Like marriage and food, the ability to communicate in song was created by God and “everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:3-4 NIV). Everyone can sing, so let’s make sure we make good use of this ability.
Some people can sing solo or harmony, musicians can accompany singing, and some have the ability to write lyrics and to create melodies. Such creativity may be seen as being part of being made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:27). This form of expression and communication is one of the characteristics of humanity and the Bible shows that in many respects singing distinguishes God’s people.
Let’s consider some biblical principles concerning the purposes and characteristics of spiritual songs, as well as some thoughts on practical aspects of singing for Christians and churches.
To praise the Lord
The need to praise the Lord in song for His goodness is evident throughout the history of mankind – past, present and future. It is one of the main themes of the Bible.
Past: After their miraculous escape from Egypt, the Israelites praised God in song (Ex. 15:1-18). The Old Testament has many examples of the Israelites’ songs of praise, with Psalms, the largest book in the Bible, being their hymnbook. Also, David, one of the major figures of the Old Testament, was a prolific songwriter and a skilled musician.
Present: In the New Testament era and today, joy is to be expressed as songs of praise (Jas. 5:13) and our praise is to “our Lord and Father” (Jas. 3:9). This is the fulfillment of Old Testament promises of non-Jewish people praising the Lord (Rom. 15:8-12). After describing the importance of Christ, the writer of Hebrews urges, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name” (Heb. 13:15).
Future: Songs of praise will be offered to Christ and the Father in a time to come (Rev. 5:1-14). This will culminate in “every creature in heaven and on earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
‘To Him who sits on the throne
and to the Lamb be praise and
honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever’” (Rev. 5:13).
To strengthen believers
It is clear from the few references to singing in the New Testament that it is an essential component of the Christian faith. The following verses show that singing is associated with teaching from the Bible and prayer:
“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Col. 3:16).
“When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26).
“I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray so others can understand: I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing so others can understand” (paraphrase of 1 Cor. 14:15).
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
So, a major purpose of singing is for strengthening the Church. Singing is a means of communication between believers and to the Lord: “Speaking to one another … Sing and make music … to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). Collective singing should promote encouragement of one another, which is the purpose of meeting together (Heb. 10:25).
Singing can be a strong symbol of unity as everyone can participate.
With thanks, from the heart
Songs can be powerful ways of expressing feelings and emotions. They should be used to express thanks and gratitude to God (Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:16). Also, singing is the outcome of happiness and joy. James 5:13 says, “Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” As with all we do, we should sing with enthusiasm (Eph. 6:7).
Singing is also a consequence of being filled with the Spirit. Christians are instructed to “sing and make music in your heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19). So songs and music are associated with the “heart” which is used in Scripture for the emotional part of our lives.
Paul and Silas are an example of Christians whose songs reflected the joy and hope within, rather than the external circumstances. After being falsely accused by the crowd, severely flogged, thrown into prison and their feet put in stocks, they prayed and sang praises to God in the middle of the night (Acts 16:20-25). They also illustrate how we can sing at any time of the day and in any situation.
Our singing should be readily understandable by those present (1 Cor. 14:15). Like speech, singing should be intelligent in the sense of being meaningful, not intellectual and not in a foreign language (1 Cor. 14:9).
Spiritual songs differ from psalms in that they are composed by Christians rather than being direct quotations from the Bible. The Scriptures, which were completed some 1,900 years ago, should not be added to or changed in any way (Rev. 22:18-19). They contain divine principles to guide us. In order to understand these principles, the Bible has been translated into various languages. So, the language can change, but not the principles.
Songs, on the other hand, are expressions of Christian faith that reflect the language, tunes, circumstances and culture of their origin. When language changes and as new experiences and new circumstances arise, the Holy Spirit causes new songs to be written. For example, the faithful will sing a “new song” in heaven (Rev. 5:9). These changes with time usually come about as believers, filled with the Spirit, create new songs (Eph. 5:18-19). In fact, the term “new song” occurs nine times in the Bible.
New songs should flow from significant events in the lives of Christians. For example, Moses (Ex. 15:1-19), Deborah and Barak (Jud. 15), David (2 Sam. 22:2-51), Mary (Lk. 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Lk. 1:67-79) were inspired to create spiritual songs. The latter two are poems, which were probably also sung.
The diversity of spiritual songs is indicated in the Book of Psalms where some songs are collective and some are individual. They also vary in content from praise, thanksgiving and instruction to personal experience, history and laments.
With musical accompaniment?
It is interesting that little is said regarding musical accompaniment to singing in the New Testament. This is similar to other topics, such as church buildings and other Christian practices. Why the difference, when compared to the greater detail in the Old Testament? I believe it is because the New Testament concentrates on the essentials of the faith, which are to be expressed in various cultures throughout the world over a period of at least 2,000 years. It applies to every community, language and nation (Rev. 5:9), whereas the Old Testament mainly addressed one nation. Many practical details are not mentioned in the New Testament as these can vary according to circumstances and cultures.
The first mention of musicians in the Bible is associated with a generation that also pioneered livestock farming and metal toolmaking (Gen. 4:20-22). One implication of this is that music meets an important human need, as does agriculture and industry.
Three verbs are used in the Greek text of the New Testament to denote singing, namely, ado, psallo and humneo1. Psallo originally meant to play a stringed instrument. This word seems to refer to the melody or tune of a song in Ephesians 5:19; “sing (ado) and make music (psallo) in your heart to the Lord.” This supports the fact that the melody or tune is an integral part of a song.
Similarly, three nouns are used in the New Testament to describe what is sung: psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Psalms (or psalmos in Greek), used in 1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, were songs sung to musical accompaniment of voice, harp or other instrument2.
Of course, accompaniment is not essential to singing – and would have been difficult in times of persecution – but neither is it prohibited. Paul and Silas would have sung without it in prison, and this may be why psallo is not used in Acts 16:25, but is in Romans 15:9, 1 Corinthians 14:15, Ephesians 5:19 and James 5:13.
Any musical accompaniment is to assist singing, with the singing being the primary purpose and the accompaniment secondary. So, while singing is essential to the Christian faith, musical accompaniment is optional.
We need to be careful to avoid putting limitations in areas when they are not clearly given in the Scriptures. Musical accompaniment to singing is such a case3. Whether it is used or not, and the type of instruments used depend on circumstances, traditions and culture. Christians should have the wisdom to know what is appropriate.
The Lord desires expressions of thanks and praise sung from the heart with understanding that strengthens the faith of believers. However we sing, whether with or without accompaniment, our singing should meet these goals.
Now let’s consider some practical aspects of the role of singing in our lives. Failure to sing with understanding and failure to include new songs can hinder our singing and thereby affect our praise to the Lord and the strength of our church.
It should be noted that God accepts all languages and cultures, with none being more acceptable to Him today than others. Consider, for example, a situation where missionaries are living in another culture. The songs from their homeland would be foreign to the local people. Obviously, Christianity should not be considered a foreign faith, and indigenous people should be encouraged to read the Scriptures in their local language and sing Christian songs in that language, with culturally relevant tunes and perhaps accompaniment. In Zaire, when the local language was used instead of French, it was reported that “this seemed to give more liberty in taking part and much joy singing in their own language”.
Of course, living languages also change over the course of time. For example, English has changed significantly over the past 100 years. Under these circumstances, new songs are required from time to time, in order for there to be a balance between traditional songs and more contemporary songs. Churches should have a process for incorporating contemporary songs. Otherwise, they are in danger of wrongly elevating traditional songs to the status of the Scriptures. This was the problem of the Pharisees who treated their traditions as though they were divine principles.
Are we ready to accept new songs and allow others in our church to have the opportunity of singing songs that are significant to them, including songs in everyday language and with contemporary tunes?
Do we have a vision of the role of songs of praise in our church? Are we willing to evaluate our attitudes and practices and endeavor to improve in this area of our Christian lives?
As with other talents, singing, musical ability, song writing and composing should be used for the “common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Have these been neglected in your gathering? Hopefully this article will encourage you.
Let’s sing to praise the Lord; to express thanks, gratitude, happiness and joy; to strengthen the Church; and to encourage one another. Let’s sing with understanding and let’s encourage a balance between new and traditional songs.
1. W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1970.
2. See Vine; R. Young, Analytical Concordance of the Bible, 1939; J. H. Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, Baker, 1992.
3. Church buildings would be another.
Published, March 1997 (Scripture quotations updated March 2015)