For the common things of every day, God gave men words in the ordinary way.
For the deeper things men think and feel, God gave poets words to reveal.
But for the heights and depths no words can reach, God gave men music, the soul’s own speech.
Music For Many
Music displays God’s glory in amazing ways. Our Creator God designed musical expression as a mode of communication that combines the musical elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, texture, form, and tone color in order to express and elicit emotion, whether or not it is joined with lyrics. Music heightens our sensitivity, it focuses our attention, and it engages the spirit as well as the mind.
Music should be an integral part of the life of the local church. It can and should be used with intention to further God’s purposes for the church, including worship, teaching, fellowship, prayer, evangelism, and pastoral care. God calls us to praise and worship Him, and to teach and exhort one another in song. The Bible provides many pictures of corporate worship and praise, from the spontaneous expression of praise of the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea to the new song of the myriads and myriads and thousands and thousands around God’s heavenly throne. This corporate musical expression unifies us as believers and glorifies God as we together proclaim the beauties of His person and work.
Music For One
The Bible also provides numerous examples of intensely personal musical expression, which demonstrate the value of music and song in personal communion with God. The spiritual life of the believer can be greatly enriched through the use of music in personal devotion and prayer.
While many of the Psalms are expressions of corporate worship, praise, and thanksgiving, most are personal prayers to God — statements of faith, confessions of sin, cries for deliverance, and songs of assurance. Psalm 63 is a wonderful example:
O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly;NASB
My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You,
In a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips will praise You.
So I will bless You as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.
When I remember You on my bed,
I meditate on You in the night watches,
For You have been my help,
And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to You;
Your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek my life to destroy it,
Will go into the depths of the earth.
They will be delivered over to the power of the sword;
They will be a prey for foxes.
But the king will rejoice in God;
Everyone who swears by Him will glory,
For the mouths of those who speak lies will be stopped.
This is not a text that would be likely sung in a congregation, but instead in personal prayer and devotion. Notice the regular use of the pronoun “I,” as well as the psalmist’s reference to meditating on God while in his own bed at night.
One can also see this intensely personal musical expression in the texts often called the lesser and greater canticles (or songs). These texts appear in Scripture as prayers, but were likely sung, some perhaps as early as during the Babylonian exile. Hannah’s song (a lesser or Old Testament canticle) in 1 Samuel 2 is an instructive example:
My heart exults in the Lord;
My horn is exalted in the Lord,
My mouth speaks boldly against my enemies,
Because I rejoice in Your salvation.
There is no one holy like the Lord,
Indeed, there is no one besides You,
Nor is there any rock like our God.
Boast no more so very proudly,
Do not let arrogance come out of your mouth;
For the Lord is a God of knowledge,
And with Him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are shattered,
But the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for bread,
But those who were hungry cease to hunger.
Even the barren gives birth to seven,
But she who has many children languishes.
The Lord kills and makes alive;
He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and rich;
He brings low, He also exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust,
He lifts the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with nobles,
And inherit a seat of honor;
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
And He set the world on them.
He keeps the feet of His godly ones,
But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness;
For not by might shall a man prevail.
Those who contend with the Lord will be shattered;
Against them He will thunder in the heavens,
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
And He will give strength to His king,
And will exalt the horn of His anointed.
Mary’s song in Luke 1 (a greater or New Testament canticle) is similar:
My soul exalts the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is upon generation after generation
Toward those who fear Him.
He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his descendants forever.
Notice that both Hannah and Mary are proclaiming very personal testimonies of God’s work in their own lives. One gets the sense that, although others may be within hearing distance, these personal statements of faith are the overflow of thankful hearts meant for the ears of God. A careful study of the texts shows that both women quote liberally from other passages of Scripture, demonstrating that their personal expressions are rooted and grounded in knowledge of God and His Word.
Music For Your Heart and Mind
How, then, might we incorporate music into our own devotional and prayer lives?
Develop a regular schedule for reading and meditating on the Book of Psalms. By reading five Psalms a day, the Book of Psalms can be read each and every month. The Psalms are rich in doctrine, history, and testimony, and provide wonderful models for worship, praise, and thanksgiving. Mediating on the Psalms provides a rich foundation for our own words of devotion and prayer to God.
Buy a personal copy of a good hymnal and make use of it in your daily devotions. In the Foundations of Church Music course that I teach at Emmaus, students are required to submit a journal reflection on an assigned hymn text each week. This assignment allows the students to interact with hymn texts in a different way than singing provides. When singing a text, one generally focuses on words or phrases, rather than on verses or the entire text. Students regularly tell me that slowing down and meditating on hymns helps them gain new insights into the texts, thus increasing their appreciation of the rich heritage we have in the body of evangelical hymnody. Some have even continued the practice of writing a hymn reflection each week as part of their personal devotions. An added benefit of this exercise is that it enhances our worship because it assists us in singing with the mind (1 Corinthians 14:15), in other words, with more focused attention on the meaning of what we are singing.
Build a high-quality, sacred music collection. Over the past thirty years or so, I have collected literally hundreds of LPs and CDs in various musical styles and genres. While much of the music represented might not be appropriate for congregational singing for various reasons (e.g., too musically difficult, too rhythmically challenging, or too individualistic), this music has enhanced my personal worship and devotion to God, taught me doctrinal truth, challenged my spiritual complacency, and encouraged my spiritual growth.
Try your hand at writing original devotional poetry or music. We benefit from a wonderful heritage of sacred music penned over thousands of years. These songs are largely the fruit of their writers’ intense study and meditation on God’s Word. Writing original works of quality requires a significant commitment of time and energy. It is not an easy task. However, God can use such efforts to glorify Himself through our own spiritual lives, and if shared, through impact on the spiritual lives of others.
God described David as “a man after My heart, who will do all My will.” (Acts 13:22 NASB). David’s heart for God is clearly displayed in his highly-personal, musical expression in the Psalms. May we aspire to develop as men and women with hearts for God as we imitate David through the use of music in our own lives of devotion and prayer.