A few weeks ago, the governor of California, perhaps purely out of concern for the spread of the Covid-19 virus, ordered all religious groups meeting inside buildings not to sing. My concern in this article is not his edict to churches not to sing. My concern is God’s call to His church to sing, and whether we are as rock solid as we ought to be on fulfilling God’s call.
Has God from the very beginning called His people to sing to Him? If so, why has He done so? Is it an option for believers or disciples of Jesus Christ not to sing praises to Him? Is it an option for believers or disciples of Jesus Christ not to gather with God’s people regularly to sing praises to our God together, corporately, as one body/people? Is singing to God so important that risking upsetting some government officials has to be weighed in the balance? What is the fruit or results of God’s people faithfully obediently gathering together to sing His praises? These are some of the questions I hope to answer as we walk through the Bible re: this issue.
So how long has the practice of God’s people singing to and about Him been established? Well let’s start with the earliest reference I can find to the people of God singing to God, as is found in Job 36:24, “Remember that you should exalt His work, Of which men have sung.” Many conservative scholars believe Job was written in the time of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) – or the time period of the book of Genesis. There is no command to sing here. Just an admission that men who knew God in those early days sang about God’s “work”.
No command to sing is found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus or Numbers, but the next example of God’s people singing comes on the heels of their amazing victory over the Egyptian army as seen in Exodus 15:1-18. The people of Israel were standing in mass at the edge of the Red Sea utterly helpless as the massive and powerful Egyptian army sped towards them. For God to get everyone of them across the Red Sea safely and dry, and then to drown the whole Egyptian army is one of the greater miracles God has done for His people through the ages. Their response was to sing to the Lord, “Then Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and said, “I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; The horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea.” (vs. 1) This verse tells us what they did and why, though the rest of the song also gives reason for the song as it tells of the greatness of God’s deliverance in more detail.
Another example of the people of God singing in response to God’s deliverance and/or provision is found in Numbers 21:16-18.
So so far it appears that the people of God sang songs to praise God for His great deeds, deliverances and provision.
Then in Deuteronomy 31 & 32 we find a new purpose for a song for God’s people. This time the purpose is to serve as a reminder and warning of their inclination towards rebellion against God and worship of idols, especially when they become prosperous due to God’s provision and blessing. In vs. 19, 20 God commands Moses to write a song, “Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, so that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel. For when I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to their fathers, and they have eaten and are satisfied and become prosperous, then they will turn to other gods and serve them, and spurn Me and break My covenant.” The song is found in Deuteronomy 32:1-43. Several times in these two chapters we are told Moses taught the song to the people of Israel (31:22, 30; 32:44).
In Judges chapter four we read about the prophetess Deborah and a guy named Barak marshaling the forces of Israel and by God’s help overcoming the forces of Sisera. It was a great victory and thus in chapter five Deborah and Barak write and sing a song of praise to the Lord (5:1,2). The song can be found in 5:2-31.
King David upon learning of King Saul and his son Jonathan’s death in battle wrote a song of mourning and commanded that it be taught to the sons of Israel (implied is that they would sing it) as seen in II Samuel 1:17, 18.
King David appears to be the first to appoint specific persons to minister “with song”. For him they were to sing “before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting” (I Chronicles 6:31,32). Later his son Solomon would have such persons sing in the “house of the Lord in Jerusalem” that he had built. Their ministry is referred to as an “office”. (I Chron. 6:32). The thought is that because God’s presence dwelt in these places, worship should be ongoing, and thus persons should be appointed to carry out this ongoing worship as their particular ministry. This is addressed again later in I Chron. 9:33, “Now these are the singers, heads of fathers’ household of the Levites who lived in the chambers of the temple free from other service; for they were engaged in their work day and night.”
Congregational singing as celebration in response to the apparent or expected victory (it was aborted due to not carrying the ark according to the law of God) of carrying the ark of God back to Jerusalem is found in I Chronicles 13:8, “David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, even with songs and with lyres, harps, tambourines, cymbals and with trumpets.”
Later in I Chronicles 15 David called for the leading priests and Levites to prepare to retrieve the ark of God – this time according to God’s will and way. Worship via singing and a variety of instruments was to be a significant part of the process per vs. 16, 19, 22 and 27. Two notes of interest herein: First, David wanted “to raise sounds of joy” (vs. 16). Second, the singing was not haphazard and sloppy. Rather Chenaniah “gave instruction in singing because he was skillful” (vs. 22). God is worthy of our best!
I Chronicles chapter 16 chronicles for us how David and the Israelites celebrated after the ark was placed inside the tent. Eventually it appears the people of God received food gifts from King David, and then most likely returned home (vs. 3). But David wanted ongoing worship “before the ark of the Lord, even to celebrate and to thank and praise the Lord God of Israel.” So “He appointed some of the Levites” to carry this out (vs. 4-7). Then one of David’s or perhaps Asaph’s psalms are recorded, which appears to be the same as Psalm 105, wherein the people of God are commanded to “Sing to Him, sing praises to Him…” in vs. 9; then all peoples of the earth in vs. 23, “Sing to the Lord, all the earth; Proclaim good tidings of His salvation from day to day.” Then in vs. 33 we find that even the trees of the forest “will sing for joy before the Lord.”
The last passage re: singing in I Chronicles (ch. 25) seems to emphasize something I have noticed in other passages in the O.T.(see I Chron. 6:33; 9:33; 15:16-18) and that is that fathers were expected to train and enlist their sons in this ministry of worship through song and playing of instruments. “All these were under the direction of their father to sing in the house of the Lord, with cymbals, harps and lyres, for the service of the house of God….Their number who were trained in singing to the Lord, with their relatives (literally brothers), all who were skillful, was 288” vs. 6,7. Fathers in the Old Testament were always meant to pass down to their children the call and passion to love and serve and worship God. When this breaks down, the church greatly suffers.
Now we turn to II Chronicles, and I want you to note that in chapter five we see a very important cause and effect with God’s people under Solomon’s leadership. They had just brought the ark into the newly constructed and finished temple along with all the things Solomon’s father David had dedicated to the temple (vs. 1-5). In response, King Solomon and the people of God sacrificed sheep and oxen in such multitudes “that they could not be counted.” So there is extravagant worship through giving. Then there is extravagant worship through singing and playing instruments (and again it is mentioned that the appointed worship leaders were ministering with their “sons and kinsman”) (vs. 12,13); then the effect is given in vs. 13, 14, “…then the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” Now I realize this was a special occasion. But every corporate gathering of God’s people could and should be a special occasion. And when we see it and treat it as such, I believe God’s poured out presence and glory will accompany it/us.
Ready for another cause and effect re: corporate singing to the Lord? So in chapter 20 of II Chronicles Judah led by King Jehoshaphat at that time was getting ready to be invaded by the armies of Moab and Ammon (vs. 1). Out of great fear of such an enormous army coming against them Jehoshaphat called a fast (vs. 2,3). After the people of Judah had assembled for a while praying and fasting, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jahziel” and he prophesied to the gathered assembly that God would give them victory (vs. 14-17). They all knew God had spoken and thus all began to worship Him in great gratitude (vs. 18,19). But they still had to fight, so King J. consulted with “the people” (His leaders?) and their first line of strategy was to appoint “those who sang to the Lord and those who praised Him in holy attire, as they went out before the army and said, “Give thanks to the Lord, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” (vs. 20,21) Interestingly the text then says, “When they began singing and praising, The Lord set ambushes…” against their enemies and “they were routed.” (vs. 22). So clearly in this passage God’s intervention on their behalf came on the heels of corporate singing and praise to God. In this instance, corporate singing of praises to God helped bring about victory over their enemies. It seemed to lead to God’s powerful intervention.
The role of corporate singing of praises to God and victory over the enemy is not as obvious in II Chronicles ch. 23, but is worth noting. The enemy of the people of God in this period was Athaliah the mother of King Ahaziah. He was murdered after serving as king for a year and she went on a murderous rampage as can be seen in ch. 22. In ch. 23 Jehoida the priest led a time of great reform and renewal by both raising up a new King (Joash) and by bringing order and leadership to the Levites and by having Athaliah killed. In the midst of all of this, “…the people of the land rejoiced and blew trumpets, the singers with their musical instruments leading the praise.” (vs. 13). Corporate singing praises to God is almost always an integral part of times of spiritual renewal and revival in the Old Testament.
Throughout Israel’s history, evil kings led Israel and Judah into times of desolation and judgment. But then God would mercifully and faithfully raise up a righteous King, whom He would use to bring about reforms, renewal and revival. Such was the case with evil King Ahaz (ch. 28) and then righteous King Hezekiah. In II Chronicles ch. 29, God uses King Hezekiah to bring about a wonderful time of spiritual and national renewal; and singing praises to God was again a very significant aspect of that renewal. “He then stationed the Levites in the house of the Lord with cymbals, with harps and with lyres, according to the command of David and of Gad the king’s seer, and of Nathan the prophet; for the command was from the Lord through His prophets. The Levites stood with the musical instruments of David, and the priests with the trumpets. Then Hezekiah gave the order to offer the burnt offering on the altar. When the burnt offering began, the song to the Lord also began with the trumpets, accompanied by the instruments of David, king of Israel. While the whole assembly worshipped, the singers also sang and the trumpets sounded; all this continued until the burnt offering was finished. Now at the completion of the burnt offerings, the king and all who were present with him bowed down and worshiped. Moreover, King Hezekiah and the officials ordered the Levites to sing praises to the Lord with the words of David and Asaph the seer. So they sang praises with joy, and bowed down and worshiped.” (vs. 25-30).
Spiritual renewal and revival is never guaranteed to last. Historically speaking it never does. And so it was for Judah after Hezekiah died. His son Manasseh replaced him and reigned unrighteously for most of his 55 years (II Chron. 33:1f). God mercifully warned them, but there came a point where He had to judge them, which almost always comes through invading armies (vs. 10,11). Ideally God’s judgment and discipline leads to repentance, which it did in Manasseh’s case (vs. 12,13). But the damage done under his unrighteousness was not easily overcome now that he was pursuing righteousness. Then another evil king followed his reign named Amon.
But then came Josiah through whom God brought many wonderful reforms (see ch. 34 & 35) due to his humility and fear of the Lord (see 34:27). Singing praises to God as usual was a part of these reforms, “The singers, the sons of Asaph, were also at their stations according to the command of David, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun the king’s seer; and the gatekeepers at each gate did not have to depart from their service, because the Levites their brethren prepared for them.” (35:15).
Well that takes us through the time of the Kings. I think I will post this, and then dive into Ezra and Nehemiah and following next. May the people of God make the most of every opportunity to gather with others and sing praise to our great God and King!