Or simply Another case of Ichabod?
(Ichabod means “The glory has departed”, and was the name chosen by a dying mother at the birth of her son. The story is told in 1 Samuel ch 4:19ff. It occurred when the news came to her that the core of the faith of Israel, the Ark of the covenant had been stolen by the Philistines. The pangs of loss of spiritual symbol became the pangs of birth.)
How can the matter of praising God become a hot and debatable issue among believers? There is a lot of furore and the various positions taken up by brothers and sisters on the issue threatens to be as divisive as any other matter over which the body of Christ has been divided to the eternal shame of all those who set their theology above their duty to love God and their neighbor.
One of the effects of sin is this constant pride over our own achievements. What we do is approved by us or by our supporters and must therefore also be acceptable unto the Lord. We can’t be wrong can we now? The LORD God himself said in the very beginning that “nothing man sets his mind to will be impossible for him”. (Gen 11:6) The end effects are, among others, several human inventions that harness and use God’s creation in a manner that leads to the very real probability of successfully destroying all of life and the world as we know it. Man can, if any one can we can. But should we?
Even hinting at the possibility that our doing what we can could be a moral issue and should therefore not be handled carelessly, is rapidly met with loud cries of: “it is against science to question the inevitable development”. And nothing is seen as so despicable as to be anti science. But there is a double issue here: there is the knowledge of what things are and there is the knowledge of how things should be used. The former is naturalistic science and accords with creation, the second is a moral science that comes from the owner of the things studied under the first science. Unless both sciences join forces any human achievement can run foul of either one or the other and ruin the usefulness of both.
Modern worship is no exception from this pattern.
The immense gift of music is a wondrous marvel of creation. The very fact that it exists is as heavy a hint of God as anything that can be imagined. The soaring heights of musical expression brings us so close to ‘seeing’ God as anything on earth can do. It is no wonder at all that one of the questions Job is asked by God indicates that there was eternal music before any single composer had set his foot on earth: “Who laid the cornerstones of the earth when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Job 38:6-7
The collective singing to God’s glory is a standard feature along the entire history of God’s people. They sing, sing, sing. All of them together sing their spiritual inheritance, declaring their salvation history in a multitude of ways as a constant way of remembering what they must never forget if they want to stay true to themselves and stay true to their God. They therefore invent musical instruments at the very dawn of human inventions: “His brother’s name was Jubal, he was the father of all who handle the harp and the organ. (Read: all stringed and all wind instruments)” Gen 4:21
After the narrow escape from slavery and a watery grave as told in Exodus chapter 15 we find percussion instruments in the hands of Miriam leading the chorus of Israeli women confirming the message of praise which had been sung by all of the children of Israel: “Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances, and Miriam responded to them, Sing to the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously: the horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” Ex 15:20-21
Every major event in the life of the people of God will be accompanied by music with a divinely declared content. It has musical expression born out of the skill of the musicians and the quality of the instruments man has invented as he learns from creation how music is made by the other surrounding elements of the creation. From drilling skylark to susurrating brook, from roaring thunder to the chirping of sparrows, from the low frequency of the hump back whale to the high frequency whine of the locust, we hear and learn how to accompany the truth with our music. It is the flesh that submits to the spirit by using earthly means for spiritual ends.
“Solomon is said to have spoken three thousand proverbs and a thousand and five song were attributed to him”. 1 Kings 4:32
“Two hundred and eighty-eight singers were appointed at the first temple “to be instructed in the songs of the Lord” 1 Chron 25:7
“In the days of David and Asaph there were chief of the singers, and songs of praise and thanksgiving unto God” Neh 12:46
“Your ordinances have been my songs in the house of my pilgrimage” Psa 119:54
“They shall lift up their voice and they shall sing: for the Majesty of the LORD they shall cry aloud from the sea. Therefore glorify the LORD in the valleys, even the name of the LORD God of Israel in the isles of the sea. From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs, even bringing glory to the righteous.” Isa 24:16
“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Isa 35:10
“The LORD was ready to save me; therefore we will sing my songs with stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the LORD.” Isa 38:20
Put your feet where your mouth is!
But the music changed as they turned their backs to God while still mouthing his words in song. They would sing but not put their feet where their mouth was. A case in point: days after the song of triumph, full of confessions of faith, the very same choir of Israel came (by God’s design) to the bitter waters of Marah. (Ex ch 16) Not a word of thanksgiving, not a mutter of praise was then heard. No songs at all, only complaints against Moses and against God. Repeatedly in their history they maintained the words but lost the meanings. They continued singing the right words, but they did not agree with their deeds. And then the invention of Music as such becomes the very opposite of what it should be.
God says: “I will cause the noise of your songs to cease, and the sounds of harps shall no more be heard.” (Hez 26:31)
“Take away from me noise of your songs, I wont listen to the melody of your violins.” (Amos 5:23)
“And the songs of the temple shall be howlings in that day, says the LORD. Amos 8:3-14 The end of the chapter gives a clue to when music in the church is empty and meaningless: when it no longer is inspired by the Word of God.
The prophets echo a realization that soon arises when you listen to some of the present day church music: “We have piped music to you, but dance you will not.” Matt 11:17 When the content of the music does no longer change behaviour in the right direction it is merely noise, but for it to be a joyful noise unto the Lord it needs to be more than noise.
And that is getting to the root of the matter. We have much to sing and much to praise for with all kinds of music. But there are spiritual criteria that must be met.
If we are pursuing biblical and spiritual criteria then some questions need to be asked.
1 Cor 1:29 (God has chosen things that appear base in the eyes of the world in order:) “If we are pursuing biblical and spiritual criteria then some questions need to be asked.
1 Cor 1:29 (God has chosen things that appear base in the eyes of the world in order:) “That no flesh should glory in God’s presence“.
So let us discuss how the flesh glories in the present day cultural expressions of christian music. Is God getting the honour, or are the musicians?
Is the ministry of music proportionate to the tasks of the church which have been given by the Lord?
Does music teach the world the words of Christ? Is evangelism done by the musical expressions?
Irrespective of who and when and how the music is written, it is the purpose and therefore content of the music that must be discussed. It is not a christian criterion to claim ‘artistic license’ and thereby get away from evaluating music. Unless it conforms to the God given purpose it has little legitimacy. (“We must not judge”, is the standard defense against that. But we must discern and evaluate.)
It would seem obvious that form is second to content on that basis.
“Those who worship God, must worship Him in Spirit and TRUTH.” John 4:22-24 What does not have either the Spirit or the truth as it’s basis cannot be worship in any shape or form. And it is not enough to have one or the other. The flesh can sing the truth, but it does not turn it into worship until it also is “in the Spirit.” When is anything in the Spirit?
“When it is born of the Spirit, not out of any ambition on behalf of the flesh, accords with revelation of the truth in the Word of God, and brings the Lord Jesus Christ into focus and glory to God the Father.”
This is easily deduced from the teaching in Johns gospel about the work of the Holy Spirit. As it is clear that the work of the Spirit is to lift up and glorify Jesus and never to bring the lime light unto himself some songs directed at the Spirit itself would hardly be the fruit of the Spirit. Such divided hearts belong to humans, but not to the Holy Spirit of God.
The operating power in the christian life and in the church is the Holy Spirit or it is not of God at all. Having made the dynamic executive agent into an object of worship has seriously hindered the worship of the church of the only one worthy to receive Honour and glory. “You are worthy, Oh Lord, to receive glory and honour and power; for you have created all things and they exist for your own delight.” Rev 4:11 “”Saying with a loud voice: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and blessing.” Rev 5:12
What is the ‘praise culture’ teaching about God? That is the matter under discussion. Again, what form or artistic expression it takes is second to that.
“It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is useless in that context. The words that I speak are Spirit and life.” John 6:63
Don’t imagine for a moment that you will be heard because you repeat the same words over and over, those are the vain repetitions of pagan cults. The unclear thinking behind the idea of chanting the same phrase a hundred times over needs to be addressed. If words of truth are sung, then they are true the first time and become no more true after the 50th singing. Conversely, if their meaning has not passed from being a sound in the ear to conviction in the heart by repetition 25 the problem lies not in the word but in the hearer. There is one criterion for all hearing of the truth:
“The Word of God; the gospel, came to us as well as to them. But for them it was useless and did not profit them at all because it was not mixed with their own faith after they had heard it.” Heb 4:2
It is true that: “repetitito mater studiorum”, (repetition is the mother of learning). So there is a pedagogic sense in repetition. But there are many other kinds of repetitions that are frequent in the world outside the church. They are called incantations, chants, mantras etc etc and typically occur in the worship of idols. And the need for a learning repetition is well met by three or four repeats when there are less than 20 words in the chorus repeated a hundred times. The rest is what? Creating an atmosphere? Numbing the mind? Creating a trance like state of mind? Repeating something false until it becomes accepted by being entrenched in the memory despite being untrue from the start?
It needs searching out and addressing at it’s root. When is a song of praise merely a song? When is it a true song of praise? Scriptural pretexts and practices serve as good guides. But the actual reading of the whole Word of God is not high on the agenda in the praise culture. As far as I have seen anyway.
“Holy Holy Holy is the LORD God Sabaoth.. woe is me for having seen Him. I who am of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips (and uncircumcised hearts).” Isa 6:1f Worship is biblicaly speaking always also the recognition of our need for a double bowing down before God. We bow in two ways. First ‘metaphysically’ as we recognize the quality difference between God and ourselves. We the created, He the creator, we the wood, he the Carpenter, we the clay, He the potter. Never will we tell Him what to do or be or say. “We will bow down before Him, we will worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bow down before Him, His accents proclaim!” Never will He bow down to us except to see what ever new tower of Babel we are now building.
Second ‘morally’. The moment we enter worship we become aware of the uncleanness of our hearts and lives and everything else. And this does not stop when we become believers but stays. Listen to Paul as he who would seem to be a ‘super christian’ confesses himself to be of the lowest order. Where then is the “Holiness of God” in the praise and worship culture? I do not say it is not there, I have no normal access to those circles so have no means to claim to know. But I will ask the question.
“Be wise now therefore, O ye Kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son lest he be angry and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are they who put their trust in HIM.” Psa 2 10-12 It seems little known that the word to worship is literally “to approach someone with a kiss of reverence, recognition, adoration and respect”. Greek word is “proskuneo”. It is alive in the Roman Catholic church where the kissing of the popes ring or feet is part and parcel of that meaning. It used to be a gentleman’s way of appreciating his lady by kissing her hand.
To kiss is in the NT “fileo” and is also the word for respectful love. Another part of worship then. “Katafileo” meaning to “kiss vehemently” is used only of Judas kissing Christ in the early morning hours on not so good a Friday.
I cannot but wonder if the term ‘groovy’ for worship singing is not the same as “katafileo”. All depends…
“If you say that I am your Father, where the is my honour? Why do you call me Master when your respect and reverent fear is nowhere to be seen? This is what the LORD Sabaoth says to you priests who disrespect, disregard and despise my Name. What? you reply, When and how do we disrespect your Name? By bringing unclean gifts to me!” Mal 6:1ff The critics of the praise-culture tend to see this uncleanness in various ways. It seems, so they say, it is born out of a kind of “anything goes” that tickles the ears and gets the body moving. Call it worship and it is immune to scrutiny, for to question it would be to question God! (Woe is me: what wide open doors for every evil that opens up.)
Celebrate creativity for it’s own sake, allow many flowers to bloom. Be generous to those who want to shine on stage for God. Huh?
But has God then not told us how He wants to be worshipped? Hmm.. Reducing God to a cuddly bear or a chummy pal is blasphemy. No second opinion invited or asked.
Lastly: The modern day church offers a high tech and high energy consuming stage event. Seeing all the invested technology and even guessing at the cost of it is a daunting thing. It is only possible in a very artificial environment and could barely survive in the street or on any of the old mission fields where one hand cranked generator is still the order of the day. How do we put that into perspective? What was our mission? “Stay in the building and sing? Make records, DVDs and tour the world with a praise train?” Standing on the promises of God is not the same as singing about them. Does the praise culture draw people to the churches? Undoubtedly!! Well that is good!! They sure are not drawn any longer by the hymns of Wesley, Watts or Stainer. Neither will the music of today draw crowds tomorrow.
Do they also come to the new birth? To repentance, conversion, conviction and sanctification? They may, and sure enough unless they come within earshot they cannot hear that good news which is needed before they can have the faith that saves. So as a hook to draw them near it most certainly has a legitimate place.
BUT: The music as such never saves any one for the kingdom of God. And that goes for Johan Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang A Mozart, Gabriel Fauré and George Beverley Shea. It is no more right to routinely sing a hundred psalms of the Scottish Psalter without ever approaching God Himself as a result, than it is to repeat a few lines of words in an up-tempo body-shaking rhythm in a Bethel Church or Hillsong event. That is not where it is at.
Singing praise to God is then not a debatable issue in itself. It becomes an issue when it brings musical offerings to God that God himself rejects. It becomes an issue if the music that is a gift from God for man to be aware of God, becomes an instrument for leading away from God. There is plenty of that going on in the world. The most notable biblical case is found in the book of Daniel. (=God is judge)
Nebuchadnezzar is the mighty, almost omnipotent and grandly selfconfident ruler of Babylon, but suffers from the same megalomaniac tendencies as all tyrants. There can never be enough of the policy of “May they hate, if but they fear.” (Latin: Oderint dum metuant). The need of the godless flesh to have all praise can never be stilled or satisfied. The very essence of Ego is to have, to extort, to manipulate and to demand that others should give ME all possible attention and all praise.
To that end He has a statue of gold set up and feigning humility he does not say it represents him, but he still demands that everyone should fall down before that image and worship with face to the ground. The signal for the start of this false worship is the first cord struck by the orchestra. Consisting of cornets, flutes, harp, sackbut ( early bagpipes), psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of musical instruments it would certainly be loud. It was also decisive. Not the music as such, but the expected result of listening to it. Hear and fall on your face! Buy whatever message is behind the music or you will die!
Problem! No true child of Abraham, Isaac or Israel would ever bow down on command to any other man or that man’s image. And there were such men in the very center of Nebuchadnezzars dominion. Bow they did not, seduced by the music they were not. They knew their God and no musical expression in the world would change their allegiance. To withstand whatever seduction lies behind this or that music you need to know a God worthy enough! One for whom it is totally normal to give your very life, if that is the only option to idolatry.
“(Nebuchadnezzar:)Oh you are believers? So you do not serve my gods, nor worship the golden image I have set up? Ok. I am giving you one more chance. If you now fall down when you hear the music then all is well, if not you will be cremated alive. Take your pick. The young men replied: “Well we don’t really need to reply to such nonsense. If you do what you threaten, then the Lord whom we serve is perfectly able to deliver us from any fiery furnace, and even more so out of your hand, O king. But should God so decide that the fire would have us, then so be it. But falling down to your image, serving your homemade gods? Think again…not in a million years!” Dan 3:1-18
What is the power behind any music in the church? Those who say that the present day wave of worship culture is wrong must answer that question in no uncertain terms. And those who hold their present culture to be better or different and out-of-habit ok must do the same.
Music is and has always been used for different purposes. For good and bad. The christian faith has found many different ways of adapting music to its life as a church. Musical tastes change and what is cherished by some is despised by others. That however is a secondary matter. How it is used is the primary matter! No music is right which does not accomplish the following:
“Wherefore be not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is, you will not intoxicate yourself but keep on being infilled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord. Giving thanks for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Eph 5:17-20
“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. And whatsoever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the the Lord Jesus giving thanks to God and the Father by him. ” Col 3:16-17
(Music and teaching is in order that)” The Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, as is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles and sing unto thy Name.” Rom 15:9
“He is not ashamed to call them brethren but says: I will declare your name to the brethren and in the midst of the church/congregation I will sing praise to you.” Heb 2:11-12
“And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises to God, the other inmates heard them. Suddenly an earthquake shook the prison, doors unlocked, chains flew off and all awoke, prisoners and guards alike. The chief warden feared God and fell on his knees before Paul and Silas and asked: what must I do to be saved?” (How in the world could they sing without microphone, drums, keyboard, hammond D3 organ or mixer panel, strobelights and loudspeakers? Just asking!)
Takes no genius to see what christian music is to be used for. But it takes the Spirit of God to make the musicians able to do what they hear.
I have been here long enough in the proximity of many christian practices in this field to have fairly wide insight into the variety there is. I have sung all the major works on the Choral society lists of choir favorites. I have even written a few pieces of music for bible texts myself. I have sung almost every hymn Wesley ever wrote. I am familiar with many variants of church music.
I am a little confident that I can recognize the word of the Lord in and behind any music. And I am also quite good at seeing when it is the flesh trying to be religious. I know my own. It is easy to fall for the trap of producing something of my own and presenting it to God and asking him to accept my effort.
Abraham did. Yes, even he did that. Having blown a fuse or two and short circuited his heart he accepted the idea of having a son by Hagar. It was a good idea. Ishmael is born. God visits:
-Abe dear you will have a son.
-Ach, well Lord, I already fixed that for myself. Nee bother.. See my boy Ishmael over there.
-Nay nay me old friend, sure a nice lad but not what I said I wanted. You will have a son of my making, after my promise, not after your flesh.
Oh dear..what glory is there to God if all you have to offer is the best you can do without Him? That goes for everything, including music in the assembly of the saints.