Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD! – Psalm 150:6 ESV
What a fitting conclusion. The last statement of the song book of God’s people is a call for every living being to praise God. Hallelujah!
Songs and music occupy a very important place in the human experience. Imagine a world without music. I find it totally unimaginable. There is no other earthly creature that does music. It is no wonder that we use such a unique feature of our humanity to express our worship. Of course we sing our worship to God but the music on its own cannot not be worship. We can’t honour him with our lips when our hearts are far from him. We are meant to be living sacrifices and our songs are the summary expressions of a life lived in total worship to God.
Psalm 150 expresses some important ideas about the world. It presupposes the world is made by YHWH, God of Israel. It also assumes he is a great and good god and these attributes of his can be perceived in his creation. Finally he thinks he is worthy of worship because of who he is and what he has done (Romans 1:19-21.) Our songs tell stories that articulate and reinforce our worldviews like we just saw in the psalm. For the song writer he affirmed the classic jewish faith in a covenant God and he as a member of the covenant people, Israel, called to reflect his glory. Every culture has its own distinctive song and music that represents who they are and their place in the world as they understand it. Music is always from a person or about a person so they serve as summary expressions of human life.
Beyond the lyrical and melodic content of songs and music which is a form of storytelling, the very act of doing musc has symbolic significance in cultures and worldviews. There are the songs of your people and if you do not know them your identity in the community is questionable. When we use these symbols we affirm our identity as heirs of a culture heritage. Back in the day there used to be a popular game show eponymously named Agorɔ. One of the segments of the show was to identify the title and artist of popular highlife songs. Highlife is a style of music that is indigenous to Ghana. As a Ghanaian you were supposed to know them or at least recognize them. In the same way the Psalms were the songs of the covenant people. A powerful expression of this is Psalm 137 which was adapted by Jamaican reggae group The Melodians and popularized by German disco group Boney M,
By the rivers of Babylon, There we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those who plundered us requested mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth – if I do not exalt Jerusalem Above my chief joy – Psalm 137:1-6 NKJ
In the pain of exile their foreign captors taunted them to sing. Imagine you are utterly in despair, your hopes have been cruelly dashed and you are told to entertain the same people who put you in that position. They just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Psalm 137 was obviously not a psalm of David or his contemporaries. This shows that these songs were collected over a long period of time and were edited until they took their final form which we possess today. These Jewish national anthems were about a great and good God who had chosen them and had promised with and unshakeable covenant to prosper them. However, they had been utterly conquered by a foreign people with foreign gods. Their god had seemingly abandoned them therefore, they could not sing his songs since it did not reflect their reality. The symbolic value of music is that it is representative of human experiences.
From Psalm 137 we can see how their song and music was tied up in their worship and religion, the ‘songs of Zion.’ Back to Psalm 150:6 we see how songs are part of and signify the cosmic worship experience. When the community came together in worship it symbolised the entire cosmos exalting the Lord. This communal act of cosmic proportions began with the individual and singing is just the right medium to express it.
When a person sings they are not just opening their mouths. From the little I know about good singing, not that I sing well, it involves breath control and correct posture. If I am not mistaken these two things, breath and stance, are essential to our physical constitution. With this in mind when we worship in song we are bringing our entire physical being to bear in our adoration of the Lord. Tom Wright in an interview put it this way,
When you sing you are using your body as a musical instrument, and when you sing words which are about God and the world, and God’s rescue of us, and of God’s grace mercy and love, you are actually turning your body into a kind of resonating echo chamber of all that meaning, and you are praying that your life, not just your mind, not just your emotions, but your whole self will actually be transformed.
– N.T. Wright for a Relevant magazine podcast
This gives a whole new perspective on corporate worship. Singing hymns is not only spiritual and psychological, it is also corporeal. As individuals when we resonate with song, we join other believes in a heavenly frequency of worship on earth, which brings us in sync with the entire cosmos, resounding in perpetual prodigal praise to our God.
Acts of worship, like singing, saying prayers, lifting up hands, communion etc. as we have just seen, also function as communal symbols. They are things which we all participate in and invest with meaning as a Christian community. This is where their power lies in that they stamd in for who we are and what we believe in. When we go to Church and participate in these activities we are telling ourselves and the world that we are the people of God and therefore our God reigns. That place is holy ground where God’s people do their thing in their own space. In the liturgy we bring down a little bit of heaven on earth, anticipating a new creation where God will dwell among men. The ultimate reason why we sing is because of the Messiah Jesus, who has given us a new song.
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. – Revelation 5:9-14 ESV