists. What is beautiful and what is not is not simply a matter of personal taste. The Scripture says, “Play skillfully with a shout of joy . . .” (Ps. 33:3). In Col. 3:16, we are required to have the word of Christ dwell in us richly, and the result of this is to be music. The music that comes forth should reflect the richness of the faith, not the poverty of the faith. If the faith is rich, then the music should be be rich as well. Scripture teaches a correspondence between tree and fruit, fountain and water. This does not mean that the music should be overly complicated or ornate, but it should be good.
Third, congregational music should be loud. Scripture does not require the people of God to come before Him in order to mumble. “Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully with a shout of joy” (Ps. 33:3). In another place it says, “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises” (Ps. 98:4). We must spend more time trying to find out what the Bible requires, and less time reacting to the excesses of others. If some worship God through chandelier swinging, we must not react by worshipping God by means of a mufflied meandering through weekly dirges.
And last, the manner of our congregational music includes instrumental accompaniment. “Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth; break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of a psalm, with trumpets and the sound of a horn; shout joyfully before the Lord, the King” (Ps. 98:4-6).
But more is involved with music than just the music. Music is adorned poetry, and the Scriptures have a lot to say about that as well. The apostle Paul says that we should teach and admonish one another in our singing. This means that the lyrics of our songs must meet a certain standard — a standard similar to that which is set for all teaching within the church. “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” (Col. 3:16). The teaching in congregational song must therefore meet the following criteria.
First, the lyrics must have Christ at the center. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). Just as the teaching of the church should reflect the whole counsel of God, so the singing should do the same. This means that the singing should be focussed on Christ (Rev. 5:9,12), the One in whom all things come together. Scripture hangs together, not in a system, but in a Person. We must avoid two errors here — one emphasizes that Scripture hangs together and ignores the Person; the other praises the Person, and denies that He speaks consistently.
Second, the lyrics must be biblically balanced. “All Your works shall praise You, O Lord, and Your saints shall bless You” (Ps. 145:10). In another place, the psalmist says, “Bless the Lord, all His works, in all places of His dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (Ps. 103:22). This means that the lyrics should never be used in the service of a hobby horse, or “favorite truths.” Just as sermons should be connected to the text, so should the songs.
In the third place, the lyrics should be pastoral. As they sing, the saints should have opportunity to meditate on the truth of God’s revelation (1 Cor. 14:15); confess sin (Ps. 32:1); receive comfort (Ps. 46); find assurance (Ps. 74:1); express the unity of saints (Ps. 133); demonstrate gratitude (Ps. 100); and confess faith in the Lord Christ (Phil. 2:10-11).
It is not enough that the lyrics should be simply true; they must also be edifying. Because they must be edifying, the lyrics must be well-written. If they are not, then they will only confuse, distract, or mislead the saints. How words go together is not irrelevant to the effectiveness of the communication. The lyrics should express the doctrine of God’s people in a clear, balanced way. This is simply another way of saying the lyrics should be creedal and systematic (Phil. 3:16). The lyrics should also express God’s truth with the same aroma as found in Scripture (Ps. 95:1-2). Our joy and thanksgiving may not be counterfeit, but rather have to be the real thing. Certain expressions of happiness do not ring the same way that scriptural expressions do.
Fifth, the lyrics should be able to function in a corporate setting. Individual testimonies — although wonderful in themselves — are not the point of corporate worship. Even David’s personal testimonies in his psalms are sung by all Israel. We tend to fall short of this in several ways. First, we gravitate toward individualism as opposed to corporate testimony in song. Consider Ps. 22:25-31. The worship of God must be seen in the assembly of His saints. We also veer toward individual testimony as opposed to historical testimony in song. Consider the words of Psalm 44:1-8. The psalmist not just singing about the history of God’s people (v. 2), he is even singing about his history lessons (v. 1).
So music matters a great deal. Moreover, this music will not “take care of itself.” In order to sing rightly, the leadership and membership of the church must pay attention to the Scriptures, and think biblically as we sing. Related to all this is the obvious need the modern church has for trained musicians who are grounded in the Scriptures — we need a great army of men who understand how to cultivate high musical standards for congregational worship without becoming persnickety prima donnas. That has unfortunately done as much to chase regular church goers from biblical praise as anything else.