Results tagged “singing” from Reformation21 Blog

Singing from Mary's Sheet


"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever." (Luke 1: 46-55)

This familiar Christmas passage is often called Mary's Song or the Magnificat which is Latin for magnify. Mary sings this song in response to Elizabeth's exclamation of blessing to her when she arrived for a visit and when John the Baptist leapt in Elizabeth's womb, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Mary sang this song to magnify or to extol God. When we magnify something, we make it bigger, so we can better see it. Like a magnifying glass. Or when someone is put up on the jumbotron at a ball game, so everyone can see their silly dance. In the case of this song, Mary is narrowing in on the greatness of God. She is filled with wonder at what God is doing and can't help but bubble over into praise.

What makes this song all the more remarkable is the challenges and trials she likely went through before her visit to Elizabeth. She had probably been ostracized by many in her community. We don't know how her family responded, but they had every legal right to reject her, or worse. We know from the book of Matthew that Joseph wanted to divorce her after he heard the news of her conception. We should also remember where Israel is in her history. Since the exile, they have not had a king on the throne. The prophets have been silent since Malachi. Romans rule the world and their land. So in many ways, it's a dark time, for Mary and for her people. Yet as we see, she sings a song filled with wonder and thanksgiving.

Magnifying the Lord in Thanksgiving

In her song, Mary shows us how to give thanks to the Lord. And we can learn a few things from her for our own songs of praise.

We praise God by rehearsing Scripture: Throughout her song, Mary references directly or indirectly many psalms and other Old Testament passages. One obvious one is Hannah's prayer from 1 Samuel. The first verse of her song mirrors Psalm 103:1 where the psalmist wrote, "Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!" As an Israelite, Mary was steeped in Scripture; she knew God's word. And having sung the psalms in worship, she knew how to sing praises to the Lord. Singing praises to God for who he is and what he has done was natural to her and this song is spontaneous praise. She is overwhelmed by the goodness of God to her and ultimately to her people. Mary faced a significant turning point in her life. A huge event just happened. An event that was a mixture of both trial and hope. She learned that she would bear the Messiah, but that blessing also brought about difficulty and challenges for her and her family. She processed and prayed and praised by rehearsing what she knew from God's Word. Mary shows us how to respond to all the events in our life: whether momentous or hard, whether joyous or painful, by focusing on who God is and what he has done.

We praise God for who he is: Throughout her song, she weaves in and references God's character: he is her Savior, he is holy, he is merciful, he is mighty and strong. In our own praises to God, we need to tell of who God is, his character, his goodness, and faithfulness. We need to tell of his grace and mercy. On this side of the cross, we see all of these character traits Mary mentions on full display. He is our savior: he saved us through the death of his son on the cross for our sins. He is holy: his holiness requires payment for sin, a payment we could not pay, but Jesus Christ paid it for us. He is merciful: through Christ, we have not received what we deserve--death for our sins. He is mighty and strong: the grave could not hold our Savior, he conquered sin and death and rose in victory to sit at the right hand of God.

We praise God for what he has done: Mary praises God for two things in this song: what he has done for her and what he has done for Israel. She praises him for his grace to her in seeing her humble estate and gifting her with the promised Messiah. She praises him for remembering his promises to her people and to the promise he made to Abraham when he promised that all the world would be blessed through him. On this side of the cross, we praise God for what he has done in our own lives in choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world, in bringing us from death to life, in forgiving us of our sins, in giving us the gift of the Spirit, and in working in us to make us more like Christ. We praise him for meeting our daily needs and for keeping and sustaining us. We also praise him for what he is doing in the church, locally and around the world. We praise him for creating the church, for purchasing her with his blood and washing her clean. We praise him for his faithfulness, to fulfill the promise to Abraham by grafting us into the tree by faith.

We learn from Mary's song to turn our eyes and look upon God in his goodness and faithfulness, whatever the circumstances going on around us, and to sing his praises with awe and wonder. Mary did not yet know exactly how God would use her child to bring salvation. She knew the promises from the Old Testament. She knew he would bring redemption. But she didn't know the details. On this side of redemptive history, how much more should we rejoice and sing praises to God! How much more should we magnify our Savior for who he is and what he has done!

Mary's story of hardship mixed with wonder and anticipation is our own story as well. We all live with the hardships and trials of life in a fallen world. But we are not without hope. We have the fulfillment and the fruit of the promise given to Abraham and incarnated in Mary's womb. We have the gift of Jesus. We have hope forever. We have new life, peace with God, and a Savior who lives and reigns to intercede for us. So, as we spend this Advent season dwelling on the incarnation and gift of Jesus, even as we may struggle with our own personal trials and heartaches, like Mary, let us turn and marvel with wonder at who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.


Christina Fox writes for a number of Christian ministries and publications including Revive Our Hearts, Desiring God and Ligonier Ministries. She is the content editor for enCourage and the author of A Heart Set Free: A Journey to Hope Through the Psalms of Lament  , Closer Than a Sister: How Union with Christ Helps Friendships to Flourish and Idols of a Mother's Heart. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and two boys. You can find her at, @christinarfox and on Facebook.

The Zwinglian Option


You will have heard of the "Benedict Option" for coping with the culture wars. I would like to propose to Reformed Protestants the "Zwinglian Option" for ending the worship wars: eliminate all music from our public services. Zwingli, the outstanding musician among the Reformers, removed all music from the church in Zurich. We wring our hands over our worship divisions. The two ends of liturgical spectrum endlessly annoy each other. Think about it. Take away the music and we have little left to fight about. No more arguments about instrumentation. No more fights about types of songs. No more conflicts about the amount of time spent singing. Take it all away. No more music. No more songs. No more singing. This would be a very painful option for me personally. I love metrical psalmody. What is better than worshipping with a congregation that knows the Trinity Hymnal version of Psalm 51 to Redhead ("God Be Merciful to Me") or Psalm 146 to Ripley ("Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah") or Psalm 23 to Crimond ("The Lord's My Shepherd")? It would be an equally painful option because I love classic hymnody. What is more moving than a full house of worshippers singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" to Nicea, or "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" to Hamburg.

The loss would be significant, yet the gains would be abundant. No more heartburn for traditionalists when the bongo drums and tamborines are unleashed. No more inward groans when we sing a mediocre modern tune with mediocre lyrics as led by unordained "worship leaders." For the other side of the spectrum, we'd have to give up today's favorite contemporary praise songs and modernized hymnody. But think of what we'd gain: no more dreary old hymn tunes to dampen the spirit. No more funeral dirges to inflict on otherwise celebratory services. Remove all music and nothing is left to distress anyone.

Unity in worship

What would be left? Only that upon which we can all agree. Reformed worship in all its beauty and simplicity would remain:

  • a full-diet of biblical prayer (praise, confession, thanksgiving, intercessions, illumination, and benediction)
  • lectio continua readings of Scripture, or at least substantial readings
  • expository preaching, hopefully of sequential texts, taking congregations through books of the Bible, but at least of texts selected topically
  • regular administration of the sacraments

Who possibly could object to these slimmed down services? Can you not envision the happy result for those who move from one community to another, or those on vacation, as hither to unknown Reformed churches are visited, and nothing is found to complain about at the services?

Let's walk through such a service. A strong opening prayer of praise might be offered, followed by a chapter read from the Old Testament. A prayer of confession of sin with thanksgiving for pardon might come next. Perhaps a baptism might follow. Then the sermon text might be read followed by the sermon. Prayers of intercession followed by the benediction might end the service. What do we have? A simple, substantial, spiritual service. No one is jockeying for "their" music. No one is upset because the service is too light and frivolous or too heavy and serious. No one is uncomfortable because of the emotional restraint and staid postures of the old-schoolers or the emotional excesses and bodily movements of the new-schoolers. Our congregations are unified and at peace. Our denomination is unified at that most vital of times, the hour of worship. Everyone knows what to expect when he or she visits one of our Reformed churches. The solution to the worship wars easily is solved by the Zwinglian Option. No more music. No more singing. No more songs. Nothing remains to divide us. Music has become an idol that divides the church. Let us then smash it.

Genevan option

Is the "Zwinglian Option" too severe? I suspect many will consider it so. Let me then modify my solution to the worship wars by offering a second option, a tweaked version of the first: the "Genevan Option." The Genevan Option would be less stringent and more palatable for many. Let's restore the singing. However, we'll continue to eliminate the instrumentation as in the Zwinglian Option. No more musical instruments. All singing would be acapella. There, isn't that better? Don't for a moment think that this is unworkable. Reformed Protestants worshipped without instruments for nearly 300 years, which, by the way, is longer than we have worshipped with them. Our friends at the RPCNA will assure us that unaccompanied singing is the most beautiful of all church music. The human voice, after all, is the most beautiful of musical instruments. We'll get used to it, and for most people it will beat the Zwinglian Option. Unconvinced? You are thinking that we'll still fight over the types of songs that we'll sing? My answer is, yes and no. Without instruments to carry the song, the two extreme ends of the musical spectrum will quickly be eliminated. The contemporary music that is more suited to performers will prove unsingable for congregations without instrumental support, as will overly complicated classical music. This will push our song selection into the middle of the spectrum where consensus is more likely.

Or, we could go a step further with the Genevan Option and eliminate hymns along with instruments. This would not be my preference. Yet if we're going to argue about whose songs get sung, let's settle the issue by limiting our songs to the Psalms, metrical psalms. Again, this is not unprecedented. After all, this is all that Reformed Protestants sang in their public services until Isaac Watts and his contemporaries gained widespread acceptance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Surely it would not be onerous merely to return to the dominant practice of our forefathers for the better part of 300 years.

There. We've done it. We have a way forward. We can reunite our divided churches by one of two paths, the Zwinglian Option or the Genevan Option. Plenty of latitude remains: we may or may not utilize the Creeds and the Ten Commandments ("lawful oaths") in our orders of services; we may administer the Lord's Supper weekly, monthly, or quarterly; a wonderful variety continues in our prayers, readings, and preaching. Plenty remains in our services to thrill the heart and feed the soul. They will continue to be God-centered, gospel-structured, word-filled, church-aware, and Spirit-dependent. The path ahead for us is clear. All we need do to restore church unity is give up our songs or at least our instruments, or at least our instruments and hymns. Surprisingly easy, isn't it?

A Psalm-Singing Resurgence


We are experiencing something of a Psalm-singing resurgence in our day. Resources abound online for people who would like to learn more about psalm singing. Churches are making strategic plans to train their members in singing the psalms. Blogs buzz with excitement over the Psalter. It is undeniable that the church is waking up to that which once marked it--the passionate singing of psalms. I am a child of this movement. 

As a seminary student at RTS in Charlotte, NC, I stood looking at the blue sign that said NTGreekIntro as it hung over neatly stacked volumes awaiting the next batch of seminary students. I was one of those students and it was my first visit to the bookstore. I read the list. Mounce's Basics of Biblical Greek--check. UBS Greek New Testament--check. Trinity Psalter--huh?

I thought I was signing up for a class on New Testament Greek. Why was I being asked to purchase an Old Testament book in English? The words "required text" overpowered my confusion and I purchased my first psalter. I would soon discover that Dr. Cara's Greek class, and all of his classes for that matter, began with the mandatory singing of a psalm. I became a psalm singer by requisite. 

So, how does someone set about the task of rediscovering the psalms? First, you must keep the benefits that God attaches to worshiping with the psalms before you. Second, you must decide practically how you will begin singing psalms in private, family, and corporate worship.

What benefits should you expect from singing Psalms?

When you sing psalms you sing the Bible. The hymn "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" is a moving meditation on the cross of Christ. No hymn matches "For All the Saints" in its contemplation on the communion of the saints. But neither of these hymns are the actual words of the Bible. They are reflections on it. Forgetting for a moment that we are not singing the psalms in Hebrew, we are still singing the very words of God. The versification, themes, and content of the psalms are the inspired word of God for his church in every age. When you sing a psalm you sing the Bible.

When you sing the psalms you interact with a wealth of theology. Martin Luther said of the Psalter, "that it might well be entitled a Little Bible, wherein everything contained in the entire Bible is beautifully and briefly comprehended." The 150 psalms cover the span of theology. To learn the psalms is not just to learn a specific topic of theology. It is to learn about every area of theology. Anthropology, theology proper, a theology of Scripture, Christology, soteriology, eccleisiology, and eschatology are all covered in the Psalter. Take for example Psalm 19 and its two part contemplation of God's revelation in creation and in the Bible. Or consider John Calvin's observation of God's attributes in Psalm 145, "in which the sum of all his powers is so precisely reckoned up that nothing would seem to have been omitted." The psalms provide a thorough exposure to the fullness of theology.

When you sing the psalms you are memorizing Scripture. An important part of Christian maturity is the ability to recall passages of Scripture at need. Educational circles have long advocated the use of music to aid memorization. Music has a way of impressing truth into the mind in ways that reading alone cannot. This is no accident; it is the providential hand of our Creator God. He wants you to memorize his word and has provided a mnemonic for easy memory--the Psalter as Scripture set to music.

When you sing the psalms you guard against heresy. Andrew Fletcher said, "Let me write a country's songs, and I care not who writes its laws." He was on to something. Songs drive information deep into our hearts. However, this power can be used for ill means. As long as the church has existed, songs have been used to inculcate heresy. There is an assumption that if you can sing it then it must be true. How shall we guard against sung-heresy? Sing psalms.

When you sing the psalms you engage a collection of songs that address the full range of human emotions. Godly anger, heart-wrenching sorrow, dark depression, effulgent joy, honest questioning, and exuberant praise are just a sampling of the emotional range covered by the psalms. Most churches sense the burden of teaching their people how to think. Very few consider their responsibility to teach their people how to feel. Christians do not struggle with feeling. Feeling just happens. But our feelings must be trained by the gospel as much as our minds must. The psalms serve as the class room of our affections.

When you sing the psalms you praise the person and work of Jesus Christ. One of the most ignorant statements a Christian can make against psalm singing is, "I don't sing psalms because they aren't about Jesus." Too many evangelicals--having unwittingly drunk deep of the Marcionite heresy--have ceased to see the Old Testament, and especially the psalms, as a masterpiece of redemptive history telling in types, shadows, and rituals the person and work of Jesus Christ. When the earliest Christians wanted to sing praise to God for the redemption wrought by Jesus' atoning death they turned to the psalms. It is sheer biblical ignorance and chronological snobbery to assume we can write better songs about Jesus than are provided in the psalms through the lens of the New Testament. To sing the psalms is to sing of the person and work of Christ.

When you sing the psalms you are training for spiritual warfare. As my Peruvian friend insisted, the psalms are militant. They are filled with images of war, divine conquest, and righteous triumph. Are those themes no longer needed in our day? As we watch men leave the church in droves dismayed at the feminization of worship is their no need for masculine, militant spirituality? As we watch Satan and his legions pillage congregations and hold Christians captive in doubts and error do we not need songs of war? J. C. Ryle understood this crucial element of Christian worship when he said, "true Christianity is the fight of faith." What songs will the armies of God sing to steel courage and embolden spiritual warfare? When we sing the psalms we sing the songs of war against sin, the world, and the devil.

When you sing the psalms you are engaging the communion of saints. The psalms were composed over a certain period in Israelite history. But they are not relics. They have been sung by the covenant people of God in each successive generation up to today. They will be sung until Christ's return. This touches on the doctrine of the communion of the saints. There is a solidarity in Christ for all who have been bought by his blood. That solidarity extends across cultures and generations. The psalms are rooted in the covenant identity of all God's chosen race. To sing them is to confess the communion of saints.

How can you learn to sing the Psalms?

First, find a Psalter you can sing. Notice I didn't simply say, "find a Psalter". Just as the best Bible translation is the one you read so the best Psalter is the one you sing. Different Psalters are suited to different musical abilities--congregational and personal. Some set each psalm to a particular tune while others simply provide the suggested meter allowing you to choose the tune. Don't buy a Psalter you can't sing.

I own three Psalters. The Trinity Psalter (Crown and Covenant) was developed for my denomination for use in congregational worship. It provides a single suggested tune for each psalm and breaks long psalms up into suggested portions. The Book of Psalms for Worship (Crown and Covenant) also suggests tunes for each psalm but provides multiple settings for each psalm taken from different historic Psalters. This method provides you with more options--helpful if you don't know a particular tune or prefer a different versification. The third and most used psalter I own is The Psalms of David in Metre (Trinitarian Bible Society). This is the version that follows the 1650 Scottish Psalter. It provides each psalm in the common meter. While lacking in musical sophistication this version is imminently singable.

Secondly, you must know your Bible. Devote special study to the background of the Psalms. Ask your pastor to suggest good commentaries on the Psalms. Purchase a Bible with cross-references and note where Psalms are quoted in the New Testament. Let the authors of the New Testament teach you how to apply the psalms to Christian worship and life.

Let me also add the suggestion that you read a good book on redemptive history. Graeme Goldworthy's According to Plan is a great place to start. A good foundation in the Bible's overarching plan of redemption and how it culminates in Jesus Christ is essential to singing the psalms well. For example, what are you singing about when you ask God, "to let you dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Psalm 27:4)? Should you set up a cot in your local church? Or, what does it mean to praise God for his protection of Jerusalem (Psalm 51:18)? By Jerusalem, do you mean geographic Jerusalem or the Christian church? A good background in redemptive history--sometimes called biblical theology--is essential to answering these questions and others as you seek to sing the psalms with understanding.

Third, to sing the psalms well you must understand how the psalms direct us to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Again, a Bible with cross references is valuable in this type of study. Many psalms are directly fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. The authors of the New Testament regularly draw on the psalms to describe what was accomplished on the Cross. The beauty of the psalms is magnified as they are placed in the setting of God's redemptive work in Jesus Christ. The psalms are thoroughly Christian--being centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. We sing the psalms at the foot of the Cross.

The fourth thing you will need is the willingness to try something new. Psalm singing can be difficult for someone who has been raised solely on a diet of Reformation and post-Reformation hymns. Psalm singing can be downright alien for someone who has only known modern praise songs. But the promised benefits--briefly mentioned above--are immense. It is not easy work but it is good work. It is not quick work but it provides long-term, lasting joys.

A church that refuses to sing the psalms places itself on a restricted spiritual diet that will result in spiritual malnutrition. Psalm singing is a staple in Christian worship no matter what your view on hymns. If you want to read more on the interface of hymns and psalms throughout the history of Reformed worship let me suggest to you chapter 4 of Hughes Oliphant Old's book, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture.

*This is an adaptation of an article originally published at Ref21 in June of 2008.

A musical query

I have not been really keeping up recently, but I was interested to read Leon's musings on music in the church planting situation. Passing over a number of other stimulating threads, I should be interested to know the answers to a couple of questions, if he has the time.

First, how does he square his "dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation" with what I presume would be his embrace of the Regulative Principle of Worship. What drives the dream?

Second, might the reader inquire as to whether or not his bevy of players from "the music department at a local university" are all presumed to be members in good standing of a faithful gospel church, and - if not - how would he justify what I presume would be the paid employment of unconverted musicians to assist the saints in the spiritual worship of a holy God?

I look forward to the answers with interest.
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation
dream to utilize a variety of instrumentation

Singing in worship

Now that the news has broken that my album - tentatively entitled Funkier Than You Think - may be hitting the market before long, I feel marginally better qualified to speak to the issue of the sung worship of the church.

The New Testament data with regard to singing in the worship of the church is, to put it bluntly, sparse. On the one hand, it seems strange that an issue which excited so little attention in the early church should be the sphere of so many of the worship wars which have erupted in recent years. On the other, perhaps it is precisely because the instruction is sparse and simple that we feel we have a right or even a need to develop our own principles and practice.

In this regard, it is strange how many of those who emphasise, even trumpet, their new covenant credentials in other areas are so quick to run to the Old Testament for a justification of the manner (as opposed to the matter) of worship. And, of course, for sung worship it is often very much a surface reading of the psalms, which immediately provide us with good reason for choirs and multiple instrumentation and a host of other options: after all, David had harps and lyres, didn't he? Q.E.D. Or, in fact, quod non erat demonstrandum. I do not deny that the Old Testament sheds much light on our principles of worship, and ought to be employed for that purpose, but I do not believe that it ought to be normative for its forms.

There are only a few passages which directly address the sung worship of the militant new covenant church gathered together in the presence of God:
"And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God." (Eph 5.18-21)

"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)

"What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding." (1Cor 14.15)
I pass over James 5.13 - "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms" - because it seems to be primarily a private instruction, although it is interesting to compare it with the experience of Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16.25). 1 Corinthians14.26 also suggests that psalms were in the mix in the Corinthian church, but is, perhaps, more incidental than the others. The simple and sweet narratives of the Lord's supper do not offer us much more. However, the clearest passages offer a few straightforward principles that we would do well to consider.

Firstly, the instrument to which the New Testament gives a clear priority, and on which it lays the greatest emphasis, is the human voice expressing the fullness of the heart. Whether or not you accept that this requires the positive and complete absence of musical instruments as accompaniment, I would suggest that it certainly puts them in their place, and the concern with the style and quality of the musicians that seems to dominate much of the discussion is seen to be simply inappropriate. At best, musical instruments ought to accompany the voice, guiding and supporting it, not competing with or drowning it. Given this, the use of musical instruments should probably be minimal, providing a platform for the voice, the primary instrument by which the saints of the New Testament praise the Lord.

Secondly, that instrument is to be played by every member of the congregation. Sung worship is essentially congregational. The light of nature may point toward, again, some kind of leadership, but there is nothing here of the individual or group, however formally or informally, isolated from the mass and pursuing something separate from or before them. Congregational worship helps to avoid any element of mere performance creeping in, no small blessing in an age in which music and singing are almost irrevocably linked with performance and show. Of course, the absence of a band or choir or soloist does not necessarily secure the ends intended. How many congregations are dominated and even crippled by people with powerful voices who sing without reference to anyone else around them, their timings, speed, and volume governed - it would seem - by their own spirit separate from others, or without any real awareness of what is happening, or even by the desire to be heard and to impress? A good voice, well and humbly employed, is a help to those of us who may not have such a gift from God and who sometimes feel that our contribution is "a joyful noise" but not much more. Individuals must bring their gifts within the body and for the purpose of serving the whole, not parading in front of them, ignorantly or otherwise. Edification will, in some instances, mean a proper and determined restraint in the employment of our gifts, as well as gusto in other cases. Families can assist in forming the pattern by singing in family worship, encouraging the children to make a cheerful and willing effort. Parents should set a good example, standing straight, opening their mouths and using their lungs, not mumbling themselves, nor allowing their children to slump and mutter through the singing.

Thirdly, this suggests something about the musical style. The tunes to be employed must fall within the range of the congregation. I am not saying that it would be wrong to develop the capacity of the congregation in the praise of God, either in the range or style of the tunes, or our ability to sing them, but - if the whole congregation is to sing - then the range and structure of any particular tune ought to lend itself to the participation of everyone. To that end, principles of simplicity and freshness and tunefulness and memorization ought to be part of what governs the writing and singing of tunes.

Perhaps here it would be appropriate to point out that the tunes ought to be fitting to the words. There is nothing that grates more than a melody that is in overt conflict with the mood of the lyrics that are being sung. Again, the light of nature dictates that a more contemplative song needs a more contemplative tune; a song of overflowing joy ought to be sung to a tune, in a key, at a tempo, and with a volume that connects with its meaning; the mournful cry requires its own setting if the singing is to be in keeping with the substance. Again, the temptation of many congregations - especially those with larger numbers - to sing with abominable and often increasing slowness must be resisted; so must the instinct to dash through everything without giving opportunity for breath or thought. Lingering on notes, especially at the ends of verses, tends to have the effect of dragging everything out, so that each verse begins more slowly than the last, and every tune becomes a dirge by the time it has been finished. As Spurgeon once encouraged his congregation, "Dear friends, the devil sometimes makes you lag half a note behind the leader. Just try if you can't prevail over him to-night, and keep in proper time." If the lively hymns are sung to lively tunes in a lively style, then there is space for the more meditative and mournful contributions to adapt.

Of course, these passages also speak to the internal realities of our worshipful singing. So we find that the singing is to consist in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs," the outflow of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly in all wisdom and the filling of the Spirit. Whether or not one agrees with the interpretation that will have these categories as three divisions of the psalter, it is immediately clear that the fundamental content of our songs ought to be Biblical truth. That does not mean that there is no space for personal experience (the pattern of the psalms alone would indicate otherwise), but that experience ought never to be divorced from the truth. The content of our songs should be drawn from and governed by Scripture in all its wealth.

But notice further that this truth is to be expressed in both its vertical and horizontal dimensions. By this I mean that our singing is in part directed toward God and in part toward men. Godward, you are "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Manward, you are "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" and "teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." It would be wrong to draw too fine a distinction between these elements, insisting that every composition must fall into one or the other category, but - whether or not, or to what degree, these are blended - we must consider that we are singing to one another, bringing needed truth before one another's minds and hearts, and singing to the Lord, expressing all the realities of his being and doing, and the realities of our relationship to him. But notice the motives: the intention is not to impress God nor to entertain men, but to thank and adore the Lord and to instruct and exhort his people. These aims must be ever before us as we sing, or we will lose our way.

And, as with all new covenant worship, it must be worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4.24). Whatever that much controverted verse means, there is surely something of the same sense in the instruction to "be filled with the Spirit," "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord," "singing with grace in your heart to the Lord." This speaks of a supernatural dimension and assistance, of spiritual sincerity, thoughtful participation and genuine engagement. It does not permit us to avoid the happy songs if we are ourselves sad, nor to balk at the sad songs if we are ourselves happy. We are told to enter into the spirit of what we might not ourselves be instinctively feeling: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (Rom 12.15). In so doing, we offer to others what they need, and perhaps dose ourselves with a necessary medicine: as John Wesley said to Methodist singers, "Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing."

Wesley went on:
Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Surely this is an instruction that every saint - regardless of their physical ability - can follow? Isaac Watts offers a similar sentiment by way of warning in his paraphrase of Psalm 47:

Rehearse his praise with awe profound,
Let knowledge lead the song,
Nor mock him with a solemn sound
Upon a thoughtless tongue.

Watts brings us back to the matter of truth and understanding, and so guides us again toward a blending of some of these concerns. If we are to sing in the way just described, we must heed Paul's conclusion: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding" (1Cor 14.15). Spiritual reality does not suspend or bypass the mental faculty, and our singing - if it is to pass this test - must be coherent and intelligible. It is in this way that we enter most readily into the glorious truths of which we sing. This requirement does not mean that our songs must be childish or unintelligent. Words should be clear and accurate both in their meaning (if the poetry or the vocabulary require explanation, this is usually easily done) and their vocalization, so that they can be understood - after all, how can you instruct your brother if he cannot tell what he is hearing? I would suggest that it does mean avoiding what is unnecessarily archaic or abstruse in our language, especially in environments where there may be many visitors, or a number of people who are not singing in their first language. At the same time, our sole concern is not horizontal, and it is perfectly appropriate to use accurate and rich expressions of praise to God that may require explanation to those unfamiliar with them. In addition, part of the teaching we offer on the horizontal plane may also require further explanation at times. To borrow a pithy thought from Machen, and apply it in a slightly different way: "I am by no means ready to relinquish the advantages of a precise terminology in summarizing Bible truth. In religion as well as in other spheres a precise terminology is mentally economical in the end; it repays amply the slight effort for the mastery of it" (What is Faith? [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991], 162-3).

It seems to me that simplicity is of the essence of our worship, allowing the spiritual substance to be expressed with sincerity and without distraction. As I have commented to our own congregation, imagine a situation in which the church is being persecuted. The secret police have learned that following the people who leave their homes with pianos on flatbed trucks on Sunday mornings is usually quite a productive train of enquiry, no less so those who carry violin or guitar cases. Perhaps it is too great a risk even to carry a Bible. Therefore, taking all necessary precautions, the believers meet at a pre-appointed place in the misty dawn, perhaps under a gospel oak as they did in days not so long ago. The saints gather swiftly and silently and with much prayer for their safety. There the appointed preacher arrives, and after prayer asks one of the saints to recite from memory the portion from which he intends to preach. He then expounds the passage, making its appropriate applications. The saints softly sing a couple of psalms or hymns together, ones easily memorized and readily learned. In a nearby stream a new convert is baptized, changing swiftly out of wet clothes, and then the Lord's supper is celebrated by the saints breaking bread and passing around wine. Before they depart they sing again, their voices muted but intense. Before long, the service is over, and the believers melt away into the growing day, leaving in various directions and small groups so as to arouse no suspicion.

What more is required? I am not saying that this is the ideal, or that anything different would be inherently sinful, but I do contend that absolutely nothing is lacking to make this pleasing to the Lord.

While much more might be said, I hope that these few thoughts will at least stimulate us to consider once again and more carefully, the hows, whys and wherefores of our sung worship, lifting up heart and voice in the right way and for the right reason, glorifying God and doing good to men as we sing a new song to the Lord.